Early on in ministry, there came an experience I would be glad to have never again in this life. Having been called by a young husband to come, I drove into the driveway of a modest home in a quiet neighborhood. The caller’s wife answered my knock at the door – her face ashen, a look of horror in her eyes. She rushed into my arms, blurting out the words, “Oh Pastor, my baby is dead!”
I held her tightly as she sobbed uncontrollably. She was in the ninth month of her pregnancy, and had just returned from a checkup with her obstetrician. The doctor could not detect a heartbeat. As gently as he perhaps could, he explained to these first-time parents-to-be what that meant. Their unborn child had died in the womb.
The next morning, this one who had so looked forward to motherhood was admitted to the local hospital. The doctor induced contractions. She quickly went into labor. It was the practice of the hospital in that community to follow through with the procedures of an otherwise normal birth.
When the baby – a beautiful little girl – appeared, she was cleaned, measured, weighed and had her footprint recorded in ink. Then the motionless infant was handed to her mother. That mother quietly cuddled the child for several minutes, then handed her to the baby’s father, who after a few more moments handed the lifeless little body to me.
Through the years, I have tended not to recognize newborn infants by their facial features. But the image of that particular baby is burned into my memory indelibly. In the brief moments I held her, all over again I was overwhelmed by the incredible intersection of life and death.
A name was given to that little one. Her body was buried following funeral worship attended by a small gathering of family and close friends. Together, we stood by the grave and wept as we committed her body to the earth, and her soul to our Father in heaven.
Stillbirth brings devastation to the human heart that simply cannot be described – as least not by me. Who can experience such a thing without crying out to heaven, asking, “Why?” It is normal to wonder where God is in such circumstances. It is where the rubber of human anguish meets the road of divine providence.
The word “providence” has all but disappeared from the vocabulary of contemporary Christian community. Increasingly, it is regarded as obsolete and archaic. This word that once was commonplace – indeed central to Christian expression – now seems one more thing doomed to the ash heap of “modernity.”
The providence of God is rooted in the conviction that says all life comes to pass under the sovereign plan and rule of almighty God. Seemingly, this attitude has changed. The culture in which we live has little room for thought of God’s providence.
The prevailing assumption of our day is that we live in a closed, mechanistic universe where events occur either by fixed, impersonal laws or forces, or merely by chance. In so many ways, ours is the age of secularism, with no access to the transcendent or the supernatural.
Words have a nasty habit of slipping in and out of common use. One generation’s pet phrases are seen as “out of it” by later generations. The word “providence” however is simply too rich and too heavily loaded with crucial theological nuance to allow it to pass from our language.
It is not a slang term fit for a specific generation, but a term with centuries of historic significance. It is a theological term of the highest import, a term rooted in the ageless content of Holy Scripture itself.
Because the word “providence” is rooted in the Latin term for “seeing” or “vision,” we may be tempted to restrict its theological application to God’s mere observance of human activity. It is not merely that God looks at human affairs. The point is that God looks after human affairs. That is to say, God not only watches us; God watches over us. In regular ways God is involved in human affairs. The God of Holy Scripture is not unmoved. Christian faith allows for natural laws but sees these laws as the laws of God that are always subject to His sovereign rule.
Rev. David Dobi is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Greenville.