Monday, November 30, 2009

A Closer Walk

I have been away from church most Sundays this year. Early in the year I hit yet another stumbling block on this walk that for all of us knows challenge on top of challenge. The good news for me is that I haven’t been away from my trust in God. The furrow on my brow that people often ask about is more present. My walk toward the light—sometimes a search—continues.

Early this year, Lent came as usual, and my forehead went unmarked by palm ash. And though I wasn’t in church on Sundays, I read Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s discussion of the last seven days of the life of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark (“The Last Week”). I’ve dabbled in Buddhist writings and have been especially drawn to a couple of books by Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh. He treats two important aspects of human behavior—love and anger—that for me are at the heart of what marks us as human. Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth”, both a PBS documentary and a transcript of a conversation with Bill Moyers from the 1980s, reminded me that history is filled with Christ figures, stories of the creation, virgin births, persecution, death, resurrection and redemption. And now, as Advent begins, I have without a plan visited a Christian worship, and at the same time I am paused to consider Elaine Pagels’ work on Gnosticism.

Argument aside, every faith tradition teaches the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you. The fringe of any tradition that teaches mistrust and hate has by choice lost sight—has chosen to walk away from the light, to walk away from that which is divine in each of us.

Life takes us where we need to go, even though at times we are kicking and screaming. Yesterday as I sat waiting for Christian worship to begin, I had not remembered that it was the first Sunday in Advent—that season in the Christian tradition celebrating the birth of Jesus. I was prepared to grow because I’ve heard the reputation of the Yale-educated female minister who has pastored this congregation for over 20 years. Innocently, I didn’t know that her message would be directed at the very things that have been most on my mind of late. But then, why wouldn’t it? Change (end days), compassion, love, charity, faith. I have long realized that the kingdom many of us pray for in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) is not some distant hope, a reward that we might ultimately somehow reap even when things seem hopeless as we trod on. When a friend told me a couple of months ago that she consoles herself in the midst of family turmoil by reminding herself that life in the everlasting will be trouble free, I was speechless. I have grown to believe that the work we are asked to do now on our faith walk creates the kingdom in our hearts and also in our lives. Those eager to quote scripture and the teachings of the man we call Jesus are well served to remember that. My experience lately reminds me that life is abundant, the love of the Divine is abundant, and it is only through human kind’s manipulation that this abundance is denied to many. Each of us has an incredible power to make a difference. We see this happening everywhere, regardless of how bleak the landscape may seem at times. I give thanks for this reminder.

A Closer Walk—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 30, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty we are free at last!" Martin Luther King

Monday, November 23, 2009

We Give Thanks

Gratitude. It’s everywhere—or not. Often it’s hidden deep inside. I would have said “too often” but that’s a value judgment, and I’m trying to outgrow my judging phase, which has taken decades to hone its current fineness. Gratitude. Thanksgiving. Recently while volunteering in the visitor center of the Audubon here in Santa Fe, I exchanged pleasantries with a visitor from Vancouver, and I wished her “Happy Thanksgiving” as she left the gift shop, camera in hand, for one of her many repeat visits to Santa Fe and to our 135-acre sanctuary at the top of Upper Canyon Road. “Thank you,” she smiled. “We celebrated ours in October.” I smiled in acknowledgement of a different tradition. And I smile again, acknowledging the truth of all the rich traditions that color our world. “Thanksgiving in October, hmmm, I hadn’t even thought about it.”

Last week, I wished “Happy Thanksgiving” to my massage therapist, a native of the Czech Republic who came to the United States four years ago, as I recall from an earlier conversation. A bright, articulate young guy who came here speaking little English, I had assumed early on that he had studied English in school, growing up in an Eastern Europe that has seen much turmoil and change in my lifetime and certainly in his. Not the case, which causes me to marvel even more. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving,” I asked him. “I guess what I do on any other day,” he replied, smiling. He isn’t fretting that he will be alone on this American holiday. He’s a vegetarian. No visions of roasted, aromatic turkey dance through his head. I smile at my own innocence when I think of the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers in black garb, punctuated by white collars.

What I really love about Thanksgiving, and what I have always cherished, is family time. Lots of good food, east Texas style, familiar faces, and maybe best of all, the only gift expected is the familiarity of our company. I took that comfort for granted. I’m older, and wiser, now. Now I know the lack and loss of Thanksgiving changed. Mother and Daddy are no longer physically present at the table, and for three years, on this favorite holiday I have chosen to be away from my family of birth. But I take great comfort knowing that my older sisters and the family will be together at table. They’ll be taking this for granted—at least a little—because they’ve never known anything different.

I have heard some people explain that their families are ones they have chosen, and they say that they like having this choice. In a way, that’s a tough concept for me. I grew into old age taking for granted that familiar faces, no matter how few, would always smile at me across our Thanksgiving table. I welcome the love of friends, and I give thanks for the friends who open their arms to me, especially at this most tender time of the year. Each year is yet another Thanksgiving first, regardless of the familiarity. I smile at the reassurance from friends over the last few days. I am loved, I am welcomed, and yes, I am home. Why am I amazed? How could I ever doubt? Someone said to me over coffee several months ago, “home is where you are”. And so it is.

We Give Thanks—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 23, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking."
--Buddhist proverb

Friday, November 13, 2009

"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
--His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Carefully Taught

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
(Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, “South Pacific,” 1949)

Don’t think that you must teach me to mistrust. I know enough about mistrust already. What didn’t come naturally to me—the human creature predisposed by my ancestral fear—life has taught me well. Even as a child, coming to understanding in the aftermath of the second world war and the cold war that followed on its heels, I knew to fear that which seemingly posed a threat—or so I was told. As I grew older, I learned to fear many things. I was putty in the hands of my nature and my Elders. I don’t think there was any particular malice in the lessons modeled and spoken outright, sometimes in hushed tones—tones reflecting shame in the lessons taught generation after generation. Before I knew better, at times I thought it was just part of growing up in the south. But I learned long ago that the south owned no special rights on intolerance, hate, and fear mongering. I come from German stock on my mother’s side, and though my ancestors left Europe just as the American War Between the States was ending, in my years of accountability, I have known the sadness that comes from realizing that the country of my heritage embraced man’s inhumanity to man so willingly. Fear begets hate begets loss.

Many would tell us that we live in troubling times. I respond, when has life not been troubling? And where does the trouble live and thrive, growing to unmanageable size—if we don’t choose to face our fear, if we don’t search our hearts. Some would argue that the god of their so-called faith is not the god of those whom they fear. They would make this claim failing to understand that god isn’t property. From where I stand, there is only one god, one spirit, one creator, and that power wants to live and thrive in each of us, regardless of the lowness and meanness any one of us embraces out of fear and anger and hate.

“We have met the enemy and he is us,” Walt Kelly had his cartoon figure Pogo say in 1970. In the late 40s through the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy sponsored the madness that destroyed lives with the scare of communism. How many of us have heard, “they’ll take us over without firing a shot.” Sadly, I remember that my own father and mother—a mother that I realized as I grew older was one of the most tolerant people I’ve known—believed soundly that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “tool of the Communists”. Today, we don’t have to look far to read and hear from the fear mongers who have staked a claim for their destructive version of the truth. Any of us who spends time on the Internet has received the messages that travel, growing like cancer—messages based on misinformation, half-truths and lies. Any one of us is capable of changing the context and re-shaping what otherwise contains some kernel of the truth to serve our own sad, misguided fear. Any one of us is capable of hate. Hate is the greatest threat to our well-being—hate, the child of our egos. None of us has to look far to realize that—regardless of our faith tradition— dying to oneself means only one thing. We must let go of that which separates us. “Let there be peace on earth/And let it begin with me.” (Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller, 1955)

The prayer attributed to St Francis of Assisi (12th century) continues to say it so clearly.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Carefully Taught—Santa Fe New Mexico (November 11, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"That which God said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty/He said to my heart, and made it a hundred times more beautiful." Rumi

"In thee, my friend, I see God, and through you I feel His presence." The Science of the Mind, page 546

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospels, the same shall save it." Mark 8:35

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paying Attention

Asked to keep a record of acts of kindness for 29 days—why 29 I don’t recall because I missed that part of the instructions—I was energized by the possibilities. “Can I count my volunteer work at the Audubon Center?” I asked. “You can, but I would prefer that you don’t.” The point of the discipline is to notice and record the things you do for people without expecting anything in return. A former friend from years ago said to me once in a cynical and accusing voice, “the only reason you are nice to people is so they won’t be mean to you”, or something like that. I recall how I felt when he said it. I was saddened at the time and I shake my head now at the angriness that colored so much of this man’s life. “It can be something as simple as a smile,” she explained. Well, I smile at people I don’t know, day in and day out, and I guess I don’t expect anything in return. It’s sort of like walking down any street in small town Texas. You just say “Howdy!” as you pass people. I find myself doing this here in Santa Fe New Mexico as well, in spite of the occasional stare. Okay, so every one did not have the privilege of growing up in the state whose name in Caddoan Indian translates "friendly". Friendliness is in my fiber. Smiling and saying hello are not much of a challenge and definitely not a sacrifice.

So I started my record a few days ago. The first day was easy. I had already decided to contact customer relations for the local Toyota dealer to thank them for the helpful man in service who knew immediately why my rear windshield wiper and defroster weren’t working. Within minutes of driving into the service bay, I was driving out, smiling as if someone had just handed me a hundred dollar bill. That same afternoon I had the opportunity to help my downstairs 80-something neighbor carry things in from her car.

Over the five days since we started our record keeping, some days have been a slam dunk. A couple of days on my calendar are blank. I can’t count going to the store for 10 beautiful oranges and organic celery to carry to a friend who has been shut in with the flu. Those are the kind of things you do for a friend, along with cooking and sharing meals with your partner because you are retired—every day of your life, he says smiling—and your partner isn’t. We get lots of opportunities to share the bounty with those we love. It’s remembering to do so with those of the chance encounter and especially with those that on any given day we don’t feel so bountiful. The other day I wondered aloud about mothers who prepare meals, clean house and do laundry, along with all the other things they do for their families. “But that’s expected,” our leader clarified. Wow, mother's labor doesn’t qualify for our 29-day exercise.

“Give until helps,” goes one slogan. How comforting to know that joy does not reside deep in our pockets, even though we know that sharing our treasure measures mightily in the quality of our lives. What I’m finding most interesting about our little game is reflecting on the days that are empty on my calendar. I know I did something generous on each of those days, but by the rules, I can’t count it. So I have to make a special effort, like letting three cars coming towards me turn left in front of me on a heavy-traffic Friday afternoon when I’m late for an appointment. Smiling at someone, holding the door open for someone, those are the no brainers. As I head out to run errands today, I’ll be paying attention to opportunity. My calendar is already blank for two out of five days, and according to the rules, a blank day resets the count to zero. I have to pay attention.

Paying Attention—Santa Fe, New Mexico (November 2, 2009)
R. Harold Hollis