The First Guitar

I was wearing a vertically striped, white collar neck shirt tucked into white baggy jeans, hair sprayed into the perfect position that Vanilla Ice would have been proud of, with shiny braces and blue rubber bands around them on my teeth. It was the mid-90s, and I was a complete dork, but I oddly fit in with all my awkward friends in junior high.

I had just arrived with my family at my nanny and papa’s house, and they were showing us their prized purchases from yard sales that morning. My papa could really wheel and deal at yard sales, making permanent purchasing decisions over mere nickels.

This time he had purchased a red electric guitar with an amp that was almost as tall as me. He couldn’t really play it, but he thought about learning. He gently put the worn strap on over his shoulder and meticulously adjusted the amp’s silver knobs to a safe volume before he sat down to pluck out a few random notes on the higher strings.

Then he told me to try, and of course, I did—eagerly. I held the guitar in my lap and accidentally strummed the strings too hard as my entire family jumped a little from the powerful amp. I gave the guitar back to my papa.

Once the yard sale treasures were no longer the topic of conversation, I put on the retro red and sneaked away into the kitchen. I loosened the strap, so the guitar rested against my lower hip, and I looked into the reflection of my grandparent’s glass refrigerator.

There I was with such an instrument of awe. I liked how it looked on me. I liked how I felt holding it.

The guitar would eventually become the vehicle that would take me to many different stages in various bands up and down California and allow me to be a very small part of local rock’n roll history—the part that people enjoyed but seldom remembered after the bands’ stickers peeled off, t-shirts faded, and CDs became obsolete.

It would bring together different young personalities to form unique lifelong friendships and sacred memories between band mates and groupies.

It would be the tool that aided in countless private worship sessions in a teenager’s bedroom, attended only by a melancholy boy confused by a changing world as invisible angels observed quietly.

And as that boy grew, it would be the instrument that helped lead many different groups of people in holy songs until the Lord.

My nanny walked into the kitchen and saw me standing in the reflection. “You like the guitar?”

With wide open eyes and a mouth too excited to fully articulate an answer, I just said, “Yeah, I do” in a simple nod.

When my junior high graduation approached, my mom asked me what I wanted as a graduation gift. Of course, I told her a guitar.

Now that was an expensive gift for a young teenager to ask for, but my mom drove me all around town researching different guitars and prices and eventually found one used in the newspaper with a case and small amp included. It was in excellent condition and red like my papa’s.

That summer I was planning to get ahead and take a math class in summer school, but I ended up quitting halfway. I spent the rest of my summer watching Green Day, Deftones, and Collective Soul music videos on MTV, trying my best to mimic their blurry fingers flow up and down the guitar neck. My papa took me once a week in the evening to some beginning guitar lessons at the local music store.

Although my parents so selflessly bought me my first guitar and my grandparents generously paid for beginning lessons, I see music as a graceful gift from the Lord.

It’s a gift that creates a special connection with people—such a connection that it’s even used as a way to worship God.

It’s meant to be personal, authentic, raw—from the heart.

Play it passionately.

Listen to it fervently .

Sing it from within.

Use music, and use it well; it’s a gift.

The Greatest Christmas Gift

I sat in the back of my family’s tan minivan as it slowly followed a train of cars through an affluent neighborhood of hanging Christmas lights. My dad drove cautiously as my mom moved up close against the cold window to better see the elaborate displays on homes. My nanny added her personal commentary on each house as my Papa nodded in faithful agreement. My sister, only a little girl then, silently observed it all with bright open eyes.

This was a special Christmas season because my aunt Lana was right there with us taking in all the pure Christmas wonder.

She was finally off drugs.

Clean.

Safe.

Home.

My nanny had her entire family together; I don’t remember her ever being happier.

As we drove in a wonderland of lights, we never thought it would be our last Christmas with Lana.

Being a nine-year-old little boy, I was fixated on what Santa would bring me that year. Okay, I didn’t believe in Santa, but I really wanted a specific gift. Not a Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot, ranger model air rifle but a Super Nintendo.

The Super Nintendo was the successor of the original eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System. With twice as many bits than the old system’s eight, the Super Nintendo was the biggest hit of the gaming world in the early 90s. And at costing 200 dollars plus games, it was a lot to ask for.

There was also another dilemma: I wanted a new bike to ride to school and back. My current bike was still a small, single speed bike for younger kids. All my classmates had full-size bikes that were 10 speeds—Huffy being the most common brand at the time.

I battled between my thoughts of what I really wanted and what I felt I needed, but it honestly wasn’t much of a fight.

I confidently asked for the Super Nintendo.

My parents didn’t give me a definite answer on whether I could have it or not. They just said, “Maybe” and “We’ll see.”

As Christmas approached, I begged my parents for an answer. They wouldn’t give me one. They even asked me what else I might want instead of the Super Nintendo. I explained to them my bike situation but reaffirmed as clearly as possible that the Super Nintendo was my real wish.

Christmas Eve came—that’s when I would have dinner and open gifts with my immediate family. My mom made us a great feast, and we ate on the formal dining room table, which was reserved for special occasions back then. Classic Christmas carols played from the living room near the crackling fireplace. The glowing tree exhibited a combination of school made and Hallmark ornaments.

I don’t remember exactly what we ate, but I remember all of us being together. I can still picture the view from where I sat and can see my childhood family all around me, covered in smiles, not aged by time—one of the best dinners of my life.

After the filling dinner was finished, we began taking out the gifts from under the tree. I waited patiently as everyone took polite turns opening each gift. Eventually I found a box that looked like it could house a Super Nintendo.

I ravenously tore off the Frosty the Snowman wrapping paper from the box until it revealed the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

I also got a few games and other smaller gifts too. My Nanny said, “You made out like a bandit with gifts this year.”

Once all the gifts were opened, I asked my parents if they would hook up my Super Nintendo to our television, so I could play it. They told me they would in a bit.

I waited some more before I asked again, and then they said they would do it pretty soon.

I waited longer, and they told me to pick up all the wrapping paper in the living room first, and throw it away.

I waited even longer, and then they said to take out the trash.

I was done waiting. I just wanted to play my Super Nintendo. I wanted to see the stunning 16-bit graphics and try out the newly improved game play with the modern multi-button controller that I had been waiting months for.

But I had to take out the trash.

I apprehensively grabbed two plastic bags of trash and made my way through my loquacious family sitting in the living room, past the still glowing Christmas tree, and to the front door.

When I opened the front door, there was a bike parked right outside blocking me in. Greatly annoyed, I turned around to my family and said, “Some stupid neighbor left their bike right in front of our door.” I wanted to give some random neighbor kid a lecture about being more responsible and not leaving your nice bike in front of a random house.

I noticed my family was silent as they stood looking at me—smiling and eagerly waiting for me to understand.

“Wait …” I looked back at the bike and noticed it was a brand new, red, 10-speed Huffy. “No way!” I yelled.

I couldn’t believe my family gave me so much for Christmas that year. It was truly one of my favorite childhood Christmases. The next year, life would change so much.

Although my family made sacrifices to bless me tremendously with gifts, the greatest gift that year was the dinner. The bike eventually rusted in time, and the Super Nintendo became outdated, but the warmth from that memory of having my family together stays with me to this day. It’s somewhere deep inside that helps me remember who I am and where I’m from.

Christmas really isn’t about things but about Jesus, and Jesus is about people. If we can train ourselves to have more of a divine mindset, we will be about people too, and not just on Christmas but every day of the year.

Although most theologians and historians don’t believe Christ was actually born in December, I feel the cold winter season is the perfect time to celebrate his birth. The cold brings people together for warmth. The birth of Christ brought people together for a spiritual warmth. May Christmas be a time where we draw close to others as Christ came to draw close to us. Let us feel his warmth through the Holy Spirit as we sing carols, share meals, and give gifts.

The Lord’s Closet

I was in the 6th grade when my family was attending our little charismatic church. It was a good place to get loved on, but the theology was sometimes lacking. That’s always an interesting balance with churches.

Good theology but lackluster worship.

Good theology but apathetic people.

Good theology but dry pastor.

If you can find a church that’s mostly doctrinally Biblical and has powerful worship with people who are eager to build community and an enthusiastic pastor, then you have found the church version of a unicorn.

Some Sunday mornings, I wasn’t feeling the best and wouldn’t want to go church. I would tell my dad I felt sick, but his answer was always the same: “If you aren’t feeling well, the best place for you to be is at church.”

The church was big on placing people directly into ministry right after they accepted Christ.

Seriously, I had a youth leader who was still in rehab. On his first day teaching, the slouching, moustache-wearing man said through a mumble of a voice, “I don’t really know the Bible, but I believe in Jesus. I figured we can learn the Bible together.”

A few Sundays later, he didn’t show up to teach the group. I never saw him again.

I don’t recall anyone on the church’s staff having any formal theological training. The senior pastors consisted of a husband and wife duo. The ministers of the healing ministry were both on disability. The worship team took anyone who was able or who wasn’t able to play an instrument. But the entire church really loved on everyone who walked through the front doors, and they believed in those people too—enough to give them a chance at what they felt God was calling them to do.

My mom used to have yard sales to try to get rid of all our extra stuff we didn’t need, including older clothes. She noticed that clothes would only sell for mere cents at yard sales, and people would try to deal you down to a dime or even a nickel. To her, it wasn’t worth the hassle. If she gave the clothes away to charity organizations, they would mark up the price and sell it.

My mom wanted a way to give the clothing away for free to help those who were really in need. She talked to the pastors at the church and came up with a unique plan.

Instead of trying to sell used clothing to people or giving it away to organizations to sell, the entire church would put their used clothing together and create a place where people who were in need could go and take whatever fit them for free.

My mom did some research and called around town to find some old, circular clothing racks. They were the industrial size ones used in large retail stores—the kind little kids like to hide inside while their parents are shopping.

She cleared out our three-car garage and filled the entire space with racks full of donated clothing.

Since it was completely free and open to anyone to come in to get clothes, my mom came up with a fitting name for the ministry: The Lord’s Closet.

I remember all kinds of people coming to our house during that time. Single mothers with young children. Recovering addicts trying to find something nice for a job interview. Old widowed women who wanted to dress up again in something new. People would leave so thankful and excited, and it was completely free.

The world teaches us to find ways to make money off of people.

The Bible teaches us to find ways to help take care of people.

Of course, in careers and business, we need to charge people for a service or a product, but sometimes it is good and right to just give something for free. And when we give freely under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we become a little more like Christ.

I was one of the fortunate ones who grew up with a Christ-like example in my life who eagerly looked for ways to help care for people and who gave freely—my mom.

 

Underneath the Foam

I really don’t know how it happened, but while in college, I somehow became the lead singer in an indie rock band. Okay, I’ll admit it, some people called it an emo band.

We called it Quantum Theory.

Quantum Theory was a three piece with me playing lead guitar and singing, my buddy Jason on bass, and my old drumline friend Russ on drums. I think we were a mix between Smashing Pumpkins and Jimmy Eat World—or at least we wanted to be. We practiced weekly in my parents’ living room and carried our gear in the back of Russ’s little, blue pickup.

I think we only lasted about eight months until Russ got a girlfriend, and Jason got a better job and started working more hours.

I wasn’t too upset about Quantum Theory breaking up. Using the vernacular of our peer rockers and concert goers, we “kind of sucked.”

While playing in the band, Russ attended the same university as me. After classes one day, we both found a cardstock flier on our campus advertising a foam dance party at our local convention center. It was a vibrant flier with a flashy design. The convention center was a relatively safe place; I mean they have the Ice Capades there, so how bad could a foam dance party be?

Quantum Theory didn’t have a concert that weekend, so Russ and I decided to check it out. We parked, walked up, paid our semi expensive ticket (for college students), and went in.

The dance floor was somewhere under the four feet of white foam that built up within the circular wall that surrounded the silhouettes of dancing bodies.

Russ and I pushed through the sweaty bodies as foam slowly soaked through our clothes and hung from our arms.

Music of low bass beats and cheap lyrics fell upon us from the hanging speakers and strobe lights.

Some rode each other to the music. Some floated through the foam hungry for some kind of connection. Some danced with themselves with hands waving in the air.

Only a few minutes went by until Russ and I decided it was time to leave.

We went to the restroom to attempt to wipe off as much foam as possible, suspicious of what could be happening underneath the white blanket.

After becoming a teacher some years later, I was sitting in a drug training class for high school teachers. The police officer educated us on modern drugs, local gangs, and teen sex. I was hoping to hear about rock’n roll too.

Honestly though, out of all the millions of teacher training workshops I’ve taken, this one was the most interesting. My experience in illegal activities was lacking to say the least.

Going through pot, cocaine, and meth, the police officer eventually came to ecstasy. He explained how it was the ravers’ drug of choice. His vocal tone was blunt and combative, which was a contrast from the sympathetic and political teacher tones I was used to at trainings.

He spoke out, “The street name for ecstasy is E, and it’s an easy access drug for students. They even publicly advertise it on party fliers.” He began clicking through some photos that were projected onto the screen from his PowerPoint presentation, which had the basic, default, striped blue and white background. “You see the little E in the background. You have to sometimes search for it but that means that ecstasy will be available at the event.”

The officer clicked on to a flier that looked familiar to me. “See the little E in the top left circle? This was a foam dance party that took place a few years ago here at the convention center. What they do is fill up the dancefloor with foam so people can easily pass on drugs and have sex without been seen.”

My eyes became larger.

“At these events, we always send in some undercover officers to try to catch the big dealers. I was one of the officers here, and I have some video from it to share.”

I sunk inches into my seat.

As the teachers and I watched the familiar night replay on the big screen, I anxiously looked for Russ and me. Hundreds of blurry faces and dark silhouettes. No sight of us. The video eventually ended. I was safe.

The other teachers were in shock that such an event went on in their town. I turned to a teacher next to me and whispered, “I was there.”

She just laughed and said, “You’re funny.” She then looked back to the screen, prompting me to pay attention.

I feel that’s just like life. We don’t know all the bad going on under the surface. We also don’t know the good that’s going on in bad places.

Russ and I weren’t there with evil intentions. We thought it was going to be a fun dance—like the ones in high school. Maybe we would meet some new friends or even a nice girl. But in all places with humans, there are going to be people with good and bad plans in mind.

Let us always check ourselves to be the ones with plans of good intentions for ourselves and others. Let us be bringers of hope and be discouraged in the darkness. Let us be led by God’s Holy Spirit to go where he has called us and to leave when he tells us.

Let us have pure minds and selfless hands.

Even underneath the foam.

 

 

Becoming a Drummer

I was in the 6th grade when I attended my first concert. The 90’s Christian rock band played at small charismatic church my family had just started attending. The archetypal band members took the stage with long hair, bangs, perms, sleeveless shirts, shredded stonewashed jeans, and, of course, eyeliner. Playing at a church with an ethnically diverse congregation where men mostly wore a mixture of K-Mart polos and boxy suits that never fit right, everyone could easily tell who was in the band.

I intently observed the drummer. He played the simple 4/4 rock beat on his wrap around drum set with a double bass drum and a trashcan lid hanging as one of his cymbals.

Awesome. Cool. Sick. Rad. Amazing.

I don’t remember what colloquial adjective came to the forefront of my 6th grade tongue, but you get the point.

His high, exaggerated hits rebounded his big hair uncontrollably, and the wild mess filled in the void of the surrounding half circle drum set.

I think I can do that, I thought.

During the next week, I talked my parents into getting Chinese food because I had an idea in mind.

I went with my dad to pick up the food from the small restaurant next to a grocery store about two miles from our house, and on the way out, I grabbed a handful of chopsticks, even though my family ate Chinese food with forks back then.

When we arrived home, I excitedly wrapped up five chopsticks with electrical tape. I repeated this process until I had a pair of homemade drumsticks in my hands.

But they didn’t work. It only took a short moment for me to see they were obviously far too short, about half the length of a regular drumstick.

Since my idea failed, I did the only other thing I knew to do in order to get a pair of drumsticks; I called my Nanny and Papa.

A few days later, my Papa picked me up in his little, red pick-up and took me to the local music store to buy my first real pair of drumsticks. They were only about eight bucks, but it seriously made my day, probably my week.

I air drummed in my bedroom for a few weeks to the audio tape of the Christian rock band I saw in concert and hit on the back seat of my parent’s minivan whenever I was required to run errands with my mom, but besides for that, the thought of becoming a real drummer was eventually forgotten.

About a year later, I sat in the vast audience in my junior high school’s gym watching the older 8th graders receive their final congratulations before their official ceremony that night.

The school’s marching band performed for the graduates, and the principal gave a motivational speech that fostered excitement for the future high school experience while praising their current accomplishment. Being a 7th grader, I listened but was distracted by a group of teen boys who sat behind the band and were clearly not paying attention.
They were laughing at their own inside jokes and hitting each other on the shoulders, the polar opposite of the rest of the band sitting with perfect back posture and instruments in lap.

They were drummers.

When the band began to play again, some students picked up their French horns and clarinets to blow away with puffy cheeks and red faces, but the drummers… there was something seriously cool about them.

They hit things. They were loud. Just the way they stood commanded a kind of unique authority that comes with teenage rebellion. They were in the band but somehow not at the same time.

I didn’t want to be a bored number in the audience; I wanted to be one of them. I told myself that I would be the next year.

My parents paid for me to have a few private drum lessons over the summer, and my mother had the school’s counselor sign me up for band.

I was a drummer, at least on paper.

Not a good one, but I was figuring it all out. It was a challenge to learn how to read music over one summer and play with students who had been reading music for years, but I figured it out enough to get by, and I loved it. I got to march in the local Christmas parade, at the beach, and even at Disneyland. It was the first time I was able to go out of town without my family. I got to get out of class for special seasonal concerts, and I had a good handful of guy friends who were like the musical version of the kids from the movie The Sandlot.

But I was pretty far behind the other guys in my musical abilities.

I heard something about spring performances approaching. I then overheard the other band members sharing about how they performed last year in front of the judges.

From hearing bits and pieces of various conversations, I eventually put together that the spring performances were when students had the opportunity to play a solo musical piece in front of a panel of judges. Each student would get a score and then get an award based on their division and ranking.

I was quick at memorizing music, but reading from a spotted page of notes was pretty much impossible. I would learn music during class by listening to other students play it once or twice and then emulate them exactly. I would stare at the sheet of music to appear as if I was actually reading it, but I wasn’t.

The only good thing about the spring performances was that it was optional although most of the students were participating.

At the end of class one day, my band instructor, Mr. Wolf, took me aside and said, “Terry, I know you struggle a little with reading music, but I found a solo for you that I believe you can handle. It will be a push, but I can work with you after school to help you learn it. It’s up to you, but if you want to participate in the spring performances, just let me know. Here’s the music in case you want to take it home and think about it.”

With the solo in hand, I went about my day a little changed. Mr. Wolf believed I could do it. He cared enough to offer his time to work with me after school to teach it to me. He cared enough to notice that I wasn’t really reading music but just memorizing it.

I went over the music a little at home and really considered my instructor’s offer.

For a long while.

But in the end, I didn’t take him up on it.

I never participated in the spring performances.

But knowing that someone outside my family cared enough to offer to sacrifice his time for me stayed with me and made the difficulties of adolescence a little more tolerable.

At the end of that year, I played with the drummers during that end of year assembly. I laughed with them as the principal congratulated us 8th graders. I went on to play drums in high school while playing almost every Sunday at church.

Now I mostly play on my steering wheel during twilight drives to the outskirts of town as I ponder life in prayer.

Sometimes people won’t take you up on your offers of kindness. Sometimes people won’t let you know how thankful they are for you. Sometimes people won’t share with you how you made their life a little better.

On the bad days, know that you most likely made a difference in those times when you were guided by the Spirit to offer to help others.

To Mr. Wolf, I probably seemed like typical kid who didn’t care, but I was so incredibly thankful for him. And although you don’t know it, people out there are so incredibly thankful for you.

The Librarian

I was around eight years old, and it was about once a month that our teacher took us to the school’s library to check out a book. For me, this was an exciting time. Out of all the books in the entire library, I got to choose one to take home for an entire month.

But I couldn’t really read that well.

With my speech disorder, sounding out words didn’t really work (if it ever works). But I knew there was something valuable about them—stories.

I think Mr. Bo, the librarian, knew that too. He was an elderly man who shared a resemblance with Mr. Rogers, the children’s show host.

I distinctly remember him having our class all sit together on the carpet as he gently brought out a worn book that he treated like an old friend. He carefully held the green book and lightly turned each page as he read to us The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. He ended the story in a dry voice as he read about how all the boy wanted was to be with the tree and how the tree was happy. He slowly closed the book, sat it down on the table next to him, and patted it with his weathered fingers.

“Do you know what that book reminds me of?” he asked the class of children on the floor.

No one answered.

“My parents,” the old man said.

Being only a kid, I somehow knew that was a good book, and I also knew Mr. Bo was a good man.

For a number of months, I would always check out the same book. It was a large illustrated book of fairytales. To me, it was so much better than the other books because it contained multiple stories instead of just one.

While the students were allowed to look through all the books, I looked with them even though I knew I was going to renew the book of fairytales once again. Finally, I stood in line to have the book renewed.

When I placed the old book on the counter, Mr. Bo said, “This book is getting old, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“An old book like this needs to retire to a special home where someone can take care of it? Would you want to take it home and take care of it?”

I smiled and shyly said, “Yes.”

Mr. Bo opened up the front cover and took out the library card covered with dated stamps. He then very carefully pulled out the cardholder that had been glued on the back of the front cover. He handed me the book and smiled.

At the end of the school year, my school held its end of the year awards assembly. My mom was in the back videotaping it with her large, rectangular, over the shoulder camcorder. I was just a regular kid, so I never got the best reader award or the best athlete award. I was always the good, quiet kid in class.

Towards the end of the awards assembly, the principal announced there was one more award that was very special. It was the library award, and only one student in the entire school would receive it.

Mr. Bo steadily made his way up the stairs.

My name was called.

I feel like Mr. Bo believed in me. He didn’t really know me. We never held a real conversation. But he saw something in me. And I saw something in him.

After I moved from that small town, I remember hearing that he passed away, and the school named the library after him.

I still have that old book of fairytales somewhere up in my attic safely stored away in a box. That collection of stories prepared me for the real stories I would encounter in life.

The stories I would experience, create, and tell.

Mr. Bo saw something in me and was a small part of my story although he never knew it. As leaders in this sometimes-confusing world, I hope we can see things in others. I pray that we can believe in people even after years of disappointment.

Let us be stories.

Judging People

For a while, I was into CrossFit. I discovered it at the perfect time in my life. I needed some new friends, and the people at my box were completely opposite of who I normally hung out with. They cussed, drank, went dancing together at local clubs, and were extremely healthy when it came to their eating habits. They were exciting and fun, and they seemed to like me.

One Friday night after a full week of working out at the box, we all went out for Italian food. Muscles were sore and still throbbing a little, but this was our celebration of an ending week.

For the normal American young adult, Italian food includes lots of noodles, creamy sauce, and bread. But for the crossfitter, it’s salad, water, and maybe a tea with no sugar. And you could expect this question with any mention of food: “Is it Paleo?”

Sitting at a large table with Italian music drowned out by the loud voices of the restaurant, I could barely recognize my CrossFit friends without their workout attire since they were wearing nice button-downs and dresses with hair gelled and makeup on. I quickly decided to not get the lasagna and soda that I really wanted. Instead, I would have a salad and tea like the rest of the group.

I was enjoying my meal and laughing at all the inside jokes and stories we retold that had accumulated from the last few months of CrossFit. Every now and then I would grab a fresh slice of white bread on the middle of the table, and when the server came to refill my ice tea, I would add another packet of sugar to keep it lightly sweetened.

My good buddy on my left turned to me and said, “You’re really enjoying that bread, man. If I ate bread like that, I would be huge.”

I didn’t take another slice.

Soon, the server refilled my tea again, and I added another packet of sugar.

My friend on my left said, “Are you getting any tea with that sugar?” and she laughed lightheartedly.

They were judging me. They were being legalistic in a way. They were trying to hold me to a higher standard of healthy living.

And I appreciated it.

Because they wanted me to be healthy like them.

Sometimes at church, people do the same thing. They make little comments about spiritual unhealthy lifestyles. They try to hold each other to a higher standard of healthy spiritual living.

But when it’s at church, people become furious and respond with, “How dare you judge me! Doesn’t the Bible say to never judge?”

There are clearly different types of judging. If I’m lost in an unfamiliar city and end up in a dark ally and see a man approaching me with a knife out, I’m going to make a judgement about him that he may not have the best of intentions. I could find out later that an independent film group was just filming a YouTube video, but I think making the judgement that there was a real threat would be the wise thing to do.

The type of judging the Bible teaches against is not discernment but condemnation. It is never my place to examine another person and condemn him or her to hell for all eternity. That’s not my call; that is wrong.

We should not live a life of condemnation if we are followers of Christ. We should not condemn others, and we should not condemn ourselves.

But we should be discerning, judging our surroundings and using the wisdom that God gives us to make the right decisions that help protect others and ourselves.

I want people to be discerning of my lifestyle. If I’m consuming pizza, donuts, and soda all day every day, what faithful friend would approve of such a lifestyle by saying nothing?

If I’m living in a way that is spiritually unhealthy, what faithful friend would approve of such a lifestyle by saying nothing?

I hope that I have faithful friends at church and not just at the CrossFit box.

Guidance in Becoming a Teacher

It was after school one common day in the 5th grade when my mother sat me down and said, “Someday you’ll have a job that you’ll go to everyday for the rest of your life. What would you want to do?”

I know the 10-year-old me probably answered by saying a Lego designer or professional toy tester, but I really did think about her question. After a good amount of time of serious thinking, I went back to my mom and told her that I wanted to help people.

I wanted to someday have a job where I would get to help people everyday.

She explained that doctors help people, so I decided to be a doctor.

There was a problem with this plan though. I fainted if I saw blood. I don’t expect people to really understand this, and I have forgotten the official name of this diagnosis, but it had nothing to do with fear. My body would involuntarily faint all on its own.

When I was in high school, I took a health class in summer school to get ahead in my units. My health teacher was a mostly bald, elderly man with translucent skin, a pot belly, and bony legs that surprisingly held him up. Since it was summer school, he wore shorts and a collar neck shirt.

One day while he was teaching on the cardiovascular system, he described to us how he had heart surgery before and how the doctors went through an artery in his leg to get to his heart. Seeing his protruding blue veins through his fishlike skin was just too much.

I became lightheaded and felt a slight chill. My hands became clammy, and my forehead started to perspire. I leaned down in my desk and crossed one leg over the other to try to get some blood flow back to my head.

I did not want to be known as the kid who fainted in health class.

I raised my hand and asked to use the restroom. The teacher motioned with his hand for me to go—his white haired, translucent skinned, blue veined arm.

I hurried out of the classroom as everything turned to white and then laid down outside next to the wall. With my knees elevated, I watched my vision return to me through the faded white.

I always thought I would grow out of this inconvenient condition, but I was slowly realizing I wouldn’t be able to help people as a medical doctor.

But I could help them with their psychological problems. Thus, I decided to become a therapist.

In my undergrad years, this was my vocational plan. I was a psychology major, but while plugging away at classes, I noticed I really enjoyed my English classes. I also enjoyed the overall college experience even though my university definitely lacked on stereotypical college living. (Note to high school students, if you feel ready to go away for college, do it. At least for two years after you finish your general education classes.) I learned double majoring would only take about a year longer, and I would then have two BA degrees, so I majored in both psychology and English.

It was when I was working in the English Tutorial Center that I first thought that maybe I could be a real high school English teacher. I was teaching English and writing to college students, so I figured why not?

My dad always suggested I should be a teacher. He would mention how teachers got off earlier than most other jobs and that teachers got the summers off. He brought it up so many times that I eventually became frustrated and told him, “Dad, I don’t want to be a teacher. I never said I wanted to be a teacher. I’m going to be a marriage-family therapist. That’s been my goal the whole time. I’m keeping to it.”

I remember him responding, “I know, but I just think teaching would be a really good job.”

After I graduated from college with my two degrees, I was about to start the application process for a master’s program in psychology when my mom showed me an ad by a private Christian high school looking for an English teacher. My mom suggested I just swing by and introduce myself. I didn’t have a teaching credential, but I was a little curious if they would even consider hiring someone straight out of college.

I put on a tie that matched my khaki pants and my light blue dress shirt, and I drove across town to the big church, which was also the campus of the small high school.

I marched up the stairs to the portable administration building and said to the principal, “Hello, I’m Terry Tripp, and I wanted to speak to you about applying for the English position.”

She looked surprised and invited me to sit down. She then asked about my teaching and ministry experience. I told her about my years of tutoring experience at the university and how I even taught a few English labs there. I went on to tell her my many years of ministry experience, leading worship, teaching Bible studies, and being on church leadership. She smiled, and told me to hold on.

When she came back into the room, she had an older woman with her. The principal introduced the older woman as the curriculum administrator. The principal asked me to say again why I came in today.

I restated that I was interested in the English position, and the two women smiled at each other.

The principal opened a filing cabinet to pull out a 40-page application and said, “This morning the pastor of our church came in and said if a young man comes in inquiring about the English position to hire him on the spot because he’s from the Lord.”

I responded, “Wow, that’s great. I guess it’s hard to argue with that. How many people have been applying for this position?”

“You’re the first one in weeks,” she answered.

I spent a few hours at home filling out the application. I think I had to write out about three different forms of testimonies, and about a month later, I stepped onto that campus as a fulltime English teacher.

Months later on the last day before Christmas break, I took a moment to go outside and just stand still and exist.

There was Christmas music playing on the intercom, and students joyously interacted with each other while eating their lunches outside in the light fog.

They were young. They were happy. They still had that childlike innocence about them—free from the calluses of life.

Although I was excited about the two week break, at that moment I realized something that I didn’t think would happen.

I was going to miss them; I was going to miss my students—the literature that we adventured through together, the inside jokes we developed, the encouragement of the good days, the counseling of the bad ones.

I was doing a form of therapy. Not therapy where I would see a patient once a month, but therapy where I see my students an hour every school day for an entire school year.

I registered for classes in a teaching credential program and a master’s program in education and never looked back. I eventually changed subjects to teach visual art, which was a great change for me, and now I’m able to see students’ more creative side in a relaxed learning environment with more time to counsel and interact with them.

Sometimes God makes decisions very clear in life, practically opening the door for us. Other times when choices are not that clear, we have to use the wisdom that God has given us along with the truth of his scripture to make a decision.

When I was living in Azusa for the summer while working on my MFA in visual art, Steven, a good friend and fellow student, and I got into a memorable conversation while driving to check out some LA art galleries.

I asked, “Don’t you ever wonder if you made the right choice? Don’t you ever wonder what if?”

He boldly said, “No, I don’t.”

“Never?”

He explained, “Why should I? If I’m walking in the Spirit and if I’m praying about every decision and if I’m not living in sin, why should I question past choices? If God is guiding me and if he was guiding me in the past, then questioning my choices guided by his Spirit would be questioning him, and I’m not about to question God.”

Steven’s answer was life changing for me, and it taught me that God is always guiding us in our choices and decisions if we’re in fellowship with him. Sometimes his voice is loud and bold while sometimes it’s in the whisperings of the Holy Spirit and the remembrance of his word.

The Faithful Commitment

The story is somewhat vague to me, but one of the first times my mom brought my dad home, my nanny’s sisters were over. My nanny later said to my mom, “How dare you bring that long haired hippie over when your family’s all here.”

My papa said to my nanny, “Honey, that there is a good boy,” and my nanny trusted my papa.

Required to get a legal signature for permission from his parents, my dad married my mom at 17, and she was 18. Even at such a young age, both of them agreed to do something extreme.

They decided to make a commitment to never allow any drugs or alcohol into their home.

They weren’t Baptist. They didn’t even go to church. But both sides of my family had siblings who struggled with drug addictions, and they had seen the dangers that come with alcohol. They wanted to safeguard their home, their marriage, and their future children.

As a high school teacher today, I examine the maturity levels of some of my seniors, and I’m further impressed by my parents’ monumental decision at such a young age.

Because of their precocious wisdom, my parents were able to give me one of the most precious gifts a kid could ever receive—a good and safe childhood.

I never had to worry about Mom or Dad drinking too much, and drugs were merely an alien concept that existed in another world.

When I was around 10, my mom and I went to the lake with one of my best friends and his mother. His mother had a drinking problem. Instead of bringing a bottle with her, she had a Big Gulp that she kept sipping out of throughout the day. In a few hours, she was passed out, and we all learned it wasn’t soda she had been sipping.

With my mom driving us all home in our minivan and his mother recovering in the passenger seat, my close friend sat one seat away from me trying to hide his tears as he sniffled privately.

I never had to experience anything like that in my house.

It was safe.

But commitments aren’t always easy to uphold.

Although my aunt Lana was only a few years younger than my mother, she almost seemed more like an older sister than an aunt. Not marrying or having children helped her stay in the youthful state of the vogue of the younger generation. She still listened to current popular music and dressed in a way that the kids at my school would say she was pretty if they ever saw her with me.

But she wasn’t around that much.

Sadly, drugs had taken her away from us; she didn’t ever want us to see her when she wasn’t doing well.

When she was around, she completed the family with her uplifting energy, smile, and life-bringing laugh.

I was in the fourth grade, and my family hadn’t heard from Lana in a while. Back before cell phones and social media, you couldn’t keep track of people as well, and honestly, I don’t think my family knew if she were dead or alive at the time.

One regular day my parents heard a knock at the door, and there she was with one of her guy friends. She was unhealthily skinny, which we all knew wasn’t a good sign, but she put on her loving smile and gave us all hugs being happy to see us. I remember my mom looking so thankful that her sister was alive and with her again.

Then Lana went to use the bathroom. After a few minutes, I noticed a disappointing look overcome my dad’s face. Lana eventually came out of the bathroom, and my dad walked in it. When he came out, he said, “Sorry, Lana, but you have to go now.”

She understood and left quickly. I saw my mom’s face fall as she watched her only sibling leave, not knowing if she would ever see her again.

As the front door shut, my mom was already in tears as she pleaded with my dad, “Couldn’t we just have let her stay? She’s not doing well at all.”

My dad restated the commitment, “No one is going to do drugs in this house. It’s our rule. We aren’t going to allow it for her or from anyone.”

I thought my mom was going to be angry. Maybe even furious. I was mentally preparing for some sort of fight—something huge. But my mom did something that I know was extremely difficult for her. She wiped her eyes and said, “You’re right. We can’t.” She looked down. “It’s just that she has had such a hard life.”

My dad responded gently, “I know.”

She and my dad honored their commitment even when it was the most difficult, and they probably didn’t even realize there was a blond hair, little boy watching from the hallway and learning valuable lessons that no scholarly article or academic book nor the most renowned college professor would ever come close to teaching.

Right after high school many years later, I went to a home Bible study associated with a church nearby. The father of the home who lead the study said to us, “If you could only have one word written on your tombstone someday, no name or bio, no dates of your lifespan, just one word, what would that word be?”

I thought about this question for a while as other people threw out words like, “kind” and “helpful.” Some said, “successful” and “ambitious.” Eventually, someone asked him what his one word would be, and he replied, “Faithful.”

Coming from little money with no real education, two young people, 17 and 18, decided to start a family being faithful to their commitments. And because of their selfless faithfulness, they allowed for their children to have a childhood full of peace, love, and safety, so growing up wouldn’t have to happen too fast.

Let’s pray that God helps us all be able to have “faithful” written on our tombstones someday.

The Healer

I was in the first or second grade when I first remember going to the eye doctor. I don’t remember the details, but the optometrist told my mom that my light blue eyes were so sensitive to sunlight that I needed to wear sunglasses whenever I go outside.

My mom, of course, took me directly to the glasses store and bought me a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. I wore them for about a week, and that was the end of those glasses.

In the 5th grade, I went to the eye doctor again. After having me read countless letters, the optometrist blurred the screen and said to my mom, “You see this right here?” He pointed to the screen. “This is how your son sees.”

My mom started crying at the realization of my horrible vision. Once again, she went directly to buy me a pair of glasses, and I wore them for about a week at school, maybe less.

I could get by sitting close to the board in most classrooms at school, and I found ways of just getting by at lunch and during recess. But I would wear my glasses at home.

A few weeks ago, I got a quick giggle when I came across an old photo of me behind my drum set with those golden clunkers weighing heavily on my face.

I just hated wearing glasses. They felt wrong to me. I knew many people wore them and even liked them, but I never accepted them as part of myself. When I had the chance, I would remove them for photos, and if I drew myself, there would be no sign of glasses.

One average day in the 7th grade, I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and I overheard my mom talking on the cordless phone to a friend from our old charismatic church about a healer coming in from out of town for a special Wednesday night service.

I liked the people at my old church; they were kind and loving. You got hugs from everyone. The sermons might not have always been biblically strong, but you could always count on the hugs.

I’m not for sure why, but I asked my dad privately if he would take me to the Wednesday night service to see the healer. Maybe it’s because I had previously expressed to my mom how I never wanted to be the kind of boys at church who sat in the front pews and seemed to cry in some dramatic worship performance every Sunday morning. As a young pre-teen, I wanted to be many things in life, but not one of them.

My father agreed to take me when he got home from work, and we drove across town together. I pretended to only be curious about hearing what the speaker had to say.

But that wasn’t the case. I read, heard, and even believed that God could heal. If there was any chance to have my vision restored, I was going to give this healing stuff everything I had.

We walked into an embrace of hugs and authentic smiling faces. People there were really so kind. Then the worship service started with the healer up on the stage.

I’m not really the singing type of guy in church, but I sang that Wednesday night. I sang every song, making sure I didn’t miss a word. I might have even lifted my hands–I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize any chance of my eyes being healed. I cleared my mind and believed with all my might that I would be healed.

No one was going to be able to tell me that I didn’t have enough faith or didn’t worship God sincerely enough.

After a good 40 minutes of worship songs, the healer began his routine. He told us that God had given him the gift of healing. He explained that we could be healed if we had enough faith and truly believed. He quoted memorized scripture. Then he invited us to come down if we wanted healing.

A crowded line down the center isle appeared instantly, and I watched with my dad from a pew as people began to be healed.

People were healed from headaches, anxiety, back pains, bad dreams, tumors that they didn’t know they had, and many other things that were all really unfalsifiable.

My situation was clear. If I could see without my glasses, I was healed. If I still needed my glasses to see, then I wasn’t.

I reminded myself of everything that the healer said. I pushed out every ounce of doubt in my mind. I felt the rim of my glasses on my face and told myself this would be the last time I would ever need to wear them, and then I stood up to go stand in line.

A faithful and hopeful boy.

Doing his best to believe with all his heart.

When my turn in line came, the healer asked me what I wanted healing for. I told him about my horrible eye vision and how I wanted God to heal my eyes. The worship music continued as the healer spoke in tongues as he placed his hands on my temples and began to pray. After reciting a few Bible verses and praying some more, he finally declared that I was healed.

The people in the congregation hollered out praises that were mixed with the sound of a tambourine and music. I turned to walk back down that center isle believing with all my might that what the healer said was true.

After a few steps, I finally began to try to focus on something far away, but all I saw was a blur. But I didn’t put on my glasses because I didn’t want to doubt.

I sat during the remainder of the worship service pushing myself to believe I could see, but the fact that the healer appeared as nothing more than a blur on the stage was beginning to wear on me.

When the friendly congregation finally started gathering their purses and Bibles to begin their exiting round of hugs, I was forced to come to the truthful conclusion that I had not been healed.

Service was now over.

Disappointment.

“Are you ready to go?” my patient father asked.

“One moment,” I responded and boldly walked back up that center isle and asked the healer why my eyes weren’t healed?

He replied, “Well son, sometimes it takes God a few days to complete a healing.”

He might as well said, “Well son, I’m a complete fake,” or “Well son, I’m really spiritually confused.”

Riding home with my understanding father, I felt a little like a fool, but I was fine. I wanted to, at least once in my life, give the whole charismatic healing thing one sincere chance. And I did.

Now let me clarify, I do believe God can heal, but his ways aren’t our ways. He can’t be placed in a box or be assigned to some specific formula for miracles. He’s far too big for that.

In my life I’ve seen some cases of church show business, but I’ve also seen a good handful of undeniable miracles. Even as I’m typing this, I have 20/20 vision, unaided by any glasses or contacts. So God did have a plan for my eyes to be healed, but it was different than what I had planned.