Tag Archives: religion

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

 

When body and spirit become like oil and water

 

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Photograph by Christopher Cudworth. 

I didn’t have much time to consider the meaning of my late wife’s death between her passing and the Good Friday service being held several days later. I spoke to my brother the night before, and he said to me, “You’re going to Good Friday services? You’re gonna walk right into the pain…”

That’s actually why I go to church, I thought to myself. To deal with the pain of life.

It happened there was an interim pastor serving our church during that period. I’d gotten to know him well enough that we exchanged glances as I entered the church. His eyes fixed on mine and I gave a short nod. People can see when you are covered with the coating of grief. It does not shed easily.

Pain points

The structure of the service was somber as usual in remembrance of the time Jesus was crucified. Having so recently experienced the death of someone I loved, the whole ritual took on a different meaning. I sat there quietly until the service invited us all to come to the area behind the altar and pray with the deacons and pastor in a time of repentant consideration. I kneeled down in front of the pastor and noticed there were tears falling from his eyes. He was well aware of all that I’d experienced leading up to that point. He said something on the order of “You’re in the right place.”

B Oil and Water Bright
Oil and Water. A painting by Christopher Cudworth.

Oil and Water

By that time my grief had already journeyed down a path of consideration farther than I could have imagined. In truth, I’d been grieving for years and had long since let go of the sensation that I was in control of her spirit. We’d shared in all the challenges of being “one flesh” through all those bodily changes. But its ability to sustain her in this life ultimately ran out.

The body and spirit become like oil and water at that point. One can no longer mix with the other. The spirit floats on the surface, takes on its own aura and color, then moves into the spectrum of the imagined, yet realized.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, Character, Caregiving and Community. Available on Amazon.com. 

The seed of a lifetime’s work

Seed of a LifetimeThis 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.

Environs

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.

New directions

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.

Big impression

Luther prairie
Last summer I visited the Luther College prairie and this plant known as butterfly weed

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. 

On the precociousness of November flowers

FlowersThis morning during my dog walk it was a bit surprising to find two yellow flowers blooming in the already pruned bed of a Master Gardener that lives nearby. She’s not one to pluck much of anything during the summer months. She prefers to leave her flowers out where everyone can admire them. But come autumn her garden beds get a full house-cleaning.

Yet up popped these two flowers.

Their species is not so much important as their precociousness. So I will not go on about their life cycles or why they might be giving it a second go this late in the season. All of nature perks and plays with warm fall days. Migrating warblers sing quiet versions of their springtime songs. Sparrows and robins too, and all birds in passage from north to south. It’s not so much about singing for territory as it is about communication of existence these days.

I’ve even heard chorus frogs singing from inside the prairie in mid-November. The temperature and humidity of a 55 degree fall day clearly resembles those dank March or April days when breeding begins for frogs. So the frogs sing.

Occasionally I will find the stiff remains of a snapping turtle that died during a frosty night while making its way from the uplands to the lake below. Mother turtles lay their eggs in holes dug into the dirt. Many of of these holes and eggs are proceedingly raided and eaten by marauding raccoons. The next morning all the leathery eggs lay strewn about the hole. If lucky, just one or two holes with their clutch of turtle eggs may survive. That’s how life’s competition works.

Nature depends on this precociousness to advance its cause. It is a long and random process in which we are all engaged. As human beings, call survival a “battle” when in fact it is often something far more subtle that takes us down. A set of mutant cells. A virus. Old age.

Having been through many such human “battles” in recent years with family and friends that have now gone before me, I am absolutely sensitive to the precociousness of life. When my father recently passed away, it was only after thirteen full years of existence following his massive stroke in 2002. At the time, no one really thought he’d live a year past that event. Yet he survived the death of my mother ten years ago, grieved and kept on going. A precocious man.

My father-in-law survived an apparent heart attack and lived another uneasy year in its wake. His persistence was evidence of his character, for the damage to his heart and body were profound. We all credited his hardscrabble Nebraska upbringing for his perseverance.

When my late wife passed away in 2013 after eight years of cancer treatment, it was not because she had given up hope. Quite the contrary. The woman put up with more pain and discomfort than anyone could bear during those years of treatment. Yet she precociously wanted to live. So she did, and saw her children through graduation from high school and attending college. I know they miss her deeply. But I also know we all admire her strength, humor and appreciation for all of life.

I know those flowers down the block will not last forever into the winter But their presence is a reminder that all of us are precocious beings. We all feel the warmth of the sun even when it deceives us a bit, bringing us out to turn our faces toward the sky and breathe in. We precociously feel alive in the face of all that might defeat us otherwise.

Let’s face it. The news is almost never good out there in the world. Even our religions reek with the stink of death, and always have. Only faith survives precociously like two small flowers in the November dirt.

In politics, our hopes of peace lie like road kill along the information superhighway. Twitter throws 140 characters of crap in our faces and Facebook ridicules sincere and liberal concerns for humankind while videos of cats startled by cucumbers at least make us laugh.

Yet is it is the face of two small flowers in November that remind us the precociousness of life is worth appreciating. And protecting.