I can finally breathe again. Not only because the viral infection in my chest and sinuses, which so afflicted me during Holy Week, was finally spent in the first week of the Resurrection. Nor only because my daily routine has returned somewhat to normal after the very hectic and demanding pace of Lent and Holy Week and the beginning of Eastertide. I know that the entire Church on earth is breathing her "Alleluias!" again, after holding her breath throughout the Lenten fast — and I rejoice in that, too, of course — but even that is not precisely what I have in mind.
In part I am breathing easier because it seems evident that my dear eldest son, Zachary, is doing fine and well and good. After a couple MRIs and a spinal tap and multiple visits to neurologists and neural surgeons, it appears that the trauma he suffered in his cerebellum when he passed out and fell and hit his head after giving blood, way back in January, was temporary after all. Multiple Sclerosis and Lymphoma were ruled out by the spinal tap, and it is unlikely that the images appearing on the MRIs will prove to be anything of lasting substance. He will have another MRI in June, in order to verify that his brain has returned to its normal healthy condition, but in the meantime we have been given no reason to suppose that anything is wrong. So, my heart has beat a little slower and more evenly again since receiving that news.
But now I can breathe again because I have heard and received the precious comfort of the Gospel for the death of my youngest son, Job, from the womb of my dear wife to the courts of his Father in heaven. Certainly, LaRena and I were given the Word of the Gospel at the time of Job's death, the 20th of February in this Year of Our Lord 2008. But this evening — in the courts of the Lord's House, in the midst of His Jerusalem, in the congregation of the faithful — we remembered our Job with thanksgiving (and others who have died in the womb or shortly after their earthly birth) in connection with the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord. Thus did we mourn our son's departure as those who hope in the Cross and Resurrection of that same Lord, Jesus Christ, who was conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary for this very purpose.
With nine other children, our gracious Lord had previously spared us this particular loss and sorrow, though we have grieved with friends and loved ones over miscarriages and still births and infant deaths. To experience this grief and heartache ourselves was yet a new thing for us, and we sought the comfort and wisdom and guidance of our pastor to help us. From the start, he spoke the Word of God to us, particularly the comfort of the Gospel, and in this we were strengthened and sustained in our faith. We wanted also to confess that faith, in order to solicit the support of the Body of Christ, and at the same time to serve and support our neighbor in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.
My own immediate instinct was to have a memorial service of some kind. Not only for the sake of our own grief and mourning, but especially for the sake of confessing that our little Job, whom our eyes shall never see in this vale of tears, was nonetheless a person, a human being, created by God for life with Himself; that he and his life have mattered, and still do, to the One whose almighty Word establishes and upholds all things in heaven and on earth; that none of this was by arbitrary chance, but according to the good and gracious will of God in Christ. I desired to hear, and for others to hear, the Word of Christ, who was Himself conceived as true Man in the womb of His Mother, and who has therefore also redeemed and sanctified the bodies and souls of even His smallest and weakest and most hidden children.
LaRena was also very open and receptive to the prospect of a memorial service for our Job. And we were strongly encouraged in this regard by a very dear friend and colleague, who called with loving concern and fraternal advice. Yet, for all of that, we were both somewhat hesitant and unsure of the best way to proceed. Knowing many others who had suffered miscarriages, who had preferred and chosen to bear that loss quietly and discretely, we were reluctant to do anything that would somehow suggest a criticism of those brothers and sisters in Christ. It was surely not our goal to burden consciences, nor to add a weight upon the hearts and minds and souls of those who had grieved in their own way. As a pastor, the reality is that my decisions and actions are never entirely private, but sustain a public significance because of my office. In that same capacity, we did not want to imply that the death of our unborn son was more important, or more deserving of acknowledgment, than the similar circumstances of any other Christian.
But we did want to do what was good and best and right. And in doing so, we wanted to provide a positive example and encouragement to others, whether those who have suffered miscarriages and the like in the past, or those who will yet have this cross laid upon them in the future. It should not be the case that any Christian is ever ashamed or embarrassed to seek out the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. And just because the world has nothing to say or do in response to a miscarriage, because the world does not have its bearings in Christ Jesus, all the more reason for the Christian Church and Christian pastors to say something of Christ and His Gospel at precisely such a time as this. My own pastoral experience in the past has been that a good many mothers and fathers, especially mothers, are hungry for some word of comfort and encouragement — for someone to say something, for anyone to say anything — rather than acting as though nothing of significance had occurred in the loss of an unborn child.
So it seemed to LaRena and me that we ought to do something to acknowledge the death of our tiny unborn son, in order to be strengthened and sustained in our faith, and in order to confess our faith in the Lord's good works of Creation and Redemption. It likewise seemed right to us that we should seek the counsel of our own pastor, as we would want to urge others to seek out their pastor's help and advice and guidance. Thus, we asked our pastor to help us determine how and when to mourn Job's death in faith and hope and with thanksgiving for his life. LaRena was especially eager, and I agreed, that the occasion ought to be an opportunity for others to remember and grieve rightly for their own departed little ones (whether known or unknown).
In consultation with our pastor, then, we arrived at a most agreeable decision. We would allow the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to serve as a memorial service for those children, including our Job, who were given life in the womb but died prior to (or shortly after) birth.
Having made that decision, I mentally set it aside, patiently waited for the day to come, and went about doing the work that I am given to do for the people of God in this place. In some ways, it felt as though the matter had been laid to rest; in other ways, though, I now realize, there was a restlessness at work in my heart and mind, until I should finally be given to rest in the particular peace of the Gospel spoken to the particular loss of my son. Although I knew the comfort of the Gospel, and confessed it, and found great solace in the Body and Blood of Christ throughout Lent and Holy Week and in the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord, there was also this spot of sadness and deep sorrow that waited quietly but insistently for a more specific Word of the Lord, for a preaching of the risen Son of God and His empty tomb to the stark fact of my departed son and an empty womb. I needed the warmth of that Gospel to dispel the coldness I had felt after seeing the ultrasound that showed that emptiness where my tiny child used to be.
There is nothing so precious as the preaching of the Gospel. It is not often that I am privileged to be preached to, though I am fortunate to have that opportunity more often than most of my colleagues. What a blessing it is to have an assistant pastor at Emmaus, who is such a good pastor to me, who speaks the Word of God to me and preaches the Gospel to me. I basked in that preaching this evening, and it washed over me and through me with the very warmth of Christ Himself. I do not believe that I have ever felt so tangibly the comfort and peace of the Gospel; nor do I expect that I shall often, if ever, feel it so profoundly in the future. Feelings are not necessary; the Gospel does not depend upon them, nor does faith. But feelings are not to be despised, either; for they belong to God's good gifts, and they also are redeemed and sanctified unto our good by the Word of God and prayer. There is a beautiful tenderness to our dear Lord Jesus Christ, and a tremendous sweetness to His Gospel, His forgiveness of sins, His gracious gift of life and salvation. Oh, how wonderful it is to be thus caught up in His strong arms of love. Oh, how good and pleasant it is to be thus supported by the One who is the Savior of many brethren.
We celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation this evening, the 31st of March, because the proper day of the Feast (25 March) coincided with Easter Tuesday. So important is the Incarnation of our Lord, so significant His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Word and Spirit of God, that the Church prefers to tranfer this Feast of His Annunciation rather than leaving it go by the wayside when it would otherwise conflict with Holy Week or the first Octave of Eastertide. Despite that slight "inconvenience," I am glad for its proximity to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery. Like the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle on the 21st of December, only days before Christmas, the celebration of the Annunciation so close to Easter helps to accentuate the close connection between the Incarnation and the Redemption of our Lord Jesus Christ. His holy body and precious blood are conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin to be a sacrifice upon the Cross, to become the firstfruits of the Resurrection from the dead, and to be the Passover Meal of life and salvation for the people of God. Thus, in the midst of suffering and in the face of death, we hide ourselves in the sacred wounds of Christ, in His very flesh, and there find true peace and Sabbath rest.
Pastor Grobien said exactly what I needed to hear this evening. He preached the Gospel to me. Some of what he said I already "knew," I've heard it before and I've spoken it to others. That is as it should be, and it is good and right. Other things he said were new to me, new thoughts and new expressions of the same eternal Gospel, brought to bear upon this time and place and circumstance by the called and ordained servant of Christ. In this Word, the Lord Jesus speaks to me and serves me with His divine love and mercy and compassion. What a precious treasure it is to have the Gospel preached to me. How humbling it is, and yet encouraging, that I am also called, ordained and sent to preach this Gospel unto others. There is no merit or worthiness in me for any of this, neither to hear nor to speak this divine Word. But there is precisely this worthiness, this mercy and this glory in Christ Jesus, that He so chooses to speak His Gospel, His Word of forgiveness, that we may all believe in Him and have life in Him.
After we first shared the news that our little Job had died, there were many dear people of God, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, who did exactly the right thing in reaching out to us and speaking to us the comfort of the Gospel. They assured us of their prayers, and they confessed to us their faith in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. In doing so, many of them were apologetic for speaking things to me that, as a pastor, of course I already know. Please, dear friends, do not apologize! The Gospel is never just a matter of knowing, but of hearing and receiving the Word. Do not be embarrassed to speak of Jesus to your pastor, but know that he is also served and blessed by your speaking. So to speak, and so to hear, these are the greatest privilege and the most blessed good work of every Christian, the best and most important things that any of us can do. I will tell you honestly that I could hardly hear the Gospel too much or too often after Job died, and I was deeply comforted by the simple speaking of that Gospel by my fellow Christians.
That simple speaking of the Gospel was not made obsolete by the preaching of my pastor, but reached its crescendo in the sermon that he preached to me this evening. For the rest of my life on this earth, I shall remember and give thanks for that sweet and precious Word. If I never feel the comfort of the Gospel so personally again, until the resurrection of my own body at the last, that will be alright. I savor the fact that it is still true: that all has been accomplished in the Body and Blood of Christ, the incarnate Son of God. It was completed in His death upon the Cross; it has been manifested in His Resurrection from the dead; and it is given to me in His Ministry of the Gospel. Indeed, He brings life and immortality to light by that Gospel.
Behold, I am a servant of the Lord, the son of His maidservant. Now here I am, and the children He has given me. Let it be to me according to His Word, that is, the Word that He has preached to me, which is in my ears and in my heart and in my mouth. The grass whithers, the flowers fade, and even the young men grow weary and faint, but that Word of the Lord abides forever.