Surprise! (Or not.)

Just how many surprises can one person take before they’re not surprised any more?

So… Hello again! If you haven’t kept up with the massive transitions our family has been through over the last year I’ll just say:“Toto, we’re not in Texas anymore!” and point you to the “About” page to see what I’ve been up to lately.

This birthday week (who can cram all the celebrations into a day, I say? Take a month at least!) also seemed like a good time to reminisce about birthdays past – and specifically: “Surprise” Birthdays.

So… Surprise parties.

The year I started seminary (the first time around, as a student) was a big year of transition in my life. I moved out of state, far away from family and friends. When my first birthday away from home approached in April I was a little sad – knowing that none of the relationships I had counted on for so long would be around to help me celebrate. I thought it would be a day like any other, and resigned myself to feeling down on my day.

I was coming home late that night, already pouting because I’d had to go to class on my birthday. Life is so unfair sometimes. As I drove down the street where I lived I noticed that all of the parking spots on the street near my house were taken. Again: more pouting. Now I had to walk even farther than usual, toting my computer and books. And the front porch light was even off, so I had to stumble up the steps and fumble for the doorknob in the dark.  I was in too much of a mood to wonder why all of those cars were parked near my house that night…

As I walked into our front door, you guessed it… “Surprise!”  The living room was filled with familiar faces – people I had met and started getting to know that first year – but now it was clear for the first time that I could call them all friends. They had noticed me, had remembered my day, and had gone out of their way to make me feel special. It was a real turning point in feeling accepted and part of that community, and I finally began to settle in and feel part of the community.

(Bonus tidbit about this Surprise Party: these new friends chipped in and got me a gift… a pet frog. This might have been a gag gift for anyone else, but not me. I love frogs and that little frog (named “Tattoo”) made me feel, every time I looked at it, as if my new friends knew and understood me.)

Blue House Party

Some of the antics at one of the many birthday parties thrown by this group of friends. (Yes, those are gorilla suits.)

The following year I wasn’t feeling well and was spending my birthday at home. By this time I had settled into this new community and had many wonderful friends (including four great housemates!), but I was a little under the weather and didn’t feel like going out to celebrate. I was watching movies in my room when the doorbell rang. No one answered it. It rang again. I called for someone else to answer but no one did. And then it rang again. Exasperated, I stomped into the living room wondering why I (the pitiful sick one) had to do everything for everyone else. And then I answered the door… “Surprise!” All of my friends (including my roommates) were gathered on the front doorstep with a cake and balloons. Since I was too sick to celebrate, they brought the party to me.

(Bonus tidbit about Surprise Party #2: The gift everyone chipped in on this year was a homemade book of haiku poetry. Each person had written me a haiku! They had even collected poems from some of our professors and mentors on the seminary campus. They were everything from silly to touching to hilarious and (since I love poetry and literature) made me feel like someone knew my passions – and how to make me laugh!

Then came year #3. By this time I was a little suspicious, especially when my best friend (and roommate) was especially nosy about my schedule for the day. I had a sense there might just be something going on at home since she wanted to know exactly when I would return from work that evening. But I had no idea what it was! When I walked in the door I found myself in the middle of what looked like a teenage girl’s birthday party… and that teenage girl was me! They had staged a party complete with silly-youth-group games, lip gloss, and gifts of sparkly hair clips and nail polish. We had a blast and I felt ten years younger rather than a year older.

(Ummm… I’m not even sure if I should give out the information in this Bonus tidbit, but you seem like a trustworthy group. We may or may not have done what teenagers often do at the end of a party, which is to wrap someone’s house in toilet paper. It may or may not have been the home of an administrator of the seminary, who may or may not have been the president. That’s all I can say here, but know that when the porch light came on we really did run away squealing like little girls. Any pictures that may have been taken have been destroyed to preserve my current career in this same institution.)


A more mature and dignified look for us!

Finally, year four. I think I was more than a little suspicious that year. A dear friend was to “take me out” for my birthday and began driving in circles, killing time. I knew we were headed somewhere fun but he was very secretive about where. When we arrived at the home of one of our good friends, I was escorted down a beautiful path lit with tiny tea lights, into an elegantly decorated living room. My friends were all dressed up and let me know that since we had acted like children the year before, this was to be a “real grownup dinner party.” Since we were to graduate and part ways in just a few weeks, much of that night was spent sharing memories of our time together and more than a few tears were shed.

(Bonus tidbit: We also had a friend who was a photographer take professional pictures of us against a backdrop, as if we were a family having our portrait taken. That group of friend became, and still is, like family to me.)

After four surprise parties in four years, you’d think the surprise would have worn off. But this is what the grace of God is like. We know God is good, and yet He surprises us with His goodness all the time. In my case, the surprises came through friends who knew just how to make my day with celebrations tailored to what would bring me joy. But isn’t God at work doing that all the time? Surprising us with little signs and wonders that would only make sense to us – just to let us know He’s paying attention and wants us to know it?

Know God’s goodness. Learn it. Study it well. But never get so used to it that you aren’t brought to tears when a door opens and it stares you in the face with streamers and joy.

Are you surprised when God’s goodness shows up in your life? Good! He loves to surprise us with joy around every corner. Never get tired of His surprises. Even if you can sometimes see them coming.

If you have a surprise party story, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.


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Aunt P

Very happy you found a few minutes to write again on your blog. I’ve missed you here although I try to follow the whirlwind, a.k.a. your and your beautiful family’s lives, on Facebook. You are an amazing woman. Jim is an amazing man. As Team LaGrone, you two are phenomenal. I am in constant awe of your many, many accomplishments. Add me to the list of your innumerable fans.

Nancy McLendon

When I turned 42, a sweet couple in my Sunday School class invited my husband and me to lunch after church. Hindsight told me it sure took a long time to get where we were going. When we walked into the Green Derby (a restaurant attached to a local motel in town), I still did not suspect a thing. It was not until we got to the bar and they opened the door that everyone yelled, “Happy birthday!” Yes, the only place to hold a party on a Sunday in town was in a closed bar! So there I, the teacher, celebrated with joy with my adult Sunday School class. A special remembrance still!


Are you the Jessica who went to Lamar CISD and St John’s UMC? I’m leading a bible study group at my current church and was so excited to see you on the screen when it came time for the video? Please email be back so we can catch up!!!