Every three months, my denomination requests a report about my activities as a chaplain. I remember staring at a blank report in 1996 searching for a category that would fit the phone call I had received a few weeks previous.
“Chaplain,” said the caller, who turned out to be my neighbor, “they are trying to take our baby.”
“Who?” I demanded.
“The county sheriff,” he responded.
“I’ll be right over,” I promised.
But first, I called the security force desk.
The sergeant who answered the phone sounded relieved for the offer of help. He launched into a report he’d received about my neighbor who was holding a dead baby.
“The mother’s refusing to allow authorities to remove it from the home. Can you meet the officer at her door?”
My neighbor, with the help of two midwifes, had delivered the child earlier that day. The family knew for months their baby had a condition known as anencephaly. It was a condition that causes babies to die, either stillborn or shortly after birth. Because the brain is only partially formed, the head often is grossly deformed.
Not expected to survive for even minutes, this scrappy little guy surprised us all and hung on for most of the day before I arrived.
A few minutes after the call, the security force officer and I entered the home to be greeted by the smell of decay. Mark, the father, was holding his newborn in a blanket that covered the baby’s head and partially revealed his cherub face.
“Don’t you think he’s an angel?” asked the father.
“Yes, he is,” I said, acknowledging that the love of parents who want a child always will make that child more beautiful than anything gestation could possibly conclude.
With that one remark, a quiet settled over the room that seemed to dispel any concerns about people holding a dead baby.
A few minutes later, a very sensitive base commander entered the apartment and immediately knelt in front of the mother to offer his condolences. In the next hour or so, we were able to see the baby baptized, perfumed and dressed for his final crib. Two days later, a funeral was conducted and final goodbyes were said.
Later, as I sat looking at my denominational form, I realized there’s no place on the form to report the temporary billeting of an angel.
The word “angel” means messenger. If you’d have seen this child, you may have wondered what message he brought in his short visit.
Well, I’m guessing that in the few hours this child spent breathing and drooling onto the shoulder of his parents — people who could find no end to their tears — this child whispered a message of hope.
And if mom and dad were listening, in between their sobs, I think they heard some good news.
The good news was that life is a precious and mysterious gift. And while its length varies with each recipient, it remains a gift that must be expended to be received.
As I looked at my report, straining to place this event into some category, I must confess my surprise that life has a funny way of erupting into categories that didn’t previously exist.
So, if you are one who lives life by the list or by the chart, God has a way of sending angels into our lives that often will allow for the creation of new categories.
Burkes is a former civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. Write firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thechaplain.net. You can follow him on Twitter — username is “chaplain” — or on Facebook at facebook.com/norrisburkes.