On Battles and Birthdays: Sharon Autenrieth

The first blog post of 2018 is brought to us by NazToo-er Sharon Autenrieth. Sharon lives in the St. Louis suburbs and writes about film at zekefilm.org. She’s also a workplace chaplain and homeschooler. Sharon storms the Bastille as often as her aging back will let her.

I love making New Year’s resolutions, even though I know they’re mockable. I don’t have any stats to back this up, but I suspect their failure rate is high. Really high. Spectacularly high. But most years I make resolutions anyway, and honestly, some of them have worked out pretty well. Sure, I’ve failed in the usual “eat more vegetables,” “exercise more,” “declutter the house” resolutions. But one year I resolved to become a hugger. That was life changing. A couple of years ago I pledged to stop watching garbage TV and start listening to more podcasts. Again, life changing.

But I’m not sure I made any resolutions last year. I have no memory of them, can find no trace of them on my blog (where I often make them public) or in my bullet journal. I can’t quite remember – good Lord, it’s been a long year – but I think perhaps the reason I didn’t make a list of resolutions is that I was hyperfocused on one, giant resolution for 2017: fight like hell.

It’s perhaps worth noting that the last few years of my life have been marked by a terrible lot of fighting like hell against the powers that be. After 20+ years of being a faithful Nancy Nazarene, I answered a long-deferred call to pastoral ministry. I was affirmed by everyone around me: my pastor, my church family, my husband, my parents, my friends, my children. I was already serving on staff at our church. Now I plunged into taking classes online. I preached my first sermon, filled with fear, and suddenly discovered that I love preaching. Years passed and the finish line was within sight. I began to think about the really important questions: would I collar-up after ordination? Could I pull that look off, with this double chin?

I should have seen trouble coming, but I didn’t. I don’t want to burden you with the details here, but a few fundamentalist pastors targeted me and I spent two years fighting to defend my character, my theology, and my call. I won some battles, but lost the war and my district license. I was now persona non grata with my former “colleagues.” I couldn’t even get the district superintendent to answer my emails.

I was devastated, furious, traumatized. It was in the middle of this mess that I found the “I’m Nazarene, Too” Facebook group, thank God. Those folks were a loving and gracious community to me when I desperately needed it, when just showing up at church on Sunday took a Herculean effort.

So I was slowly healing and might have been in a position to make some light resolutions last year if this country hadn’t elected Donald Trump. We chose this guy. We – white Evangelicals – gave our blessing to a man who is an existential threat to millions, perhaps billions, of people. I felt, if not responsible, at least responsible-adjacent. And so I started fighting like hell again.

I have marched and stood vigil, volunteered, donated, called my congresspersons, and tried to rally the resistance. I have a trunk full of protest signs: for DACA and a free press, for black lives and affordable healthcare. I have a pile of pink hats for the females in my family. I don’t know that I’ve accomplished much – sometimes the darkness seems very powerful – but I have tried. God knows I’ve been trying.

So maybe I’d just re-resolve to fight like hell in 2018, except for a couple of things that I can’t get out of my mind.

Firstly, I heard an interview with Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter in which she mentioned that even in old age L’Engle loved celebrating her own birthday. I can’t explain why that struck me, except that celebrating your own birthday seems to me to be an embrace of joy, of childlikeness, of believing that your own existence matters enough to be worth throwing a party. And the last year of fighting like hell has been woefully short of joy, of childlikeness, of embracing the gift of my own life.

Secondly, I’m about see my first grandchild come into the world. He’s due in just a few days, and in my mind’s eye I keep remembering what my own babies looked like; how strange and wondrous and fun it was to see them wake up to the world.

I asked Naztoo to help me choose a title for my new role (Mimi? Gigi? Gran?), but the title is small potatoes compared to the kind of person I want to be for my grandchild. He may be growing up in a world of powerful darkness, but it’s also a world in which people plant gardens and adopt pets, tell knock-knock jokes, make movies, bake cakes, play board games, and cheer wildly at solar eclipses. The darkness is strong but I remain someone whose hope is in a stronger Light, the One who came into the world and has not left us as orphans. The One who has given me the courage to fight like hell over the last few years. Perhaps in 2018 I can ask Jesus for the courage to laugh at jokes, to play games, and to celebrate my birthday.

The great poet-philosopher Lloyd Dobler, of “Say Anything,” said this thing: “Get in a good mood! How hard is it to decide to be in a good mood and be in a good mood once in a while?” And the esteemable St. Irenaeus adds, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” So maybe I can fight like hell against the powers that be, and be in a good mood once in a while. Maybe, in fact, the good moods and the silly moments and the small celebrations can become part of the fight. I have talked (preached, really) about defiant Christian hope a lot over the years, but perhaps from that same source can spring defiant Christian merriment, mirth, joy. Fun.

For the sake of my grandchild – who will hear plenty of my rants against the patriarchy, and will see me crafting my protest signs, and may, like one of my children, ask if we can take a break from talking about racism for a while – I am resolving in 2018 to make space for being like a child again. In fact, I want to convey a blessing on that sweet little boy when I lay eyes on him, and I want to convey the same blessing on myself, anew.

“Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” (Frederick Buechner)

In 2018 let’s fight like hell. And let’s enjoy the party.

By the way, my birthday is March 3.