Sunday, January 15, 2012

Baptism in ICU

The call came from the chaplain of a local hospital. A female patient in her seventies in ICU, likely in her final days, wanted to be baptized. The chaplain’s faith tradition only allowed for baptism by immersion. He called me knowing that my tradition allowed sprinkling. Would I be willing to perform the baptism? Wow! A lot of questions flooded my mind.

I agreed to visit the woman and her family at the hospital that afternoon and talk to them, and from that to determine if it was something I could do. Paramount among all the questions running through my mind was the primary question for all followers of Christ, not just pastors—is this something God is calling me to do?

Somewhere in all the questions swirling in my heart and mind I remembered a story I had heard many years ago about a pastor in Paris being asked by Camus if he would baptize him. Yes, Albert Camus, the famous existentialist philosopher and atheist, in a private conversation asked Howard Mumma, a Methodist minister, if he would baptize him. The pastor and Camus had talked about faith and Christianity through the course of several summers when Mumma served as guest pastor at the American Church in Paris. Camus came to a place where he said, “I am ready, I want this.” “This” being forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life and the symbol of baptism to mark it. Mumma, though thrilled with Camus’ expression of faith, had a problem. Camus did not want to be baptized publicly. He wanted it to be a private affair between him and the pastor. Mumma explained this was not possible, that baptism, besides being a symbol of personal faith, was equally an act of becoming part of the company of believers—the church. Camus was not ready to embrace this. He did not want the church. He wanted salvation and baptism.

In his book, Albert Camus and the Minister, Mumma describes the agony of this dilemma he faced. But his conscience would not allow him to baptize Camus privately, and Camus insisted it be only between him and the minister. Mumma declined to do so but encouraged Camus to continue his studies and his journey of faith. Mumma returned to America and assured Camus that they would talk again when he returned to France the next year. Tragedy struck. Camus was killed in a car accident before Mumma returned.

Mumma now had to revisit his response to Camus’ request. You can read all about it in his book. But this is the story that immediately came to mind when I received the call to baptize this woman in ICU. What did I need to know and do in order to, in good conscience and in keeping with my ordination vows, be able to say yes to this woman? What was God calling me to do in these circumstances? Of course I had to get to the hospital and find out the circumstances.

I went to the hospital knowing I was entering very sacred space. Hospital rooms always are. (Actually, by God’s omnipresence all space is sacred. But we are not always aware of it or attentive to it. It is hard not to be attentive to the sacred in a hospital room where death is lurking.) The circumstances were complex and formidable. First the woman was on a respirator. She could not talk. While not in pain, she was heavily medicated. Consequently her ability to attend to conversation was very limited. But it was clear that she could hear, and she could understand and respond by nodding her head or closing her eyes. She could only express her faith and her desire to be baptized by these subtle physical cues. Her domestic partner of 26 years was by her bedside along with a sister and a brother-in-law. Her partner explained that this desire to be baptized was a longstanding one. The partner had promised she would help the dying woman find a way to be baptized. How was I to know how much of this “desire” was the dying woman’s to be baptized and how much was her partner’s desire to make good on a promise? As I have had time to think about it more, I am not sure it matters. I asked questions of the family, trying to determine how this dying woman got to the place she was. What had prevented her from being baptized all these years? They explained that the dying woman’s parents were not church goers but had had one of five children baptized. There was the residue of faith somewhere in this woman’s childhood.

I turned my attention to the dying woman. I read a few Scriptures and then talked directly to her again. Did she understand what it means that she is a sinner? She nodded her head. Did she understand that Jesus, out of his great love for her, died for her sin? She nodded her head. Did she understand that she could do nothing to earn this? She was growing tired, I could tell. I had to rouse her and ask her again. Did she understand that she could do nothing to earn this gift of forgiveness and eternal life? She looked right at me, intently, and nodded her head. It was then that I realized, lying in a bed on a respirator in her final days, she probably understood this better than most other people being baptized! And I, like Mumma, had to explain that it was not a private or even a biological family event. It is a communal event, and that in order for me to baptize her with integrity I would need to bring other members of the body of Christ, the church, with me for the baptism. Did she understand this and agree to my bringing some others with me to baptize her? She nodded her head. I also explained to her and the family that I did not have the authority to make the decision to baptize her. I would need to get this from the elders of the church. Thank goodness for email: I would be able to do it the same night.

Finally, I explained to her that baptism was not magic. It did not, by itself, guarantee anything. I explained to her it is the visible sign of an invisible reality. I could provide the visible sign—the water—but it only “worked” in the presence of the invisible reality—faith, the belief in the saving work of Christ on her behalf. And I explained that God alone knew what was in her heart, and it would be his knowledge alone that would save her and provide the forgiveness she needed. This is true for all of us no matter what our condition when we are baptized. I asked her if she understood what I had said? She nodded her head yes.

I left the hospital believing that God, through the hospital chaplain, was calling me to baptize this woman. And I was pretty sure the elders of my church would trust my recommendation and approve. For some reasons this woman’s baptism seemed more akin to the baptism of an infant—she was helpless in so many ways and another adult was speaking for her. The truth of the matter is no matter what age a person is at the time of baptism, and no matter who performs it or how much water is used, in every instance God is doing the work of offering mercy and grace. We are ALL helpless when it comes to salvation. And in every case no one but God really knows the condition of the heart of the person being baptized.

I left the hospital thinking about Camus and Mumma. I have often wondered what I would have done if I had been Camus’ pastor/confidant. I had my own Camus, now, and I was grateful for having heard his story in order to be able to enter this sacred space more aware and open to God’s calling.