By Rachel Chang
The night I met Cora in the cardiac intensive care unit she was anxious, physically and spiritually, about the state of her heart. This was during the spring of my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency, when a curiosity about the personal formation of CPE was evolving into a clear vocational pathway in chaplaincy. We spoke of the courage (root word: heart) she would need for the journey ahead. We formed a connection that night that continued through months of device placements, hospital readmissions, and eventually a successful heart transplant. At one point along her journey I signed her post-transplant heart pillow with the blessing, “May you always find the courage you need for wholehearted living.” At another point, she offered me a profound blessing. She asked if we could pray, and I was startled by how fervently she wanted to offer the prayer. She prayed for her healing process and also for our connection. She held my hands, she parted a veil, and she prayed for me. Later that night I realized it was the one-year anniversary of my ordination. Her prayer became a renewal of the Laying on of Hands ritual as she ordained me anew in that time and place. She reminded me of my call, proclaimed in my ordination service at Knollwood Baptist Church and echoing now: To minister in a dynamic and interconnected world, to work for the healing and wholeness of all people and our common home, and to live and love with an embodied awareness of divine presence in the world.
The anniversary of my ordination has a habit of sneaking up on me. Last year it coincided with the birth of my first child. As with the encounter with Cora, I did not register the significance in the moment and only discovered it a week later when journaling about the dizzying transformation of the prior week. I was floored. Talk about an embodied awareness of divine presence in the world! Could there be a more obvious symbol that I was, for this time and place, ordained to motherhood?
So, then, the current echo of my call has a slightly different resonance—one that synchronizes (and sometimes clashes) with the babbles, wails, and laughter of my young son Teddy. Although I had planned to return to my chaplain position after a maternity leave, various factors—including COVID-19 concerns, a move, and the news of a second child on the way—led to a decision to focus on parenting rather than returning to work. Fifteen months into this adventure, I’m still figuring out what that means—to parent (period) and to parent as an echo of ministerial call.
Like most ministry roles, I’ve learned that each day with a baby must be its own. Greet it with gratitude, do what you can, perhaps reflect back on the day with an examen-like practice, or perhaps just go to bed. The next task, the next moment, the next diaper change awaits. We have hanging above Teddy’s changing table a framed quote from Annie Dillard: how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. Sometimes this realization makes me groan as I look down a year’s long spiraling tunnel of dirty diapers. Yet sometimes I manage to smile and whisper a blessing with each of the dozen changes that day, as if praying the hours.
Like the age-old wisdom of spiritual care, I’ve learned that I cannot often fix or cure, but I can still care and heal. My own mother, a pediatrician, prepared me for Teddy’s first set of shots, explaining that there is often a moment of stunned silence followed by the wail of lost innocence and sheer pain. I thought he was doing remarkably well at first; a few screams, yes, but easily soothed in my arms. After a long nap, however, sore little leg muscles clearly set in. He cried and cried, easy to distinguish as cries of pain, and showed no interest in eating or playing. We settled into a rocker for the next several hours. With each gentle stroke and soothing lullaby I hoped to reassure him that although I couldn’t take away the pain, I would sit with him through it. Here was a moment of glistening clarity that as a minister and as a mother I could model the God of my theology.
Other lessons have not yet crystallized. I frequently read poetry aloud to Teddy, hoping that the lilt and rhythm of my voice will sink into him as a form of love and a love for words. (Likewise, I hope he’ll be blessed with his daddy’s mind for numbers… pieces of us both, growing together in him like goldenrod and aster.) One day recently he got an earful of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Shoulders as I pondered the image again and again. A man is carrying his sleeping son across a street in the rain. He knows they are vulnerable. He trusts anyway, inspired by the boy’s breathing, his dreaming. And then the pivot from particular to universal: We’re not going to be able / to live in this world / if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing / with one another. / The road will only be wide. / The rain will never stop falling. This metaphor of tenderly yet fiercely holding a sleeping child connects my experience of becoming a parent this past year to the groanings of the world in multilayered pandemic. The road has indeed been wide and the rain falling. We have all had to hold each other in so many ways, without actually holding each other. Despite all the times in the night when I didn’t think I could go to him one more time, I am so grateful that I can actually hold my child; protect him with my body; hear the hum of his dreams. As I emerge from the cocoon of new parenthood and pandemic precautions, as I cross more wide and rain-splattered streets, how will I offer my tender yet fierce care to the world—in and through and also beyond my role as a mother?
I will pray for the courage I need for such wholehearted living. I will listen for the complex strains of calling. I will pay attention to anniversaries and ordinations and holy moments that bring me and my kindred just a little closer to healing and wholeness.
1 Nye, Naomi Shihab Nye. “Shoulders.” Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection, edited by James Crews, Green Writers Press, 2019, p. 72.
Rachel Chang is an Alliance-endorsed chaplain in Colorado. A North Carolina native, she graduated from Wake Forest University School of Divinity in 2016 before heading west to train and serve as a chaplain at University of Colorado Hospital. She is currently focusing on the adventure of parenting and settling into a new community in Colorado Springs.