THE CHAPLAIN Series

 

The Baptism of Jesus

Go Forth and Baptize

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

Matthew 3:11b

“At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove    and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my child, whom I love; with  him I am well pleased.”                 Matthew 3:16b-17

It was a house fire. The father climbed back in through a window to save his two kids, a girl and a boy. They all died,” the nurse told Chaplain Lydia Jackson when she arrived at the hospital. “The mother is here. And the grandmother.  Could you sit with them?”

Lydia entered the Emergency Room and saw two gurneys. Each gurney held a small child, head resting on a pillow and body covered with another white sheet. Side by side, the brother and sister lay.  The chaplain was overwhelmed for a moment, until the nurse’s voice broke in again.

“Both children are dead, but the doctor hasn’t come back to officially pronounce the second child. We can’t wait any longer. You and I will have to inform the family.”

“Okay,” Lydia answered.

“The family is Catholic. We’ve called a priest. The mother wants the children baptized,” the nurse added.

“I’ll wait with them until he gets here.”

Some thirty minutes later, a priest from a local congregation arrived. He conferred with the medical staff, came into the family waiting room, and announced he would be able to baptize only one of the children – the one who had not yet been pronounced dead. The other one was beyond his jurisdiction.

Lydia’s eyes widened. She surely hadn’t heard correctly.

“What did he just say?”

“He’s going to baptize one of them,” the nurse answered. “The one who hasn’t been pronounced dead is still technically alive.”

The family, priest, nurse, and chaplain walked to the small room where the children were. Approaching the child who was still technically alive, the priest performed a short ceremony, offered a prayer, and left.

Stricken, Lydia looked around for her spiritual companion. She thought she saw a tear, possibly several, on the Visage hovering close by the children. Taking a deep breath, she moved to the side of the crying mother.

“Would you like me to baptize your daughter?”

The mother looked up, raised her eyebrows just a little, and quietly said, “Yes.”

Lydia poured some water from the Emergency Room sink into a plastic bowl and found two cotton balls. Returning to the bedside of the child, she quietly began speaking her understanding of Christian baptism.

“Baptism is a symbol acknowledging what God has already done. God has claimed this child for His own and has wrapped her in His never-ending love.” The Presence standing by the children today appeared as the loving father who lost his life attempting to rescue his family from their burning home.

We cannot presume to know whom God embraces as his own. Had this little girl lived, her family would have raised her up to love God and know God’s laws.”

She looked at the mother and received the expected nod of concurrence.

“This mother entrusts the soul of her child to the arms of her Lord and believes fervently in the Lord’s saving grace.”

Again, she received a nod and a smile from the mother.

“What is the full name of your child?”

Turning again to the little girl, Lydia dipped a cotton ball in the water and dabbed the child’s forehead. “Catherine Marie”, she said, “I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. You are now and will always be a Child of God. In Christ’s name, Amen.”

The chaplain hugged the family and stayed with them until they were able to leave the bodies of the father and the children to the care of the hospital staff. Funeral preparations would begin in the morning.

Let’s go home now, the Presence whispered to the shaken chaplain.

~~

The following day, Lydia hunted down her friend, the Irish priest, the one who had not been on-call the previous night. He was eating doughnuts in the cafeteria with two hospital workers with Downs Syndrome.  The three were fast friends and spent many a 15-minute break together.

“I sure wish you were here last night,” Lydia began.

“Gotta have some time off,” the priest answered with a smile.  “Anything happen?”

Lydia launched into her tale. 

“That was Father LeBlanc,” the priest explained. “He’s technically correct, but I would have baptized both kids – and the father, too – if they’d asked. I think God would forgive me, if forgiveness was in order.”

Told you so, the Presence smiled.  Sometimes you have to go with your gut.

Lydia felt better. Most Protestant faiths don’t baptize people after they die, either, she reflected, but this situation was decidedly different.

Decidedly, came the Voice.

~~

Baptizing dead and dying children is not uncommon in the hospital setting. Lydia deeply believed what she told the mother: God doesn’t need man to help Him decide whether or not to accept a child into heaven. She also felt that formal baptism in such instances was more for the parents, than for the child. A parent of a child who has died needs assurance that he or she had done everything earthly possible to provide for that child even after death. For some, this includes the sacrament of baptism. For others, it most certainly does not.

~~

Lydia soon embarked upon a surrealistic adventure on the mental health unit involving baptism. She was summoned to the adult unit to meet with a young man, well into his twenties, who wished to be baptized. During Lydia’s conversation with him, she was impressed with the man’s understanding of baptism and his long-standing desire to receive the sacrament. They planned the ceremony for Thursday, just two days away. The young man was very pleased.

On Wednesday, Lydia walked onto the unit.

“You are the chaplain!? You should be fired, de-frocked! You are unprofessional and just plain stupid,” shouted a red-faced, angry man in a suit.

“I’m Lydia,” she began.

“I know who you are. I’m taking my son the hell out of this institution right now,” the Suit screamed, moving closer and deeper in to her personal space.    

Lydia glanced around for someone who might come to her defense, but the only person nearby was a quiet, mousey-looking woman pasted against the wall whom Lydia figured to be the wife of Shouting Suit.

“I really don’t know what you are upset about.”

“My son. You agreed to baptize my son. Any fool would know better than to do that!” he shouted. “I am a psychiatrist and I know what is best for my son.”

You are concerned about your son; maybe you need this time to scream at someone; but hit me, Mister, and I’ll take you down, she thought theologically. The tirade continued.

“We’ll cancel the baptism,” Lydia interrupted, in an effort to deescalate the situation. “You tell your son.” She took her leave of the man and returned to her office.

When the coast was clear, she went back to the unit to explain the new set of circumstances to the son. He seemed to understand; he did know his father.

“The desire to be baptized sometimes has to suffice,” she offered.  “Such a Baptism of Desire is as good in the eyes of God as a few drops of water.”

 She left rather quickly, to avoid The Return of The Suit.

~~

You’d better get your ducks in order, the Presence offered as they walked to the spiritual care office. This guy could be a problem.

Lydia consulted with her friend, the priest – who confirmed her “desire in the eyes of God” theory. She called her attorney, who told her he’d stand by – but that baptizing people was a recognized aspect of a clergyperson’s job description.

Next she called a psychiatrist – a Jewish psychiatrist. He allowed as though baptism just might have been beneficial to the young man’s mental health.

The Presence and Lydia together breathed a sigh of relief.

If he comes back, we’re ready for him, they signaled each other.

~~

The Suit did not return. He did collect his son and, Lydia later learned, the hospital waived his medical charges. No one ever addressed the issue with Lydia again. But she often thought of the young man who so desperately wanted to be a Christian.

~~

“Actually, I’m a Buddhist, Mom,” Lydia’s youngest daughter informed her. “This Christianity stuff is bunk. Have you read the Old Testament?”

Lydia and the Presence glanced at one another.

The kid then took the stage and offered a dramatic reading from the Book of Leviticus -- something about red lizards, and cloth, and breaking clay pots. It all made Lydia dizzy.

“I don’t like the pre-printed prayers,” the girl’s sister chimed in. “And the people are old; and I don’t like the music; and I especially don’t like the sermon part. Furthermore, I took a test on the Internet, and I’m a Unitarian!”

The young women had put their four feet down: Hell no, we won’t go!

It was hard for Lydia to complain. After a week at the hospital and Saturday night on-call shifts, she didn’t want to go either. The father of the house was uninterested, and usually working, so the family seldom attended church services during this period of their lives.

Even Lydia’s son entered the fray. His wife was Pentecostal. After attending services with her once or twice, the young man announced that he was too Presbyterian for all that, and refused to attend the Pentecostal church any longer. The wife, of course, refused to attend the Presbyterian Church, which was just as well because none of the rest of the family was there anyway.

It’s okay, they’ll be okay, the Presence would re-assure her, but Lydia still wished that she knew how to bring those whom she loved into a closer relationship with God.

How do you know what kind of relationship we have?, the Presence would chide. Let it be.

And Lydia would drift into a well-earned sleep.

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