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

 

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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.

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.

 

Drunken College Party

Read a novel. Write a paper. Come to class and debate: the simplified formula for literature classes in college.

And I loved it.

Nine novels in a few months with all my other psychology classes and active social life… but the advanced discussions and safe debates with other students made it oddly enjoyable.

Debating literary themes and the secret intentions of fictitious characters was far safer than tiptoeing around subjects like politics, religion, and the multitude of social issues. The raw discussions and connectivity of the classroom conversations helped students form deeper relationships, while in some of my psychology classes, we just silently took notes from the professor’s lectures.

There’s an experience that happens through stories that connects people. From going to the movies together on a first date, participating in a neighborhood book club, or even sitting around the campfire, people bond together through the experience of storytelling.

As my professor gave our class a 10-minute break from our literary discussion, students moved around the classroom to stretch and socialize.

“Terry, are you coming to my birthday party?” a girl asked—I think her name was Cassie or Stephanie… let’s just call her Cassie.

“Birthday party? What’s this nonsense all about?” I responded.

Cassie smiled, “Well, I’m turning 25, so I’m getting wasted! I so need a break from this crazy quarter. So totally come, bring a friend too. There’s going to be plenty of alcohol.”

“Okay, I’ll be there. I’m not a drinker though, but I would love to hang out.”

Cassie began writing down her address, “Alrighty then! Here’s my apartment. Come whenever, we’ll be up all night.”

I folded up the torn piece of paper Cassie handed me and put it away in my pocket.

That Friday night I drove to pick up Shawn, who always hung out with me during those early college years. I pulled into his driveway, and he came walking to my car cleaning his black rim glasses with the bottom of shirt.

“What’s up, man?” he sat back in my car looking through his clean glasses now ready and eager for the night.

I pulled out the folded address and told him about the party, and we were on our way.

As we walked up through the parking lot, we found a group of people standing outside on the patio smoking. I might have recognized one of them from school. Lights flashed through the upstairs window and low bass rumbled all the way down to the souls of our shoes.

Inside the upstairs apartment, we were greeted by Cassie expressing how happy she was that I came to her birthday party, as she over enunciated each syllable to hide her tipsy slur. She introduced us to her roommate and her friends, and they offered us an extended bar full of a plethora of alcoholic beverages. I was naive in the brands and types of alcohol, but the group stood proudly around the makeshift bar, which communicated to me they must have had quite a desirable collection for a group of college students.

Cassie’s roommate proudly give us a tour of their apartment, once again mentioning the bar. She was really excited to show us the living room, which had a monthly calendar painted on its wall, about six by nine feet in size.

Within each dated box, there was a little drawing and some words written. One read, “American lit. paper due.” Others read, “Wild acid trip” and “Frist threesome experience.” She explained to us how it was her art project and how she would take a Polaroid photograph of the wall and then repaint it at the beginning of each month to have a collection of all her experiences documented in a unique way.

When we ran back into Cassie, she asked us again if we wanted anything to drink. We told her no, and she said, “No, Terry, seriously, we have more than enough drinks, have something.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. I’m just happy being here.”

“I’m getting you a drink. What do you want?” she moved behind the bar.

I knew she wasn’t going to give this up, so I eventually told her, “I actually don’t drink.”

She froze for a moment and replied, “Oh my gosh, you’re like a real Christian.”

“We talked about church that one time in class,” I reminded her.

“Yeah, but a lot of people go to church or even claim to be a Christian though.” She looked around her apartment noticing people grinding up on each other. She looked to a girl passed out on her couch. She looked at the oversized calendar painted on the wall and then to the red cup in her hand. “This must be so offensive to you. I’m so sorry.”

“No, no, don’t apologize. I don’t want you to feel bad about anything. I just wanted to celebrate your birthday with you and let you know I care.”

She didn’t respond for a moment and then searched for the right words, “Thanks so much. I don’t think many people would be here to just celebrate my birthday. You are a real Christian.”

“I’m just a forgiven sinner hanging out with some nice people.”

Cassie smiled and pointed to Shawn, “Is he a real Christian too?”

Shawn said, “I hope so!” He then checked the tag on the inside of his jacket. “Yup, 100 percent real Christian.” And this made Cassie laugh.

Shawn and I stuck around for a little while longer and then took off. While driving Shawn said, “It’s kind of sad that people are surprised to find actual Christians.”

Over the years, I thought a lot about Cassie’s statement. Sadly, there have been some times in my life where people wouldn’t have known I was a real Christian. I think that can be said for most believers. Even Peter publically denied Christ three times.

I think evangelism is a combination of living a pure life and being honest about when we don’t. It’s letting people know that we’re still growing up spiritually and that we struggle. And in our struggles, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s taking the focus off us and placing it onto Jesus.

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.