Picking Dandelions: A Search for Eden Among Life's Weeds

Picking Dandelions: A Search for Eden Among Life's Weeds

by Sarah Raymond Cunningham


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310292470
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 02/01/2010
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Sarah Raymond Cunningham is a high school teacher, part-time college professor and chief diaper changer. She is a popular church and conference speaker, the author of Dear Church, and a contributor to several books, including un Christian. Sarah lives with her husband, Chuck their son, Justus, and their manic Jack Russell in Jackson, Michigan. They attend a church plant called Rivertree. Find out more at www.sarahcunningham.org

Read an Excerpt

Picking Dandelions

A Search for Eden Among Life's Weeds
By Sarah Raymond Cunningham


Copyright © 2010 Sarah Raymond Cunningham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-29247-0

Chapter One

I did not grope my way through darkness to religion as some do. Rather, my conversion played out simply, as if I were extending to God a dandelion: the life of a scrawny little kid pressed into his hand.

For the televised religious crowd who dominated the evangelical airwaves of my eighties childhood, faith came via sobbing super-natural breakthroughs or through studying complex doctrines. But for me, the daughter of a conservative Midwestern pastor, conversion passed almost unnoticed among other ordinary childhood moments. Somewhere between holding lightning bugs hostage in glass jars and sledding at mach speeds down Pennsylvania hillsides, I stumbled across the one referred to as God.

At that age I knew little about God and even less about life. I didn't know, for example, that with the casual gift of my life, I was pressing my entire future, at each age-eight and then fourteen and then twenty-five-into God's hands as well. I didn't know what sort of change would be required of me at each of these ages. And I didn't know that flaws in myself, in faith systems, and in life would push me to shed much-loved parts of myself, until I barely recognized my own spiritual reflection.

I couldn't have known the end result:that as dandelions give their white-feathered lives to the wind, the wind blows them-and us-to places where we grow in ways we never expected.

* * *

Willow trees are supposed to weep, but the ones in our front yard-swaying in the sunshine with their shaggy Beatles bowl cuts-never persuaded me of their grief. Perhaps I overlooked their sadness because I was an early optimist, seeing the world through those vintage Windsor spectacles of John Lennon and my parents' generation.

One part hand-me-down hippies and two parts agricultured suburbans, we wanted to exercise our rights against the machine as much as any teenagers. Unfortunately, the only machines nearby were the kind that baled hay into neatly-bound squares or the kind that sucked milk from the local farmer's cows, so our rebellion never got much edgier than a high-school cafeteria boycott. We did, however, successfully lobby for more meatballs in the spaghetti in one moment of all-out anarchy.

However country our setting, my high-school classmates and I filtered our 1990s social climate through the ideals we gleaned from our 1960s-era parents. And so, we grew up beside the Michigan corn, desperately hoping the world would one day align with the images of brotherhood and peace in our senior class song, John Lennon's "Imagine."

But my own optimism was planted in soil closer to home than John Lennon's lyrics. I drew inspiration from my dad, who despite the Beatles-esque haircut in his late sixties high-school photo, was an unlikely revolutionary.

A Southern Baptist pastor who wears navy blue dress pants for a living, Dad insisted that the disheveled, weed-lined graveyard across the street from our house was the neighborhood's most attractive amenity. One day good Christians would rise from the dead, Dad pointed out, and we would have a coveted front row seat to the Second Coming. I imagined our family settled comfortably into yellow-and-green striped vinyl lawn chairs as a zombie-studded Macy's parade poured out from the cemetery gates. My brothers would hop up and down, eagerly announcing the moment when the marching band of corpses rounded the curve by our yard, throwing Tootsie Rolls and Laffy Taffy to curbside spectators like us.

The graveyard was not our property's only amenity. Four maple trees anchored each corner of our front yard, spaced evenly apart as if grown specifically to serve as bases for our kickball and baseball games, which were allowed up to eighteen million ghost runners (when you live that close to a graveyard, there is no shortage of pretend ghosts). The trees themselves, my brothers and I imagined, sprang from an underground sea of make-believe magma, modeled after the kind we saw in Dad's favorite science fiction movie, the original Journey to the Center of the Earth.

After my dad and Poppa framed the driveway with railroad ties, David and I, and even John who was quite a bit younger than us, responsibly informed all visitors that this sturdy maze of planks marked the only safe passage through a yard full of red-hot lava. To my mother's dismay, even as we rushed to church on Sunday mornings stuffed into flowered dresses and polo shirts, we would insist the only safe way to cross to the family's parking spot was by running, tipsily, one-foot-after-the-other along the railroad ties. We considered this route worth the extra time-even if it took twice or three times as long-lest the lava swallow us in tiny masses of burning flesh. We took our lava very seriously.

Perhaps our lakes of underground lava compensated for our parents' pathological overprotection, as we would not have been permitted to play within two thousand miles of anything resembling real lava. Ever. The only place we were permitted to ride our bikes, for example, was down a nearby dirt road that masqueraded as a real street but contained only two houses. This makeshift road, we learned, was named after Elmer, the man who owned our house before us. I genuinely assumed he was able to afford his own road due to his success in the kindergarten glue business.

During the rainy springs, Elmer's road became our own chocolate-colored sea, which provided us with sloppy handfuls of the chalky, sludgy mud that we used to cover the floor in our tree house. Not that our tree house was much of a house. More like a tree plank nailed onto our tree at an embarrassingly safe height. But later, when we needed more ways to swing above the lava, my grandfather added a rope swing with notches to climb and a round-seated swing on which to plant our feet when we Tarzaned out of the tree. We also added a rope ladder that could be hoisted up via pulley, to keep out any eight hundred pound midgets who couldn't climb the two-and-a-half feet to our safety-first tree-plank.

Our house seemed to belong on such an interesting strip of graveside, lava-laden land, thanks to the mysterious secret passage (what less creative people might call an adjoining closet) that connected our bedrooms. To me, this seemed like a welcome escape route in case we ever needed to escape the always-looming, movie-esque "bad guys" who might appear without warning. The crawlspace behind the bathtub also seemed like a good potential hideout as it reminded me of the little compartment where the Jews hid in Corrie ten Boom's Hiding Place. Now, though, I realize that it's a standard plumbing feature every kidnapper worth their salt would know to check for hiding children.

All of life-our house, our yard, and the worlds of our imaginations-was a mystery like the Nancy Drew books I devoured. I was convinced the swirling woodwork on my bedroom door contained elaborate codes hidden from the untrained eye. There were also subtle secrets, overlooked by adults, in the rickety shed at the back of the graveyard and in the abandoned scraps of paper and pictures in our basement that made me wonder what sly, glue-manufacturing Elmer had been up to.

Unfortunately, our family's plot of land was swallowed up by hundreds of acres of surrounding farmland, whose nonmagical beans and non-fairy-tale-esque sheep-I believed-subtracted from our mystique.

The fields behind our home were filled with orderly rows of sweet-smelling corn in the summer, but were ironed flat by combines in the fall. In intervals between the two seasons, the country's comfort smells of dirt and growth were often overpowered by the potent cologne of manure. I was always a little embarrassed when friends came over after the fields were sprayed, as if our whole neighborhood had forgotten to swipe on the Speedstick that day.

We had good personal hygiene days too though.

Some days, when the rich summer heat hemmed the roads with black-eyed Susans, Michigan lilies, and wild ginger, I suspected adjacent Ohio let out a low whistle at Michigan's beauty. I read, in fact, that John Steinbeck had once said Michigan was as handsome as a well-made woman. "It seemed to me that the earth was generous and outgoing here in the heartland, and, perhaps, its people took a cue from it."

Steinbeck was right. We were rural, land-loving people who sheltered our one-flashing-traffic-light town from outsiders. Despite the somewhat lonely country existence, we were good and generous people. Our founders had, in a spirit of hope and celebration, named both the township and the school Summerfield. The name, which reflected the season when mayapples, goldenrod, and sunflowers bloomed most noticeably, served us well, providing an enchanting, almost Edenlike, backdrop for the scenes that played out in our homes and neighborhoods.

Summerfield's residents came in two varieties-one came straight from the earth and one was intent on building a life somewhere beyond farm country. The first set wore mud-colored Carharts that wouldn't show the stains of field work or the splattering from four-wheeling through the open countryside. These residents were always topped with practically rounded baseball hats, the baseball logo replaced by a John Deere brand, to prevent their three-season farmer's tan from requiring any aloe.

Because of where this set lived, back in the flat country plains miles from any paved road, our schools occasionally closed in mid-spring for mud days when dirt roads turned to sludgy muck that could swallow buses whole. This provided hunters with more time to hunt, as mere rain couldn't prevent them from sloshing around the woods with private arsenals, spouting the words "up north" and "beer" as if they were passwords that unlocked a secret passage to paradise.

This set loved our downtown, an intentionally anti-metropolitan center we affectionately called "uptown." They took serious ownership over the rustic and historic town limits: a post office, a library, a pizza parlor, and a little comfort-food restaurant called Papa's Place where the decor transports diners to someone's cozy, flower-papered bedroom. Bars were the only things we had more than one of, and there was never much trouble finding a few people to take serious ownership of them, either.

Meanwhile, the second and usually younger set of folks talked about trading the small-town life for a more enlightened and trendy life beyond the corn and cows. This group intentionally swapped flannel shirts and overalls for a wardrobe inspired by Seventeen and Cosmo. They took their cues from Toledo, the bastion of civilization located twenty minutes south on US-23, where one could make pilgrimages to clothing meccas like Gap and American Eagle.

Truth be told, despite complaints about the dirt roads and manure, deep down most of these residents loved Summerfield just as much as the others and were equally grateful for such a safe place to grow up. And though remaining in Summerfield their whole lives didn't seem appealing, many found their way back, and I bet more will return in the future. Summerfield is a town that depends on its harvest-both of crops and of people.

Cars too, second to crops, were essential in this region. If you're a stranger to the Midwest, it's important to note that the car is to Michigan what the ocean is to California. Our region, just outside the illustrious Motor City, was populated with an inordinate number of mechanics, or at least those who deem themselves mechanics through a creative use of wire hangers and lengthy bouts of under-the-hood squinting. Here, bumper stickers that feature Calvin comic look-a-likes urinating on car logos tip off outsiders that in Monroe County, Ford vs. Chevy is a more heated debate than Republican vs. Democrat.

Most families in car country were polite, down-to-earth people whose youngest members still behaved as though they were actors on a sitcom set in small-town 1950s Americana. My more paranoid, Columbus, Ohio-reared parents excluded, some people left their homes unlocked and their car keys in the ignition. Besides a few who tipped the bottle too recklessly or who snubbed outsiders too willingly, the people of our region were conversationally nice and generally good-hearted-the type that would hook your car up to their backhoe and pull you out of the ditch before you could call a tow truck.

Most everyone believed in God, if not in full-fledged allegiance then at least in a sort of respectful nod to the Creator. Many were Christians the same way they were German or French and hence believed God deserved at least the same sort of polite acknowledgment as the person beside you in line at the bank.

I observed the town and its residents only partly as an insider because for much of my life, my family and I looked in as pseudo-outsiders who lived in the community but attended the Christian school. Fortunately, when I transferred to the public high school in ninth grade (the year after the Christian school closed), my family found camaraderie with local sports fans. My dad, especially, embraced the fans in gymnasium bleachers as easily as he embraced worshipers in a sanctuary, shaking hands, greeting people, and occasionally serving as stand-in pastor to the families of our fellow athletes.

As he interacted with the locals, or maybe just as he succumbed to country boredom, Dad, who wrote fantastical fiction in his spare time, transformed our rural surroundings into an epic world in his best unpublished work. He told my brothers and me, for instance, that an especially deep ditch that ran parallel to our street was what remained of the Panama Canal. He also claimed tiny white stones, which were prevalent in our yard, were fossilized dinosaur eggs that might hatch under the right conditions. I spent years trying to incubate them correctly.

These country neighborhoods were spacious and safe, different from the urban neighborhood outside of Pittsburgh where I had been born. The safety, my dad maintained, could be attributed both to God and to the Watch Cow-an aimless stray bovine that wandered near the fence line far from his herd. Dad claimed the Watch Cow was a specially trained lookout for lions, tigers, and bears. In response, my brothers and I rolled our eyes in an educated way, insisting that there were no lions, tigers, or bears in our area. Dad barely smiled while responding, "See what a good job the Watch Cow is doing?"

Near the cows were chickens that lived in tiny lean-tos, like their own Hooverville protests outside the farmer's home. Hundreds of look-a-like poultry were attached by some sort of wire to their A-frames, which led my dad to pronounce them fighting chickens. Dad said if they flew too far away from their training grounds, the elastic cord would snap them right back, which was part of an elaborate training regimen to build their stamina for the ring. It's not easy becoming a prize-fighting chicken.

Driving past the cows and chickens and the remains of the Panama Canal on the way to school, in the days when only my brother David and I were old enough for school, we would beg Dad to tell us stories about two siblings he named Daniel and Mary. As the stories unfolded, we would gape at Dad in disbelief, barely able to swallow that our dad somehow knew two children who were so similar to the two of us. Daniel and Mary, who were the same ages as us and who had our Hershey Syrup hair and eyes, were unfailingly reliable characters who heroically soared above all childhood evils. The stories always ended with a neatly wrapped-up moral, so much so that we almost expected the "The More You Know" logo to follow, along with a dashboard caption indicating that the public service announcement was sponsored by some place like the Will Rogers' Institute of White Plains, New York.


Excerpted from Picking Dandelions by Sarah Raymond Cunningham Copyright © 2010 by Sarah Raymond Cunningham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


REMEMBERING EDEN....................9
PART I....................13
PART II....................57
PART III....................79
PART IV....................103
PART V....................119
PART VI....................141
PART VII....................159
PART VIII....................183
PART IX....................201

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

'The moment I met Sarah Cunningham, I was blown away by her passion, deep wisdom, and love for God. Without question she is a voice that we all need to be listening to. Picking Dandelions is a beautifully honest look at life, the struggle of faith, and embracing change in our lives.' — Mike Foster, creative principal at Plain Joe Studios

'Sarah is an unlikely revolutionary who weaves organic humanity within a beautiful narrative pursuit of childlike faith.' — Vince Beresford, campus pastor at Vanguard University of Southern California

'Sarah proves every person's story is unique. I wish every unique story was shared as honestly as hers.' — Jeff Shinabarger, founder of Plywood People.com

'Those strongest in the faith are those who've questioned their faith. In her bold new book, Sarah Cunningham embraces honesty, taking us deep into her evolving understanding of God and his world. Within her story, she helps us rediscover a sincere wonder once again.' — Kary Oberbrunner, pastor and author of The Fine Line

'What an engaging book! Whether the idea of change excites or scares you, Sarah's moving and humorous accounts of her own life will inspire and challenge you to see any changes in your own life as opportunities to intentionally grow toward Eden.' — Mary Albert Darling, author of The God of Intimacy and Action

'I confess I wasn't initially excited to read a book about Jesus-gardening, but Sarah is funny ... and sharp ... and this book got me thinking more about spiritual transformation than any of the books I've read by old men in camel-hair shirts. Turns out, following Jesus is as much about hugging my daughter and laughing at my failures as it is about self-discipline, accountability, and prayer. If you want to read a book about Christian spirituality in real life, then read this one.' — Dr. David Mc Donald, coriolis: narrative, Westwinds Community Church

'Do you ever find yourself saying, 'I wish I had said that'? Sometimes, another voice comes along and invites us into their world in such a way that we see our world clearer. Sarah has the ability to say very serious things without taking herself too seriously. This makes her very likeable and approachable, like we're in this together. She is conversational, not preachy. A teacher, not a sage. A willing tour guide, not a hired docent. Wise, not a smarty-pants. A word-artist, not simply a writer.' — John Voelz, coriolis: experience, Westwinds Community Church

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