Jack-O’-Lantern Christians

I remember carving pumpkins as a kid. We’d get all the tools out, clear the space on the table, and we’d all step back as the master carver made the first cut. Once the top was off, we’d gather around and scoop out the strings and seeds inside. Sometimes we’d save the seeds to toast and enjoy as a snack. 

The rest of the guts were thrown out, though they might have ended up in a compost pile or two. 

The the master carver would set to work, shaping the image that was going to be displayed on our front porch, with a candle illuminating the image from within.  

My least favorite part was always the stringy smelly bits that we had to scoop out. But the thing is, those strings are what held the seeds in place as the pumpkin was growing. You end up tossing the strings out, but if you leave the stringy mess around the seeds, that becomes matter that adds nutrients to the soil as the seed grows. 

The seeds were formed while the pumpkin was growing. You can use the seeds to plant and grow new pumpkins. They are essential parts of the pumpkin. 

If the strings are planted with the seeds they give the growing new plants nutrients, a foundation to grow on and sustenance to create newness and new life.

When you create a jack-o’-lantern you create something that embraces the grotesque. The plant becomes a temporary piece of art that will decay when it is left out on your porch for more than a week. 

This art, no matter how temporary and imperfect it is, with a gaping smile and a jagged grin, lights up the space around it. You create it to show to other people and share with your family.

Even though we throw out the guts, for lack of a better word, they connect the pumpkin while it grows. The guts stream between the seeds, allowing the mystery of creation form the seeds that could fill a new field with pumpkins the next year. 

Sometimes, we wish that the messy parts of us were so easy to discard, cover up, and ignore. But all parts of us are important to our identity. Our past, our frailties, our brokenness, our sin (even), make us who we are. We can’t pretend away our past, no matter how convenient it might be. 

Over and over again we see examples in the Scriptures of the surprising and unexpected being the thing that is redeemed. God creates space for all things to be useful, not the things that we only like but the things that we would rather ignore or would like to cover up or pretend away. Those things of us make us who we are. They make us full human beings created, made, formed, shaped in the image of God. God doesn’t have to carve us up and empty us of all that makes us who we are. God uses who we are. 

That’s what makes us beautiful even when we have guts, and strings, and seeds; those are the parts of us that God constantly redeems in the midst of an ever renewing creation. 

This piece is in response to the following story, which sounds cute… but I don’t do “Cute” theology.

“A woman was asked by a co-worker, “What is it like to be a Christian?” The co-worker[sic: woman] replied, “It’s  like being a pumpkin. God picks you from the patch, brings you in, and washes all the dirt off of you. Then He cuts off the top and scoops out all the yucky stuff. He removes the seeds of doubt, hate, greed, etc., and then He carves you a new smiling face and puts His light inside of you to shine for all the world to see.” —Jim O’Bryon’s version in “I Fail to Miss Your Point” 2008 (Also, as it is ubiquitous on the internet without attribution, I cannot find the original authors.)

Wandering

When I was a child, I liked going my own way around things. I moved differently than the way my family moved, either faster or with a different cadence, and so I went ahead of them many times if I knew the general direction we were going in—if I thought I knew where we were headed. I kept track of where they were by looking back every so often to make sure they were still going my way. 

It almost never failed. 

Almost. 

I always assumed that they were keeping an eye on me. Following me. But occasionally, they turned when I had kept on going straight. And I looked back, and… They weren’t there anymore. No longer following me. I was no longer ahead of them. They were nowhere to be found. 

Well, at least for a time. Shortly after I figured out they were not behind me, I would find them, and it seemed that it had been my fault that I had gotten separated. To them, at least. I always felt that it was at least a joint effort, our disconnectedness. 

Perhaps so. Perhaps not. 

I remember feeling deeply wronged in being blamed for being separated. It was as if I had willfully separated myself from them. I remember being told not to wander. 

And what is so strange in revisiting these memories is that I still have that visceral urge to defend myself, to defend my own walking pattern, that I had not changed what I was doing, that they were at fault for leaving me, rather than me for leaving them. 

I imagine that my memories from twenty-five and thirty years ago have colored with age. 

I know that we were both mistaken. 

I thought I was leading. I was not. I was walking ahead… but still following, still under the guidance of my family. And at some point… I was no longer aware of the guidance, and our paths diverged. For a time, we went our separate ways.

For a time, I was lost. 

Or at least… not where I was expected.

My family was not where I expected them to be, either. 

And for however long it lasted, we were lost from each other. 

The two times I explicitly remember, it wasn’t for more than a few minutes, maybe a turn around a corner or two in a grocery store or on a foreign street corner. 

And then we were back together, and I had to shift my cadence and walk with them more carefully. I was the one who had diverged, and I had to change what I was doing so that I didn’t leave them again. 

That still feels harsh. Or rather, both my need to change and my judgement are harsh. As I look back, I have a recollection of my feeling of betrayal, of feeling as though I was blamed for getting myself lost when I felt that at least the fault should have been equally laid on each of us, me for being alone and them for having gone in a different direction than I thought. 

Even now, I don’t know exactly how it happened, how we got separated. I don’t know how I ended up in a different place when I thought we were all going in the same direction. I thought we were all following all the same rules, or at least the same guidelines, even if we travelled with different patterns. 

Eventually, we managed to reunite, to come together, to end up in the same place. We arrived at our destination, as one group, as a family, together. No longer lost. Perhaps a little wiser from the experience. Maybe a bit jaded, learning my own independence in the midst of discovering the limits of my agency as a child. 

I still have to balance my agency, my independence, my need to stay with my family, my cadence, and my exchanging leading with following. It’s funny when each of these revolving influences cycle in importance, some balancing their crucial necessity with the next in line. 

I still travel, but these days, I’m the one keeping up with the little ones, rather than being little, myself. Dear ones, if you wander, let me know where you are headed, so we can find the new places, together. 

Cheering

Since before I was a year old, I have been a fan of the Duke Blue Devils and the Alabama Crimson Tide. Mom and Dad took me to a Blue Devil football game the fall I was still at Duke while Dad was in his last year, and I was so cute, they put me on the TV broadcast. I returned to the same stadium twenty-seven years later to see the Devils face off against the Tide. It was not an even match.

I know that parent’s preferences have a strong controlling factor on determining what teams kids will root for, and so I know that some of my childhood memories of rooting for a particular team are due in large part to the teams that my parents cheered for. But it is also interesting that I have not seen the need to shift my allegiances as I have become an adult. The teams that my parents cheered for were important because they had attended those schools, and I even was able to add my own education to my cheering influence when I went to Duke for Seminary.

While I am glad that both of the teams that I root for, the Tide and the Devils, are currently at the top of their respective fields (at least in football and basketball, respectively) I’ve stuck with them through times when they were not the national champions. Until recently, the Duke Football team wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in the Sahara at a winning season, but I still rooted for them.

Cheering for the Crimson Tide (and against Auburn) influenced my favorite and least favorite colors growing up. I still don’t really like orange all that much, and it was one of the most disappointing days while studying Art and Color to learn that orange and blue were opposites on the color wheel and so meant to be together. So I just avoid orange, still. (Though I have learned to cheer for anyone in the SEC when they’re playing against someone outside of conference, even Auburn.) And UNC blue is not Sky Blue, even though they try to claim it.

I will continue to share my love of celebrating sports and cheering for those who play them with my children. I don’t really think I have a choice, since my husband loves sports possibly more than I do. We each bring something different to our understanding of the joy of the game, but what we bring fills out our experience even more.

Childhood Memories of Dad

One morning I was working on my sermon for Sunday. It especially struck me this time how I learned my basic sermon construction and delivery far before I ever considered preaching on a regular basis. I learned how I like to deliver sermons from the way that my father delivers sermons.

Unlike my father, who one Christmas Eve took a Post-It note with six words on it to the pulpit for his sermon notes, I need to write out the whole manuscript of what I want to say, word for word, in order to do my best work, even if I don’t read the text word for word once I get in front of people. However, it was my father who taught me by his example of interweaving storytelling and scripture reading along with the exegetical work necessary to apply the scripture to the lives of the people who listen. It is work that draws the hearer into the narrative, and when I get it right, I know that it is because the Spirit is working through me, the same way that I’ve seen the Spirit work through Dad in some tough places.

Once he preached about Moses who had to hold his staff up while the Israelite army was fighting, if the staff lowered, the army began to lose. Moses has two of his most supportive and trusted leaders come and hold his arms up so that the army can win the day.

Dad got a limb from a tree outside, and preached the entire sermon with it over his head, asking two of his leaders who were supporting him in the midst of conflict to come hold his arms while he continued to speak. He delivered that sermon over twenty years ago, and I still remember the vision of him with his arms raised in the chancel area of that sanctuary.

The week before Christmas I made a batch of Santa’s Favorites, the chocolate chip oatmeal walnut cookies that are our family’s specialty. My mom adapted the recipe to perfection and it has carried over into vegan brilliance now that we bake that way. These are the cookies that are our personal Santa’s favorite, our Santa being our father. He always wrote back to us after we left him cookies and a note on Christmas Eve, even after we knew we were playing pretend. Our Santa, every Christmas morning, leaves a Santa Apple for every person who is in the house. I know that dad worked hard to perfect the Santa Apples, carefully placing each individual element to make a fun creation. I’ve continued the tradition in our home, even before we had children; it’s a little like Dad is here even when he is a few states away.

We eat Santa’s Favorites at other times of the year, too. They make excellent river cookies. One of my dad’s favorite things to do is to go canoeing. He took both my sister and I canoeing out on the river throughout our childhood, teaching us how to read the water and plan ahead for obstacles downstream. He is an excellent paddler, able to brave rapids in a canoe that I would never dare without a guide. I get part of my love for the outdoors from dad, in part because he shared his joy and excitement with us as he taught us the names of trees and how different birds sounded as they echoed through the woods.

I learned how to be brave and caring from my father, as he navigated the rapids of rivers and twists and turns of ministry. I learned that you can’t always avoid the rough spots, but you can enter the bend and paddle through it in a way that gets you out the other side in one piece. Maybe with a little water in the boat, but still sound. It’s not always easy, but the journey and excitement are worth it.

Childhood Neighborhood

Lancaster Drive. Ahh, such memories. I remember moving in to our new house, sitting on carpet remnants as mom and dad finished supervising renovations so that we could move out of our rental on Devonshire. (Fingers!)

There was an elementary school just down the road where we went to play on the playground, gliding down the hot silver slide in the summertime, watching the cracks in the mud as we crossed the dried puddles back to the shortcut through the woods. We went to the flagpole at the school once a week to pick up the girls in our Scout Troop so we could go back to the house for our Tuesday meeting.

Tadpoles grew in the gutter puddles after heavy rains and I’m pretty sure I collected a few to see how they would grow. I don’t remember them growing.

An ice cream truck blared it’s music down our road and the idiot driving stopped to ask if I wanted any treats, while I covered my ears hoping he would go away and pass me as fast as possible.

I ran away down to the creek once, because I was so angry as only a nine year old can get, but made sure I packed peanut butter cheese crackers and my favorite doll since I was going to be away forever.

Shortly after we moved in, a family bought the house five houses down and diagonally across from us, and we found our friends in the Fishers. There was a girl for my sister to play with, and a boy just my age for me to run around with. Owen was my first crush, and I never quite got over my love of gangly tall boys. (My husband became one after we were married for a year… extra treats.) They had a pool, so we got to swim during the summer. Owen defended us against the boy next door, Randy, who stole our dolls and wouldn’t give them back.

Dad and Granddaddy built a deck up on the ridge behind our house and strung it with happy lights so we could play outside and see across our whole subdivision. They got it done just in time to celebrate Norris and Janet’s sixtieth birthday, when we had all their friends over to wish them well.

I got my first own room in that house, looking out my window at the tree in our front yard, its trunk divided into three main parts as it stood and guarded the hill. I also got my first camera, where I took artistic photos of the macadam driveway and that tree.

I don’t much remember many other folks who lived around us, either in good ways or bad, though our left door neighbor was friendly even though she had two angry German Shepherds. I was deathly afraid of dogs, and so we didn’t go up to her house very often. We even stayed away from her fence. She also was the host of our first experience with a house fire; she tried to run pillows in her dryer, and they caught flame. Her house was ok afterwards, but we could see the flame from the far end of our hallway.  I remember my sister telling me she wanted to stay as far from the flame as possible, so we huddled there until mom came to find us and take us outside, just in case.

It is the house I learned independence in. I hit the beginning stages of puberty there. It is the only house I’ve lived in that my family owned. It is the only house I miss.