Looking Back and Reflecting on God’s Grace

Loved

Only by God’s grace is this even possible.

“My grace is sufficient for you,
for my power is made perfect in weakness.” ~ Jesus

Here is our story of an elementary romance, jail time, unspeakable losses, God’s provision, redemption and the body of Christ. A story that is so laced with Grace only an Amazing God could have so beautifully orchestrated it. All the glory belongs to Him.

We look back to remember how God has walked with us and we look forward to seeing how He writes the rest of our story.

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

Our Story – Chapter 2

CHAPTER 2 (Ben’s words in BOLD.)

We were young and in love, but our relationship was pretty rocky. We were great friends but we fought a lot. We were not on the same page in several areas of our lives and we hadn’t learned about our roles as husband and wife and the importance of respect. Most importantly, we didn’t share a love for God and He wasn’t the center of our relationship.

We dove right in and bought our first home, got pregnant with our first son in 2004 and selected a pure bred Chocolate Lab puppy out of a newborn litter. Things were looking picture-perfect. We began preparing the perfect nursery with coordinating paint colors and a wallpaper border that matched the crib bedding. We were having a baby!

At our routine 20-week ultrasound, my mom met us at the hospital and we eagerly viewed our first-ever ultrasound. It was all new for us and we honestly had no idea what we were looking at. Our baby’s heartbeat was precious and strong. We could see our baby moving around and full of life. We were ecstatic! The ultrasound went on for what seemed like forever and, when she was finally done, the technician left the room for a bit. She returned, stating there was something wrong with our baby and we needed to head to our doctor’s office immediately to discuss the ultrasound results with our obstetrician. We were just sick as we hopped into the car, completely deflated and silent. We arrived at our doctor’s office in a mess of nerves and tears. She was so compassionate, kind and gracious, a real Godsend. Shockingly, our baby had a rare form of dwarfism called thanataphoric dysplasia. “Thanatophoric dysplasia is a severe skeletal disorder characterized by extremely short limbs and folds of extra (redundant) skin on the arms and legs. Other features of this condition include a narrow chest, short ribs, underdeveloped lungs, and an enlarged head with a large forehead and prominent, wide-spaced eyes. The term thanatophoric is Greek for “death bearing.” Infants with thanatophoric dysplasia are usually stillborn or die shortly after birth from respiratory failure; however, a few affected individuals have survived into childhood with extensive medical help. This condition occurs in 1 in 20,000 to 50,000 newborns.” (http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/thanatophoric-dysplasia) This news was devastating to say the least. We tried to believe that God would perform a miracle and heal our baby.

At the young, naïve ages of 21 and 23, we never dreamed that this could end up our reality. Our baby was probably not going to survive birth. After meeting with a wonderful, Christian, high-risk-pregnancy doctor, the results were confirmed and we found out our precious little one was a boy. The doctor prayed with us and we clung to each other and wailed, deep, heart wrenching cries right there in the doctor’s office. It is a very sobering thing to carry a baby to term, knowing that it could all be over when that baby is finally born. We didn’t want that day to come. However, it did, in February of 2005. At just 31 weeks pregnant, I began leaking amniotic fluid and my doctor decided to induce labor. Our precious, firstborn son, Isaiah Nathaniel was born directly into the arms of Jesus. He was spared of all pain and discomfort and we were denied hearing the joyous cries of our baby boy. All was eerily silent as our lifeless son was placed on my chest. The months of his gentle tumbling and poking and kicking inside my belly suddenly came to an abrupt stop and his life was over. We held our sweet baby and introduced him to our family. We spent time alone with him, loving him and rocking him. I watched from the hospital bed as Ben held him close and sang to him. Isaiah was desperately loved and greatly mourned. It is a devastating thing to go into the hospital pregnant and to leave your baby behind, never to come home with you.

Sweet Moments with Isaiah

There we were holding our firstborn son, at a small 3 lbs 13 oz, and crying because of the pain of losing our first child. Anger towards God and the world was definitely one of my emotions that day. I couldn’t understand why God would allow this to happen. I blamed myself, because it must be all the bad stuff I had done that caused this punishment. We grieved a lot and rightfully so.

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

Our Story – Chapter 3

CHAPTER 3 (Ben’s words in BOLD.)

I was deeply saddened and heartbroken, and my arms ached to hold my precious baby. By God’s grace, Ben and I clung to each other and our loss only brought us closer, rather than dividing us further.

We still continued to argue about smoking and finances and lifestyle choices as together we grieved the loss of our son and navigated the waters of healing. We found out we were pregnant again in late 2005 and much of our pregnancy was governed by fear and worry. However, we welcomed a healthy, screaming baby in June of 2006. What a joy and relief to hold and care for our lively baby boy! The nursery was finally full and our hearts were happy.

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Proud Daddy

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Happy Mommy

What a joy it was to have a healthy boy to bring home from the hospital. This was yet another measure of grace that God was giving me, but I was just not grasping it fully.

We welcomed another son in July of 2008. With a baby and a toddler and both of us working and going to school, things were very busy! We loved each other deeply but were still on different pages on so many life issues. I wasn’t leading our family spiritually or otherwise and Stephanie’s relationship with the Lord wasn’t growing and, while we did attend church, we weren’t in close community with other believers. We did agree that we loved our hometown, we loved spending time with nearby family and we hoped to never move. We had both received an Associates Degree. I had landed a job in the engineering department at a boat company and Stephanie was happy to work part time and stay at home and take care of our boys.

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Sweet Brothers

One day, in November of 2008, the boys and I were at home and Ben showed up mid-morning, unannounced. He held a box of things he had cleaned out of his desk and rushed to my arms, crying. He had been permanently laid off. The economy had gone south and, without warning, nearly everyone was let go from the company. He was left with only a very part time job stocking shelves at a local grocery store. Though we can now clearly see it as a necessary step in the journey God had us on, we were reeling at the time. We ended up moving in with Ben’s dad to cut costs and both of us worked part time, opposite shifts so one of us could be home to take care of the boys. It was a rough year. However, God provided, and Ben found out about a new warehouse that was opening up for the grocery company he had been working part time for. He had always thought he’d like to get into truck driving for the company, but didn’t have the training and there weren’t any positions available. However, with the new warehouse, there would be full time driving positions and they would be willing to train. The downside: we’d have to move out of state, hundreds of miles from home.

So, God provided the opportunity for me to work full time, doing something I thought I’d love, for this amazing, Christian-family-owned company. What an awesome provision it was. Stephanie was 8 months pregnant when we loaded up our things, said goodbye to our home with my dad and our loved ones and traversed the country to settle in for a one year commitment in a new state where we didn’t know a soul. As a gift from God, the job was a mere 3 hours from Stephanie’s sister, who is her dearest friend, and her family. That brought our families many good times and memories made.

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Just Us, Embarking on a New Adventure

We welcomed a baby girl in November of 2009, shortly after settling in to our tiny, new apartment. For the first time, I was able to stay home full time with our children. Ben loved his work but it was taxing on our family as he was on the road for overnights and when he was home he was exhausted. I had my hands full and had only one friend nearby. We found it difficult to find a church we wanted to call home and struggled to meet people and form friendships. A year into his new job, it didn’t look like we would be going home anytime soon, so we moved closer to the warehouse but farther from my sister. Ben’s commute was so much shorter, our home was much nicer with room for the kids to roam and I was blessed to meet a handful of wonderful, Christian friends. The second year was better than the first but we still longed to return home and for Ben to have a job with better hours. A job transfer was possible, but we had to patiently wait for the right opening.

We welcomed another sweet baby to our family on our son’s birthday in July of 2011. Baby number five was welcomed with delight. It was especially sweet for me, because this baby pushed Ben to finally quit smoking. After years and years of smoking and then quitting and smoking and then quitting again, this time it was for real. He quit smoking when I was pregnant and hasn’t gone back since. What a gift! Praise God, that point of tension was finally resolved!

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Sea World ~ October 2011

With our first son in heaven and three boys and a girl here on earth, we decided that we were done having children. Our arms were full and I was a tired momma. With no family nearby and a husband who was consumed with his job, I felt I had reached my max. We had been married for 8 years and it had been such a challenging road. We had been through so much together and had grown closer because of it. Ben was a loyal, loving husband, always a gentleman and a great dad but sin had its hold on him something fierce and he refused to submit to God in many areas of his life. That was very difficult for me as I longed to be equally yoked with my husband and share the most important thing in my life. I longed for him to love God and lead our family well. I longed to be involved together in a church and I desperately wished our sons had a godly man to model their own lives after. I knew my relationship with the Lord was being compromised by my marriage. Spiritually, we were a mess.

Still at this point in my life, spiritually speaking, I was just riding on Stephanie’s faith and not my own.

I was very successful in my job and well liked and respected. My company took great care of me and our family. I made good money and we had begun to establish our life away from our home and loved ones. Our family was growing and we were making great memories. Suddenly, the opportunity we had been waiting for arrived. I was able to transfer to a new job that took us within a hundred miles of the city we had called home, the city we grew up in, the area most of our family still lived. We were so excited! Though a pay cut was involved, the job was still driving truck and delivering groceries but was a day job with local routes for the same awesome company. I would be home every night! We were so thankful!

Again, we loaded up our family of 6 and all of our things and headed back to our homeland in November of 2011. The kids and I moved back in with Ben’s dad while Ben started his new job, lived in his aunt’s basement and searched for a house for us. House hunting proved to be a long, laborious process. The days turned into months and we spent hours upon hours driving from house to house and touring home possibilities. We lugged all four children through the snow and cold. We searched high and low to find the perfect house for our rather large family but on a rather small budget. There were tons of houses but most of them needed way more work than we were willing to bargain for. We ended up walking through 74 houses before we settled on a cute home that was already redone and it was only 2 miles from Ben’s new job. It was perfect. We truly felt like the waiting had paid off. We closed on the house on March 1st, 2012 and were anxious to be a family again, all in once place. Ben had been driving to his dad’s on his days off to spend time with us and we had been driving down to hang out with him and look at houses but we hadn’t lived together for over four months.

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

Our Story – Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4 (Ben’s words in BOLD.)

The weekend after we closed on the house Ben came up to spend Saturday night and Sunday with us. We weren’t attending church at the time and Ben’s dad had headed off to his church that Sunday morning, March 4th. We had been up early with the kids and were having a relaxing morning as a family. I had nursed our littlest, just 7 ½ months old, down for a morning nap on the bed I shared with him in Ben’s absence, and snuggled him in between a couple pillows. I got up and got ready for the day, as we had planned to go grocery shopping as a family when the baby woke up.

Sweet Sleeping Boy

Nap time was coming to an end and I sneaked into the bedroom to grab something. I noticed the spot between the pillows was empty besides a left behind stuffed bear and stray pacifier. His blanket was pulled to the edge of the bed and I noticed he had fallen off the bed and had gotten stuck between the bed and another piece of furniture. I screamed and whisked him out of the tight space and back onto the bed. He was lifeless and unresponsive. Ben and the other kids came running. Ben hovered over his baby boy screaming and crying while I fumbled with my cell phone trying to call 9-1-1. The other kids, then just 5, 3 and 2, stood confused at the doorway while they watched our flurry of panic. Ben ushered the kids away and closed the door as I followed the instructions of the 9-1-1 technician and moved my sweet baby’s body to the floor and began to perform CPR. The mouth I had lovingly kissed so many times I was now breathing into, willing life into his tiny body, begging God to restore his breath. The paramedics arrived and rushed our sweet son to the ambulance. They left us all alone in the house to wait. The minutes ticked by and the kids, scared and worried, were asking the very questions we were thinking. “Is he going to be okay? Why are they taking so long? What’s happening?” Ben went out and stood near the ambulance and I remember thinking I needed to be strong for these kids even though I was a weak mess on the inside. I knelt down on the kitchen floor and pulled my children into a huge hug and we prayed for sweet, precious Andrew. I told them that Andrew might not survive but that God loves us so much and he has a plan in all of this. I held them close and silently begged God for Andrew’s life to be spared all the while beating myself up for leaving him alone on that bed.

After what seemed like forever, Ben’s dad returned home and stayed with the kids while we followed the ambulance to the hospital. We were terrified and knew what the outcome was probably going to be but we dared to hope. Our family members arrived at the hospital in record time and many of them sat in the waiting room with us while we dreaded the verdict. The doctor arrived and confirmed what we knew to be true. Our son was dead. There was nothing they could do. Gut wrenching agony came over us as we held each other and sobbed over the loss of yet another precious son. It seemed like a very bad dream that I desperately wanted to wake up from. Ben and I walked into the emergency room where our sweet, lifeless baby was laying on the bed being cared for by a nurse who is a family friend and a wonderful Christian woman. She turned and gave us a compassionate, sympathetic hug and assured us as best she could. We were given moments alone with him as we hugged, and kissed yet another lifeless son. We were shocked that God would have us go through this again. Mommies and daddies should not have to hold the dead bodies of their babies. Not once and certainly not twice. It just wasn’t fair. I cried my tears dry until my head ached and my throat was sore. Our family members came in to the room to say their goodbyes and share their love and sorrow. A pastor from the church we previously attended came to pray with us and agreed to meet with us and prepare a memorial service for him. We stayed with Andrew for as long as they would allow us. We held him close, wrapped in his soft warm blanket and kissed his sweet, soft cheeks, hoping time would stop and we would never have to hand him over. Before we were ready, we found ourselves again leaving a hospital without a baby, leaving a cold, lifeless son behind. The heartache is indescribable.

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Sweet Boy Brought Us So Much Joy!

Only this time, I was plagued with guilt on top of sorrow. The guilt and shame overtook me. I blamed myself. If only I had napped with him. If only I had just put him in a pack and play. If only I had heard him cry out. I remember sitting on that same bed, pumping breast milk that should have been Andrew’s but I was determined to donate, sobbing and crying out to God, “Why God?!?! Why didn’t I hear him?!?! I could have saved him!!” And, clearer than I have ever heard God speak to me, I heard Him say, “Stephanie, I could have saved him but it was his time.” It was a balm for my soul. I knew the scriptures; our days are numbered even before we are conceived. In that moment, I could feel God taking the burden of guilt from me, but I struggled to accept the freedom. I couldn’t forgive myself. I didn’t even want to face people at his funeral because I was sure they were blaming me. I doubted my abilities as a mother and felt certain I was unable to care for my children properly. Obviously, I couldn’t even keep them alive! Recently, Ben and I had been talking about maybe considering having another child or looking into adoption. Now, for me, it was completely out of the question. Clearly, I wasn’t capable and certainly nobody would trust me to adopt and care for their child! I was a wreck. I felt desperate to keep my other children safe so I could prove myself. It was a burden, no mother should bear and it was threatening to take me under.

The days surrounding his death, his funeral and his burial are such a blur. Ben and I were grieving and trying to parent our other children and trying to make sense of everything and simply trying to survive. It was such a gift to me that Ben never once blamed me. Never, even in the heat of the moment, did he breathe one word of accusation. Once again, by God’s grace, this wasn’t going to divide us. My own heart broke as I watched my precious husband break. I watched him mourn and cry and ultimately surrender. In those days following Andrew’s death, he made the choice I had begged God for all our married days. He chose to give his life to God and to lean hard on Him when he knew he couldn’t make it alone. For the first time, we leaned hard on God together and chose to trust him and have faith even when life didn’t make any sense. God showed up as we laid our precious baby to rest and He became our Anchor, our Savior, our Redeemer, our Comfort and our only Hope. Most people don’t get to see God redeem such horrible circumstances in such short order. As a huge measure of grace, I got to see my husband’s life transform just days after losing Andrew.

I’ve buried two of my children and that seemed unfair. The pain never completely goes away; it just gets a little duller. One of the visitors in the ER that horrible day was a former pastor. I kept saying, “Why me God?” and my pastor said something I will never forget, “Why not you?” That hit me like a ton of bricks.

At this point, I began to realize all of the grace God had shown me over the years. The definition of grace…the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God…rang very true. I am not deserving of any good, but God loves to show His grace even though I am very undeserving. It is still a very long grieving process, but I believe that this tragic event was used by God to bring me back to Him.

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 5

Our Story – Chapter 5

CHAPTER 5 (Ben’s words in BOLD.)

One week after burying our son, we were scheduled to move into the house we had closed on right before he died. Once again, God’s timing proved perfect. By God’s grace we were able to move out of the bedroom that held so much pain and the difficult memories and into a brand new home. A fresh start. A place void of all family memories. A blank canvas.

Even though we were in the midst of a move, we felt utterly cared for by the body of Christ. Ben’s company was amazing and supportive in every way. For the entire first month not a day went by that we didn’t receive some measure of grace. It came in various forms such as food, cards, promises of prayer, text messages, emails, phone calls, visits, financial gifts, presents for our kids, restaurant gift cards and help with our move. We had a couple very dear families agree to help us on moving day and feed and care for us and my sister generously stayed to help us get settled. Even the family who we bought the house from blessed us with a spotless home and a meal in the freezer. God insured that we never felt alone.

Shortly after we moved, in April of 2012, a couple of dear friends offered to send Ben and me to a marriage conference. God bless them, they were concerned for our marriage as we navigated the rough waters of grief. They gave us several options of nearby upcoming conferences and we chose one called A Weekend to Remember. We didn’t know what to expect or anything about the speakers, but were thankful for a weekend away together to focus on our marriage. As only God could arrange, the speakers, a husband and wife team from Florida, shared their testimony. They spoke of God’s goodness when their 7½-month-old son drowned, when she briefly stepped away from the tub she was bathing him and his older sister in. We thought we were there for our marriage, and that certainly was a huge part of it, but God’s providence is so much bigger and more amazing then we can ever hope for. As that couple shared their story and showed a picture of their family now, 30+ years, 12 children and a strong, godly marriage later, we were filled with hope. Tears streamed down our faces in indescribable relief, joy, shared sorrow and pain. We were able to speak to the couple in private and a whole team of people prayed over us. She gave us a few books and bought us Starbucks. She spoke life into me and warned me about the guilt I was carrying. She told me it was an accident. She said, “Let’s just say it was your fault. God forgives you. You have to forgive yourself. You can’t carry this burden.” She cried with me and encouraged me. She told us that we couldn’t let this stop us from growing our family, if that was what God had for us. She was the epitome of me surviving this. She was the person I had been searching for. A person who could understand what I was going through. She was my gift from God. We left that weekend with renewed unity in our marriage and hope for the future.

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Weekend To Remember ~ April 2012

Grief is a funny thing and it rears its ugly head when you least expect it. For some, it’s anniversaries or birthdays that trigger. For me, the biggest trigger was that first Mother’s Day. On the eve of that Sunday, I laid awake in bed, mourning the loss of the sweet baby who never had a chance to call me mommy. I sobbed, real, gut wrenching tears. I struggled with the idea of my family celebrating me in a way I didn’t deserve. I felt inadequate as a mother and undeserving as a wife. The pain was raw. My sweet family blessed me that Mother’s Day with breakfast in bed, tissue paper flowers and homemade cards. We spent a quiet day at a favorite park enjoying God’s beautiful creation. They blessed me that day and provided a salve for my wounded heart. God was giving me comfort through the love of my family.

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Mother’s Day 2012

Ben and I were learning to embrace the days and enjoy every moment as though it was our last. We were feeling convicted that we were trying to control our lives in the area of child bearing. We were learning a very clear lesson that God’s plans aren’t always our plans and that we needed to relinquish whatever control we thought we had. We were afraid of growing our family but we were feeling like we needed to put it in God’s hands and not allow fear to govern our decisions. We didn’t want to deny ourselves of any blessing God may have in store. With a huge amount of faith, we put our family in God’s hands, allowing him to work as he saw fit. With mixed emotions and tenacious trust, we found out we were pregnant again mid-July 2012, just two days after celebrating our son’s fourth birthday and what would have been Andrew’s first birthday. Again, as only God could do, He gave us two sons born on the same day. He knew that day would be hard for us, and gave us a reason to still celebrate. He thinks of everything!

As we settled into our new home and our newly established family values, it was clear we needed to find a church home. Praise God, there were several great options! We visited several churches but Ben’s aunt kept inviting us to visit her church. There was one problem. Her church was HUGE. We didn’t believe in big churches. We thought big churches were just showy and superficial. We didn’t think it would be possible to meet people and form the relationships we most desperately needed. However, because we love her, we agreed to visit from time to time and it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with the teaching, the worship and the atmosphere. The stereotypes we were placing on big churches was unfounded and proved wrong. We decided to become regular attendees and visited a Sunday School class in the fall of 2012. It was a class of couples who were married and parents of children around our own children’s ages. I immediately felt a stab of pain as the class went around the room introducing themselves. Each couple was to say their names and how many children they had. With reservation, I introduced us and said, “We have three children at home and one on the way.” I hadn’t figured out how to navigate that question. How many children did we have? We had five and one on the way but I couldn’t say that without explaining our whole life story. However, I did want to share our story and tell people about Andrew and explain our heartache. On the other hand, that isn’t always appropriate so I was still trying to figure it all out. I was bursting with sorrow but couldn’t let it out. However, it wasn’t long before we couldn’t bear to hold it in any longer. Through tears, we opened our aching hearts up to those precious people and shared of our loss and our uncertainties with our current pregnancy. Those people, basically strangers, got up out of their seats, surrounded us, put their hands on us, shed tears for us and offered up prayers on our behalf. The love of the body of Christ is such a beautiful thing to be a part of! To God be the glory! We continued to dive into involvement at church through volunteering and joining a community group. God used that church, and the precious people there, to raise us out of the depths and into life.

In March of 2013, on the weekend before the anniversary of losing Andrew, our church was hosting a women’s conference called Imagine Me Set Free. I attended that conference alone, looking forward to quiet time with the Lord and full focus on healing and preparing to face March 4th. The Lord met me there and, at the foot of the cross, I was able to relinquish the guilt I was carrying. John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” I yearned for that abundant life, a life not governed by guilt and shame. I renounced Satan and the lies he was telling me, and claimed God’s gift of abundant life through Jesus. I was set free!

We joyfully welcomed Lillyanna Faith into our family on March 22nd, 2013. She was named “Faith” after my own middle name and because it was with great faith that she was conceived and brought into this world. She is God’s grace in one little face. The joy and healing that Lillyanna brought is indescribable. God knows exactly what we need and when we need it.

The birth of daughter Lillyanna Faith was just another time of God showing us His grace. Lilly doesn’t fill the gap of our loss, but she is treasured as a true gift from God.

He is our great comforter and provider and it is good to rest in his plan. It brings great comfort to know that whatever comes our way, God’s hand is mighty and capable. To know his presence in the valley of the shadow of death is a true gift and there is nothing that compares to experiencing that love.

In April of 2014, Stephanie and I traveled with our oldest son to Haiti to spend a week at a crèche to care for babies, do some construction work and encourage the missionaries serving there. During this week, God opened our eyes to the huge need for adoptive families for the millions of orphans around the world. Again, we felt fear and doubt about this journey God would have us on but again, we put our trust in him and we’re walking the road of adoption, currently waiting for a referral. We have no idea how God will work out all the details and provide the money needed but we’ve found comfort in trusting God and are thankful to see him working out the details.

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Haiti 2014

As this story proves, God is in the business of taking care of details. Each encounter, each perfectly timed event, each element of our story was miraculously orchestrated by God. We want to remember these small details as we continue to trust Him to work out every facet of our future.

Over the last 3 years, I have realized my huge need for God and I thank him for the grace he has shown me throughout my life. By his grace I have been drug and alcohol free for 13 years. He has led me to join Bible studies, Sunday school classes and a small group, just to name a few. He has placed a desire in my heart to raise my children to be godly children. He has also placed very godly people in my life to keep me accountable and to teach me how to love God more and more. My love for God has grown by leaps and bounds since losing Andrew and I seek him every day through prayer and time in his word. I’m so thankful for a church that teaches me and encourages me in my walk with the Lord.

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By God’s Grace, Here We Are

By his amazing grace, God has redeemed and rescued our family. He has graciously given us hope and healing. He continues to walk with us and provide peace and comfort. We are now unified in our goal to serve God and love others. As a family, we appreciate our role in the church and in the body of Christ. The road has been hard and the pain has been real but He makes beauty from ashes and it is a blessing to have a front row seat. We know the risk of following God, but, by his grace, we will finish the journey well. We can’t wait to see how the rest of His story unfolds. What a privilege to serve a God who loves us so deeply.

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CHAPTER 4