Baseball Cards and Suicides

Kneeling down to rip up a handful of grass.

Covering your face within your mitt to see how it would work as a mask.

Feeling the sun bake down upon your exposed forearms.

Watching anxious parents in the stands wonder why their children aren’t taking the game more seriously.

I was about six or seven, and this was tee-ball.

One year my team lost almost every game. The next, we came in second place.

I got to play second base, my favorite position, a little that year although another kid’s dad wanted him to play it, so it was a constant struggle to stay on second. But after every game, only two things really mattered.

My dad would let me buy a 50-cent pack of Topps baseball cards–you know, the ones with the hard piece of broken chewing gum. And I would also get to order a suicide.

In the 80s, there was a time when every little boy wanted a drink called a suicide. Even the name of the drink was rebellious. Parents didn’t order suicides. Grandparents didn’t. Only young boys and their fellow rambunctious teammate buddies ordered suicides–the 80’s sugar water of boisterous adolescence.

The man behind the food stand would mix each drink with zeal, adding Dr. Pepper as he slid the waxy paper cup to Pepsi and then to Root Beer and then adding dash of Sprite. My eager teammates kicked up dry dirt as they waited in line for the rewarding treat in the blistering heat.

I don’t really remember what it tasted like, but I know I liked it. After a few sips, I would get in the car with my dad and start looking through the new baseball cards hoping that I didn’t get too many doubles.

I wanted the full team of the Dodgers. Although I liked the White Sox and the Yankees too, the Dodgers were my team.

That bold blue.

That simple LA emblem.

I was thrilled when my parents surprised me with Orel Hershiser’s record breaker card one year on my birthday. I would place my cards out over the thick carpet of my bedroom floor to see the collected team together. The Dodgers winning the 1988 World Series highlighted that season of baseball card collecting.

Besides for a few years of tee-ball and then playing on my Bible study’s team at church almost 20 years later, that was all the ball I ever played. I had no hopes of earning a baseball scholarship, being a professional baseball player, or even coaching.

Although I try to make it out to a Dodgers game every other year or so and sit in the all-you-can-eat section, I don’t even watch very many games on TV.

I went out for baseball conditioning once in high school. I observed high school coaches cussing at the students for not being fast enough. I saw some students falling on their knees with vomit bursting out of their mouths after being pushed so hard. The fear in some of my fellow students’ eyes was alarming.

This wasn’t the baseball I remembered.

This wasn’t a game.

This wasn’t for me.

Then I remembered some of the tee-ball parents getting upset that their kid didn’t get enough time in their preferred position and them angrily yelling from the stands words that little kids shouldn’t hear.

But we, the ones who were actually playing the game, were happy just being out there and getting our baseball cards and soda afterwards.

I have to remind myself to strive for that childlike outlook on life again–to be so happy with such simple things.

Adults have forgotten how to play a game.

They care too much about winning and losing.

They think about suicide instead of drinking them.

They don’t chew broken bubblegum anymore.

There are definitely times in life where we need to be serious, but I feel being serious comes quite naturally to most of us.

We have to remind ourselves to have a playful outlook on life, with the faith of a child. We have to remember how to play a game.

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 Good Boss

A good indicator that you’re dating the wrong person (not necessarily a bad person) is a lack of peace in your life.

During my undergraduate years about midway through my job as a writing tutor on my college campus, I was dating the wrong person. She started out as a friend. Then, everyone kept telling me I should date her. I wasn’t really feeling it, but I eventually gave in and trusted the popular opinion, which can often be a dangerous decision.

My dating advice for young leaders is to never date for convenience. Never date because someone tells you to. Never date just because you can.

Also, don’t kiss dating goodbye or ever say that you’re dating Jesus—that’s just cheesy and weird.

Only date someone if there is something true inside of you that tells you with every ounce of energy you have that you cannot let this one go. Sadly at the time, I didn’t do this, and it caused a mess of problems that didn’t only negatively affect me but others as well.

Your decisions will always affect others.

During this time in college, I was finished with my general education classes and now focusing on my dual majors—English and psychology. Research Methods was the most infamous psychology class on campus, especially since the main professor who taught the class made all her students memorize the formulas and wouldn’t allow the use of calculators in class. I remember her saying that although we would eventually use calculators later, she wanted us to learn first by hand. Yay…

I loved the analytical and clinical part of psychology but not the part dealing with the laborious act of extracting, computing, and organizing data.

The second most difficult psychology class on campus was called Bio Psych, which typically contained half psych and half pre-med students. It consisted of the memorization of numerous detailed nerves, systems, and neurotransmitters, even though the professor even admitted most all her students forget everything they laboriously memorize in only a few months after the class.

After already dropping Research Methods the previous quarter, I ignored the advice of my peers and class advisor and took Research Methods and Bio Psych together along with a challenging linguistics class as well for my English major.

Three of the most difficult classes from two majors plus working every extra hour you could in the tutoring center plus late night arguments with a girl you aren’t even supposed to be dating equates to the perfect formula for failure.

After the first few exams, I had already begun failing Research Methods, and after a few more weeks, my grade in Bio Psych began to drop. I was trying to end the unhealthy relationship but that only seemed to cause more stress as friends divided and took sides, and some quickly moved in to try to date her.

With my social life turning into a civil war and my academic life on a downward spiral to destruction, my professional work life stayed strongest the longest, but it too eventually began to weaken as I began to arrive late to work.

My mind wasn’t focused. I would forget my essay in my printer and have to turn around to go back for it, or I would not remember what work schedule I was currently on that day. After a noticeable amount of tardiness, my boss, a professor named Cheryl, asked to have a talk with me.

I was sure I was going to get a lecture about responsibility. I was sure she was going to tell me about how she took a chance on hiring me in my inexperience and that I had disappointed her and let her down. I was sure she was going to discipline me somehow, maybe even let me go.

As soon as the other tutors left the tutorial center, leaving us alone, Cheryl asked, “Terry, are you doing okay?”

I was surprised by the question.

She quickly continued, “I know Terry, and I know his work ethic, so when I heard you’re coming late, I know something must be going on. Is everything okay?”

“Things are just kind of difficult right now.”

She bent over a little to look me in the eyes as her brunette bangs fell over her own a little and said, “Hey, you let me know if there’s anything I can do. If you ever want to talk, I’m here for you, okay?”

“Thanks, Cheryl, I’ll step it up for sure. I won’t be late again.”

“That’s good, Terry. But I’m more concerned about you. Can I really know that you’re okay?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine.”

“If you need anything, you let me know. I’m here for you.”

My boss could have handled that situation in so many different ways. I don’t think she was a Christian, but the love she demonstrated through her concern became an example that would replay in my mind over and over again when people would disappoint me.

When in a position of authority, I would remember Cheryl’s short conversation and respond differently.

That conversation helped teach me to come along side people when they’re failing and help them in their struggle.

It demonstrated to me how to truly care.

Sadly, when some people witness people failing, they see it as an open opportunity to kick them while they’re down.

I remember talking to my dad back then about my job as a writing tutor. He said, “You know, this is probably going to be one of your favorite jobs when you look back on it someday.”

And he was right.

In the old English tutorial center, surrounded by boxy computers against the walls, I built many relationships with all sorts of interesting students and got to know my professors more personally. I learned all about prepositional phrases, comma splices, subject/verb agreement, and sentence structure. I learned how to provide instruction to many different types of learning styles. I began my professional teaching practice in that small tutorial center.

But what I learned from Cheryl’s example has been the most valuable.

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 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.

Picking up the Crap

I had been teaching high school for about a year and was finishing jumping through the final hoops of California’s teaching credential program when I felt lead to start a Bible study. I wanted it to be something different—something authentic, even something revolutionary; I had high hopes.

I got permission from my parents to hold the Bible study in their nice backyard. My friends were excited about the idea. Chris, one of my best friends even decided to co-lead it with me. We settled upon the name Shepherds of the Lost with the goal in mind to build up disciples who would go back into the world and shepherd people who were lost. The Bible study took place on Friday nights. Since there wasn’t a lot to do in Bakersfield on Friday nights, we hoped that people might actually show up to the Bible study.

They did.

We eventually moved it into Chris’s house, and people from different churches and from all over town filled his living room once a week. I remember my Fridays always being chaotic as I would rush home after work for a quick shower to wake up a little from the exhausting week and then hurry to whatever place currently had the cheapest pizza specials to feed the group. After a few years of this full routine, Chris and I both felt the season of Shepherds of the Lost was over.

Looking back at those times now, I can recall mistakes I made as a leader. I never had any luck finding an older mentor to help guide me. And I looked for one too. It was just Chris and me figuring out what worked and what didn’t work through trial and error. After a while, I think we figured it out.

I’m thankful for that season, and I’m thankful for all those who had grace on the Bible study’s young leadership. Chris and I both learned invaluable lessons, and I believe some people were really encouraged during those Friday night moments of sitting on the carpet with open Bibles in laps and pizza in their stomachs.

Every now and then I’ll come across someone in town who wants to reminisce about the old Shepherds of the Lost days. I understand why. We had fun. After the actual study would be done, we found ways to entertain ourselves by watching hilarious YouTube videos, having spontaneous dance parties, prank calling our friends who didn’t show up, and snaking the cake, which is a term we came up with for eating an entire slice of cake in one bite.

There was a lot of special moments during those Friday nights—a lot of tearful conversations and togetherness as we shared our cheers and fears as the world slowly changed outside around us in those often confusing early twenties. We discussed and meditated on scripture. When in doubt in leading a Bible study, always study scripture; it will never return void.

The first lesson began even before the first Bible study began though. It was summer, and I remember nervously hashing out with anticipation a final list of all I needed to get completed before people would start arriving for that first night of Shepherds of the Lost.

I hurried home from one of my final credential classes to begin cleaning the bathroom, living room, and kitchen of my parent’s house to make it spotless. I then moved onto the backyard.

Bakersfield’s summer heat was not kind to me that day, and neither was my parent’s dog.

I took a shovel and started picking up dog crap.

I felt like in that moment the Holy Spirit showed me what leadership looks like. In my optimistic mind, leadership was a picture of me up on stage speaking into a microphone with everyone nodding in agreement, interested and encouraged.

Not really the case.

Ministry is messy because it always involves people, and people are messy.

If you’re involved in ministry long enough, you will be criticized on the most petty issues. People will blame you when things don’t go the way they want. You will put countless chunks of your life into work that will never be seen by those you serve. You will have to be a teacher, friend, problem-solver, counselor, coach, and Bible scholar all in the same hour. And you will make mistakes because you’re an imperfect sinner like everyone else.

But unlike everyone else, you pick up the crap.

And that’s okay because although it doesn’t seem to logically make sense, there is a special blessing that comes with ministry; there is a special blessing that comes with serving.

I think it’s because when we minister and serve we are the most like Jesus. We are truly Christians then.

Jesus was mistreated for leading, ministering, and serving us, but he did it anyways.

Because of his love.

He picked up our crap.