Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Gabe turned 7 on Sunday and for his birthday he really wanted to go swimming. He also really wanted to go to McDonald's. We let our kids pick somewhere to go out to eat for their birthday and we usually get some good suggestions. Gabe picked McDonald's. Due to scheduling difficulties, only 8 of the kids made it to McDonald's with us. That didn't stop four people at the booth next to us from asking all sorts of questions about all those kids ... "Are all of them yours?" one lady asked. Julie broke it gently that they are all ours, in addition to the four who weren't with us, which makes 12. That prompted all sorts of conversation. We patiently answered the questions and our inquisitors eventually mosied out the door and we finished our excellently tasty nuggets, fries and hangaburgers. Then one of the guys in the group that was amazed by Julie's productivity showed up at the window holding his poodle. "This is my baby," he said through the window. Things like this happen all the time to us.

It wasn't until today that I managed to take Gabe swimming at an indoor pool in Williamsburg to satisfy his birthday wishes. The kids who wanted to go swimming included Gabe, Eli, Ezra, Olivia and MerriGrace. One problem, though. MerriGrace didn't have a swimsuit because she loaned it to Madeline, who had gone with Evie to a friend's birthday party that involved staying at Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, which features an indoor water park. But good news abounds. Right next to the indoor pool we were going to is a shopping center that has JC Penney, Target, Kohl's and a Dick's Sporting Goods. We would find a swimsuit; I was sure of that. I just didn't realize it would entail going to all four stores. Ay caramba. We hit Penney's first. Alas, no swimsuits. In the second store -- Target -- we found no swimsuits. But Olivia doesn't have a winter coat and I found this little coat that made her eyes light up. Literally. She's 21 months old tomorrow and the girl has a clothes thing. How does this happen? Anyway, this coat was, well, I don't know how to describe it, other than fashionable. Her teenage sisters would wear it, if it came in their size, of course. But it wasn't really functional, from a warmth standpoint. She'd look good, but not necessarily feel good in a warm sort of way. So I put the coat back on the rack and we headed for Kohl's. To find a swimsuit. We walked in the doors and to our left were these mini-shopping cart type of things that are kind of like double strollers with a place in the back to put all the clothes. I put Eli in the front seat, Olivia behind him and Ezra stood in the place to put all the clothes. This elderly lady in a wheelchair was watching me and smiled sweetly. "Five children," she said. "Such beautiful children." I made a command decision not to say anything to this frail looking woman in a wheelchair about our other 7 children. I didn't want to be responsible for the shock it might cause her and any immediate health issues she may have experienced. So we rolled through Kohl's to the girl's section. No swimsuits. That's really shocking. No swimsuits in the dead of winter. We had hit JC Penney's -- no swimsuits. Target -- no swimsuits. And then Kohl's, only to find no swimsuits. Amazing, isn't it. I did find a functional pink "bubble coat" for Olivia that was really warm ... but she wouldn't put it on. Seriously. Is a 21-month-old girl imbued with some sort of fashion lens that sees a pink bubble coat and says, "Does Dad think I really want to wear that coat? Gross!" I bought it anyways and managed to wrestle it on her before we got outside in the 39-degree, windy and freezing afternoon. The girl was going to stay warm whether she looked good or not. And really, it is a cute coat. It's pink! With a little dark pink heart on it! And a pink hood!

Our last stop was Dick's. Surely they have swimsuits...right? I mean, sporting goods ... swimming ... that's a sport. Right? Yes, they do have swimsuits at Dick's. I'm happy to report that they do, especially considering it was the last option for us. They even have a swimsuit that fits MerriGrace. Or did. It wasn't cheap, but I was not to be denied. At that point I would've hocked Olivia's pink bubble coat to buy a swimsuit for MerriGrace so we could take Gabe swimming. I looked at a clock in the store ... we had left Gloucester two hours ago. Sigh. I managed to buy the swimsuit and within 20 minutes or so we were in the water. Gabe was happy. And best of all, Olivia didn't have to wear her functional pink bubble coat in the water.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Our Christmas Eve service was such a sweet time with friends. We had about 50 people here and interspersed Scripture readings from Luke 2 and Matthew 2 with classics such as "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," "Silent Night," and others. I talked about shepherds and we also looked closely at the word "Savior" that Luke used to talk about the birth of Jesus Christ in verse 11: "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (NKJV) That word in Hebrew means to be "rescued, delivered, saved; or to rescue, deliver, save." Divine salvation has its focus on rescue from earthly enemies, occasionally referring to salvation from guilt, sin and punishment. In the Old Testament, the word "savior" is used 13 times. The first reference is in 2 Samuel 22:3 in a song written by David on the day the Lord had delivered him from all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. It's very similar to Psalm 18. David had been spared vengeance of earthly enemies, through God his savior. He understood the word and concept very well. The prophet Isaiah uses "savior" eight times, the theme often being that there is no savior apart from God. As it says in Isaiah 43:11: "I, even I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior." (NKJV)

In the the New Testament, "savior" is used 24 times. In the Greek it means "one who delivers from grave danger." In the New Testament this always refers to God the Father and Jesus Christ as savior of believers from righteous wrath to a proper relationship with God. Savior implies that we need to be saved from something ... which is sin. It's sin that separates us from God. In the Old Testament our sins could only be covered through the sacrificial system. It wasn't until Christ, the Lamb of God, whose blood was shed on the cross, who died and rose again three days later, that we received atonement for our sins. Our slate is wiped clean through Christ. It is amazing that 2,000 years ago a baby was sent to earth as our savior. And that news of Christ's birth was spread by a raggedy group of shepherds who would not have even been allowed to testify in a court of law. "And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds," Luke wrote in 2:18. Today is the day after Christmas. Most everyone has moved on. The kids are playing with their new toys, the Christmas trees will be coming down, the lights put away. There's shopping to be done -- post-Christmas sales to hit with all those gift cards! -- leftovers to be downed. But don't forget to take some time to marvel at those things which have been told us through God's word. And don't forget to marvel at our Savior.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I've been thinking about shepherds lately. We're having a Christmas Eve service -- 5 o'clock Thursday, you're all invited -- to sing some hymns and carols, read out of Luke 2 and I'll share a short message. As I read Luke's account of the birth of Christ, I can't help but wonder about the shepherds who saw the angel of the Lord. I've read accounts that 2,000 years ago shepherds were the pickpockets and thieves of the day. The sorry, no-account drifters who were troublemakers and virtually indentured servants. Things haven't changed much, perhaps. I've enclosed a link at the bottom of this post to help you see where I'm going with this thing.

But let me describe the life of a modern-day sheepherder in the barren Wyoming outback, where you might be in charge of a flock of 1,500 or 2,000 sheep: On call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your home is a 5 x 10 "campito" without running water. Have to go to the bathroom? Here's a shovel. You have no electricity. The searing summer days can hit 100 degrees. On Christmas Day at a sheep camp near Encampment, Wyo., look for a high of 14 degrees, with a low of zero. And snow. Your heat source is a wood stove. It might even work, particularly if you have wood. In addition to no days off, a sheepherder must be able to ride a horse and repair fences. Not to mention guard the flock against predators and poisonous weeds. Not only that, a decent worker should be able to assist in lambing, docking, castrating (Rocky Mountain oysters baby!), dehorning, shearing, vaccinating, drenching and medicating the sheep. Sometimes the work gets a little hairy -- or worse. Wolves are a constant problem in parts of Wyoming. Other places have bigger problems. On Sept. 14 in Sublette County, a sheepherder was attacked by a grizzly bear. Miraculously he lived. The bear left a 7-inch gash in the man's head, two punctures on the left side of his chest, three claw wounds on his gut and a punctured wrist. Oh, here's the kicker. The pay is $650 a month. And all the sagebrush you can see.

Yet these are the guys the angel of the Lord came to tell about the birth of the Messiah, our Savior. Why? Why not the Bethlehem Town Council? Or the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, or Rotary Club? Surely a group of men existed in metropolitan Bethlehem that were far more qualified to have an audience with an angel of the Lord than a bunch of sketchy shepherds. This is what I love about God. He takes the sorriest, no accountenest knuckleheads and uses them for His glory. Read about their response to the news of the birth of Christ. I'd say they were transformed. Any thoughts on what kind of weight it carried when these guys started spreading the word about what they had heard and seen? No wonder Luke describes it thusly in 2:18: "And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds." (NKJV)

There's a part of me that would like to taste the life of a Wyoming sheepherder. What's it really like out there? How bad is it? Could I endure it for more than a few days? I can think of one redeeming aspect of a sheepherder in Wyoming. When night falls in that big sky that stretches from the end of the earth to the end of the earth, unobstructed by trees, or houses, or apartments, or skyscrapers, without artificial light flickering for maybe a hundred miles, you can look up at a billion stars and be amazed by the hand of God. I reckon that's what those shepherds were doing 2,000 years ago, before the angel even appeared. They were looking up.


Monday, December 21, 2009


Today is the shortest day of the year, officially the start of "winter." The long shadows throughout the day are a dead giveaway that the sun clings to the horizon and that we are tilted away from the great orb. It's cold and dark for most of the day. When it's cold and the sun is obscured by clouds, kids know that there's a chance snow will fall. So what's that mean around the world, in terms of lengths of days on Dec. 21, 2009? In Copenhagen, Denmark, which has been in the news lately for some reason, the daylight will last 7 hours and 2 minutes. In Nairobi, Kenya, daylight runs 12 hours, 12 minutes long. Here in Gloucester, the sun rose at 7:17 a.m. It will set at 4:52 p.m. In Corvallis, Ore., the day is shorter by 46 minutes, with the sun rising at 7:47 a.m. and setting at 4:36 p.m.

The shortest day of the year is a day of hope. That doesn't sound right, but that's how it sits with me. Winter's fury is yet to be unleashed in its fullest in most places, including here I imagine. As you can see from the photos, it wasn't all that long ago we were outside in t-shirts. The change in weather unfurls abruptly here. Though it may be cold, provided the skies are clear, the sun will shine a little longer each day now. The photos you see up there were taken by some of my daughters -- Evie and Claire, I believe. One is a shot at the beach in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, back in October. The other is our backyard a few weeks ago. Then you have the shot of Gabe holding the sun on a stick. That's a great shot, eh? As I think about light and how much I enjoy the sun, particularly on these winter days, I think of the true light: Jesus Christ. The light of the world.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


With 12 kids around, the photo options are endless. And priceless. The obligatory shot of the toddler crashing after grubbing in the high chair ... a funny shot of Claire sneaking a smooch from Gabe, who appears none too pleased. Then this one right here with the snowman came courtesy of a rare snowfall in these here parts of southeastern Virginia. It's a wicked storm that blanketed the region, except that we dodged it mostly. Richmond, an hour away, got a foot of snow. D.C., less than three hours to the north, was getting around 20 inches. We had a few inches last night, then sometime after midnight it warmed up a bit and it started raining -- hard. Despite the slush, the kids made the best of it this morning and created Frosty, albeit a wet one.

I love the ethereal qualities of snow, how the night is so bright when it snows. It reminds me of being a kid and looking out my window in Bend, Ore., the night light up like a full moon was right over our house. And the snow always reminds me of silence. I would watch the snowflakes drop out of the sky, trying to pick one up in the jumble of white and watch it all the way to the ground, then another and another, all the while a perfect silence enveloping me. The rare nights it snows here I like to walk through the house into each room and peek through the blinds. I can hear the children breathing behind me and it's always a comforting sound, a happy sound. What parent isn't happy when the children are sleeping?

Alas, it's not always that way. Last night Olivia woke up around 3:45 a.m. She was screaming so hard I went upstairs to get her. I picked her up and went over to the window where we looked outside. By that time the wind was howling and sheets of rain were melting the 3 or 4 inches of snow that had been on the ground. She stared at the snow in wonder. She patted me on the cheek and then pointed outside. Something new. Something strange. "Snow," I said. "Snow." Eventually we left the window and headed downstairs for something to drink. Then we rocked together for a half-hour and for whatever reason she wouldn't go back to sleep. She was wired and I don't know if it was the unusual brightness from the snow, the mystery of it or if her sleeping clock was just out of whack for some unexplainable reason. After enough walking and rocking she eventually went back to sleep. When she finally drifted off I put her in bend and then I walked through the house, peeking through the windows, once again amazed by it all.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A House Full Of Life

Eight years ago today a fellow by the name of Christian Michael Longo paused on a bridge over Lint Slough outside of Waldport, Ore., and tossed two sleeping bags over the bridge. Inside were two of his young children. They were alive when he threw them into the frigid water. Longo had stuffed a boulder into each of two pillowcases and tied them to their ankles before dumping his sleeping children into the slough. Earlier that night he had killed his wife before stuffing her body into a suitcase. He also tried to strangle his youngest daughter, just two years old. He stuffed her into a suitcase and before he dropped those two pieces of luggage into Yaquina Bay outside his condo in Newport, Ore., he could hear his daughter whimpering.

At the time I was a correspondent for The Oregonian working from my home in Corvallis. Lincoln County, where the murders occurred, was territory I covered. That story of Longo, the murders of his family, his escape to Mexico, eventual apprehension and convictions that earned him a cell on Death Row essentially became my working life over the course of about two years. I think about the details of the horrific events often. The autopsy photos of the children that were showed at trial still haunt me. Another that comes to mind is the image of pallid 4-year-old Zachery Longo found floating face down in Lint Slough, clad only in his underwear. It was the grisly discovery of Zachery Longo that launched an investigation into his father's whereabouts that spanned the country and culminated in his arrest at a beach hut in Tulum, Mexico, where he had assumed a new identity. When an intrepid FBI agent and the Mexican police tracked Longo down, he had been smoking dope and drinking beer with newfound buddies and a new girlfriend.

By a strange set of circumstances I corresponded today with a former colleague at The Oregonian, Bryan Denson, who I worked with extensively on the Longo saga. We won an award for one of our stories about Longo, a story which I'm sure is out there in cyberspace somewhere if for some reason you're interested in reading it. At the tail end of the last of three e-mails Bryan sent me, he mentioned sort of in passing that today a detective from the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office had dropped a wreath in Lint Slough in memory of the three Longo children and their mother. That wreath is a poignant image. In this line of work there are certain stories that stay with me. I guess you could call them the scars of my profession. It's almost always the stories that involve human tragedy, in this case one that is so senseless. The capacity for human cruelty is horrifyingly extraordinary and sometimes I think I've seen too much of it.

At the same time, my life is a picture of God's blessedness. Sure there's plenty of hardships. I'm tired, overwhelmed with work, trying to muddle through four days without a hot water heater ... but then I come home about 6:30 from a long day in court listening to more human tragedy. And I hear Ezra making his light saber sounds as he battles imaginary foes. And Olivia is climbing the stairs and "counting" as she goes. This house is full of life. A good life. And more life in Julie's womb. Julie was telling me tonight how she went shopping with the older girls today and waves of nausea were sweeping over her and she was so exhausted. She told the girls to keep shopping while she found a place to sit and rest for five minutes. Later she had a conversation with the girls about the new baby and what it might be. Evie wants a boy. Madeline wants a girl. Madeline thought about it a while. Maybe there will be a boy and a girl. Oh my.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gloucester, 1836

While rummaging around in cyberspace today doing research on an issue in Gloucester, I came across a fascinating bit of history. Fascinating in a dark sort of way. It was a copy of a petition to the General Assembly in Richmond, the governing body of state legislators, that had affixed to it the names of 184 Gloucester men. The petition was dated Jan. 13, 1836, a full 25 years before the outbreak of the Civil War. It seeks permission to levy taxes to raise $15,000 to "remove free Negroes" from the county. The petitioners noted that it had become increasingly difficult to keep their slaves in proper subjection and that it "becomes them, with a due regard to their interests to adopt some efficient means of remedying the evil."

The petitioners make their case thusly: "The principle cause to be assigned for the insubordination existing, at present among the slave population is the residence of the Free people of colour, who not only add nothing to the effective labour of the County, but are dissolute in their morals, and by their example promote sedition and vice of every kind among the slaves. Their idleness, which they seem to regard as the only privilege freedom confers, together with the degraded rank they occupy in society, engenders discontent among themselves, which the liberty they enjoy of roving about at large through the County, gives them every opportunity of sowing the seeds of dissatisfaction among the slaves." The petition also asks the General Assembly to take actions it deems best to check the efforts of the "Northern fanaticks" seeking to abolish slavery. It's an ugly document and it's hard to fathom what life must have been like in this friendly community so long ago.

I don't know if the petition effort was successful. That requires more research. The animosity between the men of Gloucester and the freed slaves and Northern abolitionists was abundantly evident. And to think that animosity between the groups festered a full 25 years before it exploded in war. One of the signers of the petition was a fellow by the name of Joel Hayes. He owned a large farm in central Gloucester called "Woodville Plantation." It is now the site of a 100-acre county park under construction that's called "Woodville Plantation Park." During the Civil War, Yankee troops on a foraging mission raided Hayes' farm and in the course of the raid one of Hayes' daughters took a potshot at a Union soldier. For this, the Union troops burned Hayes' home to the ground. At the close of the Civil War, Hayes was essentially bankrupt and he died in December 1865.

Today a debate simmers in Gloucester on the name of the newest county park. "Woodville Plantation Park" isn't inviting to blacks, some say. They want the word `plantation' dropped from the name. Others say you can't alter history and the name should remain, with the county taking the opportunity to use the name to educate the public about the plantation and life around it. Whichever way this thing goes, some people on either side will be unhappy. Of course, the other side of the discussion is this: Aren't we thankful that we're not sending petitions like these to the General Assembly?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

`And Wait On Your God Continually...'

In our culture, we don't like to wait. Think of waiting at the stoplight. Or waiting in line at the store. Or waiting at the doctor's office. Get my drift? Did your blood pressure jump a couple of ticks just thinking about those things? I mean, a few weeks ago I was in line at Wal-Mart with a couple of items -- in the express line!!!! -- hoping to hustle out of there because I was a very busy man at the moment with things to do and places to be, when the old codger in front of me pulled out a checkbook. A checkbook! Who writes checks anymore? Dude, have you heard of a debit card? How about cash? It's the EXPRESS LINE!!!! It took him longer to write that check than it took me to park the car, bolt into the store, get my two items and get in line. The old codger had other plans for my precious time and as I sat there and watched him, the conviction that only comes from the Lord washed over me. You know what was so beautiful about standing in line behind Mr. Checkbook Man? He was in no hurry. At all. What a lesson. I'm sure it's why he looks like he's never had a heart attack and he's 90 years old, give or take a decade, and writing checks in the express line -- because he's in no rush. I mean, why for? It's so counter-culture. We're the America of fast food, express lanes on the freeway, drive-thru banking, vegetables you can steam in a bag in a minute (Who cares what the veggies taste like! They're done in a minute!), video on demand, remote controls ...

And then there's God's word. In the kingdom of God, we're to be in a state of waiting on the Lord, not in a rush for answers in our timing or on our schedule. The latter part of Hosea 12:6 reads: "Observe mercy and justice, and wait on your God continually." In Hebrew, the word `wait' can mean to bind together, perhaps by twisting. Or to expect and gather together; look patiently. Hebrew for `continually' means to stretch, or continuance, or extension. As I meditated on this idea of being bound together and stretching, the Lord gave me a simple picture: Tying a shoelace. You know how you stretch the loops apart to tighten the knot? That was the picture the Lord gave me, of being stretched in my faith but being bound closer to the Lord through it. The harder you tug those loops, the more you stretch those loops, the tighter the knot and the more secure it becomes. And it's the place I want to be because if I'm being stretched, I'm relying on the Lord for sustenance and comfort and peace, tightening my relationship with Him. It's when I'm comfortable that frightens me, because I know my heart and how easy it is for me to become self-reliant and drift away from the Lord and His will in my life.

And you know what? I'm seriously considering writing checks in the express line.

Monday, December 7, 2009

`That's Just How It Be's'

Little boys are worlds unto themselves. Perhaps the circuitry in their minds is still being connected, or they are overloaded by all the stimulus that bombards them on an average day. Who knows. They do and say the darndest, head scratchingest things. Eli, for example, wouldn't change into his pajamas in front of me the other night. He got his pj's out of his dresser drawer and ducked into the closet and shut the door so I wouldn't see him in his underwear. Yet if I draw the bath water he has no problem getting buck naked and jumping in the tub. With me right there in front of him. I haven't figured that one out yet.

Ezra has a funny saying that his older brothers and sisters get a kick out of. He'll walk into a room and announce that Mama said it was OK for him to watch a movie. Then someone will ask if she really said that. "Yes," Ezra says, "and that's just how it be's." Or say you'll be playing "Star Wars" with him, which entails battling him in light sabers. Say he pulls a certain move, like a whirl-around-and-raise-the-light-saber-above-his-head-then-charge-you, but you do a nice little sidestep and tag him with your light saber anyway -- yet he doesn't die. If you ask him what was up with that he'll say, "That's just the way it be's." How do you argue with that?

It's the dead of winter and chilly in the house but Eli and Ezra insist on sleeping without shirts on. They get their pajamas on and then once they are in bed take their tops off. I guess they're manning up or something. At bedtime tonight Eli asked for a snack. "Didn't you just have a snack?" I said. "Yeah," Eli replies. "But I only had two after dinner." Obviously it was a three-snack night. Don't know where I've been all these years. So I get him a snack. I get back upstairs to the room, get the prayers said and the lights out when Ezra announces he's thirsty. Who needs a Stairmaster when I have Eli and Ezra to serve?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Servant's Heart

Taylor is 17 and a wonderful young man. Just ask Ezra. Or Eli. Taylor is convinced those two little boys, who seem to be perpetually hungry, seek him out to satiate their culinary desires. Tonight he was telling us how he tries to evade them when he sees the "look" in their eyes -- the look that says, "I want a peanut butter and jelly sammich." But they find him. Even if he's hiding under his bed, or behind the bathroom door. Or on the roof. His theory is that they know Taylor will give them what they want. Some of his siblings, however, will put them off, ignore them, or try to talk them out of that hankering for a p.b. & j or fried egg sammich. It finally got to him this morning, however. Or rather Ezra got to him.

Ezra likes egg sandwiches the way flies like, well, never mind. That wasn't a good analogy. Let's just say Ezra really, really likes egg sandwiches. But they have to be a certain way. "I want a egg sammich with the crust off and cutted in hav-its," Ezra says. Every time. Taylor finally had enough, though. The whole "hav-its" thing was just too much. So this morning he had a sit-down discussion with his little brother to explain the concept of "quarters." See, Ezra really likes his egg sammiches cutted in quarters, not hav-its. He just doesn't know how to say that. Enter Taylor, telling him that, in the first place, it's not "hav-its." It's "half." And not "cutted." It's cut. As in an egg sandwich cut in half. He walked Ezra through the phrase, "cut in half." Got it, Ezra? He nods. OK, how do you want your sandwich. "With the crust off and cutted in hav-its." D'oh! Eventually Taylor got him to say "cut in hav-its." Now comes the tricky part. Ezra, Taylor says, can you say quarters? "Quarters," Ezra says. Good. That's great. So can you say, I want my egg sandwich in quarters? "I want my egg sammich in quarters." Perfect! OK, now how do you want me to fix your egg sandwich Ezra? "I want a egg sammich with the crust off and cutted in hav-its."

I know you can just picture Taylor's shoulders slumping. But you know what's so great about Taylor? He got up and quietly walked downstairs and fixed his little brother his favorite egg sandwich. He even cutted it in hav-its.