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.
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