Early in June Richard and Cindy (Marcella) van Garderen went through a time of great trial and yet of great blessing, an experience they shared with their parents, Dirk and Gonnie van Garderen and Roel and Beppy Dijkstra, and with the congregation in Bishopdale. I have written this article because I believe a description of all that took place would be helpful for others who have, or will, lose children in pregnancy, at birth, or in infancy; and because it will be helpful for all of us to reflect theologically and Biblically on the place of children in the covenant, especially those who die in infancy.
Jacob Dean van Garderen was born about 7.00 pm on Sunday evening in Christchurch Women's Hospital, the first child of Richard and Cindy. Despite being four weeks premature he weighed over five pounds ( 2560 grams). Yet little Jacob was born with serious complications - some were obvious at birth, others became apparent as the doctors at the hospital examined him more closely.
Jacob's most obvious problem was that he had club feet and that his lower internal organs were external to his body and were not fully formed. The paediatrician on duty that evening described the nature of the problem and explained how it could be rectified surgically. However, as they examined him further they discovered that he also suffered from severe spinal bifida which was very high on his spine. His situation was so unusual that the hospital staff consulted with others including a hospital in Boston. Having seen the extent of his abnormalities the doctor suggested that they should also consider the possibility of not pursuing surgery and described the complications and limitations of surgical procedures for such a small child.
Roel and Beppy arrived that evening after a hurried drive from Timaru and Dirk and Gonnie arrived in Christchurch on Monday morning. Early Monday morning the doctors explained Jacob's medical condition to the family and then left us alone for a family conference. After prayer and discussion Richard and Cindy came to a decision not to pursue surgery for their son, but to enjoy him for as long as the Lord gave him to them, a decision the rest of the family and I endorsed. They were helped to come to this decision knowing that there is more to life than the years we spend on this earth; Richard and Cindy had the comfort of knowing where their son was going.
By this time many in the congregation had heard that all was not well. One member suggested that we call the congregation together for a special prayer meeting, something we had done at other times of special need. Each elder rang through their district and that evening about 80 members of the congregation met in the church. We opened with the reading of Psalm 139, part of which I had read to Richard and Cindy on the Sunday evening in the hospital. I outlined Jacob's situation and the decision his parents had come to, explaining that we hadn't come together to pray for healing necessarily, although we recognise that God can work miracles, but rather for God will's to be done and for strength and courage for the parents and wider family. Opportunity was then given for anyone to speak, read from the Scriptures, or pray. What followed was a beautiful time of people sharing from the Scriptures and from their experiences of God and His goodness. Some spoke about their own loss of a young child or brother and of the strength they had found in the Lord. Others asked us to sing a psalm or a hymn, led in prayer, or read from the Bible. We closed by singing Psalm 23.
In the Lord's providence I had just started a series of sermons on the "one another" passages of the New Testament. This special prayer meeting was a beautiful and timely illustration of the support and help we can give to one another in the church. In Bishopdale we look back to this meeting as a wonderful time of fellowship and encouragement.
Richard and Cindy spent the next seven days in the hospital as the staff taught them how to look after their son and told them what to expect. These days were of great blessing for the family as they were able to share their joy and sorrow together. In view of the stress and strain of the situation the congregation had been asked not to visit but many showed their support by sending cards and flowers - by the end of the week their hospital room looked like a florist's shop!
Although this was a difficult time for Richard and Cindy they were sustained by the prayers and encouragement of God's people and by the Lord Himself. This was apparent to the staff at the hospital and was a great witness of the faith and hope of Christians.
A couple of weeks before Jacob's birth I had given Richard and Cindy a small booklet on infant baptism and asked them to read it in preparation for the baptism of their child. They did their homework promptly and read the booklet before Jacob's birth. A few days after his birth they asked that he be baptised. This request raised a couple of issues.
The primary issue for the elders was theological. Richard and Cindy understood the theology of infant baptism, but we were concerned that a baptism conducted with undue haste would convey the message that baptism was essential to salvation. We did not want to give the impression that there was special saving benefit in the sacrament itself, which is the error of the Roman Catholic church.
Yet we also believe that the children of believers ought to be baptised as a sign and seal of God's promises to them. This outward sign does not carry grace in and of itself, but it is still of great significance and ought to be administered where possible.
As family and as elders we also knew that many in the congregation were much in prayer for Richard and Cindy and their baby and that it would be good for the congregation as a whole to see him and meet with them, and to witness the sacrament administered to Jacob.
This raised the other difficulty: It was not possible to move Jacob easily and certainly not possible to take him to the worship services on the Sunday. We made inquiries about suitable rooms in the hospital itself and found that the nurses meeting room was available and that the staff were very happy for us to use it.
It was decided to call the congregation together for a special worship service on the Friday night. Each elder again rang through his district. That evening the Bishopdale congregation and the wider family filled the large meeting room to capacity with some nurses from the hospital also present. I led the service and Rev Dirk van Garderen baptised his grandson and gave a moving meditation on Psalm 139:14,
"I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Your works are wonderful,
I know that full well."
Following the service supper was served giving everyone an opportunity to see Jacob and talk to his parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunties and uncles.
On Sunday Richard and Cindy were able to take their son home. There was a farewell from the nursing staff and some tears. It gave them great joy to have their son at home in his bassinet and with his gifts and toys.
Looking after Jacob's physical needs was time consuming and demanding; this meant there was little time left to take phone calls or to meet lots of visitors. They continued to receive cards and letters (which is a helpful means of giving support at a time like this).
From Tuesday Richard and Cindy noticed a decline in Jacob's health. He wasn't interested in feeding and he began to sleep more. They also noticed that he was experiencing more pain. These next few days were difficult for them as they watched him decline and as, in consultation with hospital staff, they worked out how best to apply pain relief and in what doses. On the Tuesday night Joke de Ruiter had watched little Jacob so they could get some much needed rest. Roel and Beppy were with them through the rest of the week, taking turns at watching over the baby day and night. For the last 48 hours of his life he was held by someone, mostly by his parents. During Thursday and Friday his breathing became more and more shallow. As they watched him struggle Richard and Cindy became content to give him to the Lord. At 5.00 pm on that Friday afternoon the Lord took him home.
Covenant Children who die in Infancy
I say, "the Lord took him home" because this is what Reformed Christians believe about their covenant children who die in infancy. If the child of a believer dies before being able to make a conscious response to the gospel we believe that a gracious and merciful covenant God will accept this child as His own and take him to Himself in heaven. We regard such a child as a special case, treated in a special way by our heavenly Father.
Having said this we need to be very clear about what baptism does and does not mean with respect to other covenant children. We don't believe that baptism regenerates a child; nor do we believe that covenant children are necessarily saved (although they may be); nor do we believe that they necessarily will become Christians.
Covenant children who grow up must recognise the privileges they have, live up to their responsibilities, and respond to the promises of the gospel in repentance, faith and obedience. We cannot assume or presume that our children will become true followers of Christ automatically. They must be challenged to continue in faith and to live in obedience to the Lord.
The Funeral Service
The funeral service for Jacob was held on Monday afternoon. During the service Rob Moot, in his sensitive manner, outlined the history of events and spoke about his conversations with Richard and Cindy; Gonnie van Garderen read a moving poem which her son Steven had written; and Dirk van Garderen spoke about what this whole experience had meant for them as a family and of a God who loved Jacob even more than they loved him.
For the sermon text we again turned to Psalm 139, this time to verse 16: "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." This psalm is all about the character and attributes of God. Verse 16 is a strong statement of His providence: Everything is ordained by God and He is in control of all things. This includes Jacob's life and death. We don't understand God's ways in our lives, and some may react by becoming angry with God, shaking their fist at him. In this psalm, however, David responds with faith, acceptance and a humble dependence upon the Lord. We must do the same. Yet a strong statement of God's providence does not exclude our responsibility. While we can have confidence that Jacob is with the Lord in heaven we cannot presume that for ourselves unless we turn to the Lord in faith, hope and love.
Jacob was buried in the children's area of the Belfast cemetery. It filled us with grief to see such a little white coffin placed in the ground; yet we did not mourn as those without hope. We believe that when the Lord Jesus Christ return God will raise his body in the resurrection of the last day!
Following the graveside service we went back to the Bishopdale church for afternoon tea allowing members of the congregation the opportunity to speak to the parents and wider family. At times like this it is often hard to know what to say. Let me make a few suggestions.
Do say something - don't act as though nothing has happened; don't avoid them; don't ignore them - make contact with them. Do this sooner rather than later; the longer you leave it the harder it is. You don't have to say a lot; how about, "I'm so sorry to hear about the death of Jacob. How are you?" Or, "I don't know what to say, but we have been praying that God will give you comfort and help." You may not be able to say anything - then give them a hug, an arm around the shoulder, something to show that you recognise their grief and that you weep with those who weep.
Don't say too much. The book of Proverbs has many warnings against prattling on. Some of us are inclined to be talkative - but the more you say the more you run the risk of saying something that is unhelpful or hurtful. Allow them to talk - you ask questions and listen. Your own experiences of suffering and grief may be helpful but don't focus the attention on your pain, and don't tell them that you know exactly what they are going through - who truly understands the pain of another.
Don't forget about them. As the weeks and months go by the tendency is for life to go back to normal and for us to forget about those who have lost a loved one and are still mourning. You don't want to be bringing it up all the time, nor do you want to forget them or neglect them. Do visit them and on occasions ask them how they are getting on.
Blessings out of Buffetings
One question we could ask as we reflect on all of this is, "Why?" Why does God allow this to happen? What is the purpose in this? Richard and Cindy have not been troubled by these questions. They recognise that this side of heaven there are no ultimate answers to such questions. Yet they have a partial answer in the many blessings they have seen come out of these events.
They are thankful that Jacob survived the pregnancy and labour as he did; thankful for experiencing the blessing and joy of being parents, even if it was for a short time; thankful for the knowledge that Jacob is with the Lord; and thankful for the wonderful support of their family, friends and church community.
Jacob's death also reminds us of how fragile life is. We often think we are invincible, especially young people. Yet we are only a breath away from eternity. Our lives are in His hands.
Through Jacob's short life and death we have seen that God can bring blessings out of buffetings. This certainly was the experience of Richard and Cindy, the family and the Bishopdale congregation. God has brought good out of evil; He has used the trials of life to be of spiritual benefit to ourselves and others. We believe, with the Apostle Paul, that "All things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose." This doesn't answer all our questions, it doesn't restore our loss, it doesn't take away our sorrow; but it does mean we can live with faith in God in the present, and hope in Him for the future.
Rev. John A. Haverland (Bishopdale)
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised October 97 / Copyright 1997