In 1986, three months after my ordination, I was at a retreat center on the west side of the Hudson River when I received a call from the senior pastor with whom I worked. He wanted me to drive two hours north to Albany to see a 25-year-old woman, pregnant with twins, who had developed complications and was about to lose her babies. I tried to explain that such a serious case warranted the experience of the senior pastor, but he said it was a woman’s issue, so the woman on staff should see to it. I suggested that someone who was a father would be better able to help than childless me. He responded that he was the senior pastor who made the decisions, and he had decided that I would be going.
With fear and trembling, I drove north. At the hospital, I met the twins’ grandparents and two other couples from the church. We sat together in the waiting area next to the critical delivery room, fidgeting and praying. After midnight, the door opened partway, and a doctor stuck his head out.
“Which one of you is the pastor?” he asked. I’m sure he did not expect the 26-year-old woman casually dressed for a retreat to respond. I looked around, hoping for a rescue. Then I slowly raised my hand.
“Well, come on in, she is about to give birth to the second one,” he said. When I entered the delivery room, he turned to face me. In his hand was a baby twenty-five weeks from conception. “I don’t know what you want to do with this,” he said, handing the child to me. Then he whispered in my ear, “He is about to die, and the other one will, too.” Since his mother and I had just locked eyes, I was careful that she not be able to read his words on my face.
I held the baby in my hand. His tiny head lay on my fingertips, his feet extending only to my wrist. While his mom delivered his brother, in my mind I began to speak to him. Realizing he would not be with us long, I wanted him to know a few things that make this life wonderful. I thought to him about bunnies and sunshine, crisp apples, hot sandy beaches and cool mountain streams. I silently spoke to him about ice cream and cake and how delightful it is to eat it after a meal, surrounded by family and friends, especially when there is something to celebrate. I told him he had arrived in this world because of love, and although he would be with us only a few minutes, he would never be forgotten. I said that Jesus loved him, and he would soon see Him face to face. I continued to hold that baby and smile, even though everyone else in the room-the nurses, his father, even the doctor, were fighting back tears.
After giving birth to her second son, the boys’ mother was wheeled across the hall where her family, friends and the delivery room staff had gathered so I could baptize the boys. Now I know that according to United Methodist doctrine, baptism is not required for a dying baby. But parents should not lose their twin sons, either. If baptizing those boys comforted my grieving friends, then I would do what they needed. By the time the sacrament was complete, the babies were dead.
For me, this experience was more my ordination than the laying on of hands by the Bishop a few months earlier. It was the first time I was present for a birth, the first time I witnessed a death and the first time I baptized anyone. A few days later, I would conduct my first funeral.
Driving two hours home from the hospital in the early morning light, I had time to reflect on what I had just experienced. During that lengthy conversation with God, the realization overcame me that although I had none of the required skills or experiences to handle the situation, I had remained composed, dry eyed and able to focus on the family’s pastoral needs. Even though I was young and felt inadequate and had longed for a rescue by someone more able than I. And why? Why was I able to do that which I believed I could not do? Because at the moment God needed me to do it, God made me able.
Fast forward 17 years:
The day the war began in Iraq, I was in Kuwait with Bravo Surgical Company waiting to be called forward to provide near-front-line pastoral care for Marines. Immediately after hearing that American forces had gone through the breach, scud missiles started coming at us from across the border. The first time they shelled us, everyone ran to the bunkers, donned gas masks, charcoal lined suits and floppy rubber boots, and waited, hoping we would not be hit. Our other wish was that there not be a chemical or biological agent attached to the scud that might prove worse than an instant death. We waited in eerie silence until we heard a thud in the distance. Then we waited to learn if there were follow-on dangers. Next to me, a barely out of high school Marine began to hyperventilate inside his mask. Unable to speak because of my mask, I pulled him close, put his head on my shoulder and rubbed his back until his breathing normalized and he became calm. I remember thinking then that I was sure I could not do all that would soon be asked of me. These people needed a chaplain, and theirs was shaking in her combat boots.
The second scud alert came less than two hours after the first. Since we had not been issued a loud speaker, we were warned by two corpsmen sent running in opposite directions across the compound screaming “bunker, bunker, bunker.” On the way to shelter, I ran past my tent to grab the suit that was supposed to protect me from chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear agents. I already had my gas mask strapped to my leg, and I was wearing a helmet, flak jacket, canteen and first aid kit as required. When I arrived, there was an envelope on my cot. I grabbed it with my protective gear and ran for safety to my assigned hole in the sand, which had been fortified by sandbags and a makeshift wooden roof. I was in the bunker about a half hour when I remembered the envelope. I didn’t think it was a letter because our camp’s mail system had not been functioning. I looked at it. The postmark said Poughkeepsie, NY and the return information showed it was from the grandparents of the twins. We had not seen each other in at least a dozen years. How did they know I was in the Navy, serving with Marines in the Middle East, and how on earth had they found my address? It had changed twice and none of us had, as yet, received mail. How was it possible that I was holding a letter from that family? Yet there it was.
And why had they written? To remind me that no matter how scared I might be or how inadequate I might feel, they knew for certain I was not alone. The couple wanted to reassure me that God, who had given me every strength to help them when they lost their grandchildren, would not fail me or forsake me in whatever lay ahead. They ended the letter by telling me that if the twins had lived, they would have been almost old enough to be with me in Iraq, and they assured me that, as I had cared for them, I would be able to care for the young people with me. As evidence of God’s providence and grace, enclosed with the letter was a photograph of their daughter and son-in-law with their two teenagers. I remembered then that after losing the twins, their daughter had been told she likely could not have children, but there they were in the photo smiling at me.
Now I know who wrote that letter, but I also know who sent it. And the timing was impeccable. Less than two hours after admitting I did not think myself capable of doing what I had been called to do, God sent a response in the words of a couple I had always admired for their strong faith. That our mail service was not functioning, I had not spoken with the letter writers in years, and I was in a temporary, remote place doing something about which they shouldn’t have had a clue only added to my certainty. But their message in direct response to my fear and self-doubt made it unmistakable.
A lesson I have come to trust, based on repeated experience, is that when God wants to get my attention, He uses ordinary means that have a touch of the extraordinary about them. How do I know? I just know.
Through the whole combat deployment, as we cared for the severely injured in our field hospital in very austere and at times, frightening conditions, I carried that letter and picture in my cargo pocket. Daily it served as a reminder that if I relied on God’s providence and care, it would be enough. I am not implying that I carried it like a good luck charm to save me from harm. We were at war, and war is chaotic and lethal. That is reality. But so is God’s peace and presence. For me that peace is best described in Romans 8:14 which reads: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”That letter was a concrete reminder that no matter what happened, God was paying attention. After all, He had sent me a message seventeen years in the making.
I am sharing this story with you now because we are again in an extraordinary situation. We do not know what lies ahead for us individually, as families, as a nation, or as residents of our international community. We are moving into the future in much the same way military members go off to war: we know there are grave risks, we know we will be forever changed by what is about to happen and we know we cannot opt out of the mission. Our mettle is about to be tested in very personal ways. So is our faith.
The Gospel of Matthew calls Jesus Emmanuel, which means God with us. Trust in Him. It will be enough.
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