I imagine curiosity. Intense, burning, compelling curiosity, the angels of heaven, all a twitter. I imagine them crowding the best vantage points, jostling for position to watch the big reveal of a plan that's been 'before the foundation of the world' in the making. But what would this plan entail, exactly; it was all so mysterious-- what in the world was He doing?
See, I'm not sure how much the angels knew.  Some knew more than others, that at least seems obvious-- think Gabriel, for instance, announcing to Mary the coming of her unborn child, a king whose name would be JESUS, who would be great, who'd be called the Son of the Highest and whose reign would never end. So... he knew a little bit, I guess. But what about the others?-- I think they longed to look into these things. I picture them waiting, excitedly waiting like kids for Christmas morning, looking at a gift that's been wrapped and set under the tree, speculating to pass the time, guessing at what's in it, wishing they could shake it, test its weight, peek inside it, wondering at what grace the Almighty may have in store for little planet earth this time. But I doubt they saw this coming.

A friend of mine told me the other day that the most beautiful word in the whole world is 'Daddy.' Being a dad myself, I knew where he was coming from, but just for the sake of fun I told him a story about a recent time when hearing it wasn't so beautiful.

My 8-year-old son, Nathan, just isn't listening. And I am done yelling.
"Nathan," I say quietly, "I'm going to walk out of this room, and when I come back in a few minutes, I want to see you cleaning up like I've asked you to do three times already-- or you'll get no stories tonight. This is your last chance." And with that, I walk out of the room.
Now there's something you need to understand about story time-- I probably like it just as much as Nathan. It's one of the few guilt-free times I can read a novel, just for fun, and still call it 'bonding.' Together, he and I have worked our way through Gary Paulsen's Hatchet books, C.S. Lewis'  The Chronicles of Narnia, three of the books in Madalene L'Engle's Wrinkle In Time Quintet and countless others. At the time of this exchange, we had just begun reading the first of my Dad's four books, On Call. The point is, my ultimatum was a real threat to a time we both enjoyed. And still, he blew it.
I walk back into the room to see him having a pillow fight with one of his brothers. My heart sinks.
"I'm sorry, Bud," I say, "no stories tonight." Shock. Disbelief. Anger. In 2.5 seconds his freckled face registers all 12 stages of grief and then starts over.
"But Daddy--! DAAAAD!!" he wails dramatically, "I didn't hear you!" I hate that one.
"That's my point," I counter-- "you're not listening when Mom and I tell you something. You need to learn to follow directions the first time."
"But that's so mean! It's not fair! why do you have to pick that punishment? Why can't it be something else? Anything else?!"
"Well, Bud, exactly because it's a punishment that hurts," I say. "I'm hoping that tomorrow night, when I ask you to clean up, you'll remember the pain of not getting to read stories and choose to obey the first time." And that's when I tag on the words that lead to the greatest moment in our entire exchange-- "This hurts me too, Bud," I finish truthfully-- "you know I love reading with you. I'm really sorry."
His face contorts, turns red, eyes bulging with an expression of incredulity--
"What in the world are you doing?" he shrieks with beseeching hands-- "That doesn't make any kind of sense! Why would you choose something that hurts you, too?-- Why would you punish yourself?!"

My friend and I shared a good belly laugh at his precocious little insight, but when I stopped to think about it later, his question was actually pretty profound-- why indeed? I hadn't done anything, I wasn't guilty of wrong-- so why subject myself to pain along with him?

He sprints out of the room with another wail of despair, vanishing down the hallway until I can no longer hear his moans. I leave him be for a while before deciding to seek him out.  
Remember, I'm hurting too. 
I finally find him in our bedroom, hiding behind the bed.
"Leave me alone," comes a muffled sob from the floor.
I climb up onto the bed and lay down on my back, looking up at the ceiling.
"Come up here, Nate," I say in a kind voice.
"No. I don't want to."
"Nathan... come up here."
Reluctantly he stands, climbs onto the bed and lays down woodenly beside me on his stomach, burying his face in his arms. I leave him alone for a moment, still unsure what to say, before finally deciding just to scratch his back. Within minutes, he begins to relax. It seems like the right time to talk,  so I venture a tender comment.
"I'm really sorry you don't get to have story time, Buddy," I say again. "I really wish I could read with you tonight. I love you so much."
"I'm sorry..." comes the trembling reply-- "I love you too." His little shoulders shake as he says it.
"Can I give you a hug?" I ask hopefully. In response, he nearly tackles me. It's a sweet resolution to a difficult lesson; humility, repentance, forgiveness and love, all wrapped up in a hug. But it isn't the way all our 'lessons' turn out. Not by a long shot.
So what made the difference?
I yell at my kids sometimes. Angrily. I can lose it. I'm not proud of it, but still, all the same, there it is-- it happens. Here's the thing-- it doesn't usually help much. I mean, I may get the short-term result I'm after-- a quiet room, a cleaned up floor, a chastised child. But in the long run I've noticed there's a distance that seems to form between us when I yell, that my children stop making eye-contact with me when I correct them angrily, that a certain, dismissive reaction begins to form like a callous between their little hearts and the sound of my voice. After all, as the saying goes-- if it thunders all the time, people stop noticing. So, back to my son's question-- In the process that is parenting, why would I punish myself? Why would I want to share in his pain? The reason, as I've thought about it, is actually pretty simple-- because it makes my love more believable. And something about that kind of love can melt even his stubborn heart.

On that silent night in Bethlehem, as the Father's gift was opened and continued to unfold over the next 33 years, I have to think the angels gasped. For there, lying in the manger, was God the Father's only Son. He was so small, so weak, so exposed to the pain of our world.
What in the world is He doing?! they must have wondered about Abba, about the Father-- this doesn't make any kind of sense! Doesn't He know this will hurt? Why couldn't he send other messengers, more prophets? Why not send more of us? Why would he punish Himself to reach these hard-hearing, childish people? 
The reason, as I've thought about it, is actually pretty simple-- because it made His love more believable. And something about that kind of love can melt even this stubborn heart.

I have a lot of Christmas shopping left to do, and maybe so do you. There's lots of food to eat this month, lots of music to listen to, parties to attend, lots of decorating and friends and family to enjoy. But somewhere along the way, somehow, in the hustle and bustle that is this Christmas season, may each of you find the time to stop and join the angels around a tiny child in a crib, around a dying man on a cross, and watch, in wondering love.

Surrounded By Grace,



Last week, after a drought-ish sort of winter, we had our first 'real' snow. It was an AWESOME storm. I was standing at the sliding glass door, watching the boys play, when I noticed my oldest son having some difficulty making a proper snowball. He was getting frustrated, so, being that I'm an Africa-raised snowball-making expert, it only made practical sense for me to venture outdoors and help. I was just being a good parent. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well. This is a slightly threatening idea to an aspiring writer and, come to think of it, seems mildly angry as well. You should probably forget you ever heard it and, while you're at it, consider throwing away your digital camera too. But, in the meantime, please feel free to enjoy the equivalent of 13,000 words of [BIG] snowball making fun! Fair warning: things may have gotten out of hand.

TOOTHING ~ 1/17/12

There’s probably a reason the words ‘tithing’ and ‘teething’ sound even remotely similar; I suspect the similarity has to do with pain. Pain is a contagious sort of thing. I think we’d like to assume that hurting when someone else hurts is the product of a maturing Christian heart, but really, if you think about it, we hurt all the time when other people hurt. Only usually, it’s for selfish, inconvenienced reasons. We hurt, for instance, when the checkout clerk lady at Walmart hurts. She’s had a bad day for some reason, someone snapped at her this morning maybe, or mispronounced her name, or told her she looked tired. So now she’s hurt, she’s mad at the world, and you’ve had the sad misfortune of getting into her line, her ach-ing-ly sloo…oow line that has become her weapon with which to punish the world. She hurts— we hurt. Thank you for that. Or, let’s just get to the point and take the 12month-old, sleeping in the next room. Yes that one, the one who seems to have a new tooth coming in every 5 minutes.

For whatever reason, he hasn’t slept for more than 2-3 hours at a time since he was born, night or day. For those of you with short-term memory, that’s 12 months without a full night’s sleep, and for those of you with babies that have magically slept through the night by day 2 of their short life, that’s your cue to keep quiet if you value yours. Before, of course, we blamed the kid’s appetite, or his sleep cycle trying to adjust itself, or maybe, perhaps, his poor little psyche trying to work out the trauma of birth. But mostly, now, we blame the teeth. His new teeth hurt as they come in, so Mom hurts, because we all know moms are notoriously more empathetic than Dads. And they also seem to sleep lighter too.

My wife told me a story the other day about a mom who is up for the hundredth time with the baby and looks over at her peacefully, obliviously sleeping husband and thinks— “What’s the point of having him around, anyway?” I would love to pretend I don’t know why she keeps telling me this story and then laughing uncomfortably without making eye contact, but the truth is, most of the time my sleeping is a sham and I know exactly what it is she's getting at. Most of the time, I’m over there sweating bullets of guilt every time that baby cries, like Pavlov’s dog’s salivating at the sound of his bell, and guilt is a painful kind of sweat. He hurts, I hurt. Not a very glamorous brand of empathy, but there it is. And now the cat’s out of the bag and I’m in for a looong night, which will hurt even more and only further prove my point.

While the 12mo-old is busy growing teeth, the 4yr-old is off losing them. Or the first one, anyway.
A few days ago I was in our back room reading when the 4yr-old marched in loudly; I could tell because he was wearing his cowboy boots. I glanced up from my book to see him studying something in his cupped right hand with a look like mild hysteria on his face. Then he stared at me wild-eyed and announced, very loudly while thrusting his hand in my direction— “My tooth!” (but in actuality it sounded more like, “My toof!”). Here, for your viewing pleasure, is a twenty-second video my wife took several minutes later to memorialize the event. 
Toothing update: Yesterday, mom and I noticed the kid had lost a second one! We're offering a reward for whoever finds it, so please keep your eyes open; I will be off feigning sleep.

NATHAN'S DAY ~ 1/9/12

The other day Nathan found me (Esther) journaling and asked what I was doing. Being Nathan, he was very curious and asked many questions! What is journaling? Why do you journal? What do you write about? How old do you have to be to journal? With that last question I knew just what he was getting at and asked him if he would like to try journaling. He was very eager and we immediately went on a search for a blank notebook. When he was finished and he shared his first entry with Josh and I, we asked if he would mind if we shared it on our family blog. He was very pleased to let us share. Yes, we partly do this because we are proud parents. We are continually amazed at the wonderful mind God has gifted this little person with. But also, after reading it ourselves, Josh and I both had the same response - delightful! So, we thought we would share with you the delight of seeing a day through the eyes of a seven year old. Enjoy!

Entry #1
“This morning I woke up in moms room with Sam sleeping peacefully with mom. After a minute I moved by mom and a few more minuts later Sam woke up and started crolling on me. Sam didin’t even know I was there. Mom just kept laghing and so did I. Then I sat up and played with Sam and he kept tilkling me and playing. After a long time mom told me to come out and we all went out of her room.

When we went out we were surprised that Aaron and dad were allready out. Mom put Sam down and gave Sam some toys to play with. Then I sat down on the coutch and watched the movie Aaron was watching. Afte I watched it for a while I went into the kitchen to get breakfeast and pored myself some cerial and sat down. So I watched the movie some more and than I went for seconds. Then I sat Down agan and ate it and then I went for thirds!

After that I watched the movie some more. Then I went to see if a bird was in my birdhouse I made yesterday. I found out mom was in the room I was in. Then I went to mom and snuggled up with her and then I went out to listen to a little movie dad made. After that I went to moms room to look out the wendow to see if a bird is in the birdhouse. But evry time I look a bird isn’t in the birdhouse. Then mom told me she was going somewhere with someone. I asked her when she would be home. She said she would be home at one in the afternoon.

So I started playing whith Aaron after mom left. But soon we got into trouble Then I went to moms room agan. After that I asked Dad if I could go outside. He told me I could go outside so I went outside. I played fetch with Jake my dog and thats pretty much all I did outside.

I came in because I herd a noise down the hill. I was surprised to see Aaron watching another movie. I watched it a whill then I watched something else and kept watching diffent things. Then Gabe came and told stories with dad. The stories I listend to and the movie I watched! Then mom came home and made me and Aaron lunch. Then it was rest time so I went to the playroom.

When I was in the playroom I read my book. Then I went out of the playroom to se mom. A little bit later Dad and Gabe came home and brought back some of Dads ofice stuff. I kept following them then they told me to go to the living room. A while later we had pancakes and baken for Dinner. Then me and Aaron started playing for a few minuts. After that we cleaned the living room. Then we brushed our teeth and went to bed.”

LAYING LAW ~ 1/6/12

A scream issued suddenly from the dining room, where two of my three boys sat eating their lunch.
“Why is there screaming?” I screamed back from the living room. No answer. More screaming. Irritated beyond words, I set my laptop aside and groaned my way up to my feet, stumbling into the kitchen in time to see the two older siblings flailing arms, butter knives and forks in each other’s faces. They were also still screaming.

“Stop it, stop it, STOP IT!” I yelled. “No more touching—no TOUCHING—! Hands to yourselves, boys!” They seemed subdued for the moment, so I retreated back to my computer. A moment later, the screams ensued once more.
“Hey, hey, HEY!!!” They looked up at me with less terror than I would have preferred as I rounded the corner. This time, they weren’t actually touching each other—the older boy was now throwing objects (like napkins and salt shakers) at his brother, and therefore not technically breaking my former dictum. I was livid.

“Okay, guys, seriously—? No throwing. NO THROWING! If I see you throwing anything at each other again, there will be consequences!” Sullen looks from unconvinced eyes. I sighed, daring to believe there would now be peace. I hadn’t walked more than two steps into the next room before the screams began once more. I wheeled around and just sat there, disbelieving what my eyes beheld. No touching. No throwing. But now, the older boy was tormenting my younger son to the point of shrieks by pre…tend…ing to throw dangerous objects at his head. I was about to completely lose it and issue yet another demandment-commandment when it occurred to me that, given the hyper-literalism children seem to be born with, this scenario had the potential to continue repeating itself for quite some time. Unless… unless I cut to the chase and spelled out the bigger picture.

“Look, boys,” I said calmly (I was proud of my calm), “The idea is that I don’t want you guys to do anything to each other that hurts the other person. Got it? Anything.” They stared at me for a moment before nodding solemnly, as if for the first time comprehending the very purpose of life itself, or perhaps just stunned into silence by the devastating limits of my new guidelines. And I nodded too, thinking of God’s 10 commandments and the hundreds of other rules, of every additional ‘do’ or ‘do not’ found in the Bible that can really just be summed up in one sentence for us hyper-legalistic children of God in a short variety of ways—‘Don’t do anything to each other that hurts the other person. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love one another.’
"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

P.S. I’m not saying my boys listened.

Surrounded by Grace,


“It’s destroyed! It’s DESTROOOYED!” wailed the 7yr-old as he sprinted past me and down the hallway to his room, slamming the door when he got there.
“Highly doubtful,” I thought to myself, assuming he was talking about his special pumpkin. It was, after all, a second chance pumpkin. As it turned out, he was actually upset about a tray of art supplies that had accidentally spilled from the dining room buffet and onto the floor. But still, the pumpkin has a story worth telling. Allow me to explain.

In October of this past year we did what all proper, loving, tradition-bound American parents do— we took our kids to the ‘local’ pumpkin patch. There, we spent money we didn’t really have on silly little train rides to nowhere, petting zoos populated by exotic creatures like goats, geese and chickens, corn mazes we actually got lost in and pumpkins bred to be obscenely heavy. I know this last bit to be fact because I picked ridiculously small pumpkins for the miserly sake of my wallet and still ended up broke; it’s a scam I tell you. But, I’ve got to admit, it’s a family-friendly scam; the kids love it every year.

So we came home with our pumpkins and fully intended on carving them into moderately haunted faces for Halloween night. That was the intent. What really happened was that, for the first time since the kids were born, we got too busy to carve those excessively heavy pumpkins.

The night for scaring came and went and a week later, just when my wife and I thought we’d managed to get off the hook for the forgotten pumpkins, the 7yr-old remembered. Much crying ensued. Misery ran rampant. The kids weren’t happy either. Finally, I managed to convince the oldest boy that we could just make them into “Thanksgiving pumpkins” by carving designs of acorns, pilgrim hats and turkeys tails into the bright orange skins. This idea seemed to mollify his indignation and he agreed to the plan. Only… we got too busy and forgot. Again.

The faithful pumpkin sentinels continued to stand watch unmolested at our front door until mid-December, when my wife’s guilt got the best of her and she went online in search of ways not to waste forgotten pumpkins. The solution she stumbled on was truly brilliant. Apparently there are other parents as dysfunctional as us who’d realized that, by stacking three pumpkins on top of each other and painting them white, they had the makings of a near perfect pumpkin snowman. We pitched the idea with cautious optimism. The 7yr-old looked back at us thoughtfully for a moment before inexplicably  shaking his head, ‘no.’ He suggested instead we paint the remaining firm pumpkins green, stack them on top of each other as planned and thereby create a sort of lumpy pumpkin Christmas ‘tree.’ The ornaments and ribbon could be painted on later, he explained. We weren’t in a position to argue.

That very day the veteran pumpkins became a rich, forest green. It was an unnervingly crisp looking green, and we all studied the unnatural hue over meals for the next two weeks as they sat on the newspaper-topped dinner table where they’d been painted, but never stacked or ‘decorated.’ Yesterday, over cereal, the 7yr-old addressed the elephant in the room.
“We forgot the pumpkins again.”
“Yes,” I said.
“What should we do?”
‘Throw them away,’ I said in my head, ‘Hide them. Burn them. Shoot them. Smash them.’
“I really have no clue,” I said out loud.
Quiet thinking for a  moment, then—
“I’ve got an idea,” he said.

Behold, the amazing New Year’s pumpkin, complete with glitter-enhanced firework motifs to welcome in another journey around the sun. Admit it— you know you want one. Or, at the least, admit you want as many second chances as those crazy pumpkins got. I know I do.

May your new year be as full of grace-filled second chances as it is with holidays. May you find that God has as many ways to heal and restore as there are ways to recycle an ugly old pumpkin for seasonal decor. After all, Valentines Day is coming. And Easter…
Just think of the possibilities.

Surrounded By Grace,


Hey Everyone ~

Just wanted to let anyone who checks this blog know that even though I've been "offline" a few weeks and will continue to take a short break from regular blogging for personal reasons, my blog will be back soon. The name will change, and probably some of the content, but I'll most likely be back up and posting sometime in January, so-- check in, watch the changes, and... I hope you stick around. 

Surrounded By Grace,
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~