Category Archives: God is love

Fire and Rain all points in between

 

Maple leaf in rainI first purchased a James Taylor album as a freshman in high school along with works by Paul Simon, Neil Young, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Elton John, to name a few. Among those, there were a few mentions of God in the lyrics, a subject of consequence since I’d recently chosen on my own to get confirmed along with friends at the church whose pastor lived right next door to me.

And while I’d gotten confirmed at the age of thirteen, already I was asking questions about traditional religion and its role in our lives. Something about the confessional language of orthodoxy never satisfied my vision of what it meant to believe in something larger (or as large) as what we see around us.

And later in life, when religious leaders that I met began picking on the subject of evolution and showing bigotry toward various kinds of people, I’d had enough, and parted ways for a while with conventional Christianity.

Sweet returns

Then I met a girl in college whose academic interest in the Jewish religion led me back to thinking about what the whole story of Jesus was about. And as a quasi-English major, I was interested as much in the story aspect of scripture as the supposed literal truth it conveyed. At the same time, I was aware of the need to write my own version of that story.

June 1979
Journal entry from June of 1979, 21 years old. 

The woman that I later married was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition. So we joined that church and for twenty-plus years raised our children there. I sang in the choirs, taught Sunday School to middle school and high school kids, and served on the Church board. Meanwhile, our congregation enlisted a successive line of pastors who preached an increasingly harsh and conservative line of doctrine. The theory of evolution was just one of their favorite targets, as were gay people and even women who dared think they could ever be pastors.

Departures

Thus toward the end of my wife’s life after six years of cancer treatment, we bid a solemn goodbye to that church and moved upriver to a more welcoming Lutheran congregation that cared for us during the final years of her existence on earth. For that and all service before I am eternally grateful.

During that whole journey, I drew on a ton of faith to get through. The practical issues of her illness we addressed through medicine and following doctor’s orders. I kept working at the jobs I held between severe challenges on many fronts. Her treatments had profound emotional effects on us both. That’s when we looked to faith for support.

In my case, it had never really disappeared. All those mentions of God in my running journals during those self-focused years training almost full-time and racing twenty-four times a year were testimony to that desire to understand it all. Every day was a trial of sorts, I knew that much. And when my former track and cross country coach heard that my wife had cancer, he intoned: “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”

Sustaining hope in the face of adversity

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He was right. But you can’t be prepared for everything. And when hope drains away it is comforting to turn fear over to something other than a piece of paper on which you write down your problems, somewhat in order, in hope of tackling them the next day.

That’s when some of the lyrics from the James Taylor song “Fire and Rain” came back to me:

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Frankly, I’ve never been a big Jesus worshipper. When asked long ago by a pastor what my faith is most based upon, I told him that knowing God was my first priority. Of course, that received the standard confessional response that Jesus is the portal to God, is one with God, and so on. But I persisted in seeking what I know of the spirit outside the lines. And nature is often the source of that insight.

Chance meeting

Recently while out doing bird photography I waved to two women out walking through the forest preserve where a pair of wood thrush was singing loudly in the brisk spring sunshine. We met back in the parking and I struck up a conversation with them by shared how long I’d been visiting that preserve both as a runner and a birder. That led to a discussion of our respective families. One of the women had been an Olympic Trials swimmer and her sons and daughter were both college athletes. So was her husband. I found that fascinating and offered to write a story about their clan.  She seemed game to the idea but there was something else going on in the conversation, and I didn’t feel right to press it.

Transitions

But I shared some recent facts about learning to swim after meeting my present wife on a website called FitnessSingles.com. Then I explained to them both, “I lost my first wife to cancer seven years ago.”

The two women exchanged quick but earnest glances. Then two minutes later in the conversation one of them turned to me and said, “You were put here by God to talk with us, because she just lost her husband to cancer last Saturday.” It was a Tuesday morning.

We cried together, the three of us. But no one exchanged hugs in the age of the Coronavirus. Even her husband’s funeral the next morning would be a private affair, limited to ten people due to the pandemic.

A walk in the wilds

Prairie Hill

They both shared that their walks in the woods were a way of coping with problems and talking them through together. But now their walks had taken on the role of processing the immediate grief of having lost a loving spouse. As most of us know, grief has both mental and physical effects on us. In its most difficult stages, grief can make you want to cease living and at the same time put your body through aches and pains that you never see coming. That is fire. And that is rain.

There are also many points in between, where sudden bursts of recollection and joy mix together in a combination of fire and rain. How is that possible? How can two seemingly opposite substances mix together in our minds?  

Our spiritual selves

To me, that is the mystery of our spiritual selves. If emotional pain is real––we can certainly feel it––then love must be just as real. And if love is real, then to me, some sort of spirit is a reality too. And as the saying goes, God is Love.

So in that sense, I truly believe in God. It is both within and apart from us to love in this world. If anything, that is the meaning of that passage in the Lord’s Prayer; “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

As I wrote in my first book The Genesis Fix, I call that call of gratitude and active love grace appreciated. When we are attentive to appreciating love a grateful sense, we are appreciating it. Yet when we extend love to others in an active sense, we are appreciating grace on behalf of God. Then our lives take on a different and richer meaning. We commence to live from a foundation of our spiritual selves. That is what I think scripture is all about, that perpetual discovery of purpose, principle, and life fully lived.

Connections to spirit and life

Butterfly weed

That is why I talk to people. I consider it a connection to the spirit and life of others. One might call it a ministry of sorts, to talk to people, find their mutual humanity, and learn interesting things about them along the way. Even during this Coronavirus pandemic, I find ways to speak with people even under the call of social distancing.

There are times when that is not welcome, and I respect that. Not everyone is coming through this crisis with an attitude of appreciation. Some engage on their own terms and hold to their spirit in the best way they know how. And I say God Bless them. And if they don’t believe in God, I say bless that too. Just as in nature, there is diversity in the human condition as well. We should honor that, and sadly too many supposed Christians take certain passages of scripture literally and dishonor the spirit and love they could otherwise find in others.

I know there are also passages in scripture that demand absolute fealty to Jesus in order to be saved, as in: “No one comes to the Father but through me.” Well, that passage is the product of a patriarchal society, isn’t it? We’ve discovered a bit more about the significance of the feminine in this universe, and science too. So I don’t place limits on the points between fire and rain. Instead, I choose to celebrate them.

And if we meet, I hope to celebrate you too. For that, if anything, is the Kingdom of God.

Christopher Cudworth is the author of The Right Kind of Pride: A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community. It is available on Amazon.com. 

All images by Christopher Cudworth. christophercudworth.com

 

From bitter to sweet memories on the 7th anniversary of my late wife’s passing

Linda and Chris
Our early dating years.

Tomorrow marks seven years since my late wife Linda Cudworth died after eight years of survivorship through ovarian cancer. The diagnosis came as a shock, as did multiple episodes of recurrence. Each time we’d reel from the news, go back into treatment and compartmentalize the best we could by using the phrase, “It is what it is.”

Those last months during the winter and spring of 2013 were confusing because doctors treating her for seizures learned there was a tumor in her brain. I’ve never published photos of her during that last round of radiation treatment because while we made the best of it, snapping pics using my laptop Photo Booth and laughing as the absurdity of it all, it was a strange world we were about to enter, because ovarian cancer was not supposed to be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. But it did.

LInda and Chris
All dressed up and going somewhere.

We treated it with radiation and she started a regimen of steroids to contain the swelling and her personality became magnified. She lost native inhibitions about many things. On one hand, that was disorienting, as it ultimately became impossible for her to continue teaching at the preschool she loved. On the other hand, it proved to be liberating as she used those final bursts of steroid-fueled energy to buy a beautiful piece of art. She also stayed up late at night to research and buy a new car even though she abhorred going online. In sum she lived life to the fullest, however manic it might have been.

And that was bittersweet. Because when the steroids stopped, so did her energy. She passed away a few weeks later in the company of her husband and two children. Still, she never lost her sense of humor. After I’d arranged for palliative care in our home, we moved her from our master bedroom to the hospital bed in the living room where nurses and such could tend to her properly. The journey from bedroom to living room was awkward and difficult given her weakened state, but she looked up at me once she was tucked into the cover and smiled while saying, “I thought I wasn’t supposed to suffer.”

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On our honeymoon at Waterton-Glacier

Most of that was indignity, and my late wife was a person who believed and abided in dignity in all she did. It was part of her beauty as a person. She also respected propriety, which made it amusing to think back on the fact that I showed up a night early for our first date. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Our date is tomorrow night!”

She agreed to go out for a short dinner before hosting her parent-teacher conferences at the high school where she taught special education. But before we parted that evening, I got a taste of her naturally biting humor in reminding me that I ought to call confirm a date.

We got to know each other a little that evening and followed up with a hike to Starved Rock State Park. Stopping on a high ledge for a picnic on a mild November day, she broke out a lunch of apple-walnut bread sandwiches, cheese and wine served from a leather-covered flask. That implement was a remnant of her high school hippie days.

LindaWithFirework
Enjoying our festive 4th of July traditions.

We dated four years and even survived a long-distance romance early on when I was transferred from Chicago to a marketing position in Philadelphia. She visited me on Thanksgiving that year despite her mother’s objections, and I moved back to the Midwest the following spring when the company decided to disband the entire marketing department due to misguidance by the Vice President.

That would be one of a few job upheavals experienced over the years, and we survived them all. Our children came along in our late 20s and early 30s. Soon our lives were immersed in preschool, elementary adventures, and all the way through high school performances in music and drama.

We also belonged to the highly conservative church synod in which she’d grown up. The pastor that married us at the time was, however, a grandly considerate and patently open-minded man that once gave a sermon titled, “Do-gooders and bleeding hearts : Jesus was the original liberal.”

Emmy in Garden

Our lives swirled with church activities as our children passed through Sunday School all the way to confirmation, where they roundly passed the tests despite having to choke down conservative ideology about evolution preached by the pastor that had long-since replaced our marriage counselor.

After 25 years we moved up the road to a more tolerant and progressive Lutheran church. It was gratifying to learn that our friends from the former church did not abandon us. In fact without their help and the guidance of one of Linda’s best friends, a woman named Linda Culley, we would not have had as much grace and good fortune in the face of the perpetual challenges served up by cancer survivorship.

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At 7 Mile Pinecrest

Now what I like to think about are the camping trips we took to the north woods while dating, and later, when we had small children, we’d spend a week each summer at a humble resort called 7 Mile Pinecrest thirteen miles east of Eagle River, Wisconsin.

Our children paddled around in the water and slipped off to Secret Places in the woods while their father fished in the early and late hours and went for runs half-naked in the pine woods north of the resort, swatting at deer flies the entire time.

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Linda and Evan reading together.

At the center of all that family joy and adventures was Linda, whipping up sandwiches and sitting with a glass of wine on the small beach overlooking the lake. That was the only time the Do Not Disturb sign seemed to rise on the Mom Flag.

And when we weren’t visiting or traveling or doing school activities, Linda was immersed in planning, purchasing and planting her garden every year. Her priorities were indeed God, Family, and Flowers.

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She was a really good person. That’s what so many friends have told me over the years. I was married to a really good person, and that makes me think of what a close friend told me when he first met her. “This is a good one, Cuddy. Don’t let her get away.”

It is bittersweet and sweet to think about all those years together. My daughter went through our stacks of photos to digitize the images and I’ve waited until today to open it up and pull some memories out to post with this blog. Holding people close to your heart is first and foremost the right kind of pride. I hope this writing inspires you to consider the importance of people in your lives.

And to realize as well that life does go on. She told our close friend Linda Culley that she knew, if she were to pass away from cancer, that I would meet someone again. And I have found love. But it does not mean the years with Linda Cudworth are forgotten. Far from it.

These memories can lift us up. Give us courage to go on. Cherish the life we had as well as the life we have. And that is the right kind of pride as well.

 

The 10 ways I’ve most changed since I was a kid

This morning while pouring cereal into the bowl, the box of Maple Pecan flakes ran out. Seeking to fill the dish, I picked out the Ginger Granola and poured it into the bowl to create the right portion. Then I thought, “I’d never have done that as a kid.”

Growing up I liked my cereal pretty much homogenous. If it was Cheerios or Rice Krispies, that’s what went in the bowl. Never would I think of mixing the two.

I also had a favorite spoon with which to eat my cereal. It had a raised image of the United States Capitol building on it. I loved that spoon, and ate my cereal with it every day.

These little moments of recollection set me thinking about how many other ways a person changes from a child to a grown up. At one point my own son at eight years old confessed that he would rather not grow up. He could see that being a grownup came with all sorts of challenges that did not seem to be that much fun.

And yet, there are some things that you do and feel as a kid that are not that great either. Here is a list of my Top 10 ways I’ve most changed since I was a kid. Perhaps you can share a few of your own in the comments below.

  1. No longer afraid of the dark. At some point in my late 30s I was running down the dark stairs to our basement and realized that the haunting feeling of fear at entering a dark space was no longer there. No boogeyman. No devil. No ghosts or other imagined dangers in the dark. It was a liberating feeling.
  2. Sex is no longer such a mystery. I can remember having sexual feelings very early in life. Children do, but they often don’t know what to do with them. Most masturbate their way through puberty and early teens, then experiment their way with sexual partners into some form of knowledge. It took me a long time to understand anything about sex, and that is not to say I know all about it now, either. But the giant wall that was “sex” looming ahead in life from the perspective of childhood was quite difficult to figure out. I was always jealous of kids who seemed to know so much about sex. And some just did. It’s a gift, I guess.
  3. My sense of wonder is not the same. This is both a relief as a person, and a shame as well. As a very sensitive child there were many moments of experience so deep and heartfelt it was difficult to function at times. I recognize now that some of this was tied to an anxious mind. Gaining control of my ruminative nature has been necessary to function in this world. And yet, I sometimes miss the intensity with which I felt a keen sense of wonder at nature, or in a moment.
  4. My trusting nature has evolved. I still trust people, especially those I love. But through many experiences in life, one learns that some people simply cannot be trusted. That was not me as a child. I trusted everyone. I often got teased or tricked as a result. The long journey to loss of naivete is the hardest road many of us travel in life.
  5. Money is just something, where it was once everything. As a kid you’re happy as heck to have money to buy candy or cheap stuff to entertain yourself. Our acquisitive nature drives us to want way more than we need. We obviously need money to survive in this world, and one learns through odd jobs and real jobs that you have to work hard to earn it. Some people judge themselves (and others) by what they earn. They see it as a mark of adulthood. And that is to some degree true. But there’s also an immature or childish nature to liking money too much. The Bible warns us that the love of money is the root of all evil. It is also the mark of adulthood to balance your love of money with gratitude in life.
  6. I put competition in perspective. For some crazed reason I could not stand to lose as a kid. Hated it. As an athlete I became one of the most competitive people you could meet. My brothers called me The Mink because I’d get spitting mad in the heat of competition. That fire to win served me well for the most part, winning races as a runner and leading the teams on which I competed or coached to victories. But at some point I recognized that the desire to win must be tempered with the understanding of what it really means to win, and when winning actually represents some sort of loss. Because that can happen in relationships, for example. But I have always, always fought for the underdog and for fairness to the best of my ability. I’m proud that I have not changed or lost that childhood sense of fair play to this day.
  7. I’ve learned to forgive myself. In my case childhood essentially lasted through the age of 29 years old. That’s when I woke up pounding the pillows in anger over some of the things that happened in my upbringing. I was confused by these angry feelings all through my teens and 20s. As I began to understand their source and grow out of the vexing events so many of us experience in childhood, it became evident that I was beating myself up all the time by not being willing to forgive those who might have wronged me. But it was a wise counselor that finally asked me this question: “You seem to be good at forgiving others…how are you at forgiving yourself?”
  8. My sweet tooth really is my enemy. We all want candy without the consequences. Back home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania there was a candy store a quarter mile from our home. A dollar would buy you tons of sweets, and that foundation of candy-loving carried through my college years and well into adulthood. But the harsh truth is that sweets are bad for your body in a lot of ways. Between sugar and carbohydrates, the supposed fuel of athletes, there lies deep danger to your heart, stomach, liver, kidneys and other organs. Reigning in my sweet tooth is hard, but it truly is the sign of a wise adult.
  9. Love has changed me. For all the flaws we see in our parents as we grow up, it often takes a lifetime to appreciate how they loved you. I no longer have any doubts about that, even with my father, who at times was a hard and exasperating man to abide. Time has given me insight into how many ways he did nurture me, and my mother too. As a result, love has changed me from a child who felt hurt due to a sensitive nature into a man who is sensitive to the power of love to heal those emotional pains. I’ve also grown in my understanding of faith from a child taught through bible stories to think of heroes as outsized personalities to a person who sees heroics in the small and wonderful things people do for each other. That is true love.
  10. Death is no longer so scary. Dead things were always both interesting and scary as a kid. The only funeral I attended as a child was for some relative I knew little about. It reduced me to tears seeing my aunt and uncle cry at the loss of their loved one. Yet when I lost a treasured former teacher to a heart attack in 1993, the funeral turned out to be a celebration of his life. I learned from that. Then my mother passed away in November 2005, and I was there when she ceased breathing and I saw that her body was through with life. Of course, during the eight years in which my wife struggled through cancer treatment, death was the frightful thing that always lurked ahead. When it came to us n March, 2013, my next worries were how to help my children deal with the loss of their mother. That is a challenge that will never abate. I think about my own mortality as well, and if you do the math and add up the years you have remaining on this earth, life itself can seem pretty scary.

So how delightfully ironic it is, that one of the best ways we can learn to enjoy life is to bring back our inner child. That’s when we begin to experience life in new and meaningful ways. It doesn’t mean you need to relinquish all the things that you’ve earned for yourself as a healthy adult. It may mean setting aside some of your more restrained behavior so that you can try new things, take chances and live a little. Or a lot.

God

Something in human nature craves the idea there is always something more than what we see on the surface of existence. We choose God as that focus.

Yet it is most often pride of ownership that obscures the known and unknown channels to God.

For God is the Great Contrarian.

We call God a Creator. Yet everything created by God is always, and ultimately, destroyed.

We call God the Author of Life. Yet we know that 99% of all living things that once lived on the earth are now extinct.

We call God a King and celebrate God’s Kingdom. Yet the true authors of that kingdom often painfully pass into death. They are symbols for the challenge all of us face.

Some speak of the End Times as if there were a beginning and an end. But that is the wrong kind of human pride at work again. We’re told we cannot know that time, when in fact we cannot know time at all. It is forever behind and ahead of us. All we can truly know is this vibrant present. It too is destroyed.

That does not mean we are helpless in time. God is clear that love is an operative that brings life into full focus. We are encouraged through love to look beyond the self. Thus the world expands in our presence. And God’s presence is brought to us.

This selfless love can however be abused. It can face injustice. Even unto death.

That is exactly what God the Contrarian asks us all to embrace. Love is no sin. And sin is no love.

To understand our role in this world we must begin by knowing love even at risk of losing it. Only then can we begin to appreciate what life really is about.

That does not mean we are meant to squander that which is precious or meaningful. We know God as well through all that exists around us. Our great scriptures call up images of God through natural symbols. These help us understand spiritual principles. Mustard seeds. Yeast in the dough.

Grow love.

The Right Kind of Pride does not force these symbols into a role they were never intended to play. Seven days. Snakes in the Garden. These help us understand the advent of Creation, human nature and sin. But they are not the Final Word.

In fact The Final Word is love. That is what God wants us to know. For love exists outside the realm of all we call tangible, literal and temporal. It is both rational and irrational. And love is real.

That is why God is real. For God is love.

All our understanding must pass through this test if we hope to appreciate the motives of God. We may find ourselves contradicting the habits of society and commerce. We may find ourselves speaking alone against a crowd of voices fixed with fury and political fervor, shouting us down. Telling us that we just don’t “get it,” and that tradition says we’re wrong.

But are we out of touch with reality? Really? When we act the Contrarian in good conscience, advocating for protection of the poor out of love and mercy, we are not out of touch. We are in touch with God. And when we side with causes of mercy and social justice despite the inconvenience it represents to commerce and human society, we are in touch with God’s wishes for humankind.

These are not simple principles by which to abide. If they were, everyone would do them. Instead they require a vigilance for which so few have an appetite. Comforts distract. So does access to power and human selfishness.

But God the Contrarian sees all that and knows the hearts of human beings. That is where God connects with all of us. Even those who do not profess belief in God have a heart of their own. Neither are they ignored. Grace extends to all. Knows all faiths. And the lack of it.

For love abounds. It only disappears when we attempt to confine it to our selfish purposes or turn it into a weapon or a tool for control. We see it every day. The force of love can kill if it is wielded with sufficient anger and fear. God the Contrarian knows that too.

God has loved the world to death before. It is woven into the nature of all existence, the expression of all destruction. To come and go with wisdom, we must know this simple truth, and remember it well. God is love, and the force of love can save, or kill.

Our better natures are like God the model of contrition. God call us to this example. All of nature and a world of love awaits our answer.

The Right Kind of Pride is a book by Christopher Cudworth about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.
This blog is a reflection on the principles found in the book The Right Kind of Pride by Christopher Cudworth, about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.