St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church is special to Philadelphians because of the historical legend associated with its site: Tenth and Ludlow is where Ben Franklin purportedly flew his famous kite. In 1977 I passed the church every day after work, and St. Stephen’s became special to me for a different reason: its marquee. Though sermon titles and other details varied each week, the one thing that never changed was a prominent line halfway down: “Expect a Miracle!”
I felt sure this was just a minor setback: a few inconvenient weeks in the hospital, and we’d be back to living our happy, normal life.
I was expecting our first child and, always one to enjoy a play on words, joked that the message was for me. When our Lamaze coach suggested having some focal point during labor, my husband found a plaque with a cartoony lion and the phrase “Expect a Miracle.” Those words began to embed in my thinking, though as a non-practicing Jew, I didn’t have a category or frame of reference for them. It was more a matter of hoping God meant them.
Turns out, He did. Certainly every new life is miraculous, but looking back, I now realize the Lord had far more in view than our baby daughter. The greater miracle was a birth of a different kind—my own rebirth several years later.
Up to that time, spiritual curiosity hadn’t been part of my repertoire—a deficit God dealt with through our second child. While Karen had been a perfectionist’s dream, arriving smack-dab on her due date, Jonathan, for no apparent reason, showed up 12 weeks early and weighed a frightening 3 pounds. Having always characterized myself as lucky, I felt sure this was just a minor setback: a few inconvenient weeks in the hospital nursery, and we’d be back to the business of living our happy, normal life.
I was naïve about the rigors that lay ahead. Jonathan barely tolerated feedings, so day after day I agonized through his gain-an-ounce-lose-an-ounce fluctuations. I was allowed to hold him only occasionally; for the most part, I’d simply sit by his Isolette and watch him breathe. Or wince along with him at the frequent procedures and blood counts. That month was as hard as it was tedious—but remarkably proved to be the gentler part of the journey.
Day 28 brought the neonatologist’s first encouraging report—that Jonathan had turned the corner and would be home in a few weeks. Elation felt good but was short-lived. The only word I remember from that evening’s phone call was the one dreaded in the NICU: lethargic. Despite his apparent progress, Jonathan had contracted necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease to which preemies are susceptible and often succumb.
After being rushed to surgery, our tiny boy spent his final day-and-a-half in the pediatric intensive care unit. That Sunday morning nurses removed nonessential cords and tubes so I could hold him as he died—and for years I couldn’t bring myself to wear (or discard) the brown cardigan I had on that day.
Allow me an understatement: Nothing is more life-changing than loss. For one thing, I never again would think of myself as “lucky.” While it was unclear what would replace the “things just go my way” paradigm I’d been trusting, at least a curiosity had been sown.
Something else changed, too. Though not observant, I’d always felt confident about my family’s convictions and if challenged, would staunchly defend them. But Jonathan’s death pummeled me emotionally, to the point that my instinctive resistance began to break down.
As if on cue, a kind social worker offered a listening ear, and I poured out my grief and questions. In answering, she explained the realities of her faith. Apparently I was positioned to hear, and so, through Jonathan, I found Jesus—or more accurately, He found me. And to think that when we named the baby, we didn’t realize Jonathan means “gift of God”!
We see death and life as opposites, yet Scripture shines a light on the mystery of their connectedness. Jesus’ sacrifice brought the forgiveness of sin that unlocked eternal life, and through another death—death to self—we can take hold of it (Gal. 2:20). Ultimately, our own physical death will launch us from what we think of as life, into the fullness of the real thing.
Two years ago, after a summer of cancer treatments, my husband went to live in that fullness. And just before he left me, I got to glimpse him glimpsing it. Smiling ecstatically and staring at something I couldn’t see, he said three words: “Wow!” “Unbelievable!” and “Jonathan!”