One day in late November 2015 a baby girl was conceived in her mother’s womb, with her own unique set of DNA, bearing a mix of genetic programming of both her father and mother. Everything that will be needed for hearing, seeing, touching and talking has already been fixed in place.
Three weeks later she is the size of the tip of a pen. Yet already her organs and nervous system, along with her brain and spinal cord are developing. Within a month her heart begins beating and carrying blood throughout a rapidly growing body and closed circulatory system.
Four to five weeks in, her facial features begin to develop, including eyes and jaws. Tiny arms and legs begin to bud from her body. By now she is the size of a shirt button and brain waves are fully active. Over the next couple of months she develops lips and ears as well as taste buds. She begins yawning, feeling, even smelling – taking in more and more information from her rapidly expanding “world.”
She completely unaware that her little life is in grave danger.
Her parents – Kathryn and Avik, discover it during a 20 week scan. There is a growth on her heart – a tumour, which is growing rapidly and putting pressure on her heart and lungs. I was there with the elders when they were told the news. We gathered around Kathryn and Avik, placing our hands on them and called upon the name of Jesus, imploring the God of heaven and earth to intervene with grace and mercy and power.
Two days later they are in Wellington hospital where more advanced scanning equipment is available. They gaze intently at the screen while the specialist moved the ultrasound over where the baby is located. They can see her little form but there is no movement. There is no heartbeat. Their hearts sink. Sometime over the past few days she has suffered cardiac failure and did not survive.
It’s devastating news, for any parent. It was devastating news for their family and friends who are part of our church. We all felt their hurt and disappointment. We wanted a good outcome. We wanted to see a healthy baby one day in their arms. But God had other plans.
It is during setbacks like these that a Christian’s faith is greatly tested. I wondered how they would hold up. The next day I received an email from them that included:
…Well I am afraid that this update will be short as we got confirmation this morning that baby hasn’t survived. In some ways all your prayers have been answered but maybe not in the way you had hoped. Baby has just received complete heavenly healing rather than a temporary earthly one… Thank you for all your love and prayers. K & A.
I breathed a sigh of relief. They would make it.
It wasn’t over yet however. They would have to go through a full labour, the baby still needed to be delivered, and properly buried. In New Zealand a baby that is 20 weeks or more that has died must be registered with a name and be cremated or buried in a cemetery (a fact we all found most interesting considering babies can be aborted at 19 weeks). This wasn’t something they had prepared for. It wasn’t going to be an easy week – for them or any of us.
On 5 April at 7.40pm baby arrived, she weighed only 400 grams but was perfectly formed in every way. Only her swollen tummy and colouration indicating there had been anything wrong. Avik and Kathryn now had to work through saying hello and goodbye to their precious baby girl in the same breath.
How does a Pastor deal with the death of a little baby? With love, tenderness and care for the parents. With faith, trust and submission to God who does all things well and never makes mistakes. And with hope in a gospel that tells us Jesus will one day put an end to suffering and death and tumours that grow on baby’s hearts, when he comes in glory to make all things new.
They named their daughter Iona Kathryn. “That’s a beautiful name,” I said. “How did you come to that?” They told me about the small island of Iona on the western coast of Scotland that is known for its tranquillity and natural beauty as well as its Christian history. “The Hebrew meaning for Iona is dove” they said…… Very fitting, I thought.
It was a beautiful afternoon at the cemetery. A small group of us – family and close friends, gathered around the freshly dug grave. Such a little hole. Avik approached, holding the tiny white casket containing Iona’s body. He didn’t have to tell me what he was thinking. His expressions said it all. This is where things get really tough. I read from Psalm 46:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…”
I shared some words of hope and comfort. I knelt and spoke to the children about what was going on – so much to take in at a little age. Kathryn gently lowered the little casket into the earth and Avik began to fill it with his hands.
We all prayed and wept and thought of the day when Jesus would wipe these tears away and make all things new. Then we stayed and lingered and sat down on the grass together, next to Iona’s resting place, with the warm sunshine on our backs a real testimony to the hope we have as Christians and the peace that only God can bring. In time, God would heal the wounds.
I believe Kathryn and Avik will see Iona again – in a new form, in the new heavens and new earth. There is no one verse I can show you in the bible to support this. It comes by way of consideration of the bigger picture. Iona was conceived, like the rest of us, in sin. She inherited this from her parents who inherited it from their parents and all the way back to Adam. However, that sin never found expression in this world. She never had the opportunity to either accept or reject Jesus. That places her in a special category of which I have no clear answers for. However I do know that Jesus welcomed little children. He took them into his arms and blessed them and said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14). I believe this same Jesus who took little children in his arms and blessed them on this earth, has received Iona in his arms, and has blessed her, and welcomed her into heaven.
Thanks Avik and Kathryn, for teaching us things we did not yet know and sharing your life with us in such a beautiful and transparent way.