3 things Joseph taught me about God

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Our sweetest, smallest, newest. (Dare I say gentlest, too?) A mere four months this side of birth, and already it seems his quiet wisdom has been with us always. 

This Joseph gift, this “rainbow baby” promise after loss – he is pure light. Already teaching me all sorts of truths I thought I knew.

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1) Joseph taught me that God is Hope.

By his very existence, this child astounds. Only six weeks after we lost our baby last summer, we found out he was on his way. Did we dare to dream he could be, so soon? And yet he was.

The hope of new life that he brought by his first spark – it did not deny the pain of what preceded, or dismiss the death of another, but it was still profoundly healing.

As he grew and pushed softly against the limits of my skin, he pushed my faith into new places, too. Places that had to stretch to make space for what it meant to lose a baby and gain a baby, all in a short span of time. Layering upon learning how life and death are always twinned.

People use the phrase “rainbow baby” to signal a child conceived after miscarriage or stillbirth. Now I see the shimmer in that truth, the bright sign that stretches over the months of hoping, drawing out of darkness into light.

Joseph will always be for me this resurrection sign of God-as-Hope, of joy flooding our lives.

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2) Joseph taught me that God is Mercy.

As I fling this sentence into the interwebs, I rest fully aware that it may all change in an instant. But this baby? He is the precious easy kind of child a parent secretly wishes for.

He sleeps, he eats, he smiles, he grows. Rare are the crying jags, abundant are the gummy grins. He has slid into our lives with such simple grace that I find it hard to believe there was a time when he was not.

The transition to three has proved so much easier than we expected, even in a summer with too much unexpected challenge around us. Joseph has been the calm center of the storm, quiet and steady and growing on his own.

I joke and call him “the gentle giant” because he is our biggest baby, bursting out of tiny clothes and filling our arms with unexpected weight. But perhaps we needed this bigger presence of peace in our lives right now.

Perhaps God’s Mercy gifted this sweet soul for such a time as this.

His big brothers smother him with love each new morning. They never tire of squealing at his very presence, covering him with kisses. It still astounds me – their pure delight, their unconditional joy. When Thomas was new? Sam had no time for the intruder. But both boys love their baby in the truest sense of the word.

I see now what lavish Mercy looks like, how God loves. And it is so Good.

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3) Joseph taught me that God is Dreamer.

By his name, this child echoes truth to me.

We chose Joseph for all those dreamers in Scripture – the one whose visions shaped his destiny and the one whose angel voices softened his heart. Both these men had to trust their God and their own inner compass to lead. Even when called into the mess of uncertainty around them, they fixed their gaze on God and headed straight in.

And both of them changed the story of their families and their people for generations to come, by trusting in strange dreams.

Joseph reminds me that God is a Dreamer, too. Dreaming of justice and mercy and peace. Dreaming of healing and reconciliation. Dreaming of a love that will reshape the very fabric of our lives if we dare to let it in.

I look into his gentle, dreaming eyes and I hear whispers to keep dreaming, too. To remember how new life springs in strange ways from death. To be unafraid of what others think as I head straight into the messes where I am called. To imagine what might come if I dare to follow wildest dreams.

To trust my life to the One who created and claimed it for goodness.

. . .

What have you learned about God from those closest to you – 

your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?

3 things Thomas taught me about God

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Dark-haired. Dark-eyed. Stubborn and spunky. Middle child. All things I am, too.

But this sweet Thomas boy – he is full of surprises. Every day he keeps me on my toes, reminding me that he knows his way. And his way in this world will be bright, blazed all on his own.

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1) Thomas taught me how God is Creator.

Thomas came into the world fast and furious. The way he’s done everything since.

I write in my book about how much he taught me by his birth – which was natural and powerful and even easy. The utter opposite of the overwhelming induction that brought Sam into the world.

While we were racing to the hospital, I freaked out that the baby would be born in the car en route, so intense was the speed at which everything was flying.

But suddenly I looked straight at the clock on the dashboard and knew that I would be fine. Because he would be born at 3:21 am. I have never known anything with such perfect clarity before or since.

Sure enough, he ended up arriving exactly on time – as soon as we flew into the birth center, as soon as the doctor rushed in to catch the baby, and as soon as that clock ticked to 3:21 am. Crazy but true. Now that I know our boy who always makes up his mind in a split second, I’m not surprised. Thomas has always been a boy on his own time.

His birth taught me that I was stronger than I realized. That my body and mind were created to do hard and worthy work. His birth taught me that so much of a child’s personality is revealed in the earliest moments. And these innate qualities are not of our own crafting.

Thomas reminds me that each of us was called into being by a Creator who knew our lives before we took our first breaths. The mystery and wonder of that truth is captured in his birth story that still surprises me every time I tell it.

Just like the boy himself.

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2) Thomas taught me how God is Reconciler.

Another truth I write about in my book (can you tell I have it on the brain since I finished final edits this weekend?!) is that Thomas’ temperament is not far from mine. Which is a nice way of saying that he and I regularly practice reconciliation and forgiveness.

The stubborn Irish temper I share with my second-born? It teaches me time and time again how God is slow to anger, rich in mercy. I wish I could be like that, too. But until my edges (and his) soften over time, this is a lesson that both Thomas and I will have to keep learning over and over. Good things we’re in it together.

Quick to laugh, quick to snap. My prayer is that we will both be quick to love and forgive, too. Like the God who is always waiting to welcome and reconcile, running down the road to meet us with a father’s wild, prodigal joy.

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3) Thomas taught me how God is Trust.

Since the day we chose our boy’s name, the expression “Doubting Thomas” rubs me the wrong way. Sure, I get the Scripture reference. But every time I return to the story with fresh eyes, it strikes me that Thomas was far from cynical or snarky about struggling with the idea of the resurrection. Quite the contrary.

His faith already dug so deep that he demanded to know. He wouldn’t hide behind false fronts or go along with the bewildered crowd. He wanted to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands.

Maybe he was the apostle who believed the deepest.

The story of Thomas’s name reminds me of doubt’s important role in the spiritual life. It is the stubborn twin brother of faith that keeps wrestling and probing. It is the hunger for understanding that refuses to give up and go quietly. It is the heart’s desire, strong enough to stay and search for truth.

So when I call Thomas’s name, I hear that invitation to Trust all over again. To keep wondering and wanting toward wisdom, asking to come close enough to press my fingers into the love of God.

 What have you learned about God from those closest to you – 

your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?

3 things Sam taught me about God

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Blond-haired. Blue-eyed. Math-brained. First-born. All things I am not.

And yet this boy, this so-longed-for Samuel – he teaches me about the inner fabric of my own heart and the walls of my soul. By his pushes, by his pulls. Most of all by his tender heart. 

1) Sam taught me that God is a faithful companion.

We waited for Sam. Nearly two years. I’ve written so much about infertility – both here and in my book - that sometimes I’m blinded to the truth that it made me a mother in more ways than one.

Waiting for Sam taught me about the mystery of prayer – that it is not about the answer, but about the asking.

Waiting for Sam taught me about growth through pain – that it is the paschal mystery of dying and rising to a changed way of being.

Waiting for Sam taught me about God’s stubborn companionship – that it is closest to our heart when it feels furthest from our lives.

Yes, we “got” a baby after our years of waiting. But that fact is not what taught me God’s companionship. It was the long Advent before parenthood when I felt God sitting with me, silent and steady in the dark.

I have never forgotten those days, and every time I look at my children – especially sweet Sam – I remember infertility and I remember God’s companionship.

By our waiting, he teaches me.

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2) Sam taught me that God is a caller.

When it came time to choose our first boy’s name, we loved Samuel right away. Hannah’s story was one we held close to our hearts while we were waiting: her tears and her hope. And her child’s name – because I asked the Lord for him - fit our own gratitude perfectly.

But it was the rest of Samuel’s story that has taught me more about God. That God is still speaking. That the tugs on our heart or the voices in the night may just be nudges from the divine.

When I hear or speak Sam’s name, I hear echoes of the story of Samuel and Eli: Here I am, Lord. I’m reminded to keep listening, to lean on the wisdom of mentors and elders, to trust that I will be led if I respond. And not to be afraid of where I am called.

By his name, he teaches me. 

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3) Sam taught me that God is ancient and ever-new.

What a blessing and a burden to be the first. (Writes a third-born.) Sam gets to try everything before the others and boast of his size and age, but he also has to break us into parenting every step along the way. I imagine he will delight and struggle with being the first, much like every other first-born I know.

But here’s the thing he teaches me by going first: God is always already there.

Each time Sam reaches a new milestone – and we too, as his parents – I find God in the newness. In this season of school, I am finding God in the widened circle of people who will care for him. I am finding God in Sam’s delight in what he is learning. I am finding God in the freedom of letting him take small steps into the world without me.

There is nothing tired or musty about God. That wild whirl of Spirit energy, born of life and love itself – it brings constant change and surprise.

Of course it can be painful to learn and grow. Of course I’ve stumbled plenty of times along the way, worrying about Sam when I should have been marveling in wonder, wrestling to control what was never mine to wrangle. But I am better for the stretching.

I keep finding God in the surprise of what Sam brings as our trailblazer.

By being the first, he teaches me. 

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 What have you learned about God from those closest to you – 

your spouse, children, parents, siblings, or friends?

how my kids became my spiritual directors

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For those of you who are new here, you might not know that I have a book coming out this fall (eek!!).

Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting (Liturgical Press) is the story of how I came to see ordinary life at home with kids as a way to live out the sacraments we celebrate at church. It’s also a story of infertility and miscarriage and all sorts of stumbles on the path to parenthood.

But mostly it’s the story of how my children have taught me about God in unexpected ways.

Last week I was chatting with a friend about how my letter to couples struggling with infertility went viral and how I struggled to write in the aftermath. After all, our infertility story ended with kids, and that’s what this blog has become: a place to explore parenting as a spiritual practice.

But I kept thinking of all these readers who had written me their own heart-breaking stories of infertility. What words could I share about my life today, crazy in the chaos of children, that would speak to them?

I came away from that conversation with a single clear thought: keep writing what you know is true.

And what I know is true is this: the three small boys who are blessedly napping upstairs while I write – they have become three guides on my spiritual journey.

They are challenging and comforting and constantly coaxing me to ask why.

They make me ask uncomfortable questions about my life and my beliefs.

They give me pause to step back and wonder where God is calling me.

They remind me to slow down and lead me to prayer.

I think of all the wise soul friends who have helped me along the way, and I have to add these three names to my list: Samuel, Thomas, Joseph.

They are the best untrained spiritual directors around.

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As part of the practical theology project I’ve been working on for 5 years, we’ve created a video series called Lives Explored in which everyday Christians share stories about their sense of calling – to professional work, to relationships, to people and places.

In part of his story, Ken says this:

I am really a firm believer that God will help you with your life if you are open to it. You have to really be open, you have to listen, you have to look, and you have to expect it to come from the strangest places.
Any person you meet, there is something you can learn from them. 

I love how this wise woodworker sums up so succinctly what centuries of saints have studied: the mystery of the presence of the omnipresent God. The truth that even toddlers and kindergarteners and babies can teach adults about the divine.

With Ken’s words echoing in my head, I’ll be sharing – this week & next – three things that each of my kids has taught me about God.

If you’re inspired to sit down & reflect on what the people closest to you have taught you about God, please share your thoughts in the comments. Or add a link to your own blog post below and I’ll post a round-up at the end of next week.

What have you learned about how God loves, forgives, calls, and heals –

from your spouse, children, parents, or friends? 

when the nights were full of promise

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My husband and I went to college together. But we didn’t go to college together, you see. In retrospect we figured out that we met during freshman orientation. A failed, forced scavenger hunt mixer between our respective dorms, in which all I remember is lounging on the lawn with one of my budding best friends, laughing snarkily about how those guys over there were so weird but at least they didn’t care about the stupid scavenger hunt either.

But we didn’t start dating until senior year. And only halfway through that.

So whenever we wax nostalgic about college days, we each have our own memories, our own stories, our own epic escapades with our own groups of friends.

Last week we stood outside in the settling dark of a warm summer night. We’d let the dog out before turning to head to bed, all three boys already lost in slumber upstairs.

And as we stood there, barefoot on the edge of another lawn, August grass already curling into early autumn’s brown, I turned to him and asked -

Do you remember when every night was full of possibility? 

When every weekend beckoned with the prospect of an unforgettable night out and unbelievable stories to share with our roommates the next morning. When promise hummed in the late-night air as our group headed for the bar or the party or the dance. When there was always the prospect that tonight might be a night we never forgot – that we’d meet someone, that we’d run into fun just around the next corner, that we’d end up with one of those classic college stories only hilarious to those who were there, who never forgot the mayhem or the nickname that ensued from the night’s events.

When the air was electric with anything possible.

When I think about what changes once college recedes in the rear-view mirror, it is this sense of wide-open prospect that seems farthest gone.

Not only that any evening could turn epic, that even a late-night run to the grocery store could prove entertaining, but that the next class or professor could be the one that changed an interest into a major. That the semester abroad could lead to a career. That the retreat or the alternative spring break or the service project could open up a whole new calling.

Our eyes were open wider than they had ever been before. 

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And we almost knew it while it was happening. We had a hunch that the alumni who reappeared faithfully for fall football weekends weren’t simply missing friends or classes or campus clubs. They were missing a way of life. The promise of possibility that opens briefly for those of us lucky enough to call a college education our own. The widening of four years in which the world becomes our proverbial oyster and we get giddy off the aphrodisiac.

But of course it cannot last forever.

The choices we all began to make – graduate school and cross-country moves and first jobs and engagements and marriages and babies and houses – they were good and necessary choices. The rest of our life was waiting to happen, beckoning to begin when we stood outside the convocation center, clutching our graduation caps while wild May wind whipped through our hair.

Is every night full of promise and possibility now? At first my instinct says no. These are our tired thirties, after all.

Now nights are full of dirty dishes and diaper changes and wrangling wiggling children into bath and bed, then turning to the disheveled house and the day’s to-dos left unfinished at work, and then how is it 11:30 again? We’re going to be wiped out when the baby wakes us at 5. Let’s get to bed – wait, did you take the dog out and is the dishwasher running and did anyone switch the laundry into the dryer and where did that stack of bills go?

The air around us starts to feel old and tired. The furthest thing from electric.

But sometimes when I try to look with wider eyes, eyes that used to spark at any possibility, eyes that still sense the shadows of what’s most important, even on a dark night under a cloudy sky, I see that maybe the promise of our nights is still there.

Muted tones, softened edges. But still so present.

Every night I get to slip into bed next to that boy I fell in love with when we were 21. Every night one of our children wakes needing something from us – milk or water or simply a snuggle back to sleep. Every night our house stands strong and safe around us. Every night we rest to ready ourselves for another day’s good work.

There’s so much promise brimming there.

Sure, the prospect of possibility looks different at 33 than it did at 22. I’m sure it will shift to change again at 44 and 55 and on and on. Our lives become limited by the choices we make, but these aren’t all harsh constraints. Simply sharper definitions. We become ourselves. Partly the selves we have chosen, partly the selves we have shaped in response to what life has given us.

So perhaps the better question is not where does promise lie but how sharply can our eyes see it?

Back then, footloose and fancy free, we never could have imagined what lay before us. Life’s never this way. Even those easy, eager conversations of oh, I definitely want kids, too that we must have had while first dating – we never dreamed that those breezy hopes would stumble over infertility or miscarriage.

But neither could we have grasped the depths of how all that was tough and hardened would bind us together, closer than we could have glimpsed when we were laughing on that loud dance floor, the night it all began.

. . .

Lately I’ve been mulling over that line from the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus sitting on the shore in the gray light of dawn, staring at the water and telling Peter that when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.

But - and there is always a but, isn’t there? and you feel Peter cringe because he knows it, too – when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.

And even though our end will never be as dramatic as Peter’s tale will twist, we still sense this truth about adulthood. The truth you cannot grasp when you are on its giddy brink.

You will be taken where you do not wish to go. Your heart will want things it cannot have, and your soul will struggle with truths it does not want. You will be pulled towards people and places you never imagined.

But there can still be promise there, enough possibility to keep you looking skyward even on the dragging days and the darker nights.

As long as your eyes can keep blinking open. Wide enough to see it.

a summer of paradox

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My mother sang while hanging clothes
The notes weren’t perfect, heaven knows
Yeah, but heaven opened anyway
This I knew was true

Carrie Newcomer, “Leaves Don’t Drop (They Just Let Go)

It was a year ago that I spent hours listening to her music in the kitchen. Swirling my hands through streams of soapy water as I washed bowl after bowl, pot after pot.

Putting up the summer harvest was part of my healing after losing the baby. Doing something concrete for my family. Saving something good from the soured summer. Looking ahead to a time when it all might not hurt so much.

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I blanched brimming bowls of beans. I cut corn from piles of cobs. I stirred so many pots of soup and sauce, all of it spooned into bags and stacked into the basement freezer. With love, I suppose, but also longing. For what was and what wasn’t and how I had no control over any of it.

So for weeks I listened to Carrie’s albums on repeat: gentle, soothing, pulling me away from myself. There was so much light and darkness in her songs that they made me weep, let me break open to all that needed to rush flooding out.

And every season brings a change
A tree is what a seed contains
To die and live is life’s refrain

This past week I found myself pulling out the same albums again. Popping the Sesame Street Classics! out of the stereo and setting the soft, sweet music to spin. Her voice filled the kitchen again, and suddenly I was right back to a summer ago.

Only now I was thinking of the baby we lost and the baby we gained. Of the summer that was and the fall that will be. Of all the impossible opposites clinging together around me. 

God speaks in rhyme and paradox
This I know is true

It was a summer of new life and new loss. Our family welcomed a baby and lost an uncle. A quick arrival and a too-quick departure. Their names twin together, Joseph and Jim. One waking to his first summer and one who had his last.

It was a summer of healing and hurting. A birth that was nearly perfect and an emergency surgery that was anything but. A natural process that healed with no complications and a painful procedure that left permanent scars. Three intense hours that brought new life into the world and three dramatic hours that may have saved my own life.

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It was a summer of no work and lots of work. Maternity leave and full-time mothering. Leaving one kind of labor and taking up another. The freedom of pausing some responsibilities and the weight of taking on even more.

It was a summer of chaos and calmness. The busy buzz of two big boys and the quiet moments with the tiniest. How much louder the house vibrates when all three are yelling at the same time and how much sweeter the house settles when all three are sleeping soundly upstairs.

And then at the end of this summer of paradox, more people started reading this blog than ever have before. Thousands more. And shouldn’t I be delighting in this? Isn’t this exactly what a writer wants?

Yet, ironically, the reason my words struck such a clear chord is because so many people are hurting and isolated. I can’t bring myself to rejoice in that.

I can only hope that what I write might help us try to open our eyes wider and see each other, together. In the messy midst of all our paradoxes.

Leaves don’t drop, they just let go
And make a space for a seed to grow

I had that post on infertility and invisibility sitting in my drafts for a long time. I only pulled it out to finish after my heart broke again at the news of a loving couple – you know the kind, the ones who want kids so badly it hurts, the ones who should have a babbling brood jumping all over them like wriggling puppies – whose last round of infertility treatment failed.

I was saddened and frustrated and angry when I heard their news, wanting to shake that furious fist at the universe and demand why.

Instead I sat down one early morning in the dark and finished writing the world this letter.

And for the past week I’ve been sitting back, somewhat stunned, watching so many people read it, watching these crazy numbers climb, watching everything spin out of my small control after how many years of thinking this blogging business depended on me. It doesn’t. It depends on you.

So when I look back on all I will carry with me from this summer, I see how I am leaving with a widened heart and a longer list of prayers to pray. In a season of pain and paradox, these are unequivocally good things.

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A summer ago I was mourning a miscarriage, and now I have a bouncing baby boy on my lap. I can’t help but find God in paradoxes thick around me. That Joseph would not be here if that baby had lived.

Now knowing him in all his perfect particularity, I cannot imagine a world without him. Which does not reconcile any death, but does make more space for mystery in the shades of grey that smudge together to make this life.

A portrait of paradox.

. . .

In a fitting end to my maternity leave, my thoughtful co-workers put together this post on our Collegeville Institute blog about my summer series on spiritual practices with newborns. I’m touched by their words and hope you will enjoy it, too!

what to do next: supporting couples through infertility

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I never expected this.

Since those words swam in my head every single month that we were waiting for a baby, I should not be surprised that infertility continues to shape my life in unexpected ways.

But this post? More people have read it – and are continuing to share it – than have read anything on my blog in the four years since I started writing it.

The comments on that post are only a sliver of the stories shared with me through email, on Facebook, and in person. I’m floored by how many people are yearning to hear that they are seen.

So many couples are suffering the invisibility of infertility. And so many of them wish their churches would speak a word of peace to them in their pain.

What can each of us do, whether we’ve struggled with infertility or not, to support the couples suffering around us?

IMG_5943Watch your assumptions. That young couple you see? Don’t assume they’re wrapped up in their careers and are choosing to delay parenthood. That older couple you see? Don’t assume they never wanted kids. Those neighbors with an only child? Don’t assume they didn’t want more. Those co-workers with one boy and one girl? Don’t assume they stopped simply because they got their “matched set.”

Plenty of people have complicated situations when it comes to the question of conceiving and raising children. The less we jump to conclusions about someone based on what we know about them, the more we open our hearts to the more likely truth that we do not know their deepest struggles. We offer people such refreshing freedom when we refrain from slapping on labels or squeezing them into boxes by the judgments we pass from a distance.

Watch your words. Sitting with people in pain is uncomfortable. Our natural tendency is to try and fix the situation. But the words we use to show our concern can wound when we want to skip over someone’s suffering and start to offer advice.

My one pastoral suggestion in almost every situation of suffering is to avoid “at least” statements. At least you’re still young. At least there’s always adoption. At least you have other children. The grief and anger surrounding infertility, whether primary or secondary or after miscarriage, are complex emotions. They cannot be easily smoothed over by statements suggesting that the situation is not as awful as it could be.

Honoring the particularity of someone’s pain by simply sitting with them, listening, and letting them know you care for them is a rare gift. You cannot fix their circumstances, so you do not have to try.

You have so much to offer instead: your prayers, your presence, your patience in letting someone give voice to their own story.

IMG_5831Watch yourself change. Don’t make the mistake of holding back from reaching out, simply because you have not experienced their same sorrow. One of the gifts of believing in the Body of Christ is the reminder that we are not confined by the contours of our own life. We are deeply united with each other. We can share our joys and wounds on a deeper level than mere sympathy because our lives are caught up together.

Let your heart be stretched and your prayer life be widened by the experience of allowing others to expand your understanding of the suffering around you.

And once your eyes are opened to a new kind of struggle – like infertility – keep going. Start to see some other silent suffering sitting next to you: on the bus, in the pew, at the coffee shop. Reach out with one kind word.

See what happens.

When we open our eyes, the invisible becomes visible. Pain is no longer ours to bear alone.

And isn’t that what our communities of faith hope to be? Places where we care for each other. Places where we are pulled out of the worries and wants of our own worlds.

Places where we remember that we belong to each other. And to God.

. . .

If you are new here, welcome! Check out a few favorite posts or more reflections on infertility. And please take a moment to subscribe, or follow Mothering Spirit on Facebook or Twitter.

If you’ve been following for a while, thank you! Here are a few more places I’ve been writing this week: at Practicing Families on raising three white boys after Ferguson and at Small Things With Love on why we owe our babies to NFP.