By Norris Burkes May 8 2020

When my phone rang at 3 a.m., it wasn’t Mother’s Day. However, as the nurse began speaking, I knew this day in 2003 would belong to a new mother.

“Chaplain, we have a baby not doing well,” she reported. “Parents are asking that you please come.” Thirty minutes later, I walked into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of Sacramento’s Sutter Medical Center, a place staff call “nick-you.”

It is a close-quarters world of wires, IV bottles and backlit beds. It’s a space where doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists squeeze through tangled tubes to deliver highly specialized health care to the tiniest people you’ll ever see.

I found the new mother in her wheelchair outside the NICU. Between sobbing breaths, she began recounting the dire predictions doctors made all through her problem pregnancy. For months, she had nursed thin hopes that doctors would be wrong.

But now it was obvious that her son’s lungs were underdeveloped lungs and he had a leaky heart. Mom wanted a chaplain to help her wrestle with the surgeon’s recommendation for a birth-day operation.

“Is God just teasing us?” the mom wondered. “What do we have to do?

“How do we pray?” she asked me. “Would it help for you to baptize him? We’ve got to do something! He has to have a chance.”

In my Baptist tradition, we don’t baptize babies. But those who would debate theology at a time like that have never looked into the eyes of desperate parents and heard them plead, “Do something, Chaplain!”

So I asked the nurse to help me wheel the mother into the NICU where we could say a prayer beside the incubator. With more than 50 incubators, the unit can be very cramped, but the staff prepared the space for an “emergency blessing.”

At bedside, I opened a bottle of sterile water and placed a drop on the baby’s forehead. My prayer was simple: “Hold this child in your hand and help him hear your voice. Bless his life, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

With that, Momma’s whimpers melted into weeping as she took her son’s tiny hand and — finding a spot that wasn’t wrapped, poked or monitored —placed a kiss in his tiny palm and whispered something into those tiny fingers. Then, as if she had placed a thing of priceless value in her son’s grip for safekeeping, she closed it tight.

This mother’s love reminds me of the miraculous way God whispers his love into the hand of each of us when we are born — placing there a promise that, no matter what, he will never let us go. And having pledged that love to us from our first breath to our last, he wraps our fingers around that promise for safekeeping.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I sometimes forget how personal and deep God’s love is for each of us. As a minister I often talk about the depth of God’s love, but it took witnessing this mother’s heartfelt whisper into a tiny hand to remind me that God’s love is forever present.

I’ll never know the exact words that she entrusted to her son’s grasp. But in the coming weeks of miraculous procedures and risky surgeries, the real miracle was that this child never released the grip of his mother’s promise — and three months after birth, he went home a healthy little boy.

This column was excerpted from my book “No Small Miracles.” It is available for purchase at or send $15 to 10566 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602. Email or leave a voicemail at (843) 608-9715.