Yesterday I stopped at a dried out wetland to see what shorebirds might still be lingering behind in Illinois. Most have moved through our region during July and August, as shorebirds are the first to head south in fall migration. There are typically some stragglers, so it’s often worth checking out watery places in case there is some interesting bird to be found.
The wetland I visited was nearly dried out. That’s often the case in August, when lack of rain and heat combine to evaporate what’s left. Then the mud shrinks. The earth cracks open.
Once the process of dehydration starts in earnest, the waters often recede quickly. This wetland shrank so quickly that I found a ring of bird feathers at the outer edges of the mudflat. Even that feathery edge wasn’t the true high water mark. Further up the low bank a thick mat of cattail stems lay choked among the bushes. Earlier this spring the wetland swelled with water. Over weeks and months, it shrank in size until there is only a broad puddle left.
Year after year, these events occur in varying fashion. Early in my birding career, I’d often visit a slough on a farmer’s property at the edge of town. In spring there were would be twenty species of ducks that stopped at the wetland in spring. In summer, I once found the tiny black chick of a Virginia rail, evidence that many species depended on that wetland.
These moments teach us plenty about nature’s movements. When the wetland would dry up in late July or August, there would be swarms of small catfish left to wriggle about in the narrow channel of water. Water birds such as herons arrived to glean them for meals. Then the water would be gone completely. So would the food supply. These are the rhythms of nature.
Yet they’d spring back again to life the following year. Frogs and turtles lived through the same big rhythms. Their evolution as a species is built from the process of natural selection taking place every moment in time. Those with instincts to sink into the mud and wait out drought conditions will live to see another day. Others take off in search of wetter places. Some make it. Others don’t. It is humbling work, this process of survival.
Yet those that die often leave traces of their lives and evidence of their former existence. The world is rife with fossil records that run thousands of feet deep. Layers sedimentary rock hold evolution’s grand story in place. These fossils tell a tale of lives come and gone, entire species that flourished into existence and vanished when conditions changed. It has happened before. It will happen again.
The earth cracks and absorbs the living and the dead. It humbles those whose arrogance ignores warning signs and whose instincts fail them as a result. The human race loves to think itself a bold and brave species, almost separate from nature. Yet the raw intelligence of history cannot be denied. The waters cover the continents or gouge the earth, creating great chasms like the Grand Canyon. These speak to the time and patience the earth embraces. Selfish believers may write these events off to sudden cataclysm in an attempt to own the narrative. But these selfish notions deny the reality of the ages, replacing them with literalistic notions of Great Floods and Rainbow Promises that are an insult to the massive grandeur and eternal flow of nature.
Even the human race is but a footprint in the passage of time.
The ephemeral mark of a bird on the surface of a parched wetland reminds us that life and time don’t owe us anything. Science pokes and prods at these truths while religion reflects them in prose and praise.
It is evidently clear that all depends on paying attention to the rhythms of time and place. That is all we have to discern our place in this world. If we respect that reality, and do our best to provide a place for the generations to come, that is what the religious among us love to call the Kingdom of God.
But from a more pragmatic perspective, caring about stewardship of the earth and those who live with us is the right kind of pride. Anything else is a sin of selfishness. Ignoring that fact, we have no meaning or purpose at all in this world.
I 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
This weekend we cleaned out some life detritus from the basement. I’ve been doing an inventory of personal collections that need sorting through. One of them was a box of newspaper articles that I’ve written over the last four decades, an archive that reaches all the way back to my early 20s. There were copies of the nature column Field Day that I first started writing for a local newspaper back in 1981. I was two years out of college at that time, and itching to start showing the world what I thought I knew.
Six years later I got a job with that newspaper and eventually moved from advertising sales to promotions. Despite the journalistic wall that supposedly existed between those two worlds I wrote dozens of articles over a four-year period, covering entertainment, dance, comedy, sports, and nature.
That last interest led me to produce an entire page of nature-oriented news. I called the section ENVIRONS, and designed the entire thing on an early version of a Macintosh computer. It had a monotone 9″ screen on which I wrote and designed those full-page sections.
I credit some of that drive to the precociousness of youth. I also sold the ads that appeared on those pages, at one point producing a four-page section just to prove it could be done. I was also out to prove that people were interested in news about the environment. I’d done my research on that, even gathering a report conducted by Duquesne University that showed public interest in environmental news ranked in the top four topics right behind local news and politics.
Once I’d left that newspaper and joined another, my passion for writing about nature continued as a columnist and editorial writer. That gig ended when the Publisher moved me over to a position as a marketing manager. That meant no more writing for that newspaper. So I turned to outside publications including magazines such as West Suburban Living. One of the articles profiled state conservation police officers, an idea that turned into a story after I stopped to ask an officer if people know what they did for a living. He chuckled and said, “Seven out of ten people stop to ask me what the Conversation Police do.”
That proved to me that people don’t connect the dots on many subjects related to nature. There is even prejudice against environmental news in some sectors of society, especially where religion tells people not to put trust in science of any kind.
Which brings me back to a letter home from college that I found in that box of newspaper clippings. I’m not sure at all how that letter wound up in that box, but it was joined by several other missives home to my family from college.
The letters typically shared how I was doing in cross country or track, since that was a pressing preoccupation at the time. But this one sent home in the first few weeks of college documented a moment in a Freshman Studies class in which I was impressed by a professor who visited our class. Here’s what I wrote:
“Just finishing a good day of classes, one in particular really set my thoughts to rolling. In our Freshman Studies class a religion prof gave ideas out on ecology in collaboration with Aldo Leopold’s A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC. This guy was great, giving the truth about people’s preconception that the land they own is theirs to do with what they like, including destroying it. Also mentioning that many people do not feel that land is good unless it is developed, or is producing for them. Great.”
I did not recall that professor’s visit until I read about it again in that letter from 1975. But that moment in class definitely planted a seed in my mind that has carried through millions of words written about the subject of science and religion.
In particular, the book I wrote titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age (2007) addressed the impact of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment. A book I’ve just completed and am sending to an agent is titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition. It also deals with the impact of religion on the world at large.
The new book is a collaborative venture with a retired Professor of Religion at Luther College, Dr. Richard Simon Hanson, who upon reading my book The Genesis Fix mailed me a typewritten manuscript of his book titled RELIGION FROM EARTH. Inside the envelope was a note that said, “You can use all or part of this if you choose to write a sequel.” His entire intact manuscript is incorporated in the new book I’ve just completed. We’ve had several visits and chances to review and talk about the book over the last few years.
I am guessing now that the professor who visited our Freshman Studies class during my early days at Luther College was indeed Professor Richard Simon Hanson. He planted a seed in my mind that has flourished into a tree of work over a lifetime. We both believe in the organic fundamentalism of the Bible and how its most important symbols of truth in scripture depend on metonymy and creation as their source. That is the reconciliation between religion and science. That is the right kind of pride, for it leads to salvation in both a practical and spiritual sense. That is what the world needs most right now.
Christopher Cudworth’s book The Right Kind of Pride: A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community is available on Amazon.com.