Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Book Review: Sarah Cunningham

Call me superstitious, because there are plenty of people who already do, and because I am a firm believer that there is synchronicity in just about everything I read, both between the books themselves and with my own life, even if it’s only residual. Sarah Cunningham (Dear Church) meets me in the summer of significant change—changing jobs, changing cities, changing faith—as a teacher, someone with a fair share of experience to speak of in her memoir Picking Dandelions. And, as it turns out, Cunningham has gone before me in so, so many ways.

A pastor’s kid with a precocious understanding of God, salvation, baptism, and everything, Sarah Cunningham’s story is all about change, adaptation, growth, something I have learned, am learning, will continue to learn, being a pastor’s kid myself. Coming to faith early in life maybe makes your conversion story a mite dull, but, as Cunningham suggests and I emphatically agree, salvation is merely the point of entry; there is so much story left to tell. And this is a beautiful realization for those of us who have ever considered our faith a humdrum bit of happenstance: the grit of our story becomes what we do with this holy gift.

Because God is God over change, as he is God over everything else. I once had a counselor tell me, “God loves you just the way you are; and, he wants you to be different.” You could say that sums up some of the tension in my own story, as it is the steady revelation in the pages of Picking Dandelions. Cunningham goes from polite, pettycoated church girl, to social activist, to school teacher hell-bent on personal, spiritual renovation. She is a writer traversing the spectrum of her story, honestly, and without taking herself too seriously. A good summer read, out on the porch, with a tall glass of tea, maybe a slight breeze, the mosquitoes nipping at your ankles—something along the lines of Trespassers Will Be Baptized: The Unordained Memoir of a Preacher's Daughter, by Elizabeth Emerson Hancock; mixed with the tenacity of someone like Sara Miles, whose memoir Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion asserts action as a necessary quality of faith.

Sarah Cunningham saves the best for last: the capstone to her memoir is a rich, powerful exchange with her grandmother, a British matron, a war bride with the bittersweet truth about change, like a breeze laced in menthol—she is clarity. As Cunningham traces through her formative years and on into adulthood, you get the sense, as a reader, that she is digging upward, toward good air. And then, with her grandmother, she breaks the surface; you can tell there is more work to do, but, at last, there is a certain affirmation. Not resolution, but, rather, direction. Much-coveted direction—by all of us, especially we who are faint in the throes of change.

Sarah Cunningham is a high school teacher, part-time college professor, mother, and wife. She is a popular church and conference speaker, the author of Dear Church, and a contributor to several books, including unChristian. A reader as well as a writer, she is so kind to accept my personal recommendation for summer reading: Eating the Dinosaur—pop culture analysis is at its finest when editorialist Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, & Cocoa Puffs; Downtown Owl) guides the tour, and it's now available in paperback! [More on the subject here.]