Having It All

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Like most women, becoming a mother was a huge turning point in my life. I suddenly had to reassess everything I wanted and decide if and how I could do it with a baby. Did I want to be a stay-at-home mom? Did I want to work? Would we hire a babysitter for date nights and adult get-togethers with friends? Would I still pursue my personal callings? Of course, being me, I decided I wanted it all—motherhood, career, relationships, purpose—and I wanted it all at once.

Thankfully, I was offered a job that allowed me to do just that.

While most women have to choose between staying home or going back to work, I get to have it all, taking work home and bringing baby to the office. My job description here at YWAM Bridges of Life includes leading a Discipleship Training School, making desserts for the base cafe, and taking part in daily worship and community work. James tags along for all of this, sitting on my lap during meetings, nursing while I type one-handed emails, and napping in the baby carrier while I walk to the store.

As sweet as this situation is, it doesn’t come without complications.

Balance is forever an issue in our household, as we struggle to draw lines between work and family time. I oscillate between mom guilt and career guilt, convinced I’m neglecting my child or failing to live up to my personal potential. And even when everything goes smoothly (which it never does with a small child), my days often feel like a long-distance sprint. I fall into bed exhausted, just barely closing my eyes before it starts all over again.

In the good and the bad, having it all is teaching me one invaluable lesson: you have to say “no” to a lot of good things to say “yes” to the best things. 

Like most Americans, I’m tempted to take a “more is more” approach to work and family life. More jobs, more relationships, more activities, more responsibility…until my body or mind gives out. This weekend, it was my body. After taking on way more cooking jobs than I should have, I got a wicked case of food poisoning. Despite sleeping next to a bucket all weekend, I actually found myself enjoying the rest and quiet time with my family.

Helpful tip: when food poisoning is a reprieve, you’re doing too much.

As I slowly eased back into work, I finally began drawing some healthy boundaries, admitting to myself and others what I could really handle. I spent more time simply playing with my son, rather than distracting him while I tried to catch up on work. I rested and had quiet times, something that rarely makes it onto my schedule.

As my priorities here become clearer, I’ve decided to say no to everything but those essentials. It goes against every grain in my work-driven body to do so, but the more I narrow my “yeses,” the more joyful and light having it all becomes.

I’m still figuring it out and fighting the urge to have it all and more more more, but that joy has become an essential marker for me. When joy leaves the building, I know it’s time to bring out the “no” card again, paring back until life comes back in balance.

Today, my balance is this: a baby on my hip, a pie in my oven, and a smile on my lips, knowing that even as I strive to have it all, I don’t have to do it all…at least not today.

 

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More Than Sweetness

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When our visas came in the mail, I laughed. I look like a double agent in this picture, I told my husband. Nobody mess with this girl.

We both knew the real story: standing before the French consulate cameras, I was nursing my son. That white stripe on the right side—that’s my nursing cover. Underneath, I’m holding a boy who’s getting heavier by the day. And I’m feeding him, as I’ve practiced every few hours since he was born.

I’m used to my son being an extension of my body, pressing his face against my skin and curling his long legs around my torso. When the visa process required fingerprints and a photo, I stood up, baby and all, and did what needed to be done. Because I’m a mom, and that’s what we do.

It wasn’t until I got my visa in the mail that I saw how fierce I looked doing it.

As Mother’s Day rolled around, I realized why that fierceness surprised me. The day was inundated with flowers, cupcakes, and images of nurturing mothers. Now that I am one, it struck me as strange that this has become our cultural story of motherhood: all sweetness and quiet martyrdom, no grit or wildness.

Because any mama will tell you, it’s not just rainbows and butterflies and kissing scraped knees like a bandaid commercial. It’s blood, sweat, tears, and all sorts of other bodily fluids.

It takes more than sweetness to do this work.

It takes strength. All the stock photos of nursing mothers look so docile, but let my visa photo be a testament: there’s nothing weak about breastfeeding. My son and I endured weeks of difficult, painful nursing before we got it right, and even now I regularly feed him until my arm goes numb. It takes endurance to nourish a baby, not to mention the physical strain of growing, birthing, carrying, and one day running after him. Motherhood should be an Olympic sport.

It takes calculation. I’m not a numbers person, but at any given moment I could tell you when my son last ate, how long he nursed, and when he’s going to be hungry again. If we have a scheduled event, I plan for it all day long, coaxing him into an eating/sleeping pattern that’ll mean a happy, well-fed baby during that time. It’s futile, of course, because babies change schedules like they change diapers. But I do the math anyway.

It takes research. Just today, I’ve poured over reviews of teethers, researched what sunscreens are safe for infants, and read the latest advice from my favorite breastfeeding website. Some parts of motherhood are instinctual, but for everything else (and that’s plenty), there’s Google and an army of mothers who’ve gone before. For my sanity and my son’s wellbeing, I pursue all the wisdom I can get.

It takes intelligence. Having a baby is like learning a new language. You decode their noises, expressions, and gestures, trying to figure out what they need. And as soon as you figure it out, the dialect changes. But you’re so crazy in love with your little puzzle of a baby that you solve it again and again. I could recognize my son’s cry in a room full of babies, not just because we’re biologically attached, but because I’ve made myself an expert on him.

It takes persistence. More than anything, motherhood takes a fierce, stubborn persistence. When my son was born, the mama bear in me came out full force, making me intensely protective and relentlessly devoted. Nothing could keep me from caring for him the way I wanted to—no setbacks, no exhaustion, and certainly not other people’s opinions.

Motherhood hasn’t softened me, it’s made fierce, smart, confident, and strong.  It’s sharpened my skills more than any university and challenged me more than any job. Though our culture may paint it as one-dimensional, as we often do with feminine roles, we mamas know that motherhood is a complex beast. When the world gives us flowers and cupcakes, we know that we could have earned six figures with all the work we’ve done.

When the world sees a sweet mother quietly nursing her son, we see the fire in her eyes.

 

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Raising a Jonathan

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I grew up with all women, and it was pretty much like you’d expect it to be. We had long, complex relational talks. We went on sassy road trips while everyone was on their period. We fixed our own appliances. We didn’t really miss having men around.

Then I gave birth to a beautiful son.

Nothing could have prepared me for him. Motherhood, in any form, is daunting. Raising a boy when all you know is women is terrifying.  When I imagined motherhood, I saw myself championing my children in a world where they would be underdogs. That’s what my mother did for us, teaching my sister and me not to let any man tell us what we couldn’t do.

It never occurred to me that I might have one of those men under my care someday.

Unless the world changes drastically in the next eighteen years, my son will grow up to have more privilege than me. He’ll be welcomed into church leadership positions where I am not. He’ll make $1 to my 77 cents. He’ll see himself represented positively in media and politics. He won’t have to worry about sexual harassment, body shame, or fear of violation. He may not have an easy life, but gender and race won’t be obstacles for him.

My son doesn’t need the scrappy lessons of my childhood. He needs to learn how to handle his privilege.

On one hand, I’m grateful that he won’t face as much adversity. On the other, I know how hard it can be to recognize and steward your privilege. When you don’t have to deal with race or gender issues on a daily basis, it’s easy to become a myopic jerk about them. I’m white, straight, and able-bodied, and it’s taken me almost 26 years to erase the blind spots that those advantages have afforded me. And I’m certainly not done yet. Every day, I’m learning how to lay down my privilege or use it to benefit someone with less.

My husband and I often talk about “being a Jonathan,” a reference to the Biblical story of Jonathan and David. The two are unlikely friends: one is the son of the king and the other has been anointed by God to be the future king. Jonathan, the legal heir to the throne, has every reason to work against David and protect his own privilege. Instead, he constantly defends him and gives him his royal robe, armor, and sword. Jonathan lays down his right to the throne in favor of seeing David’s potential realized, and it changes history. David becomes the greatest king of Israel and sets the stage for the arrival of Jesus.

I love this story: one man uses his status to serve, aligning himself with God’s plan to uplift the underdog, and salvation comes to the world. It’s exactly what I want to teach my son.

I want my little boy to know that he can share his privilege. I want him to learn how to listen without interrupting. How to help without condescending. How to differentiate between what he’s earned and what he’s been born into. How to level the playing field for women and minorities, to give them a fair shot at success.

I want him to raise up the Davids of this world—the would-be kings and queens, the ones God loves and for whom He has great plans. I want him to value serving others over protecting his own self-interest. I want him to know that this is the ultimate form of leadership.

Having a son is scary to me, because I know how much is at stake. I could teach a hundred daughters how to scrap their way through a world that isn’t fair, but that wouldn’t be enough to change the system. Men, white people, straight people, and able-bodied people have to get on board to make the world a more equitable place.

Take, for example, the issue of rape. We can teach our daughters a bunch of ineffective ways to avoid it, or we can teach our sons not to rape. We can remove “boys will be boys” attitudes and teach them instead about consent and respect. If taking advantage of women became unacceptable, we’d see a lot better statistics than what we have today.

My son has been born with the power to change the status quo, and I pray he’ll use it.

I pray he’ll look to the story of Jonathan and to his own father, who loves to serve and advocate for the underprivileged. I pray that my mothering will show him the way, encourage him along, and help him realize a world that I can only dream of. I pray that the Kingdom of God will come through him.

 

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Three Generations, One Roof

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I was three months pregnant when I moved back in with my mother. Even though I was twenty-four and married, I felt like a knocked-up teenager running home to mommy. Our living situation was so clearly “not normal” to American culture that it bordered on embarrassing. Eyebrows raise when a twenty-something moves back home after college. Multiply that times a hundred if she brings her husband and unborn child with her.

Initially, Sam and I had planned to stay a few months while we transitioned from Kosovo to France. We’d done this arrangement before, visiting family for a couple months before heading back to our own apartment abroad. But this time, we had no apartment, and my desire to give birth near home meant we’d be staying a lot longer.

We assured my mother that we’d start looking for jobs and our own apartment. Though we were exhausted from working abroad and re-adjusting to American life, we didn’t want to be a burden on her. To my surprise, rather than urge us out of the nest, my mom told us to stay as long as we needed. My family has always been the bootstrap-pulling type, but she knew just how tired we were, and she wanted to see us rest and enjoy being all together again.

My husband is a saint and had no qualms about living with his in-laws. I, on the other hand, had all sorts of reservations. My pride didn’t like the idea of being dependent on my mom, and I still remembered being an eager-to-leave teenager in her home.

But we were poor, I was pregnant (read: unemployable), and I couldn’t bear the thought of forcing my burnt-out husband into the job-search vortex. I agreed to try it for a few months. I cleared out and redecorated my old room, and we began negotiating grocery runs and cooking schedules.

Soon enough, we had a livable rhythm. Though we maintained our privacy, we still ended up doing a lot of life together. We ate together, had movie nights together, and shared everyday details we usually missed while living in different countries. When the baby kicked, everyone hurried over to feel my belly. When I had a craving, my two caretakers were all over it.

Life together was good, but when James came into our world, it became essential. 

After his birth, my mother took the week off work to cook meals, hold him while I showered, and assure me I wasn’t going to break him. When I struggled to nurse him, I cried on her shoulder for days, and she arranged for a lactation consultant to help me. When Sam and I were desperate for sleep, she rocked our little boy in the early morning and sent us back to bed.

She was there for everything: James’ first bath, first coos, first smiles. She survived jaundice and the struggle to get him back to birthweight. She was both mom and grandma, sending me back to the couch to rest my healing body, while tenderly caring for her new grandson.

We emerged from those hard first six weeks with a happily-nursing, long-stretch-sleeping baby, and I knew I couldn’t have done it without the full-time support of my mom. Instead of feeling embarrassed about living with her, I started telling my friends what a perfect arrangement it was, and how grateful I was to be home.

Of course, I’m not the first to discover the wonders of family living. Many cultures do this on a regular basis, adding on to the home as new generations are born. If they don’t already live there, pregnant women often stay in their parents’ home for birth and postpartum recovery. Alternatively, mothers move into their daughters’ homes for months or even years to help with housework and pass on their wisdom.

By contrast, American culture encourages new mothers to be independent, doing it all on their own and losing that baby weight while they’re at it. It’s a recipe for depression and isolation.

I, for one, am glad I didn’t have to go it alone. I’m grateful that my mother rescued me from the norm of living alone and Googling baby advice. I’m grateful that I wasn’t too stubborn or prideful to receive her support. I may not be a good, self-reliant American—and I may be the butt of those living-in-mom’s-basement jokes—but I am one happy and healthy mama.

Though we’ll soon be moving on to our own apartment in France, I’ll always remember this time as a sweet season: how I was cared for, how my son was so loved he rarely got set down. How we fit three generations under one roof and loved each other the whole way through.

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Resurrection for Mamas

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Today is Easter Sunday. Today, Jesus rips out of the grave in a wham-bam display of divine power and love. It’s a day for big God gestures, the way men pull out all the stops to propose to their future wives. And the church, like a surprised bride, jumps up and down, says, Yes.

But today, I’m staying home. Somewhere between planning car arrangements and thinking about how many people would try to touch my baby’s hands, I decided not to go to church. I simply wasn’t up for it. The big-gesture, big-response event sounded exhausting.

Today, I don’t just want Jesus of the Easter resurrection. I want Jesus of the everyday resurrection. I want the Jesus who is continuously making all things new, who holds it all together.

Because I need eternal salvation, but I also need to be saved from the laundry.

I need someone to push the reset button on my spirit when I’m frustrated by frequent nursing and nap refusal. I need someone to speak encouragement to my heart, to assure me that I’m doing some things right. I need everyday miracles: sleep and coffee and baby smiles.

I need resurrection for mamas, which looks like showering, leaving the house, or finally getting 6 hours of sleep. Church and Bible study might have to wait a few more weeks. Today, give me the little things that make a mama feel human again. 

A few months ago, I would have balked at this small theology. I would have rolled my eyes at another mommy blogger talking about her laundry. I would have gone back to reading about liberation theology or something. I would have looked for the big-gesture God.

But then I became a mom, and my world collapsed into a profound smallness.

Now, I spend all day in the same small room, with the same small boy, doing the same small tasks. My theology has grown legs and begun walking around, because what I believe about God determines how I will treat my family. I need good theology—even when it seems small—to be patient and joyful with my son, no matter how sleepless or monotonous the day has been.

My eyes are on Jesus of the everyday resurrection, because I need him to do this job well. I need his small kindnesses. I need his gentle voice. I need his example of sacrifice, and his assurance that when I pour out everything, there’ll still be enough.

He is the one who keeps this mama going, who brings her back to life over and over again.

Today, I’m thankful for the empty grave, but I’m even more thankful that Jesus, after rising from the dead, showed up at his disciples’ work with breakfast (John 21:12). Because this is the kind of God a mama needs. Not the big-gesture God, but the everyday lover, who brings us coffee just because.

This Jesus gives me hope and guidance, comfort and strength.

Hallelujah, He is risen. And this mama is alive.

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Birth, Faith, and Feeling It All

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On February 3, we welcomed James Robert Steere into our family. He was himself from the very first moment: wide-eyed, curious, expressive. Six weeks later, we’re still getting to know him and finding joy in his little personality. We’re exhausted, of course, and I’ve been too hands-full to blog, but life is also incredibly sweet with James now in it.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about his birth and how that winter morning changed everything for me. I knew early on in my pregnancy that I wanted a natural birth. I was well-read on the benefits of unmedicated labor for both mom and baby, but there was also a part of me that simply wanted to be present for the process, even if it meant experiencing pain.

Looking back, I’m so thankful I chose to feel it.

I’ve heard so many horror stories about childbirth, but after experiencing it myself, I have a hard time even using the word “pain” to describe it. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely uncomfortable, intense, and even scary at times, but it wasn’t the same as everyday pain. It followed a different logic, releasing as I surrendered to it, guiding me towards the best positions and pushes to bring my baby into the world.

The sensations of labor didn’t just happen to me, they taught me how to do the work of birth. It was like climbing a mountain: exhausting and gut-twisting, but also challenging and purposeful. Each pain coaxed me to take another step, dig in just a little more. When I did, my body would relax, and I knew I was that much closer to the final payoff.

When James came out, he looked straight at me, and it was the most surreal, transcendent moment of my life. As I held his tiny body to my chest, I knew exactly what it took to bring him there. I had felt every turn of his body inside mine, to the final push. I’ve never felt prouder of what my body could do.

I’ve always loved Brene Brown‘s metaphor that faith is more like a midwife than an epidural:

I wanted faith to work like an epidural; to numb the pain of vulnerability. As it turned out, my faith ended up being more like a midwife – a nurturing partner who leans into the discomfort with me and whispers “push” and “breathe.”  

Having gone the midwife route, I can attest that labor and faith are the same this way: the discomfort is useful. It leads you, step by aching step, to the mountaintop experience. When you finally drop the cross you’ve carried to the top, the lightness is ever so sweet.

In our culture, it’s become increasingly easy to numb ourselves or try to avoid discomfort, be it physical, relational, or spiritual. But more often than not, this leads to other problems, or simply delays the pain. One of the reasons I chose not to have an epidural is that it often lengthens labor and increases the mother’s chances of having major tears or a c-section. The intensity of labor is lessened, but postpartum recovery is far more difficult.

In the same way, when we numb ourselves to relational or spiritual pain, we ignore the signals that say, “Hey, something needs to change here!” and let the problem drag on. Instead of growing, we wallow in the half-felt pain for longer than necessary.

But faith—that bold midwife—whispers to us: You can do this. 

And the women who’ve gone before say: If I can, you can. 

And we all lean in a little bit more. And we all push and breathe, believing the end will come. We remember that it’s good to feel, that pain can teach us and guide us in ways that comfort never could. We remember that we were built to do incredible, difficult things.

And then, miraculously, something new—or someone new—is born.

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The Joy of the Unplanned

Jon Page

In a gas station bathroom in Kosovo, I finally said what I’d suspected for weeks: I think I’m pregnant. It was the strangest confessional, with my friend in one stall and me holding back nausea in the other. She gasped at the words and came out beaming at me.

Weeks before, she and I had been talking about birth control. She was planning a wedding and felt a little stuck when it came to her reproductive options. There seemed to be two basic paths: either avoid pregnancy like the plague or have babies right away. I told her how I’d felt roped into the same binary, and how I hadn’t wanted to do either. I didn’t feel comfortable taking hormones on a regular basis, and I wanted to let God give us a child in his timing, but I also didn’t really want to get pregnant right away.

While most people I knew were either desperately trying or not trying to have children, I felt a strong desire to leave it unplanned. I was conscious of the fact that we didn’t ultimately have control over when we’d have children—fertility isn’t a given, and even the most faithful birth control methods fail sometimes—and I wanted to embrace that reality and God’s sovereignty in it.

So we decided to take a middle path. Sam and I prayed about it, and we felt peace about leaving room for error, knowing that our lives could drastically change at any moment, but trusting that it would be the right moment.

We had almost two years of being happily childless, and then the moment came. It was equal parts exciting and terrifying, but ultimately, it felt right.

My friend understood this perfectly—she knew it was a gift, planned or not—and she celebrated the possibility of life inside me. But once we officially confirmed the pregnancy and started telling others, I was shocked by how many asked, Was it planned? with wide, fearful eyes. 

First of all, as a public service announcement, let me tell you that this is not an appropriate question. A woman’s birth control choice is never your business, and asking whether or not a pregnancy was planned is essentially the same as asking what pills she’s taking. So please, just don’t.

But this question was also troublesome to me because I felt like there was no easy way to explain that unplanned didn’t mean unwanted or accidental. It quickly became apparent to me that in middle-class American culture, there was an expectation that reproduction be carefully controlled, that children always be planned and only after careful consideration of finances and life goals. Anything else was reckless, perhaps even a mistake.

But this was no accident. It was a deliberate surrender of control to a God who gives good gifts.

Consider Mary, the mother of Jesus, and one of my favorite heroes of faith. In the Christmas story, the angel doesn’t ask her if she wants to get pregnant, he tells her that she will give birth. Remarkably, Mary seems okay with this, even though it means she’ll be risking everything. She has this profound spirit of obedience to God, which had to have been established long before the angel showed up on her doorstep. She isn’t afraid of surrendering control—she trusts that it’s a gift.

I admire Mary because she had a yes in her spirit even before she knew what would be asked of her. I suspect this is why God chose to do something incredible through her: she’d already decided to give him control, no matter what.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should run off and get pregnant to prove their faith, but I think there’s a lot we can learn from Mary’s example. While our culture teaches control and security, Mary’s story reminds us that there is joy and profound possibility in the unplanned. Instead of fear or anxiety, she embraces the unknown with a peaceful heart, and it ends up bringing the salvation of the world.

I don’t have such lofty expectations for my own pregnancy, but I do identify with her joy and hope that God is doing a new thing on the earth. And I share in her excitement that I get to carry it.

I don’t know what my life will look like after I give birth, and I don’t know who this child will grow up to be, but I do know that all the curveballs God has sent my way have turned out to be the most beautiful detours, and I expect no less of this one.

 


Photo: Jon Page, Creative Commons 

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Pregnancy, Mystery, and God

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From the start of the pregnancy, my husband and I assumed we would find out the gender of our baby. My midwife doesn’t offer ultrasounds, so we started saving up to have one at a local clinic, and I anxiously awaited the weeks when Baby would make him or herself visible. This time just happened to fall during a month-long stay in a tiny French village. I shrugged it off, thinking I could be patient until we got back to the States.

What I didn’t expect is that, by the time we got home, I didn’t want the ultrasound anymore.

Somewhere between baguettes and the millionth person asking “Do you know what you’re having?”  (answer: A baby, I hope!), I started asking myself why I wanted to know. And the answer wasn’t a very good one. From the day I took the pregnancy test, I’d had a strong intuition what the gender was, and even though I’d be equally happy to have a girl or a boy, I really wanted to know if I was right.

Because it’s all about me, after all.

Once I realized the state of my heart, I knew I couldn’t go through with the ultrasound. The mother in me wanted to protect this baby from all the crazy assumptions and expectations people put on an infant—myself included. I didn’t want to hear what terrors I should expect from a little boy. I didn’t want to receive frilly dresses for a little girl. I didn’t want to elevate being “right” above letting my baby be utterly itself and loving that person like crazy.

The easiest way to ensure this is to keep everything about my child a total mystery. Life post-birth will be another story, but for now, Baby remains safely hidden inside me—no pokes, no ultrasounds, and no more assumptions.

As I’ve learned to accept this hiddenness, I’ve been convicted about the way I relate to another mystery: God.

People say a lot of strange things about my baby (Was it planned?  That’s definitely a boy belly!), but these comments don’t even begin to compete with the weird, made-up things we say about God. It’s incredibly popular in our culture to assign all kinds of attributes to God that he never revealed about himself: political views, opinions on current issues, indictments of people we don’t like, and on and on.    

God shows us a lot of his character in the Bible, but we have a hard time reading what he says without bringing our own opinions and cultural assumptions to the table. I’m just as guilty as the next person when it comes to this, and I have the benefit of having lived outside of my culture for extended periods of time. It is not an easy habit to quit.

It’s tempting to want to pull back the curtain on God, to make him seem more real by giving him extra personality or modern sensibilities. But God is a full personality—the ultimate I AM, in fact. When Jesus returns and establishes a kingdom where God and humans dwell together, we’ll see God as the fully real, fully alive being he is. But that’s not how it is right now.

Right now, we have to live with a little mystery.

I’ve noticed that American Christians in particular are really uncomfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” Somewhere along the way, someone told us that we had to have the right answers, that the Bible had a “clear” response to every modern-day issue. So we make assumptions, and pretty soon those assumptions start sounding like facts, and we start sounding a little (or a lot) arrogant.

It’s a nasty cycle, and it could all be avoided by those three little words: I don’t know.

I’ve been saying them a lot lately. Even when people ask me my due date, I give them a rough estimate, because I don’t know for sure. This baby will come when and how it wants, exactly who it is, and there’s not much I can do about it. There’s an odd joy and freedom in that, at least for me. And I’m beginning to find the same pleasure in God’s mysteriousness.

He is who he is. He somehow lives within me, and yet has his being totally apart from me. When we meet face-to-face, I’ll know him. For now, I can only catch hints, the way I feel my baby change positions inside me.

The relationship between us is no less beautiful for its mystery.

I love the intimacy of keeping my child’s secrets, even from myself, and I believe that same loving protectiveness is possible when it comes to God. It is a gift to let him be who he is, to let him reveal himself in his own time. To say with hands lifted and heart humbled: I don’t know, but you do, and that’s enough.  

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