Keeping your religion while single-handedly getting small children ready for church can become a theological juggling act capable of tripping even the most devout among us. Just waking a ‘tween in time to shower is a miracle nothing short of beckoning the dead to life.
But when you add in a preschool son who likes lizards more than a good bowtie and a first-grade daughter insistent on doing her own hair, you have the same beginnings of the Sunday I had several years ago. But to complete the equation, be sure you mix in an out-of-town wife on a Sunday when you are preaching for an out-of-town pastor while simultaneously being on call at the hospital.
At this point, you have a full-blown crisis of faith. With my head and phone ringing in stereo, I dropped the juggling and morphed into my best maitre’d voice.
“Chaplain, we need you in the ER.”
Since I was the hospital’s only chaplain — and without child care — I exercised my option to decline “inconvenient calls.” ER nurses know many colorful combinations of language, but I wasn’t prepared to hear what I heard next.
I dropped the phone to my lap while I enjoyed the luxury of a breath before rejoining the conversation. “I suppose I could?.”
She was in no mood to hear my child-care plan.
“Now, chaplain. It’s a bad one.”
The last sentence was redundant. ER nurses don’t use the “P” word if it’s not especially bad. A call to a neighbor nurse found haven for my kids and gave me quick entrance through the first set of automatic doors outside the ER. For a brief second, I was insulated between the two sets of doors that separated me from the Southern humidity outside and the wails of family members inside.
As the second set of doors opened, my first thought was that it looked like an entire church was assembled in the ER waiting room. My second thought was — they were. There were suits and scarves; hats and handkerchiefs; Bibles and bulletins. Only the pews and preacher were missing. Unable to tell the players without a score card, a triage nurse gave me the grim score. “Drunken Driver 1, Kid 0.”
“Room 19,” she added.
Room 19 was where we always put someone who had “expired.” Expired was a word used for out-of-date medicine, but in the ER, it was one more word that helped separate staff from the possibility that it could be our loved one in Room 19. Making my way past secondary family and friends, I slipped unnoticed into Room 19, which was packed with the immediate family. I paused reverently at the doorway until a break in the sobbing allowed me entrance.
“I’m the hospital chaplain,” I said.
The crowd parted and I was ceremoniously motioned toward the gurney to lead a prayer. But, my prayer disintegrated in my throat as I looked at the unforgettable sight of a small, seemingly unbroken, figure of a 9-year old boy. I distinctly remember thinking here was a little boy whose body was absent of the very thing that defines little boys — movement and energy. Aren’t little boys supposed to be so wiggly and squirmy that they are described as being made of “snails and puppy dog tails?”
And yet, this was most probably a boy whose life had been everything but static. It had moved, yearned, and inspired. “He won’t ever preach again,” his uncle muttered to me. My doubt gushed from my firmly blinking eyes.
“Preach?” I blurted.
“Oh yes,” he said, “he’s been preaching since he was 6. He spent countless hours playing church until his mom finally asked our pastor for the opportunity for the boy to preach.”
Child preachers were a part of the family’s religious tradition that didn’t squelch the religious interests of children. Children were made a part of worship that was expressed and heard by all congregants. I imagine that some would find fault with what seemed to be the tyranny of religious expectations on this boy’s life, but the critics would also be compelled to acknowledge there are those who wait all their lives to find their calling, while this little boy knew his calling and expressed it until his last breath.
And now, after that last breath, the little preacher continued to inspire the faithful to worship as the congregation remained to sing “just one more song.”
After excusing myself to pick up my children, I began comparing my earlier efforts at practically dragging my kids to church while this little preacher was somehow able to drag an entire church family behind him. I realized in my anxiousness to get to church that day, I almost missed the joy of seeing the church do the work for which it was called. If it takes a village to raise a child, then this was a day on which I had been privileged to witness a child that had single-handedly raised the standards of his own village.