“Your daughter has a syndrome that is incompatible with life.” After having enjoyed three healthy pregnancies, these were not words we expected to hear in the delivery room that cold January morning in 1993. Not knowing what the hours and days ahead would hold, and filled with fear and grief, we stumbled forward. But we were not alone. In addition to our families who arrived to offer support and care almost immediately, we had our church family who offered us support in a way I will never, ever forget. And although this happened 20 years ago, I am thinking about it now because as I write this, we are celebrating today’s birth of Avery Adams and Sunday’s baptism of Jill and Jillian Clanton.
In the Presbyterian church, we baptize babies. (We baptize all ages, but we love baptizing babies!) Baptism is a symbol of God’s promise to choose us as God’s own and make us a part of the covenant family of the church. In the waters of baptism, we joyfully exclaim, “Welcome to the family!”
We knew we wanted to have Joanna baptized. Her Presbyterian minister grandfather was in town, many of our family members were present. And we’re lifelong Presbyterians. We’ve always done it that way! But we were faced with a situation that was new to us. How do you baptize a baby in the neo-natal intensive care unit whose life expectancy is limited without feeling like what you are really doing is preparing for a funeral?
We weren’t sure, but we knew we wanted to claim those promises of God’s love for Joanna and we wanted family to be present. We didn’t have the handmade smocked dress that our other three children wore. We didn’t have the noisy, laughing family dinner after a Sunday service. But we did have the necessary things. Our minister Bob Pierce, dressed in a sterile yellow gown, was there , Bible in hand, to help my father officiate. Our friend David was the elder representative who held a small bottle of sterile water that served as the baptismal font that day. Our families were present and we all crowded into a tiny room in the NICU that the staff nurses at VCU prepared for us. In many ways, it was the most unlikely place to carry out a decent, orderly Presbyterian baptism. But what made it so overwhelmingly beautiful to me is that an hour or so before Joanna was to be baptized, our friend Paul called to say that the congregation would be gathering in the sanctuary during Joanna’s baptism at MCV. They would be reading Scripture, praying, and taking the congregational vows to support and nurture Joanna and her parents that are a part of every single baptism we do. That was the missing piece that turned this baptism from something about which I was anxious and into a moment of true grace. I needed my church family. Because it’s not just God, the parents and the baby who play the important roles in a baptism. The members provide the context. Joanna would be claimed as a child of God and this particular congregation would joyfully welcome her into the family of God and promise to love and care for her as long as she lived.
And, oh, how they did that. One of our favorite stories of that time was my son saying one night after weeks of delicious dinners provided to us by congregation members, “We haven’t had fish sticks in the longest time!” (I’m somewhat embarrassed to share that comment about my cooking repertoire.) My dear friend Ann spent a morning with me teaching me how to insert and remove Joanna’s feeding tube, a skill that I never wanted to learn and that terrified me, but was accomplished by Ann’s gracious and encouraging support. Other friends came and spent time with us, holding and rocking Joanna while managing her oxygen canister and carrying on conversations about the everyday moments of life that made me feel like I could find my way back to solid ground. Bob Pierce spent time with me while I agonized with the tension between my devotion to Psalm 139 that declares that God created Joanna and knew her name before she was even born, and my sense that a loving God would never intend for Joanna to labor for every breath. Other friends came and took our other children off to play dates. Still others watched Joanna so I could take a nap. Many wrote or called daily to tell us they were holding us and Joanna in prayer. So many countless acts of everyday kindness and support that demonstrated this wonderful congregation’s commitment to the promises they made with us to nurture Joanna in love and faith. And when she died when she was a month old, they joined us once again in the sanctuary to offer praise and thanks to God for her life and God’s grace which exhibited itself time and time again in a situation I believed on the day she was born that I could not survive. No one would ever teach Joanna in church school, or celebrate her confirmation, or listen to her compassionately while she complained about her mean parents as a teenager. But the gifts of nurture she and our entire family received were profound. It is no surprise to Bob and me that when we look back on this month in our lives, what we primarily remember is love and joy and immeasurable grace.
And it began when the congregation provided the missing link between the NICU and the church. Gathered in that place, with us in spirt, they celebrated God’s claim on Joanna as one of God’s own, and made promises to her and to God and to us . And they kept those promises in the most beautiful of ways. Of all the gifts I have ever received through participating in the life and work of GPPC, this has been the greatest.
So Avery and Jill and Jillian, welcome to the family of God and to your church family at GPPC. I am glad to join the other members here who count it a joy and a privilege and a sacred and special responsibility to love and nurture you as you grow in faith among us.
Ann and Bob Knox joined our church in 1985. Their three GPPC -raised children are now scattered around the globe, but will be converging on the homestead next week to visit Bob ( who is mostly enjoying some time off for cardiac rehab) and Ann (who plans to be in hog heaven with both grandchildren in the home). Ann is the managing editor of our web site, and also finds time to direct the Instructional Resource Center at Union Presbyterian Seminary.