Sunday, October 17, 2010

Let the Little Children Come to Me

         I was overjoyed on Thursday when I got the honor and the privilege of baptizing my first baby.  As chaplains, we rarely get to even see the healthy, living babies.  It makes sense that we as chaplains don't see them often: parents are in awe and amazement over holding a newborn in their hands for the first time and certainly would want to be with just family; some families have a church home or at least a church they know where they will get their child baptized; plus, hospitals have such a quick turn around after birth that there’s not really time to stop and think, “Hmm, maybe a visit from the chaplain would be nice.”  So when I got called to baptize a perfectly healthy 6 hour old baby, it brought such joy to my heart.  There is nothing in the world quite like looking at one of God’s most recent creations and saying to him, “Be at peace. Christ is with you forever.”
         I was still soaring on cloud 9 over that experience when I went into work today.  I received a call from the nurse on the postpartum floor.  This time, no baptism; this time, a blessing.  The baby was born and died at 20 weeks gestation.  I went up to the unit and prepared myself for the blessing.  In our hospital (and perhaps the way many hospitals do it), we bless deceased babies with holy water that is placed in a shell and poured over the baby’s head.  The shell is small and does not hold much water, but the babies are so tiny that it is enough water to cover the forehead.  I did the water blessing for the child, as well as placing the mark of the cross on the baby’s forehead, symbolizing that Christ is with him forever.  I grieved with the mother – there are just no answers to such a difficult loss.
          The words of Matthew 19:14 kept coming to mind, when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  In seminary, one of my professors warned me of society’s 'romanticization' of this text.  I think there’s some truth to that – I’ve certainly seen the images of Jesus carrying around a fluffy, smiling baby lamb as the blue-eyed children run to his feet.  But here in this moment, holding this tiny baby, it didn’t feel romanticized at all.  It gave me chills; it brought me joy; it brought me sadness; it brought me one step deeper into the mystery of God, the fragility of our lives, and the silence of deep and agonizing mourning.
          The prayer for this baby sounded a little different than the prayer for the baptism two days prior.  I used a prayer that I keep stuffed inside my tiny Bible for moments like this.  The prayer reads: “May the grace of God surround you through the warmth and love of family and friends, and may you not feel alone.  May God grant you assurance that your life has made a difference and that you are loved.  May God bless your journey from this life to what lies beyond.  May the Spirit of God go with you and grant you a peaceful passage.  And may we meet you again in heaven.  Amen.”
           As I left the room, I heard the tiny, innocent cry of a healthy newborn next door as the baby’s mother tried to feed her.  The mother on one side of the wall struggles to nurse her child; the mother on the other side of the wall struggles with knowing which funeral home to choose and whether to bury or cremate her child.  The silence of death and the wails of life happening at the same time.
           In these moments, I have to remember that Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”  At the same time, yet in different ways, I imagined Jesus’ hand reaching out for both of these precious children.  “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I used to dread theology class.  I remember looking at the course schedule when I started at Columbia Seminary and being nervous that theology was one of the only classes in seminary that lasted an entire year instead of just a semester.  My brain works well with math, with rules, with concrete ideas.  I loved taking Greek and Hebrew and did well in both subjects.  Theology, on the other hand, was about abstract ideas, uncertainties, and small discrepancies that held worlds of different meanings.  I would read every page of the assigned theology reading and still not have a grasp on the subject.  I would sit in discussions with my peers and find that no matter how much we debated, we always left the room with no more answers, only more questions.  I dreaded taking my theology ordination exam, yet ended up with a higher grade on that ord than any of the other subjects…God’s humor astounds me.
I was thankful when I began hospital work because unlike being a parish pastor, I would finally be able to put theology behind me and get on with life.  Silly me.  What I found was just the opposite – theology comes to life in the hospital.  Theology is more important to me now than it ever has been before.  I now see its relation to every person, to every situation, to every day.  It is no longer just the theology of 16th century theologians or feminist theologians or liberationist theologians.  It is the theology of each person’s story in the hospital.  It is seeing how Christ’s death and resurrection fit into people’s lives when they take their last breath on earth.  It is wondering where God’s comfort lies in the midst of human suffering, cancer, unexpected diagnoses, and death.  It is wondering what it means to worship a relational God and how we as people live in relationship both with God and one another.  For me, it is recognizing that it is only by the grace of God that I can wake up each day and gain energy from the things I experience at work.
Our deepest convictions and theologies come out of our stories and our lives.  These stories are sacred not despite our brokenness, but in our brokenness.  One of our supervisors taught us that our stories are sacred because we are created by God and God speaks to us through our life stories.  When we are able to share our stories, we are given a sense of community and commonality among all people.  Therefore it is crucial that we remember our story, that we claim our story, and that we tell our story.  No one’s life story is greater than another’s, even if we live in a culture that tells us otherwise.  The man selling newspapers on the side of the road has just as sacred of a story as the celebrities who make the front page of those newspapers.  The CEO of a company has just as important of a story to tell as the person who empties the trashcan in the CEO’s office each day.
So how do we continue to tell our story?  We have to start by remembering it and claiming it in our lives.  Through the Old Testament, God tells the Hebrew people over and over to remember.  Every time they started to lose hope and power, they needed to remember their story and from where they came.  Psalm 139 cries out in the suffering of the Israelites as they remembered Zion.  When Christ broke bread with his disciples, he told them, “Do this and remember me.”  Throughout our lives, we are told to remember our baptisms and the claim God has on each of our lives.  We are people who are called to remember.  Remember our stories; remember our joys and our sufferings; and remember that our lives are sacred as we continue to write them.  So remember the stories of the Bible and the gospel message – they will continue to play an important role throughout your life.  But just as importantly, I encourage you to remember your story and see that through the messiness and the hurt, the joy and the laughter, God has written a beautiful, unrepeatable story that continues to write itself each day.