To Think and to Live 

blog car

Austere seat belt rules seemed to be less meticulous back in the 80s as I loosened up the tight restriction from my waist to lay my head against the boxy side window of the backseat. The telephone pole lines seemed to sway up and down with foothills blurred behind them as the car drove steadily on the two-lane road 

The Game Boy hadn’t been invited yet, and only the rich had televisions in their cars. My parents sometimes had the radio playing oldies quietly in the background on that enduring drive from Derby Acers to Bakersfield and from Bakersfield back to Derby Acers. And simply sat in the backseat of our long, white car with maroon seats and Life Savors dried into the matching floor mats and stared out the window, attempting to avoid car sickness.  

But I really did so much more than just stare—I thought.  

I thought about everything a small child could possibly think about. I wondered if I could strain my eyes hard enough to faintly see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. I reflected on cartoons I recently watched. I debated with myself the possible birthday presents I might get months down the road. I revisited confusing feelings I had about that one special girl at school. I anticipated the next time my best friend would come over and how we would team up to fight off imaginary alien invaders or protect our castle from medieval soldiers and dragons. I analyzed the lyrics of the quietly played tunes and tried to make sense of what was being sung. I soaked in the notes and the melody and felt the music.  

I thought. 

Those long drives were some of the best gifts my parents ever gave me because they gave me so much more than a ride from one point to another; they gave me time—free time.  

Time to think. 

Time to live. 

There were no cell phones, email, or social media. Video games were only in 8-bit. And television was something watched with my mom and dad on the couch.  

There was time to play. There was time create. And there was plenty of time to think freely. 

All of those minutes of thinking added up to make me who I am today. 

Someone who thinks. 

I didn’t need programs and lessons on the practice of thinking. I didn’t need an educational mindfulness curriculum. I just needed time. 

I hope I can someday give my children the same gift in this technologically packed society of today. I hope they can sit back and watch the telephone pole lines sway in the sunset and observe the mountains around them. I hope they can ponder what is beyond our visible sight. I hope that they can be still and know that God is God. I hope they can learn to hear that still small voice through the deafening static of our society.   

I hope they can think so that they can truly live. 

 

The Worst Job, Temporarily

 

blog

My parents always had to work jobs in high school, so they missed out on the many common high school activities that are normally associated with the typical, American, high school experience. They made the most out of it with each other, marrying instead of graduating and starting a family a few years later.

They wanted my sister and me to have a different high school experience. As long as we were involved in school activities and earning good grades, we didn’t have to get jobs. Thus high school, for me, was some of the best years of my life, full of new experiences, unfamiliar adventures, and social challenges.

The summer after I graduated high school, my parents informed me that it was time to get a job. And when you’re an 18-year-old with no previous job experience and no employment connections, you don’t get to be picky.

I spent the early days of my summer as a high school graduate driving around in the increasing heat in a long sleeve dress shirt and tie, dropping off resumes at any and every place that looked tolerable.

I recalled my nanny and papa telling me how my dad used to make the best pizzas when he was a teenager working at a pizza parlor when dating my mom. He would bring them over on the nights he closed after loading up the pizzas with the best combination of cheese and toppings.

I can still hear my nanny say, “Best pizza I ever ate!” as she sat on his couch reminiscing back to the past as my papa nodded in agreement.

Following in my father’s footsteps, I drove to a pizza parlor near my house. After introducing myself to the manager and asking about employment, I was turned away with the common “We’re not hiring right now.”

After a few days of more rejections all around town, I decided to go back to the pizza parlor again to ask if they were hiring now. This time the manager said, “We’re not hiring right now but maybe later.”

A few more days went by with no luck on my job hunt, so I went back to the pizza parlor again. This time the manager asked, “Why do you want to work here so bad?”

I explained I thought it would be a neat job. And that’s how I got my first job. Or that’s how I got the worst job I ever had in my life.

I learned quickly that my dreamy idea of making pizzas while cracking innocent jokes with a new community of friendly faces was far from reality.

I was the joke.

The workers there were not what I would describe as people of high character, and I didn’t belong.

And they knew it.

And they wanted to make sure I knew it.

I seldom heard my name without profanity attached to it, and I was yelled at for questioning their disagreeable procedures, such as making salads with their bare hands directly after handling money and crushing the ice down with their foot when too much was placed into the soft drink ice machine tray. One of their favorite moments was when some kids set off a cherry bomb in the toilet, and they laughed hysterically as they watched me mop off the filth from the walls and ceiling.

The real humbling moment was when I saw my high school ex-girlfriend walk in holding hands with one of my old friends. I had heard that they were dating, but the moment of humility was when they saw me and uncontrollability let out a slight laugh of shock. My post high school life looked dim and lame as I stood there in a cheaply printed pizza parlor t-shirt with one of my managers staring down at me from the oven, looking for a reason to criticize me. When they had finished eating their pizza, my manager quickly yelled at me to clean up their mess as they were still walking out the door.

Now you might think one of the advantages of working at a pizza parlor would be getting free pizza every now and then. Not for me. I was allowed to buy pizza at a small discount, and when making minimum wage, I wasn’t about to spend an hour and a half of my wages on a pizza. During hungry evenings there was a real temptation to sneak a bite from unfinished pizzas left on tables. Being a rule follower, I would throw away half eaten pizzas that were still warm from the oven and leave work hungry.

It wasn’t long until I found a better job working at the bookstore on my university’s campus, which really was a breath of fresh air. My managers there appreciated my hard work and even rewarded it by increasing my responsibilities. I made friends there and got to meet many of the university’s professors before classes began. Plus, I enjoy books far more than pizza.

Eventually, the fall came, and a very special moment of my life happened.

I arrived on my university’s campus to be early on that first day of college, and as I stepped onto the white sidewalk and strolled over freshly cut green grass still wet from the morning’s dew, I took in a deep breath and exhaled in victory knowing that I had made it farther than anyone in my family.

I was a university student.

I was going to be the first in my entire family to graduate college.

And I did, and now I have a wonderful job.

The worst job was only temporary. And that’s something to remember when God has us walk through the valleys in lifeor through the pizza parlors.

It’s only temporary.

Even the good career I have now is only temporary.

It’s all only temporary.

This is why our focus should not be on what can be seen around us, for all of this is only temporary. Our focus should be on the things that are not seen, for those things are eternal.

Greater Things than These

Return of the Jedi hit theaters in May of 1983 when I was two years old. Not too many people remember much about being two. I don’t either, but I do remember when my great grandfather died—sort of.

I remember driving home with my mom and nanny after his funeral in Bakersfield sitting in the back seat of the small car. I remember my nanny saying to my mom who was driving, “He really wasn’t all that great of a daddy” as her eyes were wet with grief.

Being so young, I was confused. I didn’t understand why she was crying if he hadn’t been a good daddy; my child size capacity of thinking was very limited.

I also remember my mother holding me as we looked at the open land in Derby Acers where our mobile home was going to be placed. We had been living in a trailer a few blocks away for almost a year. I felt her excitement about moving into a new home and that made me excited too. I wanted her to put me down, so I could explore the wide, empty lot, but she said she had to hold me because there might be nails on the ground.

Out of all the things I could possibly remember at two, those are my main memories.

And there’s one more thing: Star Wars.

I remember sitting in a small movie theater with my parents in Taft watching Return of the Jedi. It’s where I first witnessed Ewoks fighting Stormtroppers on the planet of Endor. I can still recall where the theater was located.

Over 30 years later, I went back to that same place with my wife and looked at the building where I remembered the theater once was, and sure enough, we could see how the old building used to be a small theater. This was support for me that my memory was accurate.

Along with many of the totally rad kids who grew up in the 80s, Star Wars was my thing. There was He-Man, Ghostbusters, ThunderCats, Transformers, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but Star Wars stood above them all, maybe because it was a live action film instead of a cartoon, or maybe because it was just epic.

I can’t count how many times I acted out each adventurous scene in my childhood. I can still picture myself in my front yard walking to the end of an imaginary plank as Jabba waits for me to jump to my death. I nod to Lando and then signal to R2-D2 before I lever myself off the plank into a flip as I catch my lightsaber from R2 and save the day.

It was clear how Luke Skywalker was able to do all that he did—the force.

Being newly married, my wife and I drove out to Taft to watch The Last Jedi when it came out; it was sort of a trip down memory lane. We watched it in the ancient Fox Theater, the largest and now only theater in Taft.

The main theater screen has a classic early 20th century style to it with a velvety blue, oval shape ceiling that gently glows with mysterious lighting. The seats are small, the carpet is patterned, and the screen is on a stage with red curtains folded to the sides.

The reviews of the new Star Wars film were critical, specifically relating to how the force was used by the iconic characters. Recurring social media comments questioned how the force was used differently than in the original three movies. I was bothered by this too at first until I read a comment that explained how the force didn’t operate by a set of systematic formulas, and just because we didn’t see the force displayed in particular ways in the original movies doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the newer ones.

The force can be used differently by different people at different times in different situations, and yes, even in different movies.

Now I know the force isn’t meant to represent the Holy Spirit; George Lucas is not C.S. Lewis by any means. At times, we may in our own minds limit the Holy Spirit to only what we read in Acts. But keeping the Bible as the foundation, let’s be open to all the greater things than these moments the Holy Spirit is capably of doing.

Let’s not put God in a box.

Let’s not create formulas to attempt to predict his actions.

He’s so much bigger than us.

He’s not limited to the past.

And just how the use of the force in The Last Jedi surprised its audience, God can still surprise his followers today with how he uses his Holy Spirit.

We can’t even imagine the great things he can still do with us—greater things than these.

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.

This is Halloween

When you’re an only child for the first seven years of your life, you learn how to use your imagination. I could pretend to be anything, and Halloween was the one day a year where the world was okay with that.

Before I was old enough to choose what I wanted to go as, my parents dressed me up. I remember once being a vampire at a little carnival on the outskirts of town. It was there I learned about bobbing for apples as my parents explained to me how to do it.

Another Halloween I remember my mother putting a clothes hanger wire in my devil’s tail to keep it from dragging on the ground. She was probably afraid I would trip over it. It was that Halloween I can recall casting a little toy fishing pole over a water painted curtain at a carnival. When I pulled it back over, there was a little paper bag attached with a plastic finger toy and piece of candy inside it.

My elementary school was decorated with stretched spider webs and hanging tissue ghosts. One classroom activity was building haunted houses out of paper and cardboard. We also made paper Frankenstein puppets. (Yes, I know Frankenstein is the name of the scientist, not the monster.)

The smell of plastic masks and candy bags filled up the orange and black seasonal isle of the grocery store, and sometimes my dad would even buy me a rubber toy spider or bat.

“It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” played on television along with “Garfield’s Halloween Adventure” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” 80’s sitcoms aired their Halloween specials, demonstrating how to properly decorate for the special, spooky night.

My childhood best friend, Matt and I would play all year like we were fantasy characters. I would be the medieval swordsman and he, the magical wizard. We were a dynamic duo in our fictitious worlds that we saved over and over again. Although in reality, we were only two little boys dressed in full 80’s attire running around the grassy yard in a small town. But one year, both of our mothers sewed us personalized Halloween costumes.

We were so proud as we walked our school’s halls and playground on Halloween day proudly dressed as the characters who we always imaginarily played as.

Halloween is such an interesting holiday. Although some people celebrate it in an evil manner, to me it was always something mysteriously pure. My family didn’t watch horror movies about the demonic realm or teach us to play malevolent tricks on neighbors.

Halloween was a time of freedom and imagination–an ushering in of the fall season with our family and friends eating candy in costumes.

Now a big part of it is remembering how it felt to be young again. To see an orange leaf fall before your next step. To zip up a thin jacket for the first time that school year. To simply breathe in the fresh autumn air. To watch a harvest moon.

As believers, the easy stance to take is simply declaring all of Halloween bad. But some churches have been doing the opposite.

Harvest festivals have practically taken over trick-or-treating for a lot of families. Churches are inviting trick-o-treaters onto their campuses for candy, games, and entertainment. The parents enjoy this because it’s so much safer than walking up and down dark neighborhood streets and going up to houses of strangers. The kids like it too because they get so much more candy. Some larger churches have even turned their harvest festivals into full carnivals.

Ironically, Halloween is the only time some families will ever walk onto a church’s campus.

The enemy takes what God has made for good and uses it for evil. It’s about time we take what the enemy has made for bad and use it for God–this is Halloween.

Driving Home

Foothills surrounded the dry two-lane road that led home.

Oil rigs heavily pumped as some just sat in awe of the red sky as it began to take down some of the warm air with it.

Telephone poles connected together by hanging cords that appeared to move up and down if you watched from lying down in the backseat.

Somewhere on that drive, there was a burned structure of a historic hotel still standing, which was the last evidence that the tiny town had once flourished with people.

But to me as a little boy, it still flourished. Maybe not with people, but with sunsets, nightly stars, pet animals, young friends, old family, trees to climb on, grass to roll on, and time to spare.

Driving home from Taft to my home in Derby Acers, I remember turning my head and looking up to see my dad. He was younger then—not that tired from a hard day’s work in the oilfields.

Paper bags of mixed groceries sat together in the back, and I held a Happy Meal box in my hands, eager to get to the toy Hot Wheel that hid under the warm fries I was so eager to throw into my mouth.

After looking at my dad, I turned back to watch the road like he was. He seemed to keep a safe eye on that road. Or maybe it was that red sky falling over those foothills beyond it he so intently observed.

It’s now that red sky I envision on that road when I think about my childhood.

The sunset and childhood are both so full of wonder and both so fleeing.

Back then, on that road, with my dad, there wasn’t poppy music to occupy the calm silence. There wasn’t handheld video game systems with new levels to conquer. There wasn’t cell phones, texting, or email to communicate with people who weren’t there.

It was just us.

And I called it home.

It’s where my mind meditated. It’s where my imagination grew. It’s where I learned how to be alive.

Often times it’s where I would like to go back. And in a way, maybe I can.

Maybe we can.

Maybe that’s what reconciliation is all about—riding in a car with our father, going where he takes us, and trusting he’s going to get us home.