Kill Your Darlings

“Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”Samuel Johnson

Most of what I write never gets published anywhere. Most of it gets deleted, gone forever.

But sometimes I will like a passage a bit too much, and so I will kill it, but stick it in a drawer, to savor later.

I nearly never open that drawer.

Here is something I wrote a while back and just discovered. I don’t remember the context, or the project I was writing it for.

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I am a redneck.

I grew up in the hills of North Mississippi, a land not quite fit for cotton or soybeans, although both were grown in a middling sort of way. Our neighbors were dairy farmers who grew corn for feed.

My family is working stock. My mother took kids in for money, and my father worked all of my childhood as a serviceman for the propane company.

I remember wearing second-hand clothes to school, and remember the pain of the bullying I got from the “town” kids because my clothes were not the latest fashion. I am the only person in my line to attend college, and did not even consider it until my senior year of high school.

When I am comfortable with you, I will slip into non-standard English, complete with y’alls, peckerwoods and am then more apt to say I am “studyin” something than I am to be thinking about it.

It is a complex fate to be a child of the Southland. The elderly people who loved me, who taught me about the love of Jesus and what it means to be in community, also taught me the words “n**ger” and “coon”.

The small library in the town 7 miles away filled my hours with adventure and excitement. It was there I discovered dinosaurs, knights and chivalry.

It was also there I was told books about witches, earth religions and atheism were not allowed in the library, and so were unavailable to me.

It felt much less magical after that.

I am a Christian Humanist

This is something I wrote last year in response to a question I received on Facebook. It got lost in the website redesign, so I republished it here.   – HH

Christian y Carina

Him: I was reading your posts, and I wondered what you are exactly? Are you a Christian?

Me: Well, I am not sure what you read, but it doesn’t bother me if you want to call me a Christian. I generally use the label “Christian Humanist” myself, but whatever.

Him: What does that even mean? Are you Christian? Do you believe that Jesus is the only way for people to get into heaven?

Me: Well, that opens up a lot of conversation. If you are asking, “Do you, Hugh, believe that apart from someone explicitly praying a prayer, asking Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior, they will burn in hellfire for all eternity?

Because if that is what you are asking, the answer is no. I do not believe any of that. I do not believe that people who grew up Hindu, who faithfully lived as Hindus and tried to live good lives and raise their families and make their world better are abhorrent in the eyes of God and will burn in fire because they did not say the magic words only revealed to a small colony of the Roman Empire in the Middle East some 600 years after Hinduism was even formed.  

I do not believe that my friend Tim, who was sexually abused by a priest and is now an atheist who gets physically ill if he sets foot in a church is damned forever because he cannot believe in God anymore.

If there is a God, I cannot believe that God would be so capricious and ego bound that people who do not praise the name of that God would be eternally punished. And if God were like that, I would have no use for that God, and whatever spot I have in heaven could be given to someone else, because I can imagine nothing worse than to spend eternity praising such a monster.

When I say Christian Humanist, what I mean is this:

I am part of the Christian story. It is my story – I was born into it, and its ethical teachings permeated me and formed me. The teachings of Jesus captivate me, and I have willingly submitted myself to them. If you ask me who do I aspire to be like, well, I want to be like Jesus. I want to love that way, I want to see the world that way, I want to be captivated by creation that way. So I follow Jesus.

But I also recognize that were I born in India, I would have a different story, with different examples. Or had I been born in a Buddhist family, or a Wiccan family. I can’t speak to that – because that isn’t my story. Mine is the Christian story.

I am humanist because I am human-centric. I think people matter. I think people have inherent dignity and worth, and I think that we are responsible to each other.

So, in short, I am a humanist who loves and finds himself within the Christian story, and who has decided they are not incompatible. Or a Christian Humanist.

As a Christian Humanist, I believe that people have inherent worth, and they are made (as the Christian scriptures tell us) in the image of God, only a little lower than the celestial beings. I do not discount the possibility of supernatural miracles, but I do not have any experience with them myself. I believe it is not we who wait on God to act – rather, it is God who is waiting on us.

I believe the God who heard the cries of the slave in Egypt and sent Moses to liberate them still hears the cry of the oppressed and still sends people. I believe God hears the cries of the oppressed, and God hears the belly rumblings of the hungry and feels the tears of the abandoned and sees the devastation we wreck on the environment, and I believe God has a plan to deal with all of that: To right the wrongs, to comfort the afflicted, to humble the mighty, to fill the bellies of the hungry.

I believe that God has a plan. God’s plan is us.

And that is what I mean by Christian Humanist.

By now, if you are still with me, you might have some questions.

What about the divinity of Jesus? Did Jesus rise from the dead on the third day? What happens after we die? Do we go to heaven? Is there a hell? Do you believe in predestination?

Sigh.

I am an ordained minister, in an historic denomination. As such, I can tell you what the church has historically believed about all of those things. Or rather, I can tell you what churches have believed, because there have been a wide variety of beliefs about all those things, many of which clash with and contradict each other.

The simple truth is, there is no such thing as historic Christianity. There have been many manifestations of Christianities that sought to provide the answers those particular people in those particular places wanted answers to.

But me? Those questions aren’t questions I have or need answered. Those questions are in response to the bigger question, “How can I make God not be angry with me?”  I don’t have that question, because I don’t think God is angry at me.

Rather, the question I want answered and have devoted my life to finding the answer to is, “How do I find healing for myself and the world?”

So, I don’t know (I mean, really know) what happens when I die. I don’t really know what happened on that first Easter, thousands of years ago. No one knows, and anyone who says they do is trying to sell you something. 

But I know exactly what happens to me and the world when I forgive someone who has wronged me. I know exactly what happens when I make the table I sit at more open and inclusive, and I know what happens when I offer a hungry man some food or a homeless man housing.

Those are the things that answer the questions I have, so those are the things I spend my time worrying about. And as for the afterlife and the rest of it?

Well, as I said earlier, if there is a God, either that God is way more loving and accepting than I am, or that God can give my spot in eternity to someone else. Because while I do not get to decide what God is like, I do get to decide what sort of God I deem worthy of worship. And if that God isn’t more loving than me, more generous than me, more open than me, more accepting than me, then that God isn’t worth my time or my devotion.

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.

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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.

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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.