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Although we all hope pastors will turn out to be generally polite, rule-abiding folks, not long ago I broke into the neonatal intensive care unit at a local hospital. There was, of course, a very good reason for doing so, and I do not mind sharing at least some of the blame for my unauthorized incursion into that sacred space. Honestly, it was pretty apparent from the outset that I would need some extra help given that the critical care wards of most hospitals tend to give one the impression that they have been designed with only a few more safety features than your average federal maximum-security penitentiary. More could be said on this topic, but then I would have to live in fear that someone will show this article to one of the very, very nice people hanging out at the Charge Nurse Union Hall. And should that happen, I could find myself in jeopardy on my next pastoral visit to the hospital. So, for now let us simply stipulate for the record that we agree that it seems to be a wise thing that hospitals restrict access to their ailing patients. This is especially true when we are talking about the impossibly tiny and fragile new arrivals to our planet that can be found in a neonatal ICU. For if ever any patient deserved a very quiet room with soft lights and soothing music to afford a decadent degree of total protection and pampering, a newborn fresh from the harrowing experience of a complicated birth will get my vote every time. That being the case, with concern for the parents and a healthy dose of pastoral interest and curiosity to meet one of my newest and smallest parishioners, I made my way to the check-in desk on the neonatal floor.

Now at this point in our story, perhaps it will be helpful for me to confess that to my sometimes torturously self-conscious way of thinking, several potential social disasters loom menacingly close whenever the Amazing Clergyman action figure that I attempt to portray shows up to present himself for admission at some visitor check-in desk. For instance, over the years I have often been mistakenly (and in my view, far too enthusiastically) given the green-light to pass directly into the rooms of ailing patients who were at the time receiving certain, shall we say, procedures, the mere mention of which would be enough to give me cold shivers. On other occasions, cleverly misguided nurses have thoughtfully ushered me in to view my parishioners without the benefit of their dentures and hairpieces. There have even been a few rare occasions when I have been granted full clergy access in a rather all-too-up-close-and-personal way with church friends luxuriating in one of those delightful sponge baths that everyone enjoys during an extended stay in the public ward of a crowded hospital. But apart from the danger that I might get a little too much exposure to the raw, human condition of old Brother Bilgewater or sweet Sister Thundermuffin, I continue to harbor a secret ministerial fear that the medical staff widely assumes that my bedside pastoral incantations will include the smearing of goat blood on the doorposts and the throwing of chicken feathers in the air. Perhaps this is a perfectly natural misconception, given that I have been known at times to resort to the utilization of goat blood and chicken feathers during Church Board meetings. But after meekly announcing my ministerial intentions by intercom to the Charge Nurse of the neonatal ICU, I was pleasantly surprised that she was so eager to wave me onto the ward. “Scrub up down the hall before you go in,” she said with a smile while pointing over her shoulder at a young woman waving eagerly in my direction, “She sure seems happy to see you are here.”

I scrubbed. I rinsed. I buzzed, and the door lock clicked open as I entered into that quiet place set aside for struggling babies and their hopeful parents. Then I made my way toward the wide-eyed woman who had continued to wave at me from across the ward, taking myself through a check and cross-check against my internal data bank of familiar faces and available names with each hospital bootie step closer to her room. No luck. I had absolutely no clue as to the identity of the smiling woman waving me forward toward an isolation bassinet at her side. Struck dumb in embarrassed silence, I simply stood next to her, gazing in wonder down at the tiny girl swaddled in a pink blanket and cap tucked inside a clear plastic box and attached to enough wires, tubes, and telemetry patches to make her little body resemble something like a weirdly decorated Christmas tree. Because the name Molly was scrawled in bold print on a piece of tape affixed to that plastic shield over her head, I finally screwed up enough courage to admit to Molly’s mother that I had no idea who she was. She took it well. “I saw you check in at the desk, and I just figured you knew who I was,” she said. And then she explained why she had no reluctance or hesitation to invite me to her newborn daughter’s room, “Since Molly was born we’ve had so many visitors, I simply can’t keep them all straight.”

To be completely honest, I was still a bit embarrassed, uncomfortable with a sense that I had perhaps intruded under false assumptions upon a difficult moment in such an intimate and holy place. But later when I made my retreat to the Charge Nurse to tell her about the mix-up before asking if the family from my church was located somewhere else in the ICU, the nurse did not seem at all uncomfortable with what had proven somewhat awkward to me. She did not really know where my family could be. And then she finished me off without even understanding, I think, what she had said or even the proper vocation of the one to whom she was saying it. “I think all of them need prayer,” the Charge Nurse told me, “Every last one of them just as much as all of the others.”

She was right, of course. I had simply been so hung up in worry that I might be making a complete fool of myself that I missed the real meaning of the moment. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious that it was not accidental that I managed that day to meet Molly and her mother, even though it was at first the kind of oddly unexpected but divine appointment that I so often miss when my small agenda and my self-centered sense of need blinds me to a world where the grace of God never turns out to be misplaced or misdirected. And if you are at all like me in that kind of way, then perhaps you will also benefit from occasional reminders that prayers are welcome, that nobody is a stranger to hurt, and that every life could use some miracle now and then. After all, my experience over at the hospital made it quite plain that I really cannot be trusted with such important work all by myself. If you ask me, I tend at times to be just a little too professional, if you want to know the truth. Perhaps something quite a bit messier and untidy, but at the very least more honest and intimately personal is in order. So, come to think of it, even on my best days I am still in need of a church, if by church we are talking about the kind of place and people described centuries ago by the Sufi poet Rumi in a quatrain that remains to this day carved in the stone door of a Christian church in Shiraz, Iran:

“Where Jesus lives, the great-hearted gather.

 We are a door that’s never locked.

 If you are suffering any kind of pain, 

 Stay near this door. Open it.”

Jeff Crosno