Holding On

On a recent Sunday I had the pleasure of holding a baby, for a good long time. She had been baptized that morning, surrounded by the well wishes and affirmations of dozens of new sisters and brothers. During the fellowship time, I saw an opportunity and seized it, and her, and held on against all comers for a good (and I mean good) half hour.

It’s a pleasure I have always been happy to claim, as pastor. I inherited this particular joy from my mother. I used to call her, after a Sunday morning in which a new parishioner had made his or her debut, and I’d say, “I got to hold a baby this morning.” She often had as well, as a senior member of her own congregation, so we would compare notes on those babies. “Four weeks old,” she’d say. “Mine was just ten days,” I’d answer–winning!–with deep satisfaction.

The pastoral prerogative of baby-holding is forfeit upon becoming pastor of Women at the Well. We don’t have babies inside the prison in Mitchellville. Our women who are pregnant give birth in Iowa City and relinquish their babies before returning. I never see them, except in the photos that I am given the frequent privilege of viewing. Out in your churches on Sunday mornings, I’m a relative stranger to most of the young families, so I only get close enough to glimpse babies in their carriers, or in a family member’s arms.

Which made that recent Sunday all the more sweet.

As the time approached for the second service, I reluctantly returned my charge to her grandmother. As I moved about the church, I realized that some of her delicious baby smell was still with me, lingering on my clothes, on my skin, in my nostrils. It was lovely, sacramental, that new life remaining with me even as I went on with my responsibilities of the morning.

As the morning drew to a close, I found myself in another embrace–less fragrant but equally holy. This time it was with a homeless young man dealing with addiction and chronic illness. We had chatted for awhile, and talked and prayed about recovery groups, reconciliation and the power of God. I hugged him as we took leave of one another,and the sweet baby smell from earlier intermingled with scents that were more raw.

Which is just like, well, life–isn’t it? Certainly it’s like the life I experience in prison–with the interweaving of sacred and profane, clean and musty, washed and broken. The sweetness of new life butts up against the coarse reality of efforts that fall short, of addictions that maintain their hold, of relationships not easily restored. Can we hold those parts together? hold tight to both? That’s our call, I think, and our prerogative. We are invited and allowed to hold both, with love and mercy, with all their odors.

Won’t you breathe deep with me of this aroma, and keep the faith with these sisters and brothers, wherever we find them behind or beyond bars, and in whatever way we’re able to hold on to one another?