Thursday, October 30, 2003

Born to eternal life is in dying that we are born to eternal life. --from a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

I didn't make it to church this past Sunday morning. I'm an on-call volunteer chaplain at the local hospital and I was called twice Sunday morning. The first time was to see two people in intensive care, one of whom wasn't expected to survive, and when I finished, a nurse asked me to see a third. One of the patient's family members tried to pay me for praying for his wife. He just didn't know what to do. After I prayed for his wife, I prayed for him and hugged him.

I left the hospital thinking I would make it to the second Sunday church service, but I was quickly called back a second time. There was a young couple with a stillborn baby, and the family was distraught. The parents wanted the baby baptized.

I've never baptized anyone before. I sat in the hospital lobby for a few minutes with The Book of Common Prayer, looked over the words of baptism and prayers for the dead, then I went to the maternity ward.

A nurse took me into a back room where the infant had been prepared. She said she would bring the baby with a special container of water for the baptism to the patient's room.

I found a very distraught young couple, maybe 21, and their equally distraught parents. I explained that I was from the local Episcopal church and would use prayers and words of baptism from The Book of Common Prayer. They nodded their assent. First, I said prayers with both the parents and family.

The nurses had made the little baby boy look as nice a possible. It was heartbreaking to look upon this little bundle of cold flesh that should have been this couple's baby. The staff him wheeled into the room on a little infant crib, wrapped in a little white receiving blanket with yellow applique flowers. The nurse handed me a sea shell full of water. I prayed the words of baptism, using holy oil and the water, and added in prayers for the dead.

No one seemed to notice that it was not the smoothest baptism ever, and the family, especially the grandparents, seemed to take comfort from it. The baby's mother was still in shock mixed with the beginning stages of anger, while his father was weeping softly, but took my hand in thanks.

It's going to be a long road of healing for them. They called me Tuesday night (while I was facilitating a bereavement group, ironically). When I called them back, they told me they had been fighting, things were terrible, and they had some other problems as well. I am trying to get them connected to counseling, which I hope they will take advantage of. They can't handle this by themselves.

I keep hearing the words of baptism -- "marked as Christ's own." That baby belongs to Christ, and nothing can change that, and nothing can harm him now.

I could not offer any explanations to this mother why God did not intervene to save her child. I could only share my faith that God did not "take" her child from her. We live in a fallen world in which evil roams, and that evil takes various forms--including the death of a baby. God did not take her baby from this mother, but when this baby died, Christ received him into His arms. That baby is there in Christ and will be restored his family in the end, just as Lazarus was restored to Martha and Mary. Christ wept with this family in their grief, just as He wept with Martha and Mary.

There are no words that will comfort this mother right now. Faith has not been a big part of this family's life, but I hope that it may take root now. I asked the young mother to talk to God, to tell Him exactly how she feels and how angry she is. I asked this young couple to lay hands on each other and pray for each other to heal from the awful wounds they've received. They may not be able to do it yet, but I'm praying that they will be able to do so at some point. It will bring them so much healing.

I want to write more about baptism, but I have to go now.


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