Praying at Three in the Morning

Converging on the Milky Way

In the summer of 2010, I was weary.

I had been carrying big things for far too long without any ability to put them down, and I needed a break. So I went, like many have before me, to a monastery.

I went to Mepkin Abby in South Carolina, on the banks of the Cooper River. There, on a former plantation amidst the live oak trees covered in Spanish moss they gave me a modest room, three meals a day and, as they have for countless others before me, sanctuary. For five days I ate with them, prayed with them and kept silence with them.

You would wake up at three in the morning and get dressed quietly. My room was in a cabin some hundred yards from the church, so I would grab my flashlight and walk the long path in the darkness, seeing the bobbing lights of other retreatants coming from their cabins as well. We would enter the dimly lit church – an anachronistic modernist structure, looking out of place on these former antebellum plantation grounds – and slide into the choir on the polished wooden bench, next to monks who had made this act their life’s vocation.

And then we would pray.

Seven times a day, we would do this thing, where we entered silently into a holy place and pray, chanting the ancient words written by people long since dead, speaking to a pain and a longing we all still know.

I have been told that the French word for pray is prière, which means to ask, and after a lifetime of doing it – ten years as a professional Christian – I still don’t have a better explanation of what prayer is. It makes no faith demands, it requires no allegiances, and it is irrespective of belief. It is just asking.

A recurring line in the monk’s prayers comes from the old Douay Rheims translation of Psalm 70:1:

O God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.

That line has become my favorite prayer.

* * *

Sometimes I have trouble staying asleep at night. As I have said elsewhere, it is in the early morning – about three in the morning, actually – that I wake up and the mad rush of thoughts comes, a near unstoppable flood that overwhelms me. The old demons come back, the fears, the anxieties. They are instantly recognizable – like a person you once knew, but didn’t like.

I lay in bed, the quiet breathing of my wife next to me, the glow of the streetlight coming through the window blinds, the shadows caused by the headlights of passing cars rolling across the ceiling. I tell myself that this time it will be different, that this time I will be able to drift off to sleep again, that this time I won’t stare at the ceiling until dawn, that this time I won’t be exhausted all day, that this time my anxieties and my fears will not win.

It is then that I beg for help, and I pray the simple prayer of the monks, and thousands of years before them, of David. The prayer belongs to many people. It isn’t just mine, and that is important. I am crying out in symphony with millions before me, and collectively, at three in the morning, our voices ask:

O God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.

Running as Therapy

New shoes for a new year of #running races. @adidas #knitwear #boost

It was Tuesday at 7:00AM, and I put on my shorts, laced up my shoes and hit the road. I would run the trails by my house, covering 2 and a half miles by the time I was done.

I don’t like to run. But I like to have ran. I like the feeling of sweat all over my body. I like the warmth in my muscles, the rush of blood pulsing in my veins. I feel the tension I carry in my neck and back melt away, and I feel myself getting stronger every time I do it.

Earlier this week, I turned 45. Over the last year, I have lost 40 pounds, and could still stand to lose another 40. But I haven’t really exercised at all. Oh, I belonged to a gym, where I paid $25 a month for more than three years, but I seldom went. I would get a routine going, but then would go out of town for work, or I would get busy at work, or any number of things, and then I would break the habit and the next thing you know, it has been six weeks since I have been to the gym and my pants are tight again.

When I was in the Marines, I routinely ran 5 miles a day or so. I was never the fastest thing – my thick ankles and bull neck prevented that – but I was sturdy and dependable. I once ran 10 miles in combat boots, and pretty routinely knocked out 5K races in 28 minutes or so.

That was also 26 years and 60 pounds ago.

But I am at my best when I am moving. As an eight on the enneagram, I tend to carry stress in my body, and kinesthetic is my preferred learning style. I often don’t know something until I do it with my body. Moving is important to me.

I was fairly physically active most of my adult life in a middling sort of way. I played golf with clients when I worked for New York Life, and I lifted heavy weights in the gym and would fight the onset of middle age spread by peddling an exercise bike until my ass was numb. When I moved to Raleigh in 2007, my primary exercise was walking – I regularly walked more than 5 miles a day for the first several years I was here.

And then in fall of 2010, I had a motorcycle accident, breaking my collarbone, putting me on my ass for three months. I gained a lot of weight, and my activity levels never recovered.

Back in February, I realized I needed a physical outlet. Not to lose weight, or even for health purposes, but to have a physical outlet that I would be able to keep up with. That I could do anywhere, any time. That would not cost much money, and that had an easy learning curve and that I could do by myself.

So I began to run again.

I bought some good shoes – they cost about as much as six months at the gym, but I wasn’t actually going to the gym anyway, and this way, I would at least get a pair of shoes out of the deal.

I did the couch to 5K thing for a while, but it moved faster than my body wanted to, so I settled for cycles of a 2 minute run and a 30 second walk. And I do that over and over until I am done for the day, and I do that a couple of times a week and have done for months now.

I think it’s a habit now. I know I feel worse when I skip a day, and antsy if I skip two of them.  And I give myself permission to listen to my body and move slowly if I need to on a particular day, or even knock off early if I just am not feeling it. Because this time, I am running just for me.

Quitting Facebook. Again. Sorta.

Web shots08070

As anyone who has known me any length of time can tell you, I have struggled for years with how to do Facebook. I love Facebook. I also hate Facebook.

I love being invited into people’s lives, to see the pictures of their families, to know what they are passionate about, to hear about their dreams, fears and even frustrations. Allowing me to see into your life is a holy and beautiful thing.

But it is also overwhelming. Because of how Facebook works, it becomes a firehose of information, with there always being something new to see, something new to be angry about, something new to like or dislike. I am pretty certain the human animal is incapable of paying attention to thousands of people. I am absolutely certain that I am.

For ten years, I have used Facebook as an address book of sorts. If we ever met and had a good conversation, I added you. If you moved down the street from me, I added you. If you asked me to add you, I added you. If I just wanted to get to know you, I added you. If we went to school in the 8th grade and I haven’t seen you since, I added you.

The result is that I have several thousand people who now have a piece of my attention, most of whom I do not really know, and who do not know me, but whose life streams across my screen 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I have long rationalized that because of work – I am responsible for raising money to pay salaries for myself and other people – it behooves me to “know” lots of people. And it does. But it’s just not sustainable. That level of attention kills my creativity.

And about that creativity – all of that attention I am paying creates a cognitive load that is, frankly, exhausting. I am not doing my best writing, my best thinking, if I am consuming all of the time. And that is what I am doing – just consuming everyone else’s lives rather than creating mine.

This way is fraught with peril. Back in the winter I took a Facebook hiatus for a few months. It was incredibly peaceful – but I also felt isolated, realizing just how much I depend on Facebook for connection with people I genuinely care about.

So here is what I am doing: I have created a new personal Facebook account. I am adding my family and some trusted friends… and then I will deactivate my old one. I am sending a spate of friend requests to some folks – if one of them isn’t you, I hope you won’t take that personally. I am just trying to make my intimate world smaller, so I can share my non-intimate world with more people.

That’s right: My radical plan is to only be Facebook friend with my actual friends. Some people are upset at me for this – which is a whole ‘nother blog post, about the way people feel entitled to the consumption of other people’s experiences.

But there are lots of options for those people who want to see how I move in the world. On Facebook there is the Rev. Hugh L. Hollowell page and Love Wins Ministries page, and I personally am on Instagram and Twitter. Those accounts are wide open, and where I will be doing the majority of my public sharing from now on. I hope to be doing more writing here – you can get an email when I update this blog by going here.

And, as a reminder, I send an email newsletter out every Monday morning that tells a little bit about what I am up to, and has links to five beautiful things. You should subscribe.

Is this the magic bullet? I don’t know. But I hope so.

Bonds and Betrayal

This was originally published last year on my old blog. Recently I have began republishing some of the older posts that are no longer online. If you have something of mine you liked and can’t find, let me know, and I will republish it here.  – HH

I have a friend who, as a child, idolized his grandfather. His grandfather and he were inseparable. The grandfather taught him how to be in the world, how to navigate life, how to act like he thought a man should.

The grandfather was a minister, and highly respected in their small town. My friend became a minister himself,  in part to be like his grandfather. His most prized possession is his grandfather’s Bible, which he received at his grandfather’s death.

A few years ago, (long after the death of the grandfather), it came out that his grandfather was a serial child molester. He had not only molested children in his church, but his own daughter, my friend’s aunt. The aunt that was always quiet and withdrawn as an adult. The aunt that had trouble navigating the world. The aunt that had always seemed, somehow, broken.

I always wondered how you navigate that – what you do when you discover that someone you loved and respected, who taught you so much, who you idolized and wanted to be like – when you find out that they did monstrous things.

What does that do to your story? Are the things you learned from him now invalid? Is your judgement flawed? How do you know he didn’t try to turn you into a monster too? How do you process those memories? Are they now questionable?

# # #

When I was in my late twenties, the questions I had around faith were no longer capable of being answered by the Methodism of my childhood, and I went searching. I flirted with Buddhism for a while, but I am far too much a practitioner to ever be happy sitting on the floor.

I discovered the activist Catholics (like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin) who taught me you could be Christian and work for justice, too. They led me to death penalty protesters, who led me to nonviolence, which, if you stay there long enough, will lead you to Mennonites.

To a person, everyone that I asked who I should read to understand the Mennonite position told me to read John Howard Yoder. So I did – I bought Politics of Jesus and realized I had came home. These were my people. I followed that up with Body Politics and What Would You Do – a primer on nonviolence – and I was sold. It wasn’t just that it made sense to me, but it made sense of me.

I joined the church, and then was pulled aside and told by several elders, that it was obvious I had a call to be in ministry. They would query me, shelter me, love me and, eventually, ordain me. They groomed me for leadership.

My work now among people experiencing homelessness is directly because of my Anabaptist convictions – convictions I was first exposed to in the words of John Howard Yoder.

In recent years, it has come to (more public) light that during his lifetime, Yoder was a serial molester – that it is estimated he abused, molested or raped more than 100 women, in the name of pursuing “the perfection” of his theology.

The man who taught me the basics of nonviolence was a perpetrator of violence. The man who wrote in Body Politics against abuse of power was an abuser of power.

What does this do to my story? Is what I learned invalid? Does this invalidate nonviolence? Are the theories I learned about power wrong? Is nonviolence just a pipe dream? How much of my story does this put into question? Hell, how much of the theories around my work does this put into question?

# # #

These days, I pastor people, most of whom have been hurt by the church.

I have had deep conversations with so many people who have been sexually abused by church leaders I have lost count.

A significant portion of my little flock identify as LGBT, and many of them attribute their homelessness to being kicked out of their family’s life once they came out, because of their family’s religious convictions.

My friend Lindsay was kicked out of her home at 16, when she came out to her mom. Her mom called the preacher, who said that tough love was the only thing that would change her sinful ways. Her mamma kicked her out and has refused her calls since then. Lindsay is now 26 and a survival sex-worker, with a crack habit and HIV. And she hasn’t been home in 10 years.

Or the woman – one of the most gifted pastoral personalities I know – who was told she could never be a pastor, because she was a woman. And while she knew there were churches that did not believe that, none of those churches were her church. So she didn’t go into ministry, convinced what she thought was her call from God was invalid.

I know all these stories, and more. They are legion.

But none of them are my story.

I had a wonderful time in church. I was always loved, and taught to love. I belonged, I felt safe there, I grew up there, developed life-long friendships there. The problems I had in my twenties were about religion – they weren’t about church.

I loved church – right up until I learned the truth. Until I was a trusted pastor person, who got trusted with other people’s stories. Until I learned that many people did not have my experience. I loved church until I learned that for many people, the church was their molester, or at the least, the enabling system that allowed the molestation to happen.

I am a pastor. I preach most weeks, and I bury and marry people. I say the words of institution at The Lord’s Supper every week, and I baptize a couple of folks a year.

But I seldom go to church anymore – at least, not when I am on my own. Not when I am not paid to be there. Not for my own benefit.

Because I have too many questions: How much of what I learned was invalid? How much was fake? How much was abusive, but I didn’t recognize it? How much was coercion? How much was propaganda?

How much, dammit, of my own story is now in question?

Notes: I recognize that a large reason I was groomed for leadership was my maleness and my whiteness and my social skills I had learned – in other words, a lot of it wasn’t just my being lucky, it was factors beyond my control. It was privilege. That said, I also recognize that those of us with privilege have a responsibility to use it to the benefit of those who do not.  

The oppressed never have an obligation to educate the oppressor, but I am grateful to those people who have been patient with me, who have taught me, who have educated me and who teach me still. Every single time, it has been a gift. 

Thanks to my friends Jasmin and Jay for looking over this before I hit publish, to make sure I didn’t make an ass of myself. Any credit goes to those who have taught me, and only the mistakes are mine. 

The Day I Did Not Die

Content warning: Descriptive narrative of a suicide attempt. Please take care of yourself.

Chris Cornell is dead. They are reporting he killed himself.

I have a confession: I am not sure I know his music, or his band, or anything about him. I am pretty sure I never heard his name before today.

And none of that matters. Because it is being reported that he hung himself, and according to my Facebook feed, most of my friends were his fans, and so that news is everywhere. And every time a high-profile suicide happens, all the old fears come back, even if only to remind myself that they are never far away.

It is a common story, and I am not claiming to be special. I was a smarter than average kid who looked differently than his classmates – I was scrawny, pimply, socially awkward and most of all, afraid. I was always afraid. These days you would say I was bullied. In those days, I would have said I was in hell.

I was 16 years old, and my parents were not home. I don’t know how to describe it – it was just a wave that came over me, and when it did, I was ready.

I had read countless accounts of suicide – no mean feat in that pre-internet age. I had read all the dictionary entries, all the encyclopedia accounts. Then I researched famous suicides – Socrates, Hemingway, anyone at all who had made their way into the Britannica. I had a morbid fascination with death, and with suicide.

So when the dark wave came, I was ready.

I had received a shotgun for Christmas when I was 14. There were strict rules around its use, but it was unlocked. I sat on my bed and loaded it with buckshot. I took off my shoes, because I had figured out I could pull the trigger with my toe – a “trick” I had learned in a book I read about famous deaths. I put the barrel in my mouth – right now I can taste the bitter, acrid taste of the oil and the metal on my tongue – and placed my toe on the trigger.

And then I took the barrel out of my mouth, unloaded the gun and put it away. I don’t know why. The darkness receded, just like it came. I was horrified to find myself there. And it would be more than 10 years before I would tell anyone that it had happened.

It wasn’t the last time I thought about self-harm, however. Maybe three times since then, I have been in that same vicinity. The darkness just comes on sometimes, and it seems an incredibly rational solution to end the pain. It is always late at night (more accurately early morning). I hate waking up at 3 or 4am – not because I am afraid I won’t go back to sleep, but because I am afraid of where my brain will take me if I stay awake.

Please don’t mishear me – I have a good support structure in place. I have people who know my history, who love me, who I feel safe calling should I need them. There is a list of people Renee knows to call if I scare her with my moods. Mentally, I am in pretty good shape these days.

And I figure, from everything I read, that Chris Cornell had it pretty good, too. It is obvious he was talented. He had a family that loved him, he had kids. He had extremely devoted fans. He had a lot going for him. I bet that brother had health insurance.

And that is why, when I read of the high-profile suicides, it scares me a little bit. Because it reminds me that the wave is never really gone, even if it has been quiet for a really, really long time.

If you feel like hurting yourself, please don’t. The National Suicide Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. And if you don’t want to call them, please call someone.