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. 

 

Underarm Deodorant

Old Woman

Not everyone is lucky enough to know their great-grandmother, but I was. Grandma Patterson is what we called her. From Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, she and my great-grandfather brought their many children over to California for a better life. She spent her time working in the laborious fields and raising her 10 children.

When I knew her, she was already old. She wore her hair pulled back tightly into a brown bun that rested on the back of her head. She mostly wore long straight dresses that hung like giant t-shirts. She was overweight some, and she hunched over when she walked.

And her eye vision was failing.

Back then, people didn’t always wear sunglasses when working outside in the fields, and a lifetime of abuse from the unforgiving sun did a number on my Grandma Patterson.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was chubby with an acne covered face and a mouth full of metal. My undiagnosed OCD caused me to slick my hair straight down with a perfect part so not a single hair would ever dare go out of place. I was extremely shy, awkward, and my best friends went by the names of Nintendo and Sega. Needless to say, I didn’t have girls chasing after me, and I didn’t blame them.

For Christmas that year, I remember unwrapping a Christmas present from Grandma Patterson. I think it was the last one I ever remember receiving from her. It was a green bottle of spray deodorant.

Yes, underarm deodorant.

I opened it up not knowing how to react. I was still at the young age when body odor didn’t exist, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I forced out a “Thank you!” with a decent smile.

My great-grandma stood up and walked over to me hunched over. She leaned in close to me and said, “You spray a little of that here and there, and you’ll have to fight those little girlies off of you.” She motioned like she was spraying it on both sides of my neck.

It then made sense to me and my observing parents that my Grandma Patterson thought she bought me spray cologne. Like I said earlier, her eyesight was failing.

Not too long later, I visited her with my family, and she said to me, “Terry, I bet all those little girlies are after you now, aren’t they?”

I answered awkwardly, “I don’t know.”

She continued, “Well, this is what you do. You need to get yourself a baseball bat in one hand and a croquet stick in the other, so when the girlies come after you on the right, you can knock them off with the left, and when they come after you on the left, you can knock them off with the right.”

I thought she really must not be able to see the dorky looking kid standing right in front of her; the girls at my school didn’t want anything to do with me.

On our way home that night, I silently chuckled in the backseat of our family minivan. And after thinking about it some more, it was nice to have someone see something in me I didn’t see in myself, even if that person was going blind. It was encouraging that she saw something in me that she thought others would find attractive.

A few years later, my acne cleared up, my braces were taken off, and my hair hung more loosely and naturally as it grew out in a blond, suffer style. I lost weight and spent time outside swimming in my family’s new pool as my skin darkened into a healthy shade. With my newly gained confidence, I traded in my timid shyness for a gregarious, extroverted personality.

And the girlies started to chase after me.

My Grandma Patterson didn’t get to see me graduate high school or college. She didn’t live that long. But she didn’t need to see those events because even with her blind eyes, she saw me—the real me.

I pray to be a little more like her and see others not with my eyes but with something more. I hope to see their future possibilities. I desire to be a builder of people and error on the side of encouragement.

There’s already enough honest evaluation. There’s enough tough love. Even after the silly self-esteem movement in the 1980s and this crazy post-modern society we live in now, we still need people to see in us what isn’t there yet.

We all need a Grandma Patterson who will give us our own underarm deodorant.

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.

 

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.

The Great Debate

In my later high school and early undergrad years, argumentative and theologically minded Christians, mostly male, discovered what they thought to be the greatest debate in Christian apologetics—predestination versus freewill. Some took tremendous pride in labeling themselves strict five-point Calvinists while others stood on the side of freewill.

Each person researched and collected their share of Bible verses to back up their side—reading the Bible to destroy someone in a debate instead of growing closer to Christ. And yes, I was guilty of this myself.

We were young and dumb (immature), but instead of going out and getting plastered on the weekends, we were in Taco Bell or Starbucks studying up for our next debate. So I guess it wasn’t the worse thing in the world. We were friendly in the end, and it was mostly just for fun—something to do.

After many agonizing years of considering the ideas of predestination and freewill, I’ve come to two conclusions.

First, don’t ever create a system or formula for God because he is far too big for that.

Second, somethings in life are a paradox, and that’s okay. A paradox doesn’t mean that two things contradict; it means they only seemingly contradict but are actually both true.

God’s ways are not our ways, and that’s a good thing. We, as humans, are stuck in linear time, only able to move in one direction, but God is the creator of time, so he is not confined to it. He can exist outside of time.

So what are humans doing creating five points of anything to explain God in their limited thinking and lack of any experience existing outside of time itself?

Basic arrogance.

We should study these ideas and see what the Bible says about them. We can come up with humble conclusions, but in the end, we don’t know for sure how or why God does what he does.

Especially salvation.

It would be like a toddler trying to figure out why her dad is investing in a particular company in the stock market, but then multiply that example by a number with too many zeros to count.

We are only human.

Overall, I think it was my choice to accept Christ as my savior, but I don’t exist outside of time, and I’m not a scholarly theologian, but I am a storyteller.

I was about five or six—old enough to play in my fenced in front yard out in Derby Acers—practically in the middle of nowhere. I don’t remember what I was playing, but I was most likely running around in the short, green grass pretending to be Luke Skywalker or a medieval swordsmen. Maybe my Sheltie, Boy, was running around with me. My mom was most likely in the house preparing dinner for my dad after his long day of welding in the oilfields. The sun was falling behind the small foothills under the western sky, leaving behind a painted scene of vibrant orange, red, and pink.

I stopped playing for a moment, taken away by the arrangement of colors. The cooling of the evening. The soft breeze.

“You are my son.”

My first memory of hearing that inaudible voice that came from within—God’s Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t in actual words, but a spiritual language of its own that still clearly conveyed meaning.

I’m not for sure if that moment lasted a few minutes or only seconds, but it happened. I went back to playing until the night sky motioned me to go in for dinner.

Thus, my thoughts on the great debate is concluded in a story of a father calling out his son.

Childhood Home

There’s something special about one’s childhood home. I was born in Bakersfield, California. When I was two, my parents moved out to Derby Acers. Just to give you an idea of this area, some people called it “Dirty Acers.” But to me it was home, and a wonderful home at that.

My parents were in their very early twenties when they bought a brand new, double-wide mobile home and placed it on a quarter acer of land. They put up a nice fence and divided the backyard for a horse corral. I remember having a swing set, a tree to climb in, a little area designated for our doughboy pool, an orchid for my mom, a long, extended drive to skateboard down, and still plenty of room for a young boy’s invisible adventures. It was in that backyard that my best friend Matt and I fought off alien soldiers who hovered over us in a giant flying saucer. Other days we were fighting off medieval warriors who were invading our castle as I was a knight and Matt was a wizard.

A dog named Boy barked in excitement at the imaginary scenes as my mom baked a cake inside waiting for my dad to get home from work.

I lived in that house until my family moved to Bakersfield at age 10, so the majority of my innocent childhood was spent there.

It really was a perfect place to grow up as a kid. I left my bike in the front yard, and there was never a thought about someone stealing it. Doors were often left open for a sweet breeze, and most of the time they were unlocked. We had horses, cats, bunnies, dogs, chickens, a pig, and three-wheelers.

The foothills and mountains that surrounded the valley were close and always clear, and there was something special about the sunset that fell down over them. There was time then too. Time to watch cartoons. Time to play outside. Time to stare at my mother as she made dinner or organized her records and folded laundry. Time to wait on the front porch to see if I could spot my dad’s work truck driving home on the main road a few blocks away. Time to think.

My younger sister, Amber, was about seven years younger than me. Since we moved to Bakersfield when I was nine, and she was around three, she didn’t get to experience the same childhood I did.

A few years ago, when I was in my early thirties, and she in her twenties, we made plans to grab lunch as we tried to do every few weeks. Christmas was approaching, and we were looking for some place special to eat. I thought up the idea of driving out to Taft for lunch and another 15 minutes to Derby Acers to show her where she first lived. I was surprised that she wanted to join me on this adventure. She had recently gotten engaged, and we would get to use the long drive to catch up.

The road went from straight, long lanes to hilly roads and then to a small two-lane road surrounded by oilrigs and foothills. Turning into our, I guess you could call it a neighborhood, the road faded to dirt. My sister jerked around in my truck as we went over the uneven dirt.

We drove past my old best friend’s house, Matt, and then turned left. There in the middle of the dirt road, I stopped in reverence to show my sister her first home.

After a few seconds of silence and an odd look on my sister’s face, she said, “Why did Mom and Dad live here?”

I looked to examine my childhood home. The fence had fallen. The grass has turned to dirt. The orchid was gone to just an empty dry space with scattered weeds. The pool has vanished. No dog barked eagerly to see me. It was a pathetic sight.

I tried to explain to Amber what it was once like—the fine details of every bit of energy that Mom and Dad put into it to make it a fine home for their two children. But then I realized something.

It was more accurate in my memory than it was in real life. What now stood wasn’t my childhood home, for it was gone forever.

Or maybe, it was forever saved in my memories, where it will always be real.

That’s the moment I understood that the past can’t be revisited in real life but only in the heart.

I looked at my sister. Graduated from college. Engaged. Grown. Accomplished. Faithful. Kind. Wise. She is what I still have from that past. Not some house.

We drove to Taft and ate at a Mexican food restaurant. It was mostly empty inside. There was a huge Christmas tree with colorful lights across from our table. My sister and I laughed and smiled as we told stories and revisited jokes while eating our food. And I enjoyed the present before me—my grown little sister who would only hold the same last name as me for a few more months.

Let’s be thankful for the past and hold it dearly in our hearts, but let’s be thankful for all God’s given us in the present and never neglect for a moment what we have now because in time, it too will be gone.