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Listening for the Grace Notes

By May 11, 2020 14 Comments

Upon finishing seminary and entering my first pastorate, my wife Tammy and I decided we were ready to start a family. We tried for almost a year to get pregnant with no success. Everyone was happy to offer their conception advice (some of it helpful and some of it kind of weird, to be honest). I guess we were desperate enough to try about anything.

There were a handful of moments when Tammy was “late,” and she’d rush down to the local drug store to get a pregnancy test and then rush home. We’d crowd into the bathroom, fingers crossed, hoping against hope that it would be positive.

Is your pregnancy test negative, again?

But it never happened.

Every time, the test turned up negative. Tammy would sink into my arms in tears, broken-hearted, a grief growing large in that empty space in her womb meant for a child. Eventually God would answer our desire to be parents through the blessing of adoption. But it was a road paved with loss and grief.

It was a strange and haunting feeling then, exactly ten weeks ago, when my wife went rushing again to the local drug store to pick up a pregnancy test (nearly twenty years later). Only this time it was for our sixteen-year-old daughter.

I stood outside our bathroom door and listened while the two of them did the test. I recalled all those times when Tammy and I huddled in the bathroom, desperately praying for it to be positive. Now my desperate prayer, as I leaned against that bathroom door, was the opposite. “Please, God, let it be negative.”

The sound of my daughter’s heavy sobs and Tammy trying to comfort her told me the results. My heart sank. I slumped to the floor and buried my head in my arms.

How is it, Lord, that a pregnancy test showing negative so many times can be the source of such a great sorrow; and then here now, a pregnancy test showing positive can the source of an equally great sorrow? It feels cruel. Unfair. It’s all so backwards.

So yesterday was the first Mothers’ Day we celebrated not only for my wife, but also for our soon-to-be-mother daughter. The last two months have been a whirlwind of emotions—all of us trying to wrap our heads and hearts around this new reality. We love our daughter deeply, and we are so proud of her. She has shown so much courage and resilience. And we are committed to being right by her side every step on this journey.

Author Kathleen Norris writes that, while it’s perfectly natural to ask “Why?” when hard things happen in our lives, “sooner or later we need to learn to deal the cards we’ve been given, and look for the grace that is hidden in our loss.” She urges us to listen for the “grace notes“ sounding in the unexpected and barren places.*

Dry soil of a barren land and single ... | Stock image | Colourbox

Already there have been plenty of grace notes, more than I could have imagined. As a family, we decided to share this news on Facebook (which I’m typically reluctant to do), and the responses of love and kindness have been overwhelming.

We’ve experienced the grace notes of members of our church showering us with cards and notes, people dropping off meals on our door step, young moms delivering gift baskets full of things that helped them through their pregnancy. It hasn’t just been people from our church. It’s been people from the wider community—our conservative small town in northwest Iowa has showed us a kind of grace that is profound and humbling. It’s been people from other places too, across the country. Every day a mail delivery arrives—a maternity or baby gift on my daughter’s registry—sometimes from people we haven’t seen for years but who are such an important part of our story. The poet Hopkins was right. Christ really does play in ten thousand places, “lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

And of course there are the grace notes of a little life growing in my daughter’s womb, a life that wasn’t planned or expected but is no less a miraculous gift. A life that will be loved. A life that, though initially a source of sorrow, will no doubt be a source of great joy.

Yes, at some point we do have to deal the hand we’ve been given. I suppose it’s all we can do. And then look and listen for the grace notes in the unexpected places. Sometimes those grace notes sound in an empty womb that we longed to be full. Other times in a full womb we expected to be empty. But in and through it all, in the barrenness and the fullness, the grace notes sound. And when one hears them, and sees them, you can only whisper, “Thank you.”

*”The Grace of Aridity and Other Comedies.” The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 (The Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), p.186.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Dana VanderLugt says:

    Thank you for this. Your vulnerability is a gift.

  • Marilyn Paarlberg says:

    Brian, your courage and grace leap off the “page” of this piece. You and your wife are modeling the profound and complicated depths of love. We learn as we go, but as you’ve already seen, you are not alone.

  • Duane VandenBrink says:

    Brian, Thanks again for sharing your “story”……. Blessings to you all…. 🙂

  • You are courageous for writing this and I aplaude you honesty. May God’s grace be abundante upon you daughter, you, and this as yet, unborn child. We trust God whenever we find life throwing curve balls at us.

    May grace and health be upon you.


  • jared ayers says:

    Thanks for this, Brian- I appreciate your vulnerability here.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I do too.

  • Linda J L Radach says:

    Oh, Brian, the reason you can hear the grace notes in this storm is because you have been and are a source of grace notes in others’ lives and storms. Thank you ( and your family) for your honesty and vulnerability. This post reminds me of the Laura Story song, Blessings:

    Blessings in and through the tears, my friend!

  • Cindy Cleveringa says:

    I respect your willingness to be open and vulnerable, something I admit is very hard for me to do. And, since the story is not yours alone, but your family’s story, their courage is amazing too! KNOW that we pray for your family and God’s grace in your lives. You are a blessing just as this new life is a blessing!

  • Kim Bos says:

    This is beautiful. I admire your vulnerability. Remembering your losses from the past brought a gulp in my throat. I remember praying for you two and God did eventually bless you with not one but two amazing daughters. I am so thankful God chose you and Tammy to be their parents. Your love and support for Emma (& Abby) has no boundaries. I pray as you all walk this journey, it deepens and grows both your relationships with her ten fold. Her sweet baby, a blessing from God will be so lucky to have you and Tammy as grandparents.
    Hugs and love to you all ❤️

  • Amanda Gaul says:

    What a blessing you and Tammy will be to this grandchild of yours and to Emma during this unexpected time of joy… I continue to pray for all of you…

  • Paula says:

    This is lovely. I can’t imagine the love your daughter must feel from her parents right now. And I can’t imagine my own parents EVER having such a grace filled response had that been a 16 YO me back in the day. Wow! This gives me great hope for the ways the church is learning to express grace.

  • Julie Elliott says:

    I’ve been that sobbing pregnant teen and later that sobbing (secondarily) infertile wife, so I resonate with your story on so many levels. Thank you for being so real as you navigate this road. That vulnerability is such a gift to others and sorely needed, especially in a “perfect” place like Orange City, IA. You are such an example of Christ’s love and wisdom.

  • Anita Cirulis says:

    Beautifully written, Brian. Thank you for being an example of how to live an honest and real life, trusting God to bring blessings out of pain.

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