Sherwood Anderson’s short story “The Corn Planting” seared my soul on first reading it nearly fifteen years ago, especially the closing image of the old farm couple sowing seed corn into the ground by moonlight, the night they learned of their only son’s death. Anderson described it as “a kind of silent cry… putting corn down into the earth. It was as though they were putting death down into the ground, that life might grow again, something like that.”
That latent image sprung vibrantly to my mind’s eye last autumn while watching the start of the 2012 film The Odd Life of Timothy Green. Instead of an elderly couple mourning the loss of their only son, the film begins with a young couple mourning, after much fruitlessness, their inability ever to have a child. Before lamenting their barrenness and moving on that night of their fateful news, the Greens indulge themselves by imagining what their long-desired son would be like. Recording the descriptors with pencil on paper, they place their dreams in a wooden box and plant it in the garden. In the midst of a drought, rain comes only to their place that night, and their son Timothy sprouts up from the soil.
While I will leave the rest of the film’s happenings for you to discover, one of Timothy’s repeated actions—along with a spoken reaction—is illuminating and worth relating. When the sun is at its height and emerges from cloud-cover, Timothy stretches his arms outward, lifts his face skyward, and basks in the glorious light. His mother’s sister wastes no time demonstrating his differentness by pointing to him and saying, “Like that! That’s not normal!” That scene and the rest of the film deftly engage considerations of what truly is normal, and should be viewed as such, for people who come to understand their place in nature, community, and world.
The film hit home for me on a number of levels as I head into my mid-forties and realize that I will, most likely, never marry or have a “biological” child—both of which seem perfectly normal to me but not to the many who have made sure I know otherwise! I have assumed a fatherly and brotherly role in various ways as a pastor and community leader, engaged with people on society’s ragged edges over the years and have come to relish the availability my singlehood allows in that regard. Even though I realize I will probably never be able to bestow the initials ASK on a son (A for Albert—Grandfather, Schweitzer, and Einstein, and S for Soren—Kierkegaard), I have bestowed (and will continue to bestow) the wisdom and experience of these men, as well as of a lot of women; challenging people of all ages and backgrounds to ask and seek answers. I have found that endearment can grow between unrelated people as easily, or sometimes even more so, than with those of a blood bond and shared history.
One of the enticing joys of “biological” parenthood is seeing in what ways your offspring looks and acts like you, but that also has to be somewhat disconcerting when looking at “self” in the mirror includes acknowledging characteristics and behaviors that are far from stellar. I delight, however, in finding “relations” where least expected and honoring those bonds in all the ways they seem far from normal, which in a way involves lifting my face skyward and stretching my arms outward. After all, Jesus said that everything hinges on loving God with our whole being and loving others as much as self, and stretch outward is what he did in his ministry and death on the cross.
I realized a couple of years ago that the desire for a child, as well as the mourning of one, is in many ways connected to the loss of one’s own childhood and the desire to reclaim it or make it what it “should” have been. I was walking on a forested German nature trail one day (before seeing The Odd Life of Timothy Green) when I saw a boy of about ten with a half-grown pup emerge ahead of me. Those few minutes behind them conveyed the deep companionship and love between a boy and his dog and took me straight back to the best carefree and alive moments of my childhood. Whenever I revisit that scene in my mind, heart, and soul, I am aware how graced I was to witness it. And yet in the mysterious way of memory and association, it is now linked to my third visit, this past autumn (after seeing The Odd Life of Timothy Green), to one of the Ugandan AIDS orphans I sponsor through school. Unabashedly expressive, this junior-in-high-school young man took me by the hand and introduced me to his classmates as his “father from America.” Needless to say, I felt I was basking in the sun even as tears were in my eyes. Many seeds of hope have been put into the ground, and I have been privileged to see them sprout and flourish.
I remember back one Lent a number of years ago, while caring for my dad at the end of his life, that I read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country from Ash Wednesday to the morning of Easter Sunday. That novel of a native South African Anglican priest navigating his son’s waywardness ends with hope dashed to the ground by execution. But that is not all. As he awaited his son’s execution at sunrise, the father sat alone atop a mountain and asked himself question upon question about his son’s final moments. As morning dawned, he put bread and tea upon a stone, gave thanks, and ate and drank. Then he prayed deeply, raising his eyes to the east after each petition. When he was sure his son’s life had ended, “he rose to his feet and took off his hat and laid it down on the earth, and clasped his hands before him” as the sun rose. He knew the words of the Son who rose with the sun on Easter morning: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains as is; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24).
In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote about seeds needing to die so that they can come to life and pointed to the glorious resurrection yet to come (15:35–49). Planted in the ground of Christ’s death, the losses we know and grieve give way to a realized hope more glorious than anything we can ever expect.
Lent is the season of seeing anew the place of cross and resurrection in our lives. Even in Lent, every Sunday is a celebration of Jesus’ rising. Maybe Timothy can teach us all how to reach out like branches of a tree, and the one nailed on one, so that we can live raised up in the hope-filled light of resurrection.
Joel Kurz is Pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Warrensburg, Missouri.