After graduation from college I was invited to become Pastor of a small country church. The pay wasn't much, $100 a week, but a parsonage was provided and all utilities paid. Looking back now it seems impossible that anyone could have lived on that paycheck AND pay taxes and Social Security and still be able to buy a few groceries.
The people were wonderful, a Godsend to that young pastor. One dear lady brought me a gallon of fresh, home pasteurized milk every week. The cream was rich and thick as it floated on the surface of that milk. Church members kept my refrigerator full of fruits, vegetables, chickens, pork and beef. I needed very little. I was blessed.
On many Sundays someone would stop me as I walked past their pew and invite me to Sunday dinner at their home. My, oh my, the meals I had, the honor they bestowed on me. I was loved and I loved them.
John and Linda invited me home on a Sunday one Fall day. Little did I know that was the beginning of a journey with that couple.
After church I would always stand at the door and shake hands with folks as they left. Though I had been in their home a time or two, John offered to wait with me and Linda would drive home to their little two bedroom, one bath home on a side street right in town and get the meal ready. After I locked up we both folded ourselves into my little Ford Pinto and headed for town. We talked about the Fall weather, about squirrel hunting, about the harvest.
I still remember that Linda had fixed stuffed bell peppers. The peppers were huge and from John's garden. The meat, rice and tomato filling was rich and savory. White bread was stacked on a plate in the middle of the table and a huge bowl of "real" mashed potatoes sat with a puddle of butter just wanting me to spoon a huge glob onto my plate.
As we ate they told me they wanted me to be one of the first to know that they were not only expecting, but Linda was having twins. They had already told their parents and wanted me to know. I was thrilled for them. We laughed and talked of names for boys and girls. Linda fretted about two babies at once, John worried that their little white cottage would not be big enough for two babies. Linda didn't work outside the home and they fretted about paying for everything they needed. I reminded them that our little country church would rally around them just as they did for others on a regular basis. Baby clothes would creep out of closets and I knew a baby shower would be high on the agenda for the Women's Missionary Union.
Before the WMU could plan that baby shower there were complications. John called and talked to me in a quiet voice. Linda was crying in the background as he told me of the issues and complications Linda was having as she struggled to carry her two babies to full term. He wanted me to pray with them over the phone, said Linda would press her face against his and they would both listen to the phone as I prayed. I told them to wait a few minutes and I drove the 15 minutes to their home.
When I arrived John was waiting at the door. As soon as I was out of my car he was out the door with his big old arms raised and waiting to wrap themselves around me. He hugged me and started to cry as we stood in their little front yard. Mind you, this was a big farm boy and he was sobbing like I had never heard a man sob. His heart was breaking.
As we stood there and I talked quietly to him, I heard Linda begin to cry and we both turned to see her standing in the door. We went in and I hugged them both and we wept together. They thanked me for coming and apologized for making me come out that late in the evening. It was my place to be there, not duty, but where I needed to be, exactly where God wanted me to be.
I've sat often in the last few days and thought of that. Imagine, they were gracious and grateful that I came to be with them.
Things did not get better. The complications became worse and Linda was put on bed rest and then was hospitalized, much too soon before her due date. She made it past her sixth month before the problems became life threatening. She was rushed to the "big hospital" in Louisville, Kentucky and the doctors there tried to stabilize her and give the twins time to develop more.
Unfortunately, that was not what happened. Far too soon the doctors had to deliver two tiny little boys, more than two months before their due date. I received a call from John's mama and in the middle of the night drove to Louisville to be with the family. We sat together and waited, praying and hoping.
Both boys lived through the delivery and Linda began to recover quickly. I wish the same could be said for the twins. John and Linda named they Danny and David. I went into her room to speak with Linda and she told me their names and asked me to tell church folks and ask them to pray.
I was able to see them through the observation window to the prenatal ICU. They were both in the clear plastic incubators, wired and intubated and so very tiny. John stood beside me and Linda walked up, holding onto the metal pole that held her IVs. We stood and whispered. Their pride and hurt came in waves, first smiles, then tears. We held hands and prayed for those two little twins.
"They are identical", Linda said as she watched them.
Though identical, their complications and issues became quickly different. Both had undeveloped lungs. They struggled to breath, they struggled to live. I drove from my little parsonage to the big hospital in Louisville two and three days each week to be with John and Linda and their extended families. Their Mamas would bring Tupperware bowls full of food and we would sit together in the waiting area.
John and Linda were allowed in once an hour for just a few minutes. We could see them standing in the gowns they had to wear, faces covered with masks, hands gloved as they would reach into the incubator and touch Danny and David. They would stand as long as they were allowed and hold their little babies by the hand.
Pressure mounted in their skulls that had to be relieved, hemorrhages happened. They were black and blue from bruising.But John and Linda loved their boys. They called them by name and whispered their love through the plastic of the incubators.
More than once one of them would give up their time and ask me to suit up and go in with the other parent. I would stand on one side of the incubator and John or Linda on the other. We would push our hands through the portals and gently touch and stroke their little heads, their pain wracked bodies. We would each reach with one finger and they would grasp our finger with their hands.
I was only 24. I was not much more than a boy. I didn't have a lot of money and would worry about having enough gas to get to and from Louisville. There was always a way made for me. A Deacon would take my hand as he left and press cash into my hand, "You go see them babies. Tell John I'm prayin'.". Sometimes folks would slide a ten dollar bill into the chest pocket of my suit, "Use that where you need to".
Mrs. Sexton was a widow lady that lived in a two story white farm house on an eleven acre farm. She would laugh and say the farm was one acre wide and eleven acres long. In the winter she would shut off the heat to every room except the kitchen. A cot would be her bed and she would live in the kitchen with her little dog until spring so she didn't have to heat that big old drafty farm house. When I would visit she would sit on the cot, I sat on a kitchen chair and we would hold coffee mugs tight as we talked.
One Sunday during that time when I was driving back and forth to Louisville to be with John and Linda and their families, Mrs. Sexton slipped me a check for $20. I got a little teary eyed and told her she didn't need to do that. I said I knew she couldn't afford to give me money like that. She was living in her kitchen! I tried to hand it back to her.
She began to cry and changed my life in a way I didn't expect. "Brother Steve, don't take away my joy of giving. I want you to take that. I need for you to take it and be grateful, be joyful for the gift." I hugged her, thanked her and went to my office to sit instead of visiting with folks. How she had humbled me. What a lesson in grace and sacrifice she taught me.
David struggled for almost three weeks before his little body gave up. He died with his Mama and Daddy holding his hands. Though I had received a call to come, I didn't make it in time, but arrived about 30 minutes after he was gone. John and Linda were emotionally destroyed. They sobbed when I walked in, both jumping up and running to me. I held them for so very long as they wept on my shoulders. They were both older than me but they sought solace in what I could say, in my prayers.
They asked me if I would do David's funeral. I did not hesitate and agreed. As I drove home the staggering weight of that task hit me hard.
I had never done a funeral. Sure, I had married some folks, but that is a joyous occasion. The bride and groom didn't care or remember what I said. This was different. This was a precious little boy who had never had a chance to be held and fed, played with and loved like most kids. He had been in a plastic box all wired up from the beginning of his life.
I had been a believer since I was 9 years old. I had heard to stories of Jesus, had thought often of his sacrifice for the world, for me. When I thought of John 3:16; "For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son; that whosoever believes should not perish but have everlasting life.", I pondered it, I pondered who and what Jesus was so many times. I committed myself to serve Him, the be a Disciple, to be His. I had no doubt that God was real, that Jesus was God's Son, that He was fully man and fully God.
But how do you stand in front of a family broken down by the death of a tiny baby and give them hope? Was my faith strong enough? Did I not just believe but KNOW? Can I look that Daddy in the eye and say, "I know our Redeemer lives and I know that your little boy is with Him even now."
For the next couple nights and days I walked the halls of our little country church. I cried and prayed. I sat in pews and stared at the pulpit I stood in on Sunday. I wandered from room to room, stopping, looking, thinking, pondering and worrying. I was not enough. I worried, no, I knew I was not able to say what they needed me to say, to be who they needed me to be. I was just empty and upset that with my Type A personality in ruins, I was unable to fix things, I had answers, but how do I reassure parents as the lifeless body of their little boy lay in a tiny casket?
God and I talked a lot over those days. He chastized me, broke my heart and humbled me. I was not up to the task. Nothing I could say would be enough. I couldn't fix anything. Nothing anyone could say was enough. The "I'm so sorry for your loss" that would be repeated time and again meant little to those who grieved is what I realized. It wasn't about me, though I thought it was. It was always about Him.
Finally during one long night I realized what I had missed as I wallowed in self pity and loathing. What I said didn't matter at all. God was there all along, the Holy Spirit, the Comfortor, the Paraklete had been promised to John and Linda. HE promised to never leave us or forsake us.
When I arrived at the funeral home John and Linda were already there. On a table in front was a tiny white casket and David was there, dressed in a white gown. His skin was alabaster and he was beautiful. John took me by the arm and walked me over. "Isn't he handsome?" John asked. "He's beautiful, John. He was a gift, you know. For a few weeks he was a gift from God.".
"I know, Brother Steve. We know and we were blessed to be his Mommy and Daddy for the short time God lent him to us."
I looked John in the eyes and hugged him. "You know you'll see David again. You know he is in the arms of Jesus even now, don't you?" There it was. My confession of faith. I don't just believe, I KNOW. I needed to know, to be sure so I could stand honestly in front of this grieving couple and offer hope.
More than once that day they thanked me and others for all that had been done for them. John said it best, "We love all of you for being there. For giving us your time and prayers. We needed you and you were there." I guess that is what the Church is all about, what Christianity is to us all, it is being there.
I don't remember what the funeral message was about exactly, I have no idea what scripture I used. What I do know is we gathered together to comfort folks we loved, to remind them of promises made to us by God, to the sacrifice of Jesus for us. We remembered that He loved us and we trusted Him.
As I grow older I find it more difficult to understand our society that pushes beliefs and social changes on us that we do not, cannot support because of things that are contrary to our faith. If we disgard what we believe, what our Bible teaches, do we really believe anything at all? I can't let go of what I believe simply because it is inconvenient to the world. I must hold tight to these things or I am lost and destroyed in spirit.
How difficult it was to see them as they laid their little boy into the ground. How hard for them to walk away from that place. I wonder even now if they go back and stand, wondering what might have been.
Danny lived. He had multiple operations, had significant vision problems and wore glasses even as a baby. He became a sweet little blonde headed boy. His parents sold the little white house and moved to a small subdivision out from town a bit so Danny would have a big yard to play in.
Last time I saw the family, saw Danny, we talked long over coffee about that terrible time, of the hurts and agony of losing David. We wept once more together and watched as Danny ran and played in their backyard and Linda spoke as we watched,
"But Danny lived."