by Timothy R. Gaines

When Jeran McConnel stepped away from her dream of becoming a teacher, she wasn’t sure what would come next. Her passion for adventure and creativity was something she thought could flourish in a classroom, but when she returned to the United States after a stint living in Yemen, teaching opportunities were scarce.

It was that same passion for adventure that drove Jeran and her husband, Lonnie, to take their two children, pack their things, quit their jobs, and move to Yemen in the first place. In the disorienting aftermath of 9/11 and the ensuing cultural confusion between the United States and the Middle East, Jeran and Lonnie longed to see healing in the rifts that had fractured the relationship between cultures. “We didn’t really go with the intention of being missionaries or anything,” Jeran says. “We just wanted people in a Muslim country to get to know some Christians in personal ways, to know that Christians aren’t horrible people.” The couple took jobs teaching as a way of being present with those who probably have as many misunderstandings of Christians as Christians have of them.

But when their time in Yemen came to a close and the McConnels came back to the U.S., the same opportunities to teach were not there. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Jeran confessed. “I went into education for the creative aspect, but when that didn’t work out, I had to do something.” Nothing she had prepared to do with her life seemed to be an option.

All the while, she was cooking. Desserts, entrees, other creative concoctions. “I’d love to get the recipe for this,” her friends would say after sitting down at the McConnel family table to receive some of Jeran’s hospitality. “Honestly, it was just easier to put my recipes on my blog, rather than try to write them out individually,” she says. “If someone asked for a recipe, I could just tell them, ‘It’s on the blog!’” It wasn’t long before she received encouragement from those who saw the potential for her blog as something more than a pragmatic vehicle for recipe distribution.

The flair for creativity she once thought belonged in a classroom instead began to find vital expression through publishing resourceful ideas for a simple, beautiful life on her blog, Oleander and Palm. Quickly, others began to take notice as well. Design, clothing, and furniture companies began to contact Jeran, asking her to review their products and endorse them on her blog. “My favorite was when The Land of Nod contacted me and asked if they could give me whatever I wanted to make over a room in our house and send a photo crew to do a shoot in it for their catalogue, so of course I said yes.”

Opening a studio came next. In a downtown loft above a popular coffee shop, Jeran maintains a small space of creativity and collaboration. It was a risk she was willing to take because the possibilities of what could be created there were so numerous. “Creativity and risk often go together,” she says.

Beyond the Do It Yourself projects, design tips, and lifestyle tidbits you’ll find on Oleander and Palm, you’ll also detect a sense of purpose behind Jeran’s work. All of the creativity that comes through her ongoing projects is simply an outgrowth of a creativity of the most ultimate kind. “Creativity comes from God,” she’ll tell you matter-of-factly, but with a sense of awe. “I mean, where else could it come from? I have this desire to create and be creative, but it’s not something I have to force. That desire ultimately comes from God.”

It is that same God, for Jeran, who calls her to a life of creativity that summons beyond the mundane, who calls her to a life of adventure that reframes risk as a series of actions taken in faithful trust. “Life as a Christian is an adventure,” she’ll tell you. “Because, if you lived a completely safe life, when would you ever need faith? That’s why we want to give our kids international experiences, or take our three-year-old on mission trips to Skid Row with our church. Faith invites the possibility of risk, the possibility of adventure—and all of that is wildly creative.”

That approach to faith comes flowing through Jeran’s work these days. It’s not so much that she’s hoping others will simply adopt her design tips as much as that they will come to know the source of her creative impulse. “I want people to know I’m a Christian,” she says of her work. “I want my life to be an example. I want people to see Jesus in who I am and what I do. I don’t want it to be a question mark.” Of course, there are the monthly memory verse prints that she provides for free on the blog, but there are other ways that Jeran’s adventurous faith influences the creative work she does every day. “I’m fairly picky with what I endorse,” she says, laughing, although she isn’t joking. Jeran doesn’t allow money to be factor when she’s choosing which brands and companies to support. More important than how much they want to pay her is whether Jeran feels the companies and their products are consistent with who she is as a person of faith.

I WENT INTO EDUCATION FOR THE CREATIVE ASPECT, BUT WHEN THAT DIDN'T WORK OUT, I HAD TO DO SOMETHING.

With those kinds of financial considerations on the line, one might question what causes her to make choices like that. What in her life has caused her to even want to turn down lucrative business deals because they don’t fit an adventurous life of faith? Why would someone take such a successful enterprise and risk its ongoing success for the sake of helping others in some way? When you drill down to it, a lot of what has formed Jeran’s desires for the purpose her work will serve has to do with decisions she made long ago. “Just getting up and going to church every week is a big deal. But years ago we made the decision that we were going to be the kind of people who took at least one day a week to worship such a creative God. We made that decision then, so we don’t have to make that decision every Sunday morning now.” That decision has been a catalyst, a kind of spiritual calisthenic, that informs not only what Jeran does with her business but also what she wants to do with her business. “A lot of what my message is deals with living a beautiful life that is also simple,” she says, “and a lot of that comes from joining in a community of worship every week.”  

In that sense, faith is much more than a set of propositions with which Jeran agrees. Rather, faith is a practiced life, a life of tending to habits, of making conscious decisions to spend intentional time in worship with a community of believers, and those practices have become a far more beautiful thing than a set of boundaries—a collection of shoulds and should-nots. Faith has become a source of coming to know the creative, adventurous pattern that characterizes the Christian life. “If I’m not consistent in my work,” Jeran says, “I won’t see the fruits of my labor, and something similar is happening with the way I worship. If I’m not consistent with my worship, it won’t form who I am and how my faith impacts my work.”  

There probably aren’t any shortcuts around the kind of formation Jeran seeks and expresses. There is probably no replacement for her years-ago decision to be the kind of person who undertakes the practice of worshiping each week in a community of believers. Philosophers, psychologists, and theologians have been exploring the kinds of connections that are evident in Jeran’s life for some time. What they are finding places a strong connection between the practices of worship and the way we are formed to desire. Philosophy professor James K. A. Smith contends that nearly every practice we involve ourselves in—what he calls “cultural liturgies”—has formative power. “Every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all kinds of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person,” he writes. The basic point behind Smith’s argument is that the things we determine to do over and over again form us into the kinds of people we become, and form the kinds of things we desire. When Jeran made the decision that she wouldn’t have a faith of mere intellectual agreement, as in, “I agree with those ideas about God,” but, rather, decided that her faith would be marked by ongoing commitments, like worshiping regularly, she also determined that her desires for her work would be deeply marked by her faith.

The way in which she has been formed by those ongoing commitments has become clear in her life and work. It’s clear in the way her desires have been formed toward a different outcome than simply the largest income possible. It’s clear in the way she understands that creativity springs from a creative God who was and is willing to risk for the sake of redeeming creation. It’s clear in the way her own creativity comes about as she leads a life of adventurous faith that isn’t satisfied with being safe.

“After all,” Jeran says, “If Christianity isn’t an adventure, you’re probably not doing it right.”

This story has an accompanying video here.


JERAN McCONNEL is a lifestyle and design blogger who publishes regularly at oleanderandpalm.com. She lives in California with her adventurous husband and three children.

TIMOTHY R. GAINES serves as assistant professor of Religion at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Welcome to The Table