# dear hilary: if the impossible is true

Dear Hilary,

I’m learning a lot about probabilities right now, and how to apply them. I’m learning that there are high probabilities for some things and low ones for others, based on evidence, based on prior ideas or beliefs, based on… you name it.

What if there is no probability for something? What if there is no probability that God is real, the way you talk about God? Is trusting in something that isn’t really trustworthy is a bad idea?

Love,
Probably

Dear Probably,

I have a high probability for believing that I am sitting in my apartment typing this to you. I have a low probability for believing I am a brain in a vat, or secretly a monkey typing on a typewriter into infinity. I suppose lots of things are possible, but they have low probability.

Honestly, though, what a curious idea – that you would measure belief by something like probability, up and weigh and judge things by how rational they are and seem. It’s not a bad way of going on for some things, but it isn’t the only way we measure belief. It isn’t the only way we measure familiarity or trustworthiness.

So maybe I wonder whether the probability of me being a brain in a vat or being a monkey typing on a typewriter to achieve Shakespeare’s Hamlet is really in the end the best way to think about your questions about God.

The Incarnation kind of messes around with all our probability.

What is that line, from the L’Engle poem? Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the Child.

Probability is a way of filling the room, the paper, the equation, with reason. And sometimes, when you’re filled up with reason, there is no room for the Child. There is no room for the Incarnation in its particular, improbable, unyieldingly unlikely way, to live in your heart.

I’m just now learning a lot about probability and probability calculus. I’m learning about how much we trust something based on what appears to us to be true or on what an authority says versus what we see, or think we see…

There is a beauty to what it can show you about how you think. There is a goodness and a truth to it, too. But there is this resistant, stubborn part of my heart, or maybe the whole of my heart, that says even when it is good and helpful, it’s not everything.

The improbable is sometimes remarkably true. And our measure of believing in that improbable truth can’t be contained in the neat lines of a pencil on a calculus problem on graph paper.

Had Mary been filled with reason. Maybe this is a post about reasonable-ness, that elusive thing we so often want to defend us. We want to be justified in being angry and hurt and confused when something happens, or being elated and grateful and full of joy. We want reasonableness to keep us on the straight and narrow, give us the right opinions, protect us from being fools or from being in error. We want a hedge of protection around the happenings of the world.

There’d had been no room for the Child.

And isn’t it the Child, after all, that we should stretch enough to make room for?

And isn’t it the Child, after all, that makes room for us?

I want to tell you, young philosopher in the making, you who seek the probability, the justified and justifiable reasons, and even you, who might be reading this, who think that the best thing is the most probable thing -

Welcome the wonder of the impossible: the Lord, come among us as a child.

Let us make room.

Love,
hilary

# dear hilary: when strength is hard-fought

Dear Hilary,

He hurts. I hurt. We play the game of who cares less: He is winning because I care too much, invest my heart too quickly. Still I do not tell a soul. I wrestle with sexuality, faith, self-respect – aware that this is unhealthy. I cannot fix him, I know. And I too walk through a season of brokenness and loneliness – I am not strong enough.

Tonight I ache and before I know it, I have spilled my tears and confusion and fear all over the passenger seat of my friends car. He pieces the story together and asks me if I want his advice. I nod and he tells me that I need to get out of this relationship, that I am too good for him, that he does not want to me get more hurt than I already am – that my no will hurt him, anger him, alter the relationship, but in the end, he will respect me for it.

Alone in my room, I absorb his honest words. I think about what it means to respect self, declare that you are worth more than being used. I think about how it is foolish to expect that I can fix other people or be their saviour, and I know they cannot be mine either. Because the broken cannot fix the broken as the blind cannot lead the blind.

Yet still I think of his arms around me. I fear that I am not strong enough to respect myself.

Love,
sexuality, emotions & other dangerous things

Dear Dangerous Things,

I was in France my freshman year of high school when I learned the word for wound in French: blessure. We were talking about the Normandy Beaches, about D-Day. When I think about things that hurt, when I think about things that ache, for some reason I go right back to the hallway just by the gift shop in some small museum in Normandy where my teacher taught us the word for wound. Une blessure.

I’ve since looked it up, and in the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the entry for the word “bless” is this idea – to wound or to hurt. It’s from the Old French and the French. I don’t know how often we use it, or if anyone uses it at all these days. But it is there, in its quiet catalogued home, and when I read your letter for some reason I went back and looked at it again.

You have been blessed in just this way – injured. And your letter speaks that out and it is worth attending to. I am not anxious to speak the other meaning of the same word – the meaning that has to do with abundance, with gift, with praise, with being given a blessing. I think perhaps there will be a moment when this one blessing becomes the other, but that’s not for me to say.

It’s just for me to say that your strength does not depend on not having been wounded. Your strength does not depend on you being in top shape all the time. Strength is a mysterious thing. You have it by clinging to it. You have it by insisting on it, daily, in the small ways. You have it not by already having it, not by being without une blessure or even more than one, but by the taking of those things into yourself.

I encourage you think deeply about the conversation you had with your friend. I encourage you to attend to the parts of it that perhaps feel most wounding: that your friend has said you should alter the relationship. That your friend has said you will be more hurt by continuing. That your friend, whatever else has happened, whatever wounds live there, is telling you to go.

That conversation hurts, but I think it is its hurting, its clear-sighted pain, is the strength. Because you will not have strength to go before you go, and there will be no magical moment where you wake up and the wounds have disappeared.

I can’t know how or when or even if this wound, this blessing, will become the other kind. But I know that you will have strength to go by going, I know that you will find that in the first steps you take out from the space where you are hurting, out from attending to it, clear-sighted, there strength will meet you.

For I believe that God’s gesture to us is one of constant coming near. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that in her book Pastrix - I remember underlining it over and over and over. “God is always coming near us.”

God is always coming near you. Constantly. In this, in the first step away, in the before-you-have-strength, in the strengthening, in the aftermath. In the blessing, and the blessing.

Love,
hilary

# dear hilary: shun that bulls**

Dear Hilary,

What do you do with the “what if’s”? What do you do when you’re smiling, writing him a letter, confident of the love you have for him–and then that nasty little “what if” crawls its way into the back of your skull? What do you do when you want to believe that you’ll be a good wife and mother and student and friend and God-seeker-follower-lover but that “what if” comes and tells you that you will mangle and destroy and harm everything you touch and that the sin and fear you hate so utterly will tie you down and win?

love,
doubting thomasina

Dear doubting thomasina,

I try not to swear too much. It’s not so much because I don’t believe it’s ever right but more because I want to be sure that I do so powerfully – that I name things what they are, that I respond with force to things that are forceful, vehemently to things which deserve my vehemence.

And the “what ifs”, my dear, are not more nor less than bullshit.

Yep. I said that word, and I would say it again. The what if’s, which slide up to you, glamorous, sleek, offering you a glimpse into the future, the chance to plan ahead, the chance to give you a head start on everything coming your way – they’re a bad apple. A bucket of bad apples.

The question, “What if this happens?” sidles up to you, and suddenly, then, it seems almost irreversibly, you’re far and away down the road of worrying, convinced you’ve got it wrong and you look behind you and the what if is far away down the road, laughing.

I believe that this is the work of darkness in the heart. I’m acquainted with this darkness. I can spin into questions about whether I am a good wife or a good student or a good anything, and from there I ask, “what if I’m not those things and I’ve been seriously f***ing up every part of my life from birth until now?” It grows, like shadows do at the end of the day – quickly and without warning. And, like darkness, the what if’s make you lose your sense of touch, make you feel like you’re waving your hand in front of you but you can’t feel anything, can’t be sure of anything, can’t hold onto anything.

Oh, how I am acquainted with this.

And then there is the fluttering flag planted in your beautiful letter: What do you do?

Can I call it, perhaps, how do we overcome?

This is what I believe with every fiber of my being: we overcome this bs by shunning it. We gloriously slam the door in its face when it knocks, when it comes around to the side porch, we look at it, and we say “no.” Say it with me. No.

There is space in the wide wild kingdom of God to overcome – and it begins with no.

It begins with shouting back, and I mean it, say it out loud in your room and say it out loud in your letters and say it loud in church or in the car or in the woods, speak it out:

I belong to Jesus.

Do you remember how Jesus showed us the picture of ourselves, trembling, vulnerable lambs, and then told us – “I am the Good Shepherd”?

He said more than that. He said that his sheep know him. That we know the sound of his voice.

You writing this to me tells me you know that there is something wrong with the voice of the what-if. It doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? It doesn’t sound like the Good Shepherd. It doesn’t sound like hope, like love, like confidence in Him through whom we are more than conquerors, through whom we are co-heirs, through whom we are raised up on the last day and never lost.

The voice of the what-if is the voice of a stranger.

You can call bullshit on that.

You can shout-sing-cry-whisper-pray-rage it, tell it that you belong to Jesus, that you do not listen to the voice of the stranger.

And then, however you can, in words or tears, in laughter or hope or something else altogether, ask Jesus to call out to you again who you already are. Ask Jesus to tell you the better story of your life, of your hope, of your wonder, of your worth. Ask Jesus, “who am I?”

Hear yourself called beloved again. Then, holding onto that, shun those what-ifs.

Love,
hilary

# dear hilary: building the gates

Dear Hilary,

You seem to be pretty guarded online, while your husband isn’t. This has me asking questions of what I, newly married myself, think about putting my life on the Internet. How do you or you and your husband think about those boundaries? So much of your own relationship, from what I have witnessed, is thanks to the Internet. So, yay Internet! But what about the danger zones or the places where you have to set boundaries?

Sincerely, Newly married and lost in the borderlands

Dear Newlywed,

I was nine years old. I was walking through fields in the south of England, by myself for the first time, on the lanes immediately surrounding my grandparents’ house. In England, when you come to a break in the path and it continues onto someone’s pasture, there is a high gate that you usually have to climb up a few steps, unhook the gate from the other side, climb over and then rehook the gate after you.

I thought I could scale the fence.

In my purple (probably stolen) sweater and boots that were a little too big for me and these polka dot leggings and let me tell you there were also ruffles on my socks. It was a complete outfit – there I was, trying to clamber up over the fence without any pretense.

It didn’t go that well. I got caught on part of the fence and I came dangerously close to ripping said sweater and came very near to losing my balance into a ripe pile of mud and cow pie. I finally gave in and pushed up the heavy iron ring that keeps one post of the fence closed against the other, and proceeded down the other side and on my way to the playground.

We try so hard to scale them, Newlywed. We try to be the confidant, the one who is in the know, the person with the most in-depth analysis and interpretation and information. And in a world where so much information is available, is possible to find and have and be the possessor of, I think we take to scaling fences.

It’s not all bad. It’s not all out of malice or wrong intent. Often I think we find something we love and so, in our eagerness, seek to know everything we can about it. And we usually don’t stop long enough to think about whether or not it’s something we ought to know.

And in the world of the internet, where a Google search can find you someone’s high school photos, it’s so easy to start wandering through the middle of the field without thinking too much about where we are walking.

And so my husband and I have worked on our fences. We sat down on car rides or lazy afternoons on the porch while the fall wind ruffled the trees and hammered out where the gates would be. Our blogs – what kind of path of our life did they open to the general public? What kind of personal details do we include in our storytelling along the way? What about Facebook, or Instagram or Twitter?

And we built them slow, and we build them still in the midst of learning about each other, because marriages are living things and so when we meet something new, we ask ourselves: what should go through the gate? What shouldn’t? What can shed light and laughter along someone’s walk in the woods and what is just ours?

We met because we are writers, because we love the way words sound and feel on a page, because of the ache and promise of them. But for every word that’s in the public binary code turned HTML turned text you read on your iPhone screen, there is more to it. There are the thousand things unspoken between us, there are the things spoken only in the whispers across the couch or the front seats of the car, there are the things we remember with and for each other that we keep to ourselves.

The beautiful thing about building fences and gates is that the gate is the gesture of welcome, the fence the gesture of protection, and those two things – welcome, and protection – live together in harmony. Building one doesn’t mean that you need to abandon the other.

We need each other’s stories along this long and winding road. And we need each other’s fences to protect for each other the things that should belong only to a few.

So, Newlywedded, I don’t think you’re lost in the borderlands: I think you’re right where you are, in your plot of land, and you’ve got some timber and some time with your spouse. Start to build.

We’ll love the paths you make for us to walk around in.

Love,
hilary

# dear hilary: talk to me

Dear Hilary,

Finishing up my Freshmen year of college, I have found these last months to be consumed with the desire to fullfill a definition of beautiful and be the sort of person a boy would desire. Everyone around me seems to be speaking of identity and verses are continuing to declare God’s love and claim of worthiness on my life. Yet, I find my self so deeply desperate for the affection of a boy, for a romantic relationship. I have never had a boyfriend and I feel like I have no one pursing me in that way.

So I’m really wondering, is it okay to dream of this man? Because I used to believe that God had that man for me, it was just a matter of waiting and loving him first. But now I wonder, that perhaps I am called to that single life or an early death or to not finding that guy until I’m in my 30s or to marry someone that is not like the man I have dreamed of. I just don’t feel like I am worthy of being loved in that sort of way or if it is even fair of me to dream of such a guy. How do I approach the Lord in prayer when I don’t even know if there is a guy? And can I dream of a guy with particular qualities or is that un-christ like and foolish because the only thing I should look for in a partner is his love for Christ?

Love,

I was driving home one weekend from college, in the midst of thinking about and wondering about this one guy who was in my microeconomics class. We sat next to each other, we passed notes about where the supply and demand lines met in the graph and whether that always determined the price. We occasionally saw each other outside the regular Monday, Wednesday, Friday clock. It’s funny how you can find yourself in a rhythm of thinking just like the other rhythms of your life. 4:30 on those days saw me turning my thoughts to the what if we dated and the why doesn’t he ask me out? and the ever-present am I worth that? There is a certain kind of ache in the rhythm, a certain all-too-familiar. I would overthink what I was going to wear to class that day, I would write those notes in the margins of my notebook and I would walk back to my dorm wondering everything you are wondering, about love and the person and whether Jesus was going to get around to giving me a person anytime soon.

And I could write a lot about how this remembering is a work of conviction in the heart but also the practice of grace, the realizing that our past selves are not to be condemned as the worst possible versions of ourselves, but to be loved and accepted as being the people that they were, knowing what they knew… but that is a different story.

I am driving home. That’s where we are. I am driving home and I am turning left, sneaking around the bend in the road a little fast than I should, and as I swung the car through the turn I found myself saying, “God, what is the deal?”

And God said, “I see you’ve decided to talk to Me.”

I promptly started to cry. I drove and cried and talked, spilled out the story into the empty car which is not empty because God and I are finally, really, talking. I said everything, the notes, the protests that what if I was not worthy, the questions about if he was ever going to ask me out. I said it, spoke it into being.

And that was the beginning of the change for me. Not when the boy dated someone else, or when the other boy and I ended things, or when Preston and I got together. The beginning of the change was this drive home, the fall whispering through the trees, promising winter, promising, further on, spring.

God, what is the deal?

We do not always begin in a glamourous, beautiful, prayer. We do not always begin in the right words. But if we begin, then we begin. If we are willing to say something to God, then we open our hearts to be changed, to be molded, to be made more.

I will not tell you whether you should desire specific qualities in a guy or not, dear one – because I do not believe it is wrong to ask and imagine. I believe only that it is more dangerous when you are not honest with God. I mean gut-wrenchingly honest. I mean on your knees honest. I mean with your Bible open and your pen raging across the pages of God’s promises honest. I want you to get real with God so that you can get quiet and hear God.

We hear so many times that we should make our worthiness not about guys. Oh, have I heard this and preached this in the coffee shops and along the sidewalks. But can I tell you, across the wires of the Internet, something?

I think God is more willing to tell us our worthiness without us trying to make ourselves believe it without Him.

I think God wants to tell you you are worthy. I think God wants you to get alone, to get rage-y, to get serious, to ask the question. I ask it, still. Only when we are willing to ask God, who alone can answer our questions with the fullness of His life, can we begin to feel the life moving in us.

The point of your life and my life and all the lives that scatter this beautiful world – the point is the real conversation with God. Not whether he wants you to love him before he gives you a guy. Not whether you’ll have an early death or be like Paul or find love in college or work 10 jobs or 1. Not whether you are a poet or a preacher or a physical plant manager.

The point is always Jesus, looking at us, looking at you, in the beautiful singularity that you are, and saying, “Talk to me.” When we start talking, and only then, do we start to make our hearts able to hear God. About boys. About college. About love. About worthiness. About the aches wrapping around our hearts.

“Talk to me.” This, my dear friend, this is our invitation.

Love,
hilary

# dear hilary: that impossible brightness

Dear Hilary,

My question concerns (as most questions seem to) fear and love. For a long time, I was afraid to love, and then I was brave and fell deep into it, and then what I was most afraid of happened: I was too much, or I wasn’t enough. The end of it was confusing and tangled and I got hurt again and again, but I held on, thinking that I wanted to show him grace and love and forgiveness. The problem is, I didn’t show any of those things to myself, and now I’m so embarrassed and afraid of how hurt I got, how long I held on, and how badly I was willing to be treated. The question is, how do I forgive myself for that? How do I move through the fear of love ending and fall in love again, now that I know how the ending burns? How do I get over the fear of never falling in love again, which is partly what motivated me to hold on to the love I found for so long after it hurt me?

Love,
The Edge of Hope

Dear The Edge,

“It is not the critic who counts.” Can I ask you to go look this up? I won’t say more, but I will say click beyond Goodreads, beyond the quote itself (I’ll give it away – it’s Teddy Roosevelt), and down towards the bottom will be this name, Brene Brown, and if I say nothing to you in this, it’s just that you remind me of her mantra. This letter, this act of describing your question, this being willing to be you here in this space – that is what she calls daring greatly.

Today all I can think about is this time that Preston asked me something that flipped me upside down. “Are you,” he said, pausing over the words and over the rim of his mug (we were sitting in the living room), “always this unkind to yourself?” We were drinking coffee and going through my applications to graduate school and I was telling him with a lot of confidence that I was NOT going to get in and I should NEVER try and I should just quit and not be a philosopher or anything because everyone would find out I was a fraud and… then he asked that question. “Are you always this unkind to yourself?”

I got mad. I don’t really know why. Maybe because the truth doesn’t set you free before it royally pisses you off and arrives at the most inconvenient time and screw up all the plans you had for avoiding it. I hated the question, though, for what it pointed to in me: that my unkindness wasn’t towards others in that instance. It was towards me. It was shame and regret and hurt I piled on and on as a way to protect myself from potentially being rejected. “Who am I to apply to school X? Smart people apply there” or “Who am I to have loved so wildly? Only fools don’t realize what it costs…” or my personal favorite, “Who do I think I am to be enjoying such a good life? It won’t last!”  Unkindness asks that question, tries to protect us in a cocoon of doubt and embarrassment, tries to keep us from making what we think will be a mistake.

The cocoon is not where it is at. I mean, we all go there, we all build one, but maybe specifically here, when it comes to love and fear, I want to put up a big warning sign that says, BE KIND TO YOURSELF. I want to stamp it across every sign you see today. You do not need a cocoon of doubt or fear or embarrassment or shame. Because actually, in fact, I believe you are already stronger than the cocoon. I believe you are stronger without it.

Here, in love, the critic in you does not count. At all. In any way. You loved, and it ended, and it was terrifying and beautiful and tangled and ugly and hurt like hell and probably still does on some mornings (I have those days too). But the forgiving of yourself begins in a kindness to yourself. A basic, gut level kindness. A kindness that says, “I dared greatly. And now it hurts.” A kindness that says, “I was brave. I believed in love. It disappointed me that time.” A kindness that does not hide the truth – the real truth – which is not that you should be embarrassed or ashamed of loving, but the truth which is that you dared and even so it is complicated, and no blame or unkindness will clarify that paradox.

There is an impossible brightness to love: that paradox of daring and fear, of deep connection and also things not working out every time. That kind of love, falling in it, falling out of it, that is where you tell me you learned things about grace and forgiveness and love. I believe you did learn about those things. I believe now is the time to hold them in your hands and offer them back to yourself, not as warning for what not to do, not as judgment for how long you stayed or what you were or were not willing to do for this person, but as the gifts of that time. As the gifts of daring greatly. As the gifts of the impossible brightness of love.

You are already out here in the brightness, love. You don’t need the cocoon. You’re far too strong.

Love,
hilary

# dear hilary: the edge of your hope

Dear Hilary,

I am a recent college graduate, unemployed for five months, living in my parents’ house and watching as my hopes for graduate school disappear as the letters come back. I’ve lived through several tragedies in the past several years — murder, abuse, relationships broken up. I feel as if I am suspended in motion, watching my friends get married, have kids and buy houses – and I wish they had what they have. How do I have hope in the Lord when I am continually disappointed with what happens in my life? Is it wrong to want to be happy?

Sincerely,
Afraid to hope

Dear Afraid to hope,

Every time I read your letter, I start to think. I think about you, writing away at your computer somewhere. I think about the way you crafted your story, your question, and what you might have been doing while you wrote it. I think about how courageous you are to write it down at all, because writing makes things a different kind of real. I think about whether you’d drink a latte or something without caffeine in it, if we went out to coffee together.

And your question? There is no pithy quote on this wide and wildly beautiful world that would capture an answer to it. Because you want to know about a living thing – hope – and living things are never as simple as those handpainted lettered signs on the Pinterest page. You want to know about a thing that moves with us, that spills over into the most surprising corners, that feels at once impossible and utterly, undeniably, real.

After I read your question the first few times, I did yoga. I am not great at yoga, so I picked the “easy yoga for beginners” (because that can’t be that hard, right?) on amazon and I started. The first thing we did was lie down. I almost turned the video off and muttered something dismissive about the idea that lying down is a kind of exercise, but for some reason I stayed. I closed my eyes, the way the all-too-peaceful instructor told me to. I willed myself to be calm. That hardly ever works for me, because my heart starts racing and I think of my to-do lists and then before I know it I’m already missing half the warrior pose.

But that too peaceful instructor, she said something that made its way into the maze of my racing heart and mind. She asked, “Where is your body right now? Honor what your body is telling you. Honor what your body can do today.”

I think there is this part of us all that secretly believes everything important happens in our heads. The disappointments and the hurts and the joys and the wondering, that’s all work internal, in that life of the mind, in that wild wandering heart space. And we think that space is, must be, infinite, able to do whatever we tell it to. We think we can think our way or feel our way or demand our way into hope or faith or love. We think we can order the heart space around, tell it to expand, tell it to get wiser – tell it to memorize Pinterest quotes – tell it to have hope in the Lord.

And that’s where I think we go wrong.

We are just one: body and heart and mind all tangled together. We can no more say to our minds or hearts that we can be more hopeful or less disappointed than we can tell our bodies to sink deeper into Warrior II or arch our backs higher in Cobra. “Honor what your body can do today.”

You have to start testing the edges of your hope. You have to get real with God and with yourself and ask, “Where are you today, body and heart and mind? Where are we with this lived thing, hope?” And sink a little deeper, and honor where you are today. Explore it. Ask God all the things you think you can’t ask because you think if you ask you won’t get closer to hope. I mean the gritty questions: I mean the “Why is this happening to me?” and the “Wasn’t I faithful to you?” and the often-lurking-for-me-anyway “Do you love me? How can you love me when this is what I see?”

Afraid to hope, I am here to tell you hope is hard won, body and spirit jumbled together. It is a tested thing, it is a thing that lives. And this is the greatest gift to us. Because it means that when we honor where we are today, we inch towards more strength tomorrow. When we honor the conversation we are really having with God today, we move towards a new conversation tomorrow.

It isn’t wrong to want to be happy, by the way, but I don’t think what you’re after here is an answer to that. I think you’re after the bigger thing – the hope, the hope that is beyond the optimism we associate with happiness, or with achieving the things we want. You want the bigger thing, the hope. I love that about your letter. I love that you ask such a big question. How courageous you are.

So now, I will ask you to be courageous again: go forward, body, mind, heart as one, and test the edges of your hope. Bang down the door to God, be loud, ask yourself where you are today. Sink a little deeper into the stretch of hope, the stretch of this wild thing that is you and God. Tomorrow, I promise you, hope grows.

Love,
hilary