Monday, September 18, 2017

On Burning the Boats

In the Spring of 2007, Aaron and I had been dating for just a few months. He was so handsome and I was so smitten. One weekend before classes ended for the summer, he came up to my parents' house with me. He got a call letting him know he was being considered for an internship in Cincinnati. In the typical doe-eyed, college-romance way, that felt like 500 light years away (which is outright laughable now after having lived in Arizona.) When he got that call, I decided what I always decide in hard moments: I was going to Suck It Up and Face Reality and Be Strong and Do The Hard Thing. So I looked at him and said - dude, we should break up. Cincinnati is too far away.

What I remember most after that moment is that I went to the kitchen to get a drink of orange juice, and my Mom asked me something innocent like "what's up" and I said something innocent like "not much" but I felt like I couldn't fill up my lungs. It was like walking through sludge. What had just happened? This was terrible! I don't want to get a cup of juice while not dating Aaron. I don't want to make small talk with Mom while not dating Aaron. I don't want to do anything while not dating Aaron! Cincinnati is just a hop and a skip, right? Why did I think it was so far?

I ran back to Aaron and said "nevermind;" and while I assume he was a little alarmed at my neuroses, he said "ok." And we never really talked about it again. (He didn't end up taking that internship - but I got an internship that next fall in Colorado for five months. What star-crossed lovers! We survived. My journal from that period is virtually unreadable, guys.)

I thought about that story again recently because it is exactly what I've done, over this past year and a half, with Jesus.

I don't want to belabor the emotional and theological windstorm Naomi's birth sent me through. I've written about it and thought about it enough. But for the purposes of this story, the practical output of it was - especially in those early months after she came to meet me - that every night I prayed like this:

"God, please keep Naomi safe. Please let her sleep well. Please let her live through the night. Please help me help her."

And, this critical last part:

"God, if you take her from me, I will leave you."

I meant it, and it was important to me to tell Him. I wanted to be honest with Him. I wanted to prepare for the worst. I didn't want to be surprised at how I'd react if it happened. I didn't want to surprise Him, either.

And then, everything was different anyway - my news writing assignments became agonizing. Babies WERE taken from mothers. People hurt babies on purpose; people hurt babies on accident. Babies had cancer, sons and daughters joined the military; everything was agony. Every parent has felt this terrible emotional awakening, I'm pretty sure. (This is why moms can't watch Game of Thrones. That metal-bound torture victim underneath the castle walls is someone's SON, Mr. Martin. Tone it DOWN.) So my prayers, rather slowly, turned into this:

"God, you took those babies. I want to leave you."

And I did. For an afternoon here or an afternoon there, I would pretend I had. I would practice saying in my head "I used to be a Christian." I would guiltily study my hands during worship at church on Sunday, being careful not to sing words I wasn't sure I meant ("whatever my lot, You have taught me to say it is well with my soul.") Those moments never felt right, but I was trying them out. I was putting on the skin of a non-believer; poking my head out of my life to look around. What was it like?

Those moments felt freeing when I was pissed. When I read another terrible news story or heard another struggle from a friend, I felt liberated. Cocky, even. Ha! At least I don't have to explain this away on God's behalf, I thought. But I did notice something a little odd - I still wasn't looking at these situations from the lens of a person who doesn't believe in God. I was using the lens of a person who does; but who just thinks He's terrible. A God I wasn't going to waste my time defending or worshipping - because, frankly, in those moments, I couldn't figure out why I would.

There were some moments and friends that offered me alternatives, mostly in the form of a god that is powerless against bad things, cries when I cry and wouldn't ever really let anything terrible happen. (This perspective always left me sweating, worrying - wouldn't it be worse to have a god who's not in charge than to have one in charge who does inscrutable things sometimes?) Or there's the worldview that pretends everyone is basically good, and anything bad that happens is just, I don't know, a bump on the road to Harmony. (This also left me sweating, because if the people in these local news stories who hurt kids in the way I read about - if they don't burn in hell, constantly reminded of what they did, I don't want to live in that world, either.) But soon I came to a realization:

I would rather reject the real God than accept a fake simulation of Him.

Once I got there, I had a decision to make. Or, I thought I could make. But something else started happening.

As the hormonal haze that marked the beginning of my motherhood has mercifully receded, I've discovered something else about my faith: it's stubborn as hell.

Every time my heart grabs wildly for something to hold on to - whether it's comfort, or the assurance that someone who did something terrible WILL pay - I find Jesus there. When I'm reading with Naomi on my lap and I don't know where to put that joy that feels like it's going to break out of my body, Jesus is there. Every confusing question I find, every time I look hard in the mirror and wonder what kind of life I want to have, Jesus is there. And not just Jesus - I find people in the Scriptures who've asked all the questions I have, or felt the frustrations, or been pissed like I've been pissed, and who've still found a Just and Faithful and Good God. Just like Jesus knows what it is to be human, our forefathers (and mothers) know what it's like to serve an unbelievably frustrating and confusing God from the depths of tragedy and the height of joy. These fathers and mothers of my faith lost their families; they lost their heads and they spent years in prison. They cried and kicked and screamed, and they tried to count it all joy, because they had seen a man rise from the dead and tell them that they could, too.

I can't let Him go. I don't want to get a glass of orange juice without Him, I don't want to make small talk without Him; I sure as hell don't want to raise my daughter without him. I don't think I could if I tried. He is in my bones and blood; in my mind when I'm not quite awake but find myself praying for help, or when I'm frustrated beyond belief and grasping for empathy. He is real, and thank God I have spent years knowing that and growing in my knowledge of that. Because now, when I spend days realizing the cost of it (that I could lose everything - my baby - and still be called to worship the One in Charge) I come to find it's worth it. It has to be, because I don't have a choice.

Pastor Frank said in his sermon a couple weeks ago (goodness help me, I can't stop listening to Redemption podcasts. There is no substitute for a Frank sermon) that "mature faith has burned the boats." (He was quoting another author, so don't give him too much credit.) Mature faith has given up on all other options. It's on the island, with no escape, with enough confidence and holy recklessness to burn the only point of return. There's no going back.

I've burned the boats. Thank God.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

"Honey, This City Isn't For You."

Last weekend, with great solemnity and ceremony, I relocated my aloe plant from the landing on our stairs to our deck outside. To get some sun, because I'm pretty sure it's dying. (I always kill the ones that are supposed to be low-maintenance. And the needy ones are thriving. This is probably a metaphor about me? Is it?) Anyway, this afternoon I was patting myself on the back for my steely resolve in the face of cruel nature and science, etc.; sacrificing the feng shui of my staircase landing all in the name of abundant aloe life, and then it starting pouring rain. It went from zero to Apocolypse Now: Rainstorm in .5 seconds and I was powerless at my kitchen window. That rain is gonna kill my aloe now. Aloe drowns in the rain.

We live about a mile from downtown Columbus. I can see the skyscrapers from our third-story window, which sits just opposite the Naptime Treadmill 2017 (as we affectionately call it around here, because it is almost exclusively used during naptime). On pretty regular occasions, especially during rush hour when the highways are clogged, I find myself driving through the middle of the city. (Columbus has a really strange number of pizza places. And hot dog places. And grilled cheese places? We have a grease problem.) Anyway, right now on every major city lamppost downtown, there are giant signs heralding the Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade and Festival in a couple weeks. The signs have been up for over a month now. They're city signs, on city lampposts. With a great font.

I see them every time I pass through town, and a couple errands ago I realized I hadn't quite put my finger on how they made me feel. Because I was definitely feeling something, but I didn't know what. The easy answer would be anger. Taking a quick inventory of my college years would lead right to that conclusion. I was an angry little freedom fighter back then - everyone was out to get me and everyone but me was WRONG. But the signs weren't making me angry.

Was it sadness? Melancholy? Tenderness? Fear? Confusion? No. None of these really fit.

It was loneliness.

They make me feel lonely, is the thing. Like my own city doesn't want me. Because I'm not proud of our cultural obsession with sexuality, or the way we reduce people with same-sex attraction to a single identity, or the way we bully people - via Twitter, via legislation, via lawsuits, via church pulpits, via podcasts, via blogs, via books, via boring ol' peer pressure - into accepting, celebrating, and promoting the idea that we're powerless in the face of our sexual desires, that we can be happy as long as we get to do whatever we feel like doing in any given moment, and that marriage isn't a True Immovable Thing but can be whatever we want it to be, and that marriage only exists to make us happy. In fact, I don't like that we do that. I don't think homosexuality is an identity. I don't think it allows people to flourish. I don't think it's good for hearts. I don't think it's the way God sees us. And for that, my city doesn't want me.

(A few weeks ago I met a woman for coffee who does some local freelance writing. I was hoping to pick her brain on the ins and outs of  the freelance landscape around here. But when she asked me what Aaron does for a living, and I told her about his nonprofit, this happened:

Her: "Honey, you don't want to write for any Columbus publications."
Me: "What? Yes, I do."
Her: "'s a very progressive city."
Me: "...ok?"
Her: .....
Me: .....

Me: ... "Do any of the publications cover the news? Because that's what I write, and that's what I read in them. I don't see a lot of opinion pieces... and I'm not qualified to write opinion pieces anyway."
Her: "I just don't think you'd want to write for them.")

Loneliness. (With a dash of injustice, bc: WTF?)


I feel strongly that I will really screw this whole thing up if I start to focus on whether, or how, I'm being wronged. That would be fruitless and self-serving and, frankly, boring as hell.  What I'm hoping to do is maybe use this to try to understand better the other people who have felt like this. Maybe for a long time.

I'm thinking of African-Americans who were (and in many cases still are) treated as unwelcome in their own cities. At water fountains and schools and restaurants and on certain streets and in certain neighborhoods or jobs or clergy positions or city councils. Or men and women without washboard abs and straight white teeth who don't see anyone who looks remotely like them on any billboard or advertisement anywhere. I guess I've spent most of my life, thanks be to God, feeling pretty represented. Pretty included. And now I'm starting not to feel that way. It's sad, and it makes me feel lonely, but maybe it will make me wiser. And help me remember that suffering - even on this little level - isn't The Thing To Always Be Avoided. And that it arguably doesn't do me too much good to feel perfectly at home in a world where sin is still pouring like Apocolypse Now: Rainstorm.

Because aloe drowns in the rain.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Swimming Naked

There's a guy in Australia who hosts a nude swim every year. At first I assumed he was a perverted weirdo, but I saw an interview with him and changed my mind. He said he does it to force people to think about their priorities. He said people usually only re-evaluate their perspective when one of the terrible "d's" happens to them - death, disease or divorce - and he wanted to create a positive situation that would yield the same positive results. It sounds crazy, but I actually think it's totally plausible that plunging naked into the freezing Australian ocean surrounded by a whole bunch of other naked weirdos would give me a broader perspective on life and its many challenges. (I could probably argue that the people who sign up for something like that in the first place probably aren't the people who need it, but I don't want to be a downer.)

Anyway I think I have the opposite problem. I think it's from writing the news.

Before I go on, a word to pre-child me and anyone else who has an eyeroll at the ready for the next person who talks about how "becoming a parent changes you":

Becoming a parent changes you.

Like, I don't think it makes you morally superior, or even more wise. You're not a bad person, or weird or selfish, if you don't have kids. You can still experience deep, meaningful and fruitful human emotion. You can still teach others, and have passionate feelings. BUT.

The Maria Baer before Naomi was a different Maria Baer, with shallower fears, less weighty daily concerns and more inward focus. I wasn't worse, but I was different, and less emotionally stretched. My love wasn't as deep and my fear wasn't as wide. I didn't know how to prioritize stressors the way I do now. (An aside: this literally makes me feel like a Completely Amazing Person on a daily basis. Do you know this feeling? My kid is crying, I just spilled coffee on my shirt, someone's knocking at the door and my phone is ringing. What do I do first? Tend to the kid. Then door, then phone, don't worry about shirt. This is a small example but it's hard to quantify how empowering these kids of little stress pop quizzes are.) My point is I am different now and probably slightly more wise. This is not an opinion or a moral judgment, it's just a fact, and it's emotionally mature to accept it without getting defensive (still talking to my pre-child self here) and move on.

A few weeks ago I wrote to my pastor in Phoenix about how guilty I felt for singing "I Surrender All" at church on Ash Wednesday knowing full well that I very much DON'T surrender all, because I don't surrender my daughter. If God pulled an Abraham-and-Isaac thing on me, I don't even have to think about it; I'd say no. I just would. It troubles me to say that, and confuses me because I don't know what it means about my faith necessarily, but I do know it's true.

Anyway my pastor said (among many other things, which were a great help) that when God told Eve that there would be pain in child-bearing after the apple incident, THIS is what He meant. All of this. Not just the contractions the breathing and all that, but the fear, and the desperate and terrible love. I feel like a broken record. (Having a child has changed me and I am still dealing with it).

Writing local news roundups every night has exacerbated this. All these car accidents, tornadoes, mothers arrested for neglecting their babies, heroin overdoses at 21, accidental fatal gunfire, sexual deviance, teachers abusing students, men robbing convenience stores at knifepoint, drunk driving accidents - It's salt on a very fresh, confusing wound that I'm still tip-toeing around, staring at from different angles and trying to parse. What is this fear? Is it real or exaggerated? Is it wisdom or irrational, hormone-induced anxiety? Am I living with a wise, much-sought-after "eternal perspective" ("life is short") or just paralyzing myself with fear and worry ("Oh shit, life is short!")

Pardon my irreverent French, but John Piper is an asshole about this. Remember when he started a Twitter controversy (remember when it was possible to NOT start Twitter controversies?) after the deadly tornado in Missouri by tweeting something about how it was all part of God's plan? He said it much more aggressively than this. Lately I've been reading a book of his called "Don't Waste Your Life." I bought it at a conference and will sheepishly admit I was drawn in by the title. I was secretly hoping it was going to be a nice, comforting little treatise on how accepting the Gospel means you could never possibly waste your life, even if you're a newly staying-at-home mom still trying to figure out how to spend her time. (If I spend the next 15 minutes doing the dishes, will I Regret For The Rest Of My Life that I didn't spend those 15 minutes with my too-rapidly growing baby? Don't they make flowery instagram memes about this? And if I don't do the dishes, won't it annoy me the next time I go into the kitchen, and the time after that, and eventually we won't have any dishes to eat on? How the hell do I make this kind of decision?)

And I guess the Piper book does essentially say that (the Gospel thing, not the dishes thing) but it's just so... mean. I finish each chapter thinking "why are you yelling at me, John Piper?" I'm paraphrasing here but I'm pretty sure there's a paragraph that basically says "if terrible things happen to you, who cares! You shouldn't, because Jesus is eternal."

The odd thing is, in the same season as this fear has been swirling around me, my life has gotten really deliciously small. Like, the kind of life I always wanted. I wake up in the morning slowly. My girl and I eat breakfast. I make coffee, she plays. We sit on the back porch and talk about the weather and the new flowers blooming. Maybe we take a walk to the park. I sit at the piano for a while. We read books. She naps. You get what I'm saying. I'm still reading and writing and seeing other adult friends and cooking fun things and running on the treadmill and everything. But I'm not stressed. I feel really present.

And in all those same moments, I'm also terrified. I realize some folks need to jump naked into the Pacific be reminded of what's important and to find the encouragement to stop spending so much time on frivolous things. My problem is the frivolous things aren't fun anymore because I'm too consumed with the frailty of What's Important.

Sometimes I feel like I can't win. This is why I like reading fiction. (And drinking wine.)