It looked so easy on the map. Follow the yellow line as it snaked its way south along the coast to the sapphire waters of the Sea of Cortez. But somewhere along the salt-scoured isolation of the Baja Peninsula, with four kids bouncing in the back of the RV and the potential for head-on death around every harrowing curve, Ted Dekker turned to his wife, LeeAnn, with another thought: "What have we gotten ourselves into?"
It's fitting that this Mexico adventure would be one of the standout family memories of a New York Times best-selling novelist. After all, this real-life adventure mirrored the adversity and suspense that he often weaves into his fictional stories. And in Ted's body of work — more than 40 novels with over 8 million copies sold — you have to go through darkness to reach the light. His characters must face their fears — real or imagined — to find freedom and redemption by embracing love, often God's love. But that process isn't all fictional. Writing, for Ted, has always been a journey to mull life's questions, to face its fears and, ultimately, to discover the heavenly Father. He says the same is true of parenting his four children, now ages 17 to 27. Both journeys have led him through darkness and slowly brought him to a brighter understanding of unconditional love. Ted says, "I wish I would have spent more time with my children when they were younger. Once I got into my writing career, I was always home but I wasn't always present."
Ted's journey began on the mission field of Indonesia in the 1960s. As a young boy, he ran barefoot with the locals — shoes were for the weak. Local tribes practiced cannibalism, and two colleagues of his parents were killed and eaten. The incident made an impact on the young boy, but not as big an impact as being sent to boarding school at age 6. He felt abandoned and alone in a new world. For months he cried himself to sleep. The experience left him utterly lost, but Ted says he is now thankful that it set him on a path toward discovering his identity as God's child. He also credits his upbringing in multiple cultures for developing the observational skills necessary to see and convey powerful stories.
LeeAnn was a missionary kid, too. She and Ted met in high school and married 31 years ago. Within a few years, they started a family and began doing their best to raise their kids. But Ted often felt lost. "I didn't understand my role as a parent because I grew up without parents essentially," he says.
Ted says he was strict about holding their oldest child, Rachelle, to high standards. Though he loved her deeply, he found that he disciplined her primarily out of frustration. "I was aware that half of me was disciplining her to see the correct way as I saw it, but the other half of me was secretly angry with her," Ted says. "This was my view of God and the way He was toward me, and I just passed that on to my children." Rachelle rebelled fiercely as a teenager. She left home and rejected the family for several years before reconciling. It was a difficult, painful period for the Dekkers, yet it was also a catalyst in Ted's spiritual journey — one that revealed and expanded his own view of the heavenly Father.
"For me, life began to change when I came to the realization that I don't disappoint God; He is far too large for that," Ted says. "Whenever we find ourselves fearing for our children, know that this is our challenge as parents: We are being challenged to trust our Father."
Ted's parenting journey has carried him away from protective fear and toward affirming love. He admits it has become easier with each successive child. And as he has come to understand his heavenly Father's love more fully, Ted has been more able to embrace his kids' unique personalities and trust God's work in their lives.
"It seems like a dangerous path on one side because we are afraid for our children's future, but they also are sons and daughters of the Father," Ted says. "Will He not protect them in the same way He protects us? And if they fall, that's their journey to take."
Living the story
In the early years of his literary career, Ted's children were too young to contribute to Dad's creative processes. Instead, they read tales together such as "The Chronicles of Narnia."
But philosophy has always been Ted's passion, and he has loved batting around life's big questions with his kids. The dialogue has been a way of engaging his family with the thoughts running through his head that fuel his writing.
Most of Ted's books are suspenseful thrillers or fantasy best suited for adults. Some are admittedly dark and even disturbing, though he calls them transformational fiction that ends with great love, celebration and beauty.
As his own children continue to grow and launch into adulthood, Ted is trying to root them in an unconditionally loving relationship. He admits the balance between guiding them and letting them make their own decisions is challenging, especially when their personalities are different from his. And he admits to getting things wrong, just as his kids have, but he has found deeper relationships with them and with God. "Our children are with us to teach us how to love," Ted says. "We, too, will stumble and fall just like a 1-year-old child trying to learn how to walk. As parents, we're the same as our children: We're all stumbling and learning."
The greatest journey, after all, is toward the heavenly Father.