For Valentine’s Day: A Love Story Between a Boy and a Tree

{This is the sermon I gave on Sunday at my church, while filling in for my not-quite-here-yet pastor. It had been a while (about 5 years, in fact) since I had full-on led a worship service. I enjoyed it tremendously, but I am also not itching to do it every Sunday again. I’m happily sticking to my doula/chaplain/mom job for the now.}

In case you haven’t seen a commercial, or set foot in a store in the past month, Valentine’s Day is coming up.

I spent too many years single (I didn’t get married until I was 33, and most of my life up until then I had not been in a serious romantic relationship) to really care about Valentine’s Day, but I thought it might be a good excuse to tell you a different kind of love story.  A love story about a boy…and a tree.

{At this point I read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to the congregation.  In case you do not have a copy handy, you can read the text here. If you want to go seriously nostalgic, you can watch the recording of the filmstrip from the 70’s (!!) below.}

There’s a lot that could be said about this simple little book.  It is a love story, but what kind of love story?  How do you interpret this story?

I think for as many of us who are here today, there are as many opinions and interpretations on this book, which is what makes it so awesome.  Some of you may love it, and remember it fondly from your own childhood or from your children’s or grandchildren’s.  Some of you may hate it and think it is in no way appropriate for children.

The problem for many people is the way in which the tree “loves” the boy, giving and giving and giving of herself until she is all used up.  Some people see this as codependence, or as bordering on abusive behavior on the part of the boy.  Did you notice that the boy not only never once says “thank you”, but also doesn’t seem to have a problem with essentially destroying this being who loves him, just to serve his own whims?

I have to admit that I do not find the boy to be a likeable character.  And that the tree’s way of giving beyond what seems rational or healthy makes me uncomfortable.

But, what can we make of this story from a theological point of view?  Does this story have anything to teach us about God, and if so, what?

I think that the way the tree loves the boy is the way God loves us.  I also think, perhaps more often than any of us would like to admit, even to ourselves, we are the boy.  Ok, I’ll say it: I am the boy.  I take the gifts which God so freely and abundantly offers me, and I use them to serve my own ends, often not even saying thank you to God, or spending any more time with Her than is needed to get what I want.  It’s uncomfortable for me to say it, but it is true.

And God is the tree.  She gives and gives, and loves without considering the cost, and according to Christian belief: God gives even to the point of the ultimate self-sacrifice, that is, submitting to death, as Christ did on the cross.

This is how God loves us, but is this how God wants it to be?  Well, no.  Remember in the story, after the boy cut down the tree’s trunk to make a boat, it says, “And the tree was happy….but not really.”

I think this is what the Old Testament passage for today is getting at:

Isaiah chapter 58 tells us that the people have been calling it in, not really trying, not really taking the time and energy necessary to maintain a relationship with God.  They were taking one day to fast, and then going back to their exploitative ways the other six.  God says to them through the prophet that one day out of six is not enough, that putting on sackcloth on the Sabbath is not going to erase a week’s worth of greed.  God speaks these words to the people:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

I don’t care about your going through the motions of religious piety, says God.  I care about your giving, and giving, and giving some more.  And only when you give without limit, only then will I hear your voice calling to me, and only then will I bless you with abundance.

Ack. That’s hard to hear.

Does this mean that God only loves us when we are doing right?  No.  But God can still love us and not be too happy with us, at the same time.

It’s like how I remind my daughter often that I love her always, even when I am angry with her, even when she makes terrible decisions.  I will always love her.  And I want her to hear and remember that, even through my anger.

The boy makes some rotten decisions, but the tree always loves him, and is always overjoyed to see him when he returns.  That bit kind of reminds me of the story of the Prodigal Son, which is also a difficult parable to hear, particularly from the older brother’s point of view.

I think that what is really, really troubling about hearing The Giving Tree as parable for divine love, is not only that it gives us a window into how unconditionally God loves us, no matter how bratty and greedy and self-centered we are, but it also illustrates for us the way in which God asks US to love one another.

God expects US to loose the bonds of injustice, the oppression that we enact on one another.  God expect US to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into our own houses, to clothe the naked, and to take responsibility for others–even (and perhaps especially?) those with whom we are related.

In short, God expects US to be the tree.

I gotta tell you, I do not want to be the tree.

I do not want to give and give and give without limit.  I do not want to expend myself in service to others to the point of being completely used up.

So, what’s a person who wants to be faithful, but who would like to continue living through life, and still have some working parts left over by the end, to do?

Sometimes we’re the tree.
Sometimes we’re the boy.

One strategy comes to mind, that of a former pastor of mine, the lovely Julie Pennington-Russell, who once explained to me her system of calendar-keeping.  Next to every person’s name in her datebook, she would write either an F or a D.  F was for “fills me” and D was for “drains me”, and she said that she would try to have more or less a balance of each in any given week.  It was her way of avoiding burnout as a pastor of a large and thriving congregation.

She taught me that we have got to have a balance between people who fill us and people who drain us, or we ourselves become unbalanced, and can no longer give and serve others as God calls us to do.

I suppose that we could adapt my pastor’s system, and put a T for Tree, next to people who give to us, and a B for Boy next to those who take from us.

Sometimes we’re the tree.
Sometimes we’re the boy.

In my lines of work, as a doula, and as a chaplain, I see both: the selfless giving of parents to their newborns, often to the point of utter exhaustion.  I also see the giving of children to their dying parents, also to the point of utter exhaustion.  And of course, there is a whole life in between, in which there is give and there is take, and hopefully, it all evens out in the end.

God is perfect, and loves perfectly.  God is always the tree.

We, on the other hand…well.

Sometimes we’re the tree.
Sometimes we’re the boy.

As we walk through this imperfect life, may we find ways to balance our giving and taking, our treeness and our boyness, as we seek to live and love faithfully in relationship with others.


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.