Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving Connections

Growing up in Texas, the first signs of fall were a big deal for me. Fall is my season. After the long, hot summers, which seem to have become even longer, I am eager for cool weather to play with my spirit, and though I don’t like anticipating my life away, I look forward to Halloween and Thanksgiving. Of course, fall is the time of harvest, the time for gathering. In my part of Texas, we don’t see much that distinguishes the changing of the seasons. There’s nothing to support romantic notions of changing leaves or smoke wafting from chimneys. In the city you can’t even burn leaves anymore, one of my favorite fall experiences when I was growing up. I love All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day, that Sunday in church when we chorus, “For all the saints, who from their labor’s rest/who thee by faith before the world confessed.” Though I have no cultural connection to the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead—which traces its roots to Mexico’s Aztec ancestry, I am at least a little fascinated by the celebration that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and relatives who have died. In a few days we will gather as family and friends to give thanks for our blessings, and again we will remember those who have joined the company of saints, those with whom we have shared Thanksgivings past.

A couple of days ago, a cousin that most likely I’ve never met asked me for some family history from my Texas German maternal side. Her mother and my mother were first cousins. She found her way to me by searching on the Internet for my Grandma Lizzie Fuchs’s name. How wondrous this connection we humans have—blood and otherwise—that brings us together, sometimes for reasons that might just go by unrecognized. How good it feels to be reminded that I know something about from where and from whom I come, that I have a heritage that can easily be traced to Europe. I know that my great grandmother, Louisa Benfer Fuchs, celebrated her first birthday and learned to walk on the crossing from Prussia to Galveston, Texas in 1866. And I am grateful that my mother’s interest in talking about her family translated to me.

These days I live relatively far away from what has been familiar for most of my 65 years. I have traded the Gulf Coast, whose power extends far to the north of the coast, for the high plateau of New Mexico, situated at 7000 feet and at the base of mountains whose Spanish name translates in English to Blood of Christ. In a city of 70,000, I have no family, although I have paternal cousins I haven’t seen since they were young children and I was a recent college graduate. Aside from the Hollis blood we share, nothing connects us. We have no history of affection, nothing to stir us to caring about one another. Some 15 years ago, as my cousin Jimmy lay close to death in this small city—a still young man—I was visiting here with friends over Thanksgiving. I called Jimmy’s home to say hello, knowing that he was seriously ill, yet not having seen him for close to 30 years. His grown daughter answered the phone. I gave her my name, told her that I was Jimmy’s cousin, and asked if she knew who I was. “No,” she answered simply, and then she put her mother on the phone. Jimmy was too sick for visitors. Recently I went looking for his grave, only to discover that he lies at the feet of his father-in-law, but there is no marker noting his presence.

So this email message two days ago out of the blue from a 3rd cousin in Texas that I’ve never met, asking for information about my mother’s side of our family, was delightfully welcome. Perhaps I will never meet this cousin. Most likely, our connection will be brief, once I have supplied her with the information about her grandfather’s siblings that she wants to pass on to her own children some day. I suppose it doesn’t really matter all that much. What does matter is that we have connected, if only in passing. The need to know something about from where and from whom we come is important, even if it’s limited to knowing something about your Grandpa Willie’s sisters and brothers. I remember Great Uncle Willie only a little. I remember that he was a farmer, that he and his wife, Donie, had a large bunch of children. Hanging on a wall upstairs in my Texas barn home is a photograph of Louisa and some of her brood, including Willie, most likely a teenager, he and his older brother each astride a horse. I remember Uncle Willie’s funeral on a hot, late-summer day. It was in the country, probably a Baptist church, constructed of clapboard covered in white asbestos siding. Why Willie, who was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran by a first generation German Lutheran, was buried from a Baptist church, I don’t know. He had died after a long siege with cancer. Uncle Willie’s only surviving child, number 10 and the youngest, is now 64. She was 12 at the time of his death, and six at the time of her mother’s death. I wonder what she remembers about her daddy’s funeral. Maybe, in the course of connections, I will hear from her, and I will ask her.

It is time once again for us to try to overcome all that separates us and give thanks. Those who are blessed to be with their kin probably don’t realize the extent of their blessing. Those who have created family that isn’t connected by blood—the ones who for the most part choose with whom they celebrate—maybe they think about this a little more. Maybe they don’t take familiarity as license—well, for anything. When I returned to Santa Fe several weeks ago, I was resigned to tough it out for Thanksgiving, to be alone on this my most favorite holiday, cast in my most favorite time of the year—if no one invited me to share their table. As it has turned out, I have received five invitations. How blessed am I. Although I will join a friend, cornbread stuffing in hand—that is my assignment—I will begin the day as a Kitchen Angel, helping a large group of regular and ad hoc volunteers put together the lunch that will be delivered to our 80 clients. The kitchen manager has assigned me cornbread dressing, using my middle sister Sue’s recipe, a recipe Sue has adapted from our Mamaw Hollis, a true East Texas cook. Connections are happening all over this Thanksgiving landscape, and I embrace all reminders of what it means—what is feels like—to belong and to have the opportunity to share our blessed bounty.

Thanksgiving Connections—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 23, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Angel in Disarray

Genesis 32: 26-28 “Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’”

We sat trapped—we had chosen to be trapped, I guess by what you’d call good sense—as a man, wild about the head and in his head demanded and pleaded for money. Face it. His plea was for our help. Honestly, I felt a little fearful, but I was in the company of a capable friend, trained in medicine and no stranger to people in crisis. At first, not realizing how much clearer and protracted this situation would become, my friend yelled through the closed and secure driver’s window, “Get a job.” After all, our chance encounter had begun with this disheveled man rapping on the driver's window, announcing that he had lice and needed money. I suppose we were to assume that he intended to go to CVS Pharmacy just across the parking lot. From that point on, the situation rapidly deteriorated into something like lunacy.

Our fortress was a new model Toyota crew cab truck, complete with heated seats, a DVD-based navigation system, rear backup camera and Bluetooth wireless technology. We sat enthroned in comfort as this man, barefoot, his pants falling to his ankles as he wrestled with his circumstances. The man walked away, returned, insisted—repeat repeat, repeat—but he wouldn’t go away. “Go away or I’m going to call the cops,” my friend insisted equally. I made no effort to exit the fortress, get into my own truck and drive away. It was the proverbial train wreck, and I was on the front row.

As the drama unfolded, the man moved to the sidewalk in front of our truck. Up and down the walk, he stumbled, clutched for his beltless, oversized pants, half talked to himself, perhaps reaching out to some presence he sensed deep inside. Compromised by alcohol? Drugs or the lack of appropriate drugs? As we waited for the police, a second call having been placed, I suggested that the man really needed an ambulance—that he couldn’t go into the tank in his condition. My friend assured me that the police would do the right thing. Finally, our angel in disarray collapsed to the pavement, his head near the curbing. “Did he hit his head?” my friend asked, and then he heard the guy moaning and crying in his misery. “He’s not unconscious,” he added. Oh, I’m thinking, what do I know? I did know that the man was now nested up against the front left tire of my truck, which was parked to the immediate right of our fortress. One of his legs rested tucked under the driver’s side of my truck.

I had spent a warm, fine evening in the company—indeed, as a guest—of a man for whom I already had high regard, and now the evening had come to a close with two humans being asked to be their best. As it turned out, I was just a passenger who felt safe in someone else’s charge. After the police finally arrived, and I made a move to get out of the truck, my friend advised, “You stay put.” From the comfort of the fortress, I watched the policeman and my friend, remembering what he had said a few minutes earlier, frustrated because he really wanted to get home and attend to his animals...”I’m a doctor. I can’t leave him.” I had told him that there must be a reason for this guy entering our lives—really, his life at this point—this modern-day medicine man. He asked for the reason, but I couldn’t give one at the time. He took care of things, as I watched. This morning, I’m smiling, a little, as I reflect on last night, even knowing that a man in distress went down, as two pilgrims were asked to be present. I, the innocent for this insulated moment, served only to witness, to observe, and to feel safe myself in the presence of someone else taking charge, so obviously capable. Finally, reassured by my friend that this persistent soul in crisis would be going to the emergency room, rather than into the tank, I left for home. Now, I have time to think again about reasons, chance encounters, causes and results, and missed opportunity. As I sort it out, one thing remains clear: the meaning of Wednesday evening, November 19, 2008, is not lost on me.

Angel in Disarray—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 20, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Opportunity to Get It Right

I was in a hurry on this Friday morning, even though I had awakened in plenty of time to make my way to Morning Prayer by 7:30. I look forward to Friday mornings, mostly because of what happens during Bible study following a relatively solemn worship. No bunch of Bible thumpers are we—we who gather for Bible study. We simply read the scriptures appointed from the lectionary for the day. It is the discussion that unfolds in this group of earnest pilgrims that makes the morning.

As life would have it, especially in this place where cold weather necessarily calls attention to the plight of those who, seemingly shut out for whatever reason, stand waiting for someone to acknowledge them. Yes, for a welcoming hand, perhaps a humane word, they stand waiting. Such was my journey this morning. A grizzly-looking older guy, not unlike me probably, stood well away from the entrance to the donut shop, beyond the two or three metal stands set up for the daily newspaper and a couple of alternative papers that are popular here in Santa Fe. “Can you spare some change for a cup?” he asked. With a sigh, once again, I confronted a dilemma that shouldn’t even be a dilemma. You either give the guy some change, or you don’t. What he does with it is not my concern. I could have bought him a cup of coffee and a donut. I even considered asking the person behind the counter if the store’s policy allows them to give coffee to panhandlers. I didn’t give change, I didn’t ask, and I didn’t buy a cup of coffee or a donut. As I walked out the front door to my warm truck, shortly to be informed by the radio that our low reached 10 degrees this morning, I one more time ignored the call of the guy, “Can you spare some change for a cup?” I suppose he didn’t know that he and I had already failed each other.

During Bible study, our discussion finally came around to the scripture that reminds us: “For the poor always you have with you…” (John 12:8). I had already been reminded of this sad truth in a message from a friend in Texas yesterday. What that message from Texas didn’t address is what we are supposed to do about this truth. Today, the answer was offered by the priest who, along with his wife, leads us on our Friday morning journey. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him much is required.” (Luke 12:48) There it is. If you want to quote scripture, pointing a finger at one of the saddest truths about our lives, essentially blaming the bereft for their own plight—it’s all about choices some love to say—then remember the whole story. And we might as well throw in one more oft-quoted phrase: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Apparently not from scripture, the exact origin of this scripture-like expression is not known.

I’m always ready to work over myself, quick to do the mea culpa on my failings—in this instance, specifically the plight of the homeless. I failed the guy standing well away from the front door of the donut shop. And not that it made any difference in the outcome, one person this morning pointed out that I had received the gift of recognition. For a moment in front of that donut shop, I was asked to suspend judgment. I was asked not to wonder about how this guy got into his predicament. I was asked for a moment to remember that there but for the grace of God go I. "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her….Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:1-11)

I’m not so sure that I want to be let off so easily. Yet, it doesn’t do me or anyone else any good if my words of compassion do not get translated into action. I can hope to do better at the next opportunity. I don’t have to wait for someone standing with outstretched hand. “I tell you with certainty, since you did it for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

My Sunday morning habit before heading off to church is to read the sermon found on the Episcopal Church website. A couple of weeks ago, the Rev. Sister Judith Schenck, who is a retired priest and a Franciscan Poor Clare solitary in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana, laid it down, plain and simple:

“So what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Do we want to have enough food and shelter for basic human survival? Do we want medical care? Do we want an education? Do we want our children to flourish safely and develop into all they can be?

To love our neighbor as ourselves usually requires two things in our culture: a pocketbook and a suspension of judgment.

If you own a house much larger than you need, and you know there are people being evicted in your hometown, what does that mean in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself?

If your closet is full of new or adequate coats, hats, and shoes, and you know there are children in town without warm clothing, what does that mean in terms of the gospel?

If you buy a new car when the old one still works and others can't even buy gas, what does that mean in terms of your total love of God?

If you eat steak and or dine out in restaurants, and you know a third of the world is starving to death, what does that mean in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself?

The list can go on and on. And we fall short.”

(from a sermon authored by the Rev. Sister Judith Schenck, found on the website for Sunday, October 26, 2008)

I believe from the deepest part of my being that, if we are paying attention, all day long every day we have the opportunity to realize, to be reminded, of what life expects of us. Don’t worry about religious beliefs. Don’t worry about religion at all. Walk into the donut shop for a cup of coffee, pick up a newspaper, turn on cable television, watch a movie, sit in the park on the plaza of what some call one of the most magical places in the United States. Dig down deep for your sense of humanity, for your sense of goodness, for your moral center. Yes, get over yourself. Ever ready to be touched by how I choose to entertain myself, I was reminded earlier this week of our spirit to make things better in a film set in England during WWII. In the film, the protagonist, a wealthy English widow, observes: “I can’t bear feeling helpless. I always feel there’s something I can do. Sometimes, of course, there’s nothing. (from “Mrs. Henderson Presents”) I do fall short, and I will fall short. But thanks for the gift of recognition and the opportunity to get it right, opportunities presented over and over and over.

The Opportunity to Get It Right—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 6, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis