Super Grover 2.0: Incarnational Theology for Doulas, Chaplains, and You

This morning over breakfast, while my kids were getting their dose of Sesame Street, I remembered an essay I wrote while I was doing my chaplain residency. For those of you who watch, oh, I don’t know–THE NEWS, or some such grownup programming while eating your cereal in the morning, I offer this by way of introduction to Super Grover 2.0:

Admit it. You were entertained.

Anyway, a big part of the chaplain residency I went through back in 2010/11 involved undergoing some pretty intense reflection on how to become a better pastoral caregiver. I have said all along that the skills I developed in the process of becoming a chaplain are the skills I find most useful as a doula: that of being fully present for the person I am serving, and trusting that I have within me what I need to be an emotional and spiritual support for my client/patient. I think that as a doula it can be awfully easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I won’t be fully prepared to serve  my clients unless I learn this physical comfort technique or read up on that medical intervention or acquire certification in [insert birth related field here].” And that’s not to say that I should not or am not continuing to sharpen those kinds of doula skills. I am. But I think the reason caregivers focus on that other stuff is because showing up–being fully, completely, totally present for the person whom you are serving–is actually really, really difficult to do. Gena Kirby, a doula who travels the world leading workshops on the use of the rebozo in labor, brought this idea up not too long ago in a Facebook group I follow:

I have noticed over the years that doulas who take my classes sign up to learn how to DO stuff to clients. They want to know how to augment, how to move baby, how to…you name it. These questions really put the DO in doula. I wish we were BE las instead.

Being a BE-la, being fully present for another person, particularly when that other person is doing something really intense, like giving birth, or preparing to die, is super hard to do. Which is why I wrote this essay, slightly modified below, in which I offer, by way of inspiration, a superhero unlike any other.

I bring you Super Grover 2.0.

Sesame Street has been on the air for 44 years, so I am assuming you all are familiar with the show. Super Grover has been around since the 70’s, but unless you have been watching in recent years, you may not be aware that, like most everything, Super Grover has had an upgrade. He is now Super Grover 2.0! Each of his sketches now begins with this intro:

He observes.          He questions.          He investigates.

Super Grover 2.0.

He shows up.

And each sketch follows a similar format: somewhere in the world, a muppet is in trouble. Super Grover 2.0 swoops in with the inevitable crash landing (flying is no problem, but apparently landing is not so simple). Then there follows a series of interactions in which Super Grover is of little to no help. He makes several attempts to solve the muppet’s problem, but these serve only to pass the time (in a comical way) while the muppet who originally had the problem discovers its own solution.

For example, there is the chicken stuck on one side of “The Pretty Good Wall of China” who cries out, “I just gotta get over this wall, I just gotta!”

Super Grover crash lands, and asks, “Why do you want to get over the wall?”

“To get to the other side! It’s a chicken thing.”

They try a couple of ideas out that are clearly doomed to fail, but Super Grover does not let the chicken fall into despair. He is sure that if they keep trying, they will find a solution. Finally the chicken takes the pole with which Super Grover has been ineffectually trying to poke a hole through the wall and uses it as a lever, successfully propelling herself over the wall.

In another sketch, a cactus has a prickly problem—he desperately wants to play with a ball, only his spines keep deflating the ball as soon as he picks it up. He calls out, “Help, help!” Super Grover crash lands, and the cactus cries, “Super Grover 2.0, you showed up!” To which Super Grover replies, “It is what I do!” Super Grover then suggests a series of alternative balls for the cactus to play with, such as a bowling ball (too heavy) and a snowball (too melty), before he decides to take a lunch break. He removes the foil that his sandwich is wrapped in, balls it up and tosses it aside. The cactus is overjoyed—this ball of foil is just the right kind of ball for a cactus to play with!

(Here is the video of that sketch, in case you want to watch.)

OK.  So maybe you are thinking right now, “Clearly this woman is sleep-deprived and her brain has been addled from watching too much children’s television. Where is she going with this?  Does she think she is making sense?”

Well, I will admit to being sleep deprived, but I maintain that this will all make sense. Because, dear reader, Super Grover 2.0 is, in fact, a wonderful model of pastoral care.

No, really.

Remember Super Grover’s voice-over intro?

He observes. He questions. He investigates.  Super Grover 2.0. He shows up.

As a doula and as a chaplain, I do all those things.

I observe—I listen carefully to what those whom I am serving are saying with both their bodies and their words.

I question—I ask really hard questions, ones that nobody else may be asking, like: how do you feel about that? and what is it that you really want?

I investigate—I ask (or even better, prompt my client to ask) questions of the nurse and the doctor to try to understand the situation, I ask the patient (or family member, whomever I am supporting in the moment) questions in an effort to get them to search deep within themselves for reserves of strength and hope that they didn’t know were there.

But most of all—by far the most important thing I do, beyond anything I say—I show up.

As a chaplain, I show up in the middle of the night, roused by the insistent beeping of the pager, throw on some clothes that I hope are within the realm of professional (I will admit to having shown up at the hospital with my shirt on inside out before), I make my way to the room where someone has just had a really intense experience, and I come alongside them in their pain and grief.

As a doula, I answer my cell phone at every hour of the day and night, no matter where I am or what I am doing, because my client has gone into labor, or thinks she may have, and anyway she needs to know that I am there for her and will be at her side as soon as I am able, and that I will not leave her until her baby is born, no matter how long that may take.

Just like Super Grover (but without the crash landing, hopefully) I show up. All it takes is for someone to call out in need. As a chaplain (and even sometimes as a doula when I am volunteering to support women giving birth alone), I often have never met this person before, nor will I ever see them again. But I show up, because, in that moment, they need somebody.

And, like Super Grover, I do my best to be helpful. I certainly hope that I don’t make such a muddle of it as he does, though there have been times when it seems that I say all the wrong things. But ultimately, just as in all the Super Grover sketches, the reality is that it is not anything I say or do that will solve this person’s problem. Really, it is my job to get out of the way and allow this person find their own way.

But showing up, that’s key. Sometimes all it takes for someone to believe they can move forward is for someone to show up and believe in them. There’s even a ten-dollar theological word for showing up: incarnation. Capital-I-Incarnation is how we describe God taking on flesh: what we see in the person of Jesus Christ. But there is also a lower case-i-incarnation: this term is used to describe a way of providing pastoral care for others: incarnational pastoral care is when God is embodied–-albeit in an imperfect way, as we are imperfect beings–-but God is embodied in our care for others. As a care provider listens and empathizes with one in need, God is present. In this relationship, God is incarnated (is borne in the flesh of) these two people in their interaction with one another. In that moment of truly showing up, the caregiver has made space for them both to experience the inbreaking of the reign of God.

And this incarnational ministry thing is not limited to chaplains, or pastors, or any sort of licensed or ordained minister. Certainly it is not limited to doulas. We can all relate to one another in a way that is incarnational. What it takes is a willingness to show up for someone, anyone, who calls out in need.

Jesus said (in Matthew 25) that those who reach out to others in need, are in fact reaching out to Christ himself. Christ is present, God is incarnate, when we welcome a stranger, when we visit the sick, when we feed the hungry, when we clothe the naked. That is not a message just for those in some kind of professional ministry. That is a message for us all.

And so we are all called to be like Super Grover. Christ commands us to hear the call of one in need, and to show up. And we can trust God to show up, as well, and to work through our efforts—even if sometimes they be bumbling, and include crash landings and totally unhelpful suggestions—yes, even then, God can work through each of us. We just have to be faithful and show up.

Remember what the cactus said, when Super Grover crashed into the desert beside him?

“Super Grover, you showed up!”

And Super Grover replied, “It is what I do!”

It is what I try to do, in my doula practice, in my chaplain ministry, in my everyday life.  By the grace of God, may we all be inspired to engage in this superheroic incarnational ministry, the ministry of showing up.