Note: This article includes a description of a stillborn birth.
It seemed to be a normal evening. I was at home watching TV when I received an urgent call from one of the members of my congregation who needed my help.
She was a nurse at the local hospital, and she wanted me to come help with a spiritual crisis in the labor and delivery wing. As quickly as I could slide back into my ministerial attire, I raced to the hospital. My friend quickly escorted me to the room so I could talk with the family in crisis.
The room was brightly lit, and the family was present. There was a hospital bassinet near the mother’s bed. The bassinet was made of clear plastic so the medical professionals could keep their eyes on the child as they worked. At the bottom of the bassinet was a mattress of sorts, white and padded. The baby rested there. It was strange to notice there was no blanket swaddling her.
Normally, in a labor room there is a family with delight written all over their faces. Normally, a tired mother can be found doting on her precious newborn, her face beaming with a joy that overcomes her exhaustion. There was none of that here.
I went over to the bassinet to see the baby, and she was perfect. She had the prettiest little face, chubby cheeks, flawless brown skin, and a perfect little nose. Her head was covered in curly hair and she was delightfully round. Had I not known what had happened, I never would have guessed. I never would have guessed until I touched her chubby little hands. They were room temperature.
This perfect, precious baby had died in delivery. It was one of those tragic deaths for which no reason could be found. The pregnancy was normal. The baby was healthy all the way. Labor was normal. The baby was in good health until — until she was not. She died in delivery for no apparent reason. She was just gone.
I looked at the faces in the room. They were full of profound grief. I suspect if I were in that situation, I would be angry. Angry at the doctors, angry at the nurses, angry at the situation. I might even have been angry at God. Unexpected trauma can bring out the worst in us.
“Instead of the glee they had expected that night, sadness covered the room like an evil fog.”
This family, though, seemed not so much angry as numb. Instead of the glee they had expected that night, sadness covered the room like an evil fog. Feeling numb was a bit of a comfort, almost like a self-preserving reflex. At least in the numbness they did not have to feel the stinging grief of her death. Even though the room was bright, the mother’s eyes were darkened.
I tried to help. I spoke the words of faith. I ministered as best I knew how. To this day, I hope the Lord used my feeble words to bring healing. I stayed, and we talked for a while. The mother then looked at me and asked, “Will you baptize her?”
I, of course, am a Baptist. I do not believe in infant baptism. At that point, though, I put my thoughts on the matter aside and got some water. While making the sign of the cross on her cold forehead, I said, “I baptize you my sister in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
I did it as an act of faith, hoping God would forgive me if I sinned in my compassion.
This perfect little baby never breathed the air in the delivery room. She never cried as the doctor held her. She never made a sound. Her little eyes never danced as she saw her mother for the first time. Her lips never touched a bottle, and she never felt her mother’s first kiss on her cheek or her mother’s tears of delight drop on her forehead.
I believe, however, she was a person. She had a fingerprint all her own. Her pupils had a pattern no other person will share exactly. Her perfect little face might share similarities with others, but it was uniquely hers. More importantly, this beautiful baby was a bearer of the image of God.
She was as much in the image of God while she laid lifelessly in the bassinet as she was when her mother carried her, named her, made preparation for her life and dreamed about what her life would be like.
“When did she become a person? When did she start bearing the image of God? When did her life become life?”
When did she become a person? When did she start bearing the image of God? When did her life become life? Surely she could not have been a person only because of her mother’s attachment to her. Surely she could not have been a person only because it is natural for people to look at others and personify them. No, this child was a person because of something innate within her. Her innate personhood preceded her birth.
To deny her personhood, is to deny the obvious. She was living before she perished. To deny her personhood is to tell her mother nothing of significance has happened, when her mother clearly knew something horrendous happened: Life was lost.
Life is beautiful. It is a gift to be cherished. Life is the gift of the Creator in whom all of us “live and move and have our being.” Life is life. Life is life regardless of location or condition. Life is life whether the person is able to speak or not. As the gift of a good God, life is to be protected.
Layne Wallace serves as senior pastor of Rosemary Baptist Church, Roanoke Rapids, N.C., and is author of Karl Barth’s Concept of Nothingness: A Critical Evaluation.
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