By JIM NICHOLS
A good part of my life I do not really feel like I know what I am doing. It is not that I am particularly brave, but I have had enough unexpected growth experiences from stepping out that I have found it rewarding; or, at least frequently rewarding enough to take some chances. However, taking chances means I do not know what direction to take always.
Entering a hospital room as a visitor or chaplain is taking some chances. One does not know who will be in the room or what will be the circumstances. Will the patient be awake and alert? Disturbingly ill or injured? Will there be others in the room and how will they react to a stranger entering? Will I be welcome there? Will I say the right things? I hope it is theologically sound that I trust God’s grace to cover me if I say something stupid or unhelpful.
My office phone rang just as I was heading for home. Though I was not on call for that evening, the social worker phoning said she needed some help. She described that she was at the hospital with a hospice patient who was near death. I was somewhat confused by her description of the situation, but I understood that the patient was currently in the intensive care unit but was being released to a regular room. As that was to occur, the medical staff would remove him from all forms of life support. I had been in such situations before and they are deeply moving minutes or hours.
The additional piece of information, however, was that this patient wanted to be baptized before he died. His wife was there with him and she was supporting this decision. This telephone call almost indicated that it was the wife, herself, who was pushing this baptism request. The patient wanted to be baptized because his wife wanted him to be baptized. I was confused. I asked on the phone, “Does he want to be baptized?” “Yes.” “Why does he want to be baptized?” “Just come up to the hospital. I need help.”
As I drove to the hospital, I was trying to figure out the situation. What exactly was this baptism request about? Since my religious background involves immersion as the means of baptism, how was this baptism going to occur?
My pre-conceived vision of what I would find in the hospital room was a male patient unconscious and near death. What I found was a man sitting up in bed drinking Diet Pepsi and eating mashed potatoes. Clearly, the life support that had been withdrawn from him was an intravenous one. Now upon its removal, he was on a trajectory toward a quick death. He spoke to me as if he understood the facts exactly and that he had requested the removal of the IVs.
His wife sat in a chair near his bed and entered into the conversation. Together, they filled in the details. She was clearly a deeply religious person and her faith supported that baptism was essential in God’s eyes. They loved each other well and had no conflict between them during the time I was there. She wanted him to be baptized for eternal reasons. He spoke as a person with a relatively undefined faith, but said that he thought baptism was important and that he desired it. They had apparently already contacted the clergy at the church where she attended. That denomination believed definitely in baptism by immersion and would have no part of any sprinkling event that clearly was necessary in this case.
I had again obviously gotten myself into a situation where I did not know what to do. Trusting in God’s grace if I were off base badly, I stepped up to the bed and spoke directly to him. I asked him what he believed about God. Good answer. I asked him if he believed that Jesus was God’s Son. Good answer, although not overwhelming. I asked him about sin and about forgiveness of sin. Reasonably good answers, not very sophisticated. In some ways, I almost thought I was talking to a child who desired baptism. Basically, I tried to teach him the Gospel in fifteen minutes. How much longer was he going to live?
Eventually, I asked him (again) if he wanted to be baptized for the forgiveness of his sins. He answered yes.
There was a sink in the room, but the only liquid was the Diet Pepsi in a can. I walked to the nurses’ station, got a Styrofoam cup, and filled it with water in his room. I dipped my fingers in the cup several times and sprinkled water over his head and face. I prayed audibly for him as I did this and prayed silently for myself.
Both the patient and his wife seemed satisfied with this. Soon, I dismissed myself and left them alone. Three days later, I spoke at his military funeral.
The fact that I can remember all this so clearly probably shows that I am not convinced that I acted appropriately. Nevertheless, do I believe in God’s grace? Are there limitations on God’s grace? Did the patient hear the story of Jesus from me? I believe he did.
I laughingly have said to my students many times, “There are lots of questions I want to ask God when I see Him face to face.” One of my questions will be, “Do you remember that guy back in the hospital who wanted me to baptize him? Did I do the right thing?”
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.