February 17 my first child will turn one year old. Needless to say, parenthood has brought many surprises. I did not anticipate the number of diapers she would go through in a week, the medical costs of recurring ear infections or just how difficult it would be to cut those little tiny fingernails without drawing blood.

Neither did I expect what the experience of being a parent would teach this church-bred, seminary-trained, ordained minister about God. I thought I understood a lot of the theological concepts I learned in seminary, but now I “get it.”

For example, in seminary theology class, I heard a lot about how humans are “co-creators” with God. In Genesis 1, when God created humans, God gave us the opportunity and responsibility to continue creating the world. We were challenged to grow plants and care for animals and bring forth human life.

Not until my pregnancy did I fathom the tremendous gift that God gave to us by calling us to create life. Even though I knew this in my head, during my pregnancy, I came to understand it in my heart.

Partnering with God in the creation of a human being and carrying the potential of that life within me was the holiest act I have ever been a part of. Before she was ever born, my child surprised me with a sense of wonderful gratitude toward our creator for letting me be a part of this miracle.

I understand a little better now how God must have felt while forming that first man and woman from the dust of the earth. The heavenly parent declaring those first children “very good” was an understatement.

The love that overwhelms me as I gaze at my sleeping child and the joy that fills my heart when she giggles or smiles surely mirror the love God feels toward every child, even me. I am surprised that I, too, am the recipient of such gracious love.

Photos and videos have captured many of the “firsts” of our firstborn. Her first smile, her first feeding, her first trip to the beach and her first crawl have been carefully preserved and documented.

While I often wish she wouldn’t grow up so fast, I have found myself caught up in all of the hope she brings. I am surprised by how much I anticipate her next “first” and even more wonder about the kind of person she will be as she grows. I imagine God feels the same way about us, celebrating our growth and recognizing our potential with deep hopefulness.

All the feelings of parenthood have not been warm and cozy, however. I’ve learned something about God’s pain.

On a cold night in December, my baby fell and bonked her head on the concrete floor hard enough to leave a scrape and a purple knot. As she cried from the pain, my heart sank to the bottom of my stomach. Watching her hurt was an awful, awful feeling. I was surprised by how much her tears affected me.

While my theology has long allowed for a God who suffers along with people, that December night I saw a glimpse of what that looks like in my own heartbreak. As a loving parent, God sees our pain, holds us tight, weeps with us and comforts us until we are healed enough to go on.

Surprised by gratitude, surprised by love, surprised by hope and surprised by care. My deepest parent’s prayer is to open my heart to all of the surprises that God is bound to bring my way throughout this journey called parenthood.

Julie Whidden Long is minister of children and families at First Baptist Church of Christ, Macon, Georgia. Reprinted with permission of the Macon Telegraph.