Interview: Sarah Cunningham – Picking Dandelions

February 21, 2010 | By | 2 Comments

As an adult, I once saw vacation Bible school kids raise their hands to indicate they wanted to follow Jesus. Their hands shot up as if they were being asked if they wanted to play dodgeball. Some of the kids raised their hands every night of Bible school. I remember thinking that some of them had no idea what they were doing. But then again, it might be our strange sense of lostness that makes salvation so necessary. We’re so disoriented that we’ll reach for something even in blindness. And sometimes what we reach for is real and right. And it reaches right back.

Picking Dandelions, p. 28

In this wonderfully quirky, candid and offbeat memoir, author Sarah Cunningham takes us through her journey of searching for remnants of Eden in the midst of life’s weeds. The book starts off with a beautiful description of Cunningham’s childhood as a pastor’s kid in rural Michigan and continues to her present reality as a wife, mother and teacher.  Some of the themes are growth, maturity and embracing change.

I sat down with Cunningham electronically to ask her some questions about this book and her relationship with Tom Brady. Here is how our conversation went down:

ML: This book is a bit different in that the chapters are not titled. Was this a conscious decision? If so, I’m curious to get your thought process behind that decision.

SC: It depends. If you like that it didn’t have chapters, I’ll take credit for that. If not, it was a publishing oversight. 😉

Kidding. It wasn’t planned from the beginning, but it evolved–consciously–as I wrote it. With memoirs, you don’t want to force every section–every little story–into a rigid theme.You want them to flow as a collection of stories that move more like your life, chronologically, from one thing to the next. People get to know you by following you through life and gradually they pick up what is important versus you telling them with bold captions on the top of every page.

ML: You grew up in the church and became a Christian at an early age. What would you say to people who have been Christians their entire life, but feel discouraged with their progress and can’t use the “it was in my pre-Christian days” line when sorting through bad decisions?

SC: I’d say welcome to the human race. 🙂 Life is a mix of ups and downs, of progress and disappointment, for anyone–regardless of where their faith story starts.

That sounds harsh, but its not a scare tactic. Its a helpful piece of information to take in. I think sometimes, in all the Sunday School lessons and songs with motions, adults forget to tell kids how sticky and dysfunctional life can be. How much struggle is waiting for each of us…even if we’re that good kid who makes all the textbook right choices. We have to anticipate that life will continually disrupt our ideals. When we expect that, we can prepare for it, learn to stay grounded so we retain enough awareness to find bits of Eden in the weeds.

ML: You had dreams of making a lasting impact and write about how good it felt to have so much support as you led teams in the wake of 9/11. Many young people have designs on changing the world. Over time, they seem to get jaded, frustrated with a lack of support, overwhelmed with how broken and needy the world is and/or burnt out. Is there a way to recover some of the youthful idealism later in life?

SC: I’m still one of the most idealistic, driven people I know. To a fault. So yes, there’s definitely a way to retain vision beyond your twenties.

One thing that is helpful is realizing God didn’t appoint any of us to rush around and fix every problem we can find or heal every hurting person we can locate on the globe. Not even Jesus took that approach. Instead of being motivated and then crushed by endless lines of need, we need to learn to not shoot for super hero status, but instead to aim for personal responsibility. Who does God bring across your path? What kind of needs are present in your family, friends, workplace? What social issue burdens you, weights on you, keeps you up at night? That is what you are responsible to respond to.The stuff God is doing in your own soul. Don’t worry about chasing down every need on the planet. God is pressing those issues into someone else. He’s good at delegating, man. He’s God.

ML: You mentioned that the Christian college you attended – Spring Arbor University – consisted of students eager to grow and that the place seemed to have a special connection to God. What would you say to students who attend Christian schools but don’t see that same desire to grow in the student body and are tempted to become disillusioned with the Christian faith?

 

SC: I would need to listen to all the factors involved before knowing where to start with that one. And even then, there’s probably no magic advice. Its probably one of those roads where the person needs to spend some time praying and reflecting and making some hard calls. One thing to remember though might be that in many many places in life, there will be no community of believers to help you nurture and maintain your faith. The people around you won’t be passionate about the same things, they might not even understand the way you see the world. You may feel very alone and misunderstood. And in those moments, whether they occur on campus or later among your friends or workplace, you will find renewal by making a practice of seeking God for yourself…even when there is no one around you to push you.

ML: You mention how difficult it was for the church you attended as a child to embrace change – even in something as simple as the color of a shingle. Do you think that churches are getting better at keeping with the times or still very resistant to change?

SC: I think there have always been churches and leaders who excelled at change. Sometimes the ones that end up in the spotlight aren’t there because they’re good at the kind of change I’m talking about. You can change “with the times” –buy killer video technology, create itouch applications for tithing, make your sanctuary wireless.Those can all be positive moves. But those kinds of changes don’t necessarily demonstrate any sort of mastery when it comes to change of the heart. Are people becoming more like Christ as they sit in your wireless sanctuary year after year? That’s the question and the change that matters.

ML: In the book, you reach for Rainblo bubble gum as you set about changing your life. Is this your candy of choice? What is your favorite flavor?

SC: Haha. Noooo. That is probably the only Rainblo I’ve had since third grade. I actually bought a bunch of 1980’s throwback candy for my husband one day because he loves the 80’s. And that just happened to be the package that got lost in a drawer somewhere.And all the Rainblo tastes the same to me, so I have to go with my favorite color which is orange.

ML: What would you say to people who recognize the need to change, try to change, but keep falling and feel as if they’re going nowhere or even backward?

SC: I’d say, wow, you’re just like me.

But, really, I’d say, there is truth in this world. There is. I’m sure of it. And if you seek it, not just once or every other month when you get in a sucky situation, but if you seek it day after day…if you try to apply it…to align your life with it. Man, you will start to experience more goodness, more peace. You will start to make choices that invite good into your life and carve away the dysfunction. And gradually, you will start to experience less drama as a result of your own choices.

But you still won’t be 100%. Things will still trip you up, just like they do me. And even when you’ve got your own life on course, you could still be impacted by sticky dynamics created by someone else’s choices.

ML: You currently live in Jackson, Michigan. According to Google Maps, that is only 43 minutes away from the university that Tom Brady attended. Aren’t you glad that God has given us Tom Brady? Isn’t one of your most ardent desires that the Patriots return to the Super Bowl next year?

SC: Hmmm. Maybe I haven’t been adequately thankful to God on this one. Short answer: my husband is a Bears fan, so its mandatory that I not support Tom Brady. My marriage depends on it. 😉

(Editor’s note: Sarah mentions in the book that she is still in the process of being sanctified.)

ML: If you had to distill this book to a few sentences, what is the most important thing that you aim to get across?

SC: Not changing can seem like the lazy, “easy” route at the time. But in the end, refusing to change is always way more expensive than just doing the hard work of rooting out the bad stuff and letting God transform you.

Christians can’t afford the luxury of unchanged living.

ML: For readers looking to learn more about you, where is best place to look? Also, you have written a few books. Where is the best place to start?

SC: Sarahcunningham.org is a quirky, cheesy collection of things that go on in my life. Its not news-worthy, but its fun and sometimes insightful. I’m active in promoting my writing and projects on Facebook and on again off again on Twitter too.

As far as the books go, I’ve written Dear Church and Picking Dandelions. I have contributed to a few others though. The average person should probably start with this book Picking Dandelions, which is available on Amazon. However, if you’ve ever been intensely sold on the mission of the church (local or global) and then been sidelined by negative experiences, you’ll find a voice of understanding and sometimes angst and eventually learning in Dear Church as well.

ML: Thank you, Sarah!

SC: Thanks for having me, Mark.

Sarah Cunningham is a high school teacher, part-time college professor, and chief servant to the nine month emperor Justus. She is a popular church and conference speaker, the author of Dear Church, and a contributor to several books, including unChristian. She is also a member of the Burnside Writer’s Collective, founded by Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz. Sarah, her husband, Chuck, and their son live with their manic Jack Russell terrier in Jackson, Michigan.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Julie says:

    Sounds like a good read. I’ll have to check out her book.

  2. Jen D. says:

    1. I like her…. At least she seems copasetic based on the interview. Any chance this book’s up for grabs, too? (I can get a reference from Santa if it helps.)

    2. >>(Editor’s note: Sarah mentions in the book that she is still in the process of being sanctified.)

    Haha. 🙂 The Bible does say wives need to submit to their husbands… I’m just saying. Mercy, my brother. Mercy. 😀

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