By Peggy Eastman
When our priest’s first grandson, Lucas, was born, our parish rejoiced with Father Ed and his wife, Patty Kelaher. Lucas, a beautiful, seemingly healthy baby, joined Fiona, 2, his mother, Patty, and his father, Al.
Soon, we learned that Lucas had been born with cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that could trigger chronic lung infections. Lucas seemed to be fine for a while. But in January, when Lucas was just a few weeks old, his body started to fail. He was losing weight; he had no appetite and could not eat. Breathing raggedly and exhausted from constant coughing, Lucas was hospitalized in February, and doctors tried to stabilize him.
Then we learned that he had to be rushed into an intensive care unit. The thought of that small body gasping for breath and wracked with coughing was enough to bring tears. Patty, a nurse, had already left to join the family in North Carolina, and Fr. Ed followed quickly. Lucas was in a crisis. The baby now had not one but three strikes against him: cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, and an unidentified virus.
Fr. Ed has sat at the bedside of sick church members, counseled those going through a divorce or dealing with other losses, talked to spiritual seekers, and maintained a full schedule of teaching Bible study classes, Sunday forums, and preaching. We burdened him with all our sorrows and he comforted us. He baptized our babies and conducted funerals for our loved ones.
Fr. Ed was constantly ministering to us. Now, when he and his family really needed us, how could our congregation minister to him?
My stepdaughter Carrie had the idea of starting a 48-hour prayer vigil and an online intensive prayer chain for Lucas. We could not be near Lucas in the hospital, but we could “pray without ceasing” wherever we were (1 Thess. 5:16-18). We could be prayer warriors for this very sick baby.
Our prayer vigil for baby Lucas began. There was a photo on the screens of our computers and mobile phones of little Lucas with an oxygen tube in his nose. He was wearing a soft gray shirt decorated with tiny red, blue, and green cars and blue piping. He had a sweet face. Streaming onto my screen was prayer after prayer for Lucas, along with inspirational messages and words from Scripture, many chosen by Sandra, one of our prayer warriors:
“We pray for Lucas’s full recovery. We see God’s angels coming lovingly down and around baby Lucas, bringing hope and complete health to him.” —Don and Helen
“Lord, protect this dear family and strengthen them. May you, the great physician, heal baby Lucas.” —Amy
“Through tears I can see that he’s beautiful .… Prayers continue.” —Christina
“The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” —Exodus 14:14, posted by Sandra
“All things are possible through prayer. God bless baby Lucas and his entire family.” —Elizabeth
Our prayer vigil began on a Friday night. I sat silently in my house before going to bed. “Lord,” I prayed, “I entrust Lucas to you this night; please watch over him and bring us the joy of good news in the morning.” Throughout the night I slept fitfully; I kept waking and thinking of Lucas in his hospital bed coughing and gasping for breath. Every time I woke I prayed, “Lord, I entrust Lucas to you this night.”
On Saturday I hesitated to turn on my computer. What if Lucas had not made it through the night? How would we be able to comfort our minister and his family then? But a dramatic email message from Fr. Ed jumped out at me. It might as well have been backlit with a glowing sunrise and accompanied by an ecstatic gospel choir.
Lucas was out of intensive care, even though he was still in the hospital. Our priest wrote: “Lucas, the hero warrior, battles on. … There can be no doubt about the mighty deliverance of God in this case. Lucas was so very lost and pounded in all of this. But then the prayer vigil began and the Master over all disasters swept in by his loving grace and fatherly protection. An amazing story of faith. Lucas is comfortable, though still struggling at times with breathing, eating, diarrhea, and other challenges day to day.”
God had heard our prayers and kept Lucas in his loving care throughout the dark night of crisis. As the weekend went on, the prayers in our email prayer chain spread well beyond the stone walls of our church. A rabbi had added Lucas to his synagogue’s prayer list and Lucas’s name was on the lists of other churches.
Was it really our prayers that helped to save Lucas? How could we be sure? We were sure when we received another email from Fr. Ed: “For those who don’t believe in prayers, the healing of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps in God himself, I offer only these contrasting facts of what existed before the prayer vigil began and what happened in less than one day since. Then each person can decide for himself or herself about the truth of the glory of God, the love of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Fr. Ed listed all of Lucas’s problems on Friday before our prayer vigil began, saying that the baby “was notching downhill for about the fifth day in a row.” Specifically, Lucas struggled and fought to breathe as he had for two weeks; he would sleep, wake to harsh, violent, lengthy coughing and cry himself back to sleep; the left lobe of his lungs was burdened with the mucus and fluid of his pneumonia; the nature of his virus was unknown; he could not eat; he was dehydrated; his face and lips turned blue from lack of oxygen; four doctors were called in to work on him at once; and — in a comment that sent chills up my spine — “there was no good news.” No good news.
On Saturday, after that first night of our prayer vigil, Fr. Ed wrote: “Lucas is moving uphill and making definite progress.” He listed the steps of the baby’s progress: Lucas’s oxygen level was better than at any time in two full weeks; his breathing was no longer as labored and burdensome as it had been; he was finally comfortable and even alert at times; the frequency and severity of his coughing were much improved; an X-ray showed his lungs and pneumonia were improving; doctors had identified the source of his virus and could treat it; he was eating again and taking small units of formula through a feeding tube; he was less dehydrated; the doctors were expressing “guarded optimism” for the first time; Lucas was experiencing his first peace and contentment in two weeks; and, perhaps best of all, “his momentum and trajectory are either upward or at least no longer downward.”
Soon a new photo of Lucas appeared on the screen: a happy, smiling baby with no oxygen tube, dressed in a white onesie decorated with puppies. Under this photo our priest wrote: “No more oxygen tube, no feeding tube, no pneumonia, no infections, no devastating coughing, no intensive care, no fear. Just grace, blessings, answered prayers, and fulfilled promises. … Thank you all for incalculable love and faith. We have needed you so much and you were devotedly there for us. Our gratitude and humility in all of this could not be greater.”
More prayers of thanksgiving to God from our prayer chain flowed onto my screen, including this one from Mary Margaret, which brought me up short: “I’m so grateful for the updates, prayers, details and reminders of what is going on with the family. But also, this is deepening my faith and bringing me into prayer.”
As I read Mary Margaret’s words, I realized that prayer chains are circular. We had longed to minister to the Kelaher family by praying for Lucas. But while we were blessing Lucas, he was blessing us right back by deepening our faith. It was not just what we were doing for Lucas, but what this little baby, lying helplessly on his back and fighting for his life, was doing for us. Fr. Ed had preached to us about the power of prayer, and now we were actually experiencing that power through his own grandson.
Lucas had given all of us who prayed so hard for him a precious gift: he had strengthened our belief in God’s love and taught us what prayer can really do.
Peggy Eastman is poet-in-residence at All Saints Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland.