Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

When You Don’t Know What You Need

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I lay in bed too tired to think, not knowing where to start — children, church, marriage, friends, my own soul? It had been a long time since I had talked to God about it all and I was at a loss at what to ask. The words came to mind as I struggled to pray:

Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

~~~

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:7-8)

Once, during a particularly long kid-induced stretch of sleep deprivation, I stood in front of a store counter and had to stop myself mid-sentence to tell the associate, “Sorry…I have no idea what I’m saying.” Even with a clear mind, I dread calling customer service most days. I dislike having to think on my feet during the unpredictable exchange. Is the person on the line going to be rude? Pushy? Honest? Competent?

If you’re like me, you might script what you’ll say before calling customer service so you’re not bumbling when the person picks up. But imagine if the person we’re calling already knows what our problem is and how to fix it. Imagine they are glad we called, speak kindly as we make our requests, and patiently offer help.

“Pray even though God knows what you need,” some may say, apologetically even and on the defense. Because, why bother talking to God about what he already knows I need? It’s a fair question and with good answers, my mind is less troubled than it used to be about it. Providence makes prayer effective, and God’s sovereignty has become the bedrock I stand on as I make my petitions. Still, I have often failed to consider that this truth— that God knows what I need before I offer a word in prayer— is more than a prompt for questions about divine paradoxes. It is even more than just rebuke against the babblers Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6.

What I am experiencing these days is not pray “even though” God knows. No, no, not as a concession. Pray because he does.

God’s knowledge, I am finding, is my assurance and sweet comfort for all his children.

Because when you’re young and think you know what you need, you can only see it as redundant to speak to God about it. But then, you live longer. And as life’s complications and sorrows and hard lessons come, we begin to see that maybe we don’t know what’s best like we thought we did.

And what do you ask God for then? What happens when your feelings can’t be trusted? When your mind is unable to make sense of things to form a coherent request? When your foresight has failed and your problems outweigh your wisdom? When you’ve run out of solutions and suggestions to offer to God?

Where do you start when you don’t even know what you need?

There are so many good things we can pray, much is modeled in Scripture for us. For deeper knowledge of God, for deliverance from trial, for perseverance through it, for greater joy, for more love. But never is the call to prayer a request for information from God.

I think of kids. How readily they go to mom and dad for help, and how often their needs aren’t even known to them. Babies just cry. Older children may carry their complaints, tears, calls for justice. Still, usually parents can tell if they’re just tired and hangry, or truly sad and discouraged, or hiding jealousy and wanting revenge. If we, imperfect parents, know our kids enough to give them what they truly need, how much more the Father whose parenting every good mom or dad faintly shadows?

Our Father, says our Elder Brother, knows what you need before you utter a word. Therefore, you are not heard because of your flowing eloquence, the strength of your passion, or the might of your wisdom. You are heard because you are known completely and loved deeply. You are known because through Christ, you belong to God. And you are invited to God’s throne room, not to offer him tidbits he doesn’t know, but to receive mercy and find grace to help you in time of need (Heb. 4:16). The nature of the help may vary, but always it comes from one who knows exactly what you need.

~~~

Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Thus beloved, we pray. And when we don’t even know what to ask? It’s okay. My children don’t need to know much to get my help, only that they’re not doing so great and that Mom can do something about it. So it is that as we walk with Jesus we will come to times when we can only be sure of two things: One, our need is great and two, there is only one Person who can help. And as it turns out, in these moments, that may be all we really need to know.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Existential Angst, Baby’s Breath, & The Preacher

IMG_4370She would’ve napped for longer if I put her down in the crib, but I let her fall asleep on me because I love the feel of her in my arms. “You love this age,” my sister said to me recently— I really do. I love the way she still fits, her chubby thighs, and her soft baby breaths.

Baby snuggles are one of God’s answers lately to my existential angst.

“There is godly way to pursue things in the world and sinful ways to pursue spiritual things,” one of my professors said once. His words worked to shift something in my foundations, my concrete paradigms of the Christian life. They also point a finger at the vestiges of sin in me. In particular, a sinful way I try to pursue the Kingdom is to demand direct ties between my good works— whether through writing, at church, or in my home— and visible fruit. This is part of my bent as a big picture person (NF, for you Myerrs-Brigg-ers) who is always looking for connections. It’s why I write, and read, and think. But in the everyday, it means I often try to find peace and purpose through productivity. The measures are ostensibly spiritual— but the trap is that in seeking to justify my work through results, I am seeking to do sacred work while still walking by sight.

This desire to know without a doubt that I am accomplishing all I should do, and in everything doing things of eternal consequence, bears bad fruit. I’m prone to fretfulness over my own effectiveness, to perfectionism in what I do, to anxiety over wasted time, and an overall inability to rest. It also leads to, “Why-do-I-feel-so-tired-and-like-I-didn’t-do-all-I-should-but-it’s-not-like-I-wasted-time-today-so-did-I-make-the-right-choices?” and the aforementioned existential angst.

Motherhood has been sanctifying here. In part, it has limited my ability to spend time on explicitly “spiritual” work so that I need to trust God’s words on the sacredness of secular work. It has led to more exhaustingly “unproductive” days than one. But it also has been the sphere of life I’ve received gracious correction through the comfort of God’s good gifts.

As a seeker of meaning, I find myself circling back to Ecclesiastes every so often, and I have been camping here recently. Here the Old Testament Preacher grapples with the question of life’s purpose. He cannot find it in pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or toil and so again and again speaks of life feeling meaningless, “a chasing after the wind.” His answer ultimately though, is not to deny pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or work. Rather, he declares:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (Eccl. 3:11-12)

The reason the Preacher cannot find meaning in the temporal is not because it is bad, but because on every side he pushes against mystery. As eternal beings, our hearts grasp at the strings to connect all we do to the eternal. But in our finitude, we cannot begin to trace them all. Thus, the Preacher’s answer for my longing to find my security and justify my life through my works is worship. God alone, he says, does work that endures forever. We cannot add or take away from it, we cannot even fathom the sum of it. And so, we fear him who does eternal things. And our role here? We are called to “be joyful and do good” as long as we live, and to receive from God the gifts he gives.

Eric Liddell, missionary and Olympian running, said once that when he did, he felt God’s pleasure. In contrast, his competitor is depicted in the movie Chariots of Fire as describing his races as “10 lonely seconds to justify my existence.” The Christian, justified by Christ and delighted by the Father, does not need to justify her own existence. We work, yes, but as a gift. And we receive all he has to give during our few days under the sun, trusting that he who is over the sun is building something that lasts through the good we do.

As we surrender our self-justification, God gives us contentment and the ability to enjoy his gifts and our toil:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink andfind enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions  and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Through the Scriptures, God dismantles my idolatry of productivity and success, silencing the voices of accusation and judgement of a twisted conscience that does not allow for rest or mistakes or a sense of God’s pleasure. I can delight in the things of this world— my work, my children— and receive the contentment I feel in loving and serving them as good. As I learn to walk by faith, to surrender my need to understand and justify my own existence on my own terms, I rest with the little one snuggling in my arms. I receive this rest— and her— as given out of an overflow of God’s love.

We celebrated a birthday in our family this week, it flew by like a highway mile marker, giving testimony that the years indeed are a breath. We each shared why we were thankful for the birthday girl. We enjoyed a meal at one of her favorite restaurants. We delighted in each other. Food and drink, family, presents, and a sudden declaration of “BEST DAY OF THE YEAR!” by one being honored— all gifts. All from God who “keeps us occupied with joy in our hearts.”

Yes, the years are a but a breath, but they are so filled lavishly with good things by the unspeakably good God of infinite worth, power, and wisdom. Knowing this, I will work and rest today, and in worship, breathe it in.

Motherhood & Family, Truth & Orthodoxy

Because You Tell Me

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Overheard today—

Jeff: You’re a very pretty girl!
Daughter: I know.
Jeff: How do you know?
Daughter: Because you tell me!

Not too long ago I had another conversation telling one of our girls why she was so special to me.

Her: Why are we talking about this?
Me: Do you want to talk about something else? Like why your brother is special?
Her: Yes!

I told a friend recently that growing up I was never insecure about my looks— even with big glasses, braces, and no sense of style. I attribute it to 1) not having TV, teen magazines, or Instagram. And 2) having a dad who told me I was beautiful. Dad told me this enough that I took it to be true. Then I didn’t even need to think about how I looked, pretty or not.

Every day we are presented with visions of beauty, aptitude, talent. As we scroll and scroll, we are lured into judging. To comparing. Then we filter and crop our lives to size. We forget we are image bearers, that God lovingly designed us with our builds and heights and hair. With our talents, gifts, and passions.

In Christ, our Father removes us from the slippery slopes of comparison and places us on level ground. You don’t need to earn his approval. You don’t need to compare. You don’t need to hold yourself to the world’s standards. And from this place of security, you can walk on.

Not to self-esteem boosting, mirror pep talks, and self-love memes. But to serving others. To neighbor-love. To God-glorifying stewardship.

Today, let your Father tell you what he thinks of you. Believe him. Let him free you from insecurity until you can forget yourself. And then move on to greater things.

Like listing all the reasons your little brother is so special.

Truth & Orthodoxy

The Common, Hard Things

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“You’re so proud.”

Such were the insightful words of a dear, straightforward friend after I shared about my time in prayer. More specifically, I told her that I had told God, “My heart hurts…a little.” It was pretty big for me to admit out loud, to God and to another person, about my heartache. But she was referring to my attempt to play down what actually had hurt quite a lot. I laughed because she was right, and more than 10 years later, I’m thinking again about what she said.

Ever since I was a kid, I prided myself in not making a big deal out of things my peers did. I probably thought of myself as more mature, saving my sympathy for things I thought were real problems, not boy or friend drama. There were so many people going through worse things, how could my friends or I complain about our lives? I don’t know what it was that made me start comparing people’s difficulties so early on. Certainly pride was a factor, though I think not the whole reason.

Part of comparing people’s suffering had to do with trying to make sense of the world. As a child, I was moved by reports of famine abroad or serious illness closer to home. I didn’t know how to reconcile such terrible suffering with less horribly difficult things, and I didn’t think I should make a big deal out of my relatively easy life. I knew God was involved in our day-to-day, but I couldn’t see him as sympathizing with our daily burdens. Not when there were so many others who suffered more. Not when he himself already had gone through so much for our salvation.

The moment more than 10 years ago when I admitted that my heart was hurting (albeit, toned down with “a little”) signified a breakthrough for me in learning to come to God with suffering that in my mind was insignificant but felt hard nonetheless. As I started to give God just a little leeway into my hurt, he broke through in compassion with words Jesus spoke at the famous feeding of the four thousand.

The story goes like this. After days of ministering to the crowds, healing the lame, blind, crippled, and mute, Jesus approaches his disciples about getting food for the people. The disciples protest the impossibility of this task, and Jesus performs a miracle, feeding four thousand plus with seven baskets of leftovers to spare. I had known this story since I was a child, but for the first time, I noticed Jesus’ motivation for multiplying the bread and fish.

“I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” (Matthew 15:32 ESV)

Jesus, who’d fasted for forty days early in his ministry, was concerned about a crowd who hadn’t eaten for three. He didn’t compare his capacity and trial to theirs. He knew some of them would not be able to handle the journey home, and in his kindness, was unwilling to send them away empty. He didn’t say, “I’m doing important things like healing blindness and sickness, bringing about God’s kingdom. You find food on your own.” He didn’t harshly rebuke them, “I didn’t eat for forty, you should be able to survive three.” He had compassion on them, the Scripture says. In the same way, he has compassion on us.

A few weeks ago, I told a friend how tired and unmotivated I’d been feeling. I wouldn’t have minded the fatigue if my mind were sharper and soul healthier. If I were out of commission physically, at least I could be getting some reading or prayer in. But I was reminded again that try as I may to separate the parts, I am an embodied soul, and my body, mind, and spirit are interconnected in complicated ways. My lack of productivity, both outwardly and inwardly, contributed to low-level guilt. I was also tired and cranky. And I was frustrated that I was being knocked out by something so common— a healthy first-trimester of pregnancy.

Then she spoke words I believed were from God to my heart. “Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not hard.” (Thank God for kind friends who speak truth!)

So I have been thinking again of the gift of approaching God with our common, hard things, and want to share some of what I’ve been learning.

Common, hard things remind us of God’s infinite mercy and power.

If God were finite, he’d need to split his time, attention, and power accordingly between global crises and individual personal requests. The news cycle and “compassion fatigue” reveal our limited human capacity to care, much less act, in response to the suffering we witness in the world. Oftentimes we assume that God is like us, triaging the needs of billions and prioritizing the urgent ones first.

Some people think going to God with the small things in our lives belittles him, making him small in our own eyes. This is true if we only ever go to him with our own wants and needs. But our heavenly Father is big enough to handle both requests for his kingdom to come and for our daily bread. He is powerful enough to shoulder our troubles and the burdens of the rest of the world day in and day out.

I’ve heard people say they don’t pray because there are so many other important problems in the world for God to tend to. I know what that feels like. Often, God provides in small ways that matter to me, and as I’m thanking him, I am embarrassed that he answers my “dumb prayers.” I’ve been trying to stop calling them “dumb” and instead think of them them as “sparrow” requests, granted by God who cares for lowly sparrows and numbers the hairs on my head (Matthew 10:29-31).

Because God is infinitely powerful, no burdens are too heavy for him. Because he is infinitely merciful, none insignificant. He knows our frame, knows when there are things that will leave us too faint to walk home, and is willing and able to provide the bread and fish we need. Learning to come to him with our common, hard things reminds us of the greatness of his compassion and the limitless of his power.

Common, hard things deepen our sympathy for others.

There are trials we all recognize as legitimate suffering— serious illness, death of a loved one, persecution, and the like. But it’s harder to minister to people when they are not as strong as we are, not “getting over” things as quickly as we would, not enduring with attitudes we think they should have. We grow impatient with such sufferers. The problem with having a measuring chart that relativizes our suffering is that it hinders us from ministering to those whose trials are deemed less difficult. Thankfully, Jesus is not like us.

Jesus endured all we face: loneliness, rejection, temptation, pain, loss, tiredness, and more. He knows all of it, from Everest-sized suffering to pebble-in-shoe trials. Yet he doesn’t wait for us to approach him with our problems only to respond, “I endured. Why can’t you?” Rather, because he was tempted in every way as we are, our High Priest mercifully sympathizes with us in our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15).

Likewise, as we learn to admit to God that the common trials in our lives are hard, we no longer see ourself as better than others who suffer. And as we receive comfort from him in our trails, we are able to comfort others with his divine comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Common, hard things humble us so we can receive grace and give him glory.

Marriage and parenting are God-given mirrors, revealing to ourself our true selves. Since becoming a parent, I’ve seen how impatient, unmerciful, unkind, and all-around nasty I can be. But the most humbling thing for me hasn’t been merely seeing how sinful I am. The most humbling thing has been realizing how I’ve pridefully judged others who I thought were impatient, unmerciful, unkind, and all-around nasty. If my trials were uncommon and suffering extreme, I may find a way to excuse myself. But being put through the daily, common grind and temptations others face— and failing. That has been humbling.

The common, hard things in my life have been used by God to surface pride in the ability to resist temptations I thought myself above. I didn’t think I’d be the mom with the kid screaming in the store, caring more about my image than my child. Until first trimester of this pregnancy, I didn’t understand the temptation to distract myself with entertainment on my smartphone. I didn’t think my ability to be reasonable and patient was so rooted in my good health until facing constant fatigued and nausea. And I didn’t think there was so much pride and judgment sinisterly lurking in my heart.

1 Peter 5:5 says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (ESV). It is scary to think about being opposed by God. But the child of God has great comfort in knowing our Father works to humble his children. He disciplines us not just for the sake of putting us in our place, but that he may give us grace: grace in forgiveness, grace in his provision for our needs. And as we receive his grace, he receives all the glory.

When we don’t think we need him in our day-to-day, common, hard things, we miss the gift of his nearness, care, and forgiveness. When I push through ministry, family, friendship, and pregnancy on my own strength, I miss out on a chance to receive the grace of God and display his power being made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). I miss out on the opportunity to show those around me that anything good in me comes not from me, but from Christ.

Our infinite God joyfully welcomes not only his strongest saints, but lovingly carries the weakest of his fold. So I’m hoping to learn to come to him more readily with my feeble heart, mind, and body. I am hoping that together we’d receive help to endure things we feel only ought to hurt “a little” and that we’d help others do the same. All so that ultimately we’d be witnesses to the boundless compassion and power our loving Heavenly Father.

Motherhood & Family, Taking Heart, Truth & Orthodoxy

Those Two Solid Lines

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When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.
– My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less

With anxiety as my lifelong companion, I have felt at times that I am the worst person to be pregnant. Each pregnancy has been emotionally tumultuous, even the three that were smooth by all other measures. So recently, when I saw that second solid line fade into view, I dropped to my knees on the tiles of my bathroom floor, less so out of joyful gratitude than desperation.

Pregnancy tends to put to the forefront one of my greatest fears: death of someone I love. As a child, I was often afraid if my parents were out of the house for long. It wasn’t so much because I missed them, but because I imagined them never returning because of an airplane or car crash. As an adult, I’ve needed to consciously silence unfounded worst-case scenarios when Jeff’s taken longer than expected to come home. As a mom, I’ve gone to bed praying my perfectly healthy children would wake up the next day. My fear supposedly dates back to before my memory, when I would interrupt my mom’s naps to make sure she was alive.

A well-meaning phlebotomist who, drawing blood to test for hormone levels during my miscarriage a few years ago said, “You’re still young, you can have another.” But he misunderstood. The pain of miscarriage was never about my hopes for a child per se. It was about losing one I already loved. You don’t have to have known your baby for long, or even ever held him or her in your arms, to have loved fiercely and deeply.

The pain of childbirth– not just in labor, but in broken bodies and miscarried babies– reminds us this world continues to groan under the curse of sin. We are warned against public announcements of pregnancy during the first trimester because of the sheer statistics on miscarriage, a staggering 20% of all pregnancies. We fear rejoicing over the tiny lives forming in our wombs, because, what if we’re that one out of five? Pregnancy after miscarriage can be especially harrowing. During a time that ought to be joyful, we are woken up in the middle of the night by bloody nightmares and lie awake wondering if they will become reality. Our hearts drop at each sensation that resembles symptoms of pregnancy loss.

Christians are not spared from miscarriage, stillborn babies, and sick children. We know we have a Father who hears, but for reasons that are good and kind, allows things to happen to us that don’t feel good and kind. We know the answer to, “Your will be done” may sometimes mean our wills aren’t. So in the end, what difference does it make? What difference does it make to be a child of God in a fallen world, full of legitimately scary outcomes, as we await the renewal of all things?

Against convention, Jeff and I shared with our church about those double solid lines as soon as we saw them. I understand not everyone chooses to do this. But these brothers and sisters have walked with us through one miscarriage and I couldn’t imagine walking through 12 more weeks of uncertainty and anxiety on my own. I needed to let them know not in spite of, but because of the possibility of miscarriage. 

These dear ones have been sharing in our family’s joy in ways that, because of fear, I have not yet been able to feel. They have reminded me to rejoice at the news of the tiny one being fashioned within me, and they are praying for us both. Whether they will celebrate with us when God answers their prayers for a healthy baby or mourn with us through the grief of loss, I am unspeakably grateful for the gift of God’s people. 

The present trial of the unknown, of being in the waiting, has at times made me feel like I am going crazy. It isn’t so much the irrationality of my thoughts, but the sheer volume of them and the breakneck speed with which they overtake me. It has been a blessing to be able to share this struggle with others who are praying with us. This privilege is only surpassed by the divine invitation to pour out my own heart to he who hears and helps.

Ours is a God who does not sleep nor slumber (Psalm 121). Who receives our cries at one, two-thirty, and four o’ clock in the morning. Ours is a God who harkens to pitiful, groaning prayers from bathroom, closet, and living room floors. He is merciful. He is with us. He has carried us from our mother’s wombs and will carry us even as he fashions precious babies in ours (Psalm 139).

This may seem morbid, and maybe it is, but I have often leaned my ear on the chest of a loved one only to pull back in sadness. Something about the physicality of a thumping heart reminds me of the inherent weakness of human life. Each ba-bum speaks to me of our frailty– our utter dependence on one aging, fleshy pump in the earthy, mechanical processes of our circulatory systems.  

In a broken world, our hearts threaten to fail. They threaten to stop beating so that our spirits are given up. They threaten to break into a thousand pieces under the weight of grief. Regarding our weak flesh and breakable hearts, the psalmist cries out,

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever
 (Psalm 73).

My flesh and my heart may fail. This is not what I want to hear. I want assurance of a healthy baby and smooth pregnancy. I want to know the baby’s heart will beat and that my heart will not break. But the truth is my baby’s heart may continue to beat for years and years to come, and it may not. My heart may be filled with joy or it may be overcome with sorrow. The truth is, it feels as if my heart may already be failing under the weight of the unknown. But in the uncertainty, God is. God is the strength of our hearts. He sustains each beat. He will lead us, whether through the shadow of the valley of death or by green pastures with quiet waters. He carries us even in our anxiety as we await being led to valley or pasture, which one, we don’t know.  

A story attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson takes place on a ship out at sea. During a terrible storm, the passengers are understandably terrified. One of them, against orders, sneaks out onto the deck. There he sees the pilot, calmly and steadily steering the ship. The pilot turns to the trembling man and smiles, at which point the man returns to the other passengers. To them he announces, “I have seen the face of the pilot and he smiled at me. All is well.”

All does not always feel well. I am still being tossed about, it seems. Still the knowledge that God is not dictated by statistics, superstition, or formulas in dealing with my life has been a steadying anchor as I’ve been tossed about by fear. As the fog of fearful outcomes obscure my thoughts, he speaks clearly, “Lean not on your own thoughts. Trust in me.” (Proverbs 3:5). I have been reminded it is not only the tiniest member of our family whose every day is granted by God, but mine as well. And while this truth has not quelled the storm, it serves as a ballast when I fear my sails are about to go under and feel I will be swallowed up by the deep. All does not feel well, but in the deepest sense, it is.

I know I am not the only one in the waiting. These past weeks have felt like months, and the stretch ahead of me, endless. I write for me, but also for you, dear ones, who face uncertain futures with trepidation. To remind us we are led by a kind and wise Captain. He is steadfast at the helm. Though we venture into the unknown, he turns his face to us. We may still be afraid– I am. Very, very, very much so– but we, the people of God, trust not in the strength of our own hearts to carry us through.

This week, we received the gift of seeing a tiny heartbeat on an ultrasound screen. We are still very early in the first trimester, so early in fact that the doctor had trouble finding signs of anything going on in my womb. Yet there it was, the answer to one prayer, uttered hundreds of times, for a heartbeat. 

We are still not “in the clear” (though, when are we ever, really?) and still, convention would dictate not sharing this news of burgeoning life within me. Yet, I am in wonder of this tiny heart. It has only just started to pump, and whether for days or decades more only God knows. Whatever the case, each beat will be sustained by our good God until this precious one sees Jesus face-to-face.

Whatever the case, he must be the strength of my heart as well.