WEEDING THE GARDEN: AN INTERVIEW WITH SARAH CUNNINGHAM
Sarah Cunningham’s latest book, Picking Dandelions: A Search for Eden Among Life’s Weeds (Zondervan), reads like a conversation with an old friend. Telling stories from her life, she takes the reader on a garden tour of her soul, never afraid to point out the weeds spotting the landscape. Learning to recognize the weeds in our lives helps the blooming flowers to stand out even more vividly. Sarah’s book and our recent conversation are encouraging me to look around for the evidence of Eden in my little patch of the world.
Picking Dandelions is your second book. Your first book was called Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation. I’ve read both books and can say that I loved them both but for different reasons. Dear Church felt a little rebellious while in Picking Dandelions you come across much more settled. How did that shift occur from the writing as the rebellious twenty-something to the conversationalist-at-peace?
I wouldn’t say the dominant tone of Dear Church is rebellion, though I get what you mean. There was some heavy angst there. I had seen some hard things unfold in the church and it just hurt to see God-led communities fall so short of his intended good for us.
I was always somewhere in the realm of “responsible” though–feeling torn between frustrations with the church and idealism. But even in the hard moments, I never let go of seeing the church as Jesus’ intended platform for dispensing hope for the planet.
As far as the shift of voice, some of it came through sheer time. Hurts always subside. Perspective dawns. You learn not to empty all your energy over things you can’t change. You figure out how to balance idealism and reality in more healthy ways. And eventually I just realized that one of the best ways to change the church is for each of us to commit to changing our selves.
Your book is focused on the idea that people have this sort of longing for Eden within. This longing shows up in a desire for growth and change in good times and bad. How does this change take place? What does that look like?
My guess is it plays out a little bit different with each person. The Holy Spirit knows how to work within the context of each person’s life circumstances.
But in general, I think we have a shared sense–when things are bad, for example–that life is “supposed” to be better. That our existence is meant to be more peaceful and purposeful, for example. And that craving drives us to look for truths embedded in our surroundings and in the story of the Bible.
As we begin to adopt some truths in our lives, it pays off. Our lows get a little less dark, our highs get a little bit more steady. Life rounds out a little bit more. I’m not saying it gets perfect or that any of us ever coast on 100% maturity, but we start to experience more of that full life Jesus said he came to bring. And when we start to cash in on God’s intentions, and feel the sweetness of he wanted for us, it is built-in incentive to keep seeking him more and to keep trying to align our lives with more and more of his truths.
That’s how it works for me anyways. 🙂
You tell stories throughout your book about the different influences that have led to change in your own life. Could you talk about some of these influences that have had the biggest impact in helping you to restore a little bit of Eden in your own life?
One of the ideals I think God has been attaching and reattaching since Eden is the “brotherhood” of the human race. This includes God’s intention that we act in ways that promote the common good of all people (we see this especially in the development of early Israel). And it plays out in the inclusiveness of the New Testament, post-Jesus church community, who used the term “brother” (or sibling in the generic sense) to refer to fellow believers, who conceptualized themselves as joint-heirs (siblings) with Jesus and adopted children of God.
I’ve stumbled into some rich relationships that function with those sort-of family-like qualities. There is escalated commitment, escalated sacrifice, escalated honesty etc. Time spent with these people, the laughter and love that grows between us, creates some of the most Eden-like moments of my life. I never feel like Eden as much as I do when I’m with people I love.
At the same time, in the interest of honesty, I can’t act like I have the exclusive copyright on this part of Eden. For the most part, the general feel of my life is warmth and connection between me and those I love. But it doesn’t mean I don’t screw up sometimes, that I don’t have unhealthy patterns that sometime subtract from friendships that matter to me. Even recently I’ve had to face how the “weeds” in me have hurt both me, a friend of mine, and our friendship in ways that I will always regret. So I experience Eden a lot of times, but I miss the Eden boat sometimes too.
But I’m always growing, always in the process of learning to better identify the flaws and dysfunctions in the way I relate to others…and always pursuing change (usually more slowly than I should) as I become more aware.
You seem to be drawn to serve a hurting world. You teach in an alternative school, have spent time working in inner-city Chicago, and led a team of people to Ground Zero just days after the 9/11 attacks. What do you think it is that draws people to these places of danger? What was it that led you to those places?
I think it’s the same general idea we just touched on. We have a sense that God didn’t intend for the world to be a mass of hurt or despair. And when we see brokenness, something (I’d contend God) compels us to try to right what we “sense” is wrong. But some of it isn’t intuitive, it’s a learned response to the overarching themes of the Bible. As we read, threads like justice, care for the marginalized, peace-making get implanted in us. And hopefully, we’re not satisfied with just information. We let that information move us…to transformation.
To be honest, I’d guess a lot of the “reaching out” that goes on in the name of Christ is fueled by mixed motives. There may be part of us that wants a more heroic identity, that wants to be publicly affirmed and applauded. I’m sure I’ve done things for those reasons too. The beautiful part, I think, is God has a way of helping you filter your motives while you’re engaging darkness. You often walk away finding you learned way more from those you thought you were helping than they ever learned from you.
I like Lamott’s style of writing specifically. It’s honest. She can laugh at herself. She’s genuine in the way a person should be. I understand that comparison and am complimented by it, but I hope people discern that our sense of orthodoxy might be a little bit different. Anne understands faith in a way that is true to her own life story. Her journey came out of this series of searching experience across her adult years, through sex and addictions and losing loved ones. Even though my story didn’t come from any of that, I hope that my writing is just as true to what God has stirred in the context of my life.
As far as Donald Miller, I think the guy is brilliant in person. In my opinion, his writing style is, admirably, more concise than mine. He writes in shorter, more pithy sentences, where I tend to indulge in long circular analysis. And my writing has heavier evangelical themes, even though I think we’re both moved by the same muse (the Holy Spirit…or our own quirky way of looking at things…or a mix of those). But I think people compare us because, again, we’re seeking to tell an honest story using observations from our own lives. And that’s compelling.
I’m not gonna lie. Comparison is nice. It helps potential readers understand what sort of vibe your book has. But what would be even nicer? If people started buying my books at the rate they scoop up Lamott and Miller. 🙂
What words of encouragement do you have for people who are sensing that desire for Eden, that call that says, “there is something more going on here”?
Start simple. Start with reminding yourself the premise that there IS truth in this world. Promise yourself that where you sense truth, when you notice that there is more understanding to be discovered, that you will pursue that truth. And then, when you begin to get your mind around new truths, promise yourself that you’ll be the person who does the hard work (even if it involves changing) to apply those truths in your life.
Truth, seeking, applying…those are the things that lead to the “more” we’re looking for.
If you could briefly tell someone what they will find if they read Picking Dandelions, what would it be?
They’ll find a loose collection of stories that casually present the premise that humans, especially people of faith, can’t afford the luxury of UNCHANGED living.