Greater Things than These

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

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

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

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

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

And there’s one more thing: Star Wars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s not put God in a box.

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

He’s so much bigger than us.

He’s not limited to the past.

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

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

The Greatest Christmas Gift

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

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

She was finally off drugs.

Clean.

Safe.

Home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I confidently asked for the Super Nintendo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I had to take out the trash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

This is Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

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.