in the land of the living

I keep thinking about prayer. I keep wanting pray in this space, to tell you something, to lean over and bend knees and heart with you. 

This is what I pray over us, we who live and move in the ragged tumble towards heaven, on the outskirts of certainty, we who have thrown off the confidence we used to wear so timidly – 

I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. – Psalm 27.13

In the land of the living. The goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, the present, the here and now that builds and begins and springs forth under our feet. I cry it out in between stoplights, as I cross under the highway in the middle of fearing that I will never know the goodness of the Lord because I am not enough. 

I pray this wildly over us, abandoning for a moment the usual lilting words, the customary blog post format, the worries that you’ll think less or differently of me – 

I pray that King Jesus, in whom we are more than conquerors, will cast forth from you all that keeps you from the hope of the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 

I pray that Jesus will show up, right in the middle of wherever you are, disrupt the everyday where we become so good at avoiding him, and remind you that nothing in this world and nothing to come, nothing in heaven or on earth, can separate you from Him: 

not exams nor papers written late into the night

not a messy house nor a missed deadline

not a broken heart nor a mending one

not what you have nor what you don’t 

not fighting nor going silent nor raging nor the thing you shouldn’t have said but you did nor the thing you meant to say and forgot nor the misunderstanding nor the awkward afternoon nor the time wasted or well spent…

None of it can separate you from the love of God in Jesus.  

I would have lost heart tonight between stoplights. I would have lost heart in the beginning of doing a new thing and being so afraid of failing at it – I would have lost heart in the promises of God, right there three blocks away from home -

But I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 

We will see this goodness, this year, this month, this week, because we are in the land of the living and we are walking with a God who covenants with a people the promise of His presence. We are in the midst of God, of the goodness of God, of the love of God. I believe you will see it stretched wide and loud over your life. I believe you will find that God comes into the midst of you, disrupting the comfortable patterns, the way you think at stoplights or when you’re folding laundry, the quiet despair that creeps into our days that what we do is not enough. 

I believe the goodness of the Lord will be seen in this land of the living.

I pray that we stumble into this believing until it has nestled between our bones. I pray that we call out to God to keep His promises to us. I pray that we get on our knees often, preaching the power of the love of God, preaching the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. 

I believe it tonight; that I will see this goodness. I’m whispering it over us.

Love,
hilary

draw nearer and i will show you

I want to write, and I can’t think of anything, and I think I should tell a story. I think I should return into the past, back to a hill, to a late-night on the street outside the athletic complex, to the long looping drive to Great Neck in Ipswich, which is best at twilight when you have too much on your mind to sound it out. I think writing is this work of building a story out of what has happened, to explain in artful just-long-enough paragraphs the way he looked and she sighed, the way I knew then and there that I would remember that moment and it was a lesson. 

But the great work of remembering is not always good. 

It is tremendous effort to gather the scattered bits of a story from across our mind and resew it, present it back as a whole. This is the beginning – when I walked out the door, and here is the middle, when I was wearing old tennis shoes, and here the end, when I gather the wisdom as the door of my car clicks shut. And then this is the lesson of the story, the point where I see again the gracious goodness of God, where I see freedom beckoning, where I stand up for myself and the story is a triumph story and I retell it again and again remembering. 

Oh, I would like to believe it is always good to remember. 

I would like to live in my memories, recreating again and again the way that it went, exaggerating my innocence, their unfathomability, which I relive, claiming to seek understanding, but really, it’s just to comfort and rejustify the parts of it I suspect might yet need to be laid on the altar. I think to myself that if I keep the story closer, if I tell it to enough times, how I learned the wisdom or how I kept the faith… that will be the making of me. 

I have told some stories to myself far too many times. 

I have reveled in the revisit, conjuring up images brighter than the first of the summer blackberries glistening on their spidery branches – what I wore and just what I said, and how it happened next that this one song started playing, and when I hear the song this is what I go back to. 

I’d be happy to keep doing it if Jesus didn’t interrupt me almost constantly these days to ask questions. Hilary, he begins, as I start to hum the opening bars of the guitar chords of that song that was playing at the time that… Hilary. 

How does this honor me? 

What a question, Jesus, and I can hear the scoff in my voice as I think the words in my head. Isn’t the telling of these stories the point of it all? Look at the wisdom I have. Look at the understanding I have gained. Look, look, look at what I have been through and what it means and how I got through it in this glorious way. 

Yet the question remains. How does this honor me? 

I try to keep assembling the pieces of the stories, to keep my eyes fixed on that one time in high school and then that letter he wrote me at the end of a long summer and then that time she and I argued about whether God existed in a Starbucks when they still had the beautiful purple chair to sink into after a long day. 

The pieces crumple, like ash, like dust. I am trying so hard to remember the stories of how I was wronged and how I have been hurt and how I am so good at overcoming. But when have I told myself the stories of how only through Him am I more than a conqueror? Have I ever written the words on the doorposts of my house, on my forehead, on my heart, written the story that those to come might yet praise? Have I remembered the encounter with God on the drive home more than the two drinks and the heartbreak that came before it? How long, O Lord, have I been making the stories after my own desired image of myself, rehearsing my part pitch-perfect, lingering in the hallways of the past for the rush of the feeling? 

There is nowhere to hide from the question anymore, and as it catches up to me, I am afraid. Without these bits of dust, without these bits of the person I think I was and the way I want to remember myself to have been – what then? 

Jesus only says, Draw nearer to me, and I will show you. 

Love,
hilary

I’m leaning harder

“You’ve changed.” He tells me this as we’re getting ready to turn in for the night among the whir of electric toothbrushes and the ripples of the brush through my hair. I turn, still trying to loose stray knots from the red lion’s mane around my neck. “Changed?”

I know you’re thinking that this is an obvious one: marriage changes you. 

He nods. “Yeah. You’re more sure of yourself. You’re leaning harder into Jesus, too.”

We keep talking, our voices circling in the dark, how things are new and different, how my thinking has sharpened on some things, how we’ve both learned to weigh and sift our words anew, because we live with someone who wears our words like birth marks on their skin. We slowly drift into the silence, the comforting dark of another day that has been put to rest.

But I can’t fall asleep. I’m still thinking about that, the leaning harder, the change.

It’s not that marriage changes you that surprises me: it’s the weight of the change. It’s the way you carry the change in your ribcage and guard it like your bones guard your heart. How you feel it differently, more than just self-awareness or increased confidence or courage, feel it some more physical than that, feel it in those tugging counts of the hairbrush and in the whirring electric toothbrush.

I’ve said for years I don’t do change well. That I’m a creature of habits of my own making, that if I want to be spontaneous I want to the only one in control of that spontaneity, the one who decides to change the plan. I’ve declared foolishly that I’m just not very good at it and thought it would be a sufficient excuse to never have to do it. I thought God would give me a pass on transformation bigger than the ones I say I’m ready for.

But the Spirit moves us along in the wiser pace – the pace we wouldn’t set for ourselves. So here I am, being changed in big ways, ways that make even the word marriage bigger because it has now begun to mean all that changing, all that becoming between me and my husband and our voices circling in the dark.

I’m weak-kneed from the changing. Maybe that’s why I lean so much harder. Maybe we lean into Jesus not out of the virtue of feeling like we have the time, or we simply desire it – maybe we lean in desperation. Because the joy of the Lord is our strength, and his joy in my changing in the ways that are perhaps much more than I wanted is the strength in me to do the changing, to submit to the changing.

So I lean harder on Jesus because Jesus calls the change forth from me in this marriage, in the little ark of family that my husband and I make every day, and because Jesus is the way to change.

But what about that other part? Me being more sure of myself?

I’m still awake, my eyes searching the ceiling, my hands over the blanket, tracing a pattern in the quilt. Most of the changes these past weeks make me weak-kneed, remember? So how can that make me sure of myself?

In an Orthodox church near my hometown there is an icon of Mary, called in Greek the platytera, which means “wider” or “more spacious.”  The icon is of Mary, her womb a golden circle with Christ inside, holding up a hand in blessing. Mary’s hands are outstretched, a position of prayer.

I think about that icon often, for it puts an image to the meaning of Christian – to be a bearer of Christ. To bear Christ in this world, even as Mary did. Somehow this is not separated from her hands in prayer, the way that she is presenting Christ to the congregation in the icon, even as she presented him while he was on earth and even now as we in turn are sent out each week to put on Christ, to see Christ in one another.

Maybe being sure of myself is in this: I am learning what it means to put on Christ, and therein lies my real self, my self that is raised to new life in the power of Jesus. Maybe being sure of myself is not a confidence but a clinging, my own hands and weak knees opened in prayer, my own feeble heart even now becoming more of a home for the living God.

“I’ve changed.”

I whisper the words in the dark as I begin to fall asleep. Perhaps it is its own prayer.

Keep me leaning on you, Jesus, where I can be sure of myself.

Love,
hilary

there is no safe gospel

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13.47-50)

I read this in a room full of light, warmth trickling across my palms on the table. I’m wearing a favorite grey dress. I’m in a circle of thoughtful and kind people, and we are bending our heads in morning prayer, coffee cups nearby, open notebooks. I’ve been asked to read the Gospel lesson.

I read that there will be a separating of the righteous and the evil, that there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And the warmth seems to evaporate from me as I let the words spill forth, proclaimed into the spaces between our rolled up sleeves. The Word of the Lord is living and active, we say – and I speak and Jesus stops me, my comfortable dress, my comfortable coffee, my comfortable posture in a comfortable room full of light.

This is an uncomfortable parable.

I start to pray in something between a condescending and a wishful-thinking tone of voice, something he is unamused by. I tell myself I am just asking why he preaches to us in stories. But the truth is I’m asking, Why did I have to read that parable? Why couldn’t I have gotten to read the one about the pearl of great price or the mustard seed or the treasure in the field? 

It isn’t just that I wonder why he teaches in parables -

it’s that I don’t really want to proclaim the teachings that I don’t like or understand

that I don’t really want to be linked to something uncomfortable

that I don’t really want to be that close to some of the teachings because speaking them out makes me uncomfortable.

Jesus just looks back at me.

My junior year of college I memorized the first chapter of John in French, a project for a French class. I recited it in a brightly lit room in the morning, wearing a comfortable dress. If I close my eyes now, the words can sometimes still appear – my favorite sentence -

Le lendemain, il vit Jésus venant à lui, et il dit: Voici l’Agneau de Dieu, qui ôte le péché du monde. 

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

There is no safe Gospel. There is no encounter with the Word that will leave us comfortable. Comforted, perhaps, but only first through the upheaval of our worlds, the collapse of our presuppositions, the relinquishing of our desire to have the easiest story to tell. We cannot claim Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world if we are clinging to a tamer, easier version, without the uncomfortable parables or the uncertainties or the radical promises or the hardest questions. The power of the declaration is in how unsafe it is, how transforming, how world-shaking.

I cannot say, Voici l’Agneau de Dieu, qui ôte le péché du monde if I am always searching for a way to make Jesus safer, or find Gospel passages easier to read in a brightly lit room in morning prayer.

I have to give up my search for the safe Gospel.

I’m still wrestling the parable of the nets, still going back again and again for an explanation, for understanding, for the right way to read it.

And in the midst of that wrestling, not on the other side of it, not beyond it, not anywhere but the sweating tired mess of giving up the idea that I’ll wake up to a comfortable, non-radical Jesus, and trying to learn what it means to preach this unsafe and life-changing Gospel in my life, in my heart, in the world -

Voici, l’Agneau de Dieu, qui ôte le péché du monde. 

Behold.

Love,
hilary

when this is my anxious heart

My heart is the cave of fearful wonders, a lion made of sand, of endless what-ifs and ideas, and I am Aladdin trying to fly free of the fire, when everything I touch seems to make only more fear. Don’t worry, be free of fear, but I’m not free of fear and that means I should try harder and I’m still worried about the original thing which is whether or not I am capable of doing something or excelling at something and now that I think about it I have to manage to give everyone the impression that I’ve cured myself from all these anxieties that circle me and I have to prove myself a good woman who can be wise and be unafraid and who leaves the troubles of tomorrow for tomorrow.

The cave always collapses at the slightest touch, swirls around me the moment I touch the question of how something will happen or work out or be okay. And some days I look around, trapped in the middle of the sea of my anxiety, waiting on a magic carpet to rescue me.

They say that there is a kind of knowledge we don’t access as often anymore, the knowledge by analogy. If I tell you what it’s like some days in my heart, how it sometimes builds like a hurricane at sea, and I’m battening down whatever hatches I can find, but the storm is still coming, maybe I can give you a glimpse, a recognition.

This knowledge requires a deep imagination, they say. I think it requires more than that. I think it requires a kind of courage, to enter with one another into the shape of their world, into the cave of wonders.

So I have said that my anxious heart is like the cave of wonders, but I could tell you, too, that it is like a baby bird, edging to the blue sky beyond the nest. The sky beyond the nest of my worries, the safety of woven fears, is so beautiful. The sky there is an indigo, the kind of sky early in the evening where the world has settled into itself again, where it has turned and will keep turning, and the nights are full of stars and strange beautiful new things and so I am a baby bird edging to get a little closer. There are days when the nest feels safer than surrendering myself to the radical trust in God. There are days when I stretch my wings against the winds of the Spirit and imagine myself flying, free of worry, free of the endless uncertainty of myself or my surroundings or my success or my status or my standing. And some days I take off and the wind lifts under me and I am made alive again.

A cave of wonders. A baby bird. A hurricane. They are all true. Maybe the wondrous thing about the heart is that it can be like so many things at once. It can be known better by the stories we would tell about it than the clinical words we might use to describe it.

Maybe kindness to one another is practiced in this: that we imagine by analogy the landscape of our hearts. That we see the baby bird and the hurricane, we see the boat anchored in the deep and the Montana skyline and the quiet river and the chorus of crickets and the countless other thousand things that could be our hearts at any moment.

Maybe kindness to myself is in this, too: that I tell stories about my anxious heart more than dwelling only on the word anxious. Maybe I tell God my analogies and hear God say back to me the analogies that God writes and knows and sees in that same heart.

Because God sees a new creation in that hurricane baby bird cave of wonders.

And God sees a new creation in yours, too.

Love,
hilary

the first month of gratitude

When this is a month of gratitude.

That sounded like a good way to title this post, but truthfully I don’t know what to call it.

It’s been a month and a day since I married Preston.

And in a month I didn’t know you could learn so much thankfulness that it seems foolish to try and contain it in words in an online space, seems almost laughable, but then words are cherished vessels, and sometimes, they’re what we have, and the writing is a most needed remembering.

I didn’t know you would be grateful for the noise of the coffee grinder because it means he lets you stay in bed longer. Or the way that taking out the trash when he’s running another errand would mean so much. I didn’t know you could learn to revel in doing small things like unloading the dishwasher or folding laundry while watching a show together, how that could be the most romantic afternoon. I didn’t know about the joy of takeout or the joy of leftovers that become something new and beautiful tasting under his watchful eye. I didn’t know about the Splendid Table podcast or how to share in things that you are new to loving with the one that you love. I didn’t know your heart could be taught again and again the meaning of the word, “thank you” when it’s dinner or dish washing or keeping track of the ways to use up the vegetables from the farmer’s market. How saying thank you would be a thing that he would teach me, day by day, gesture by gesture.

I didn’t know that sometimes I would need the discipline of writing down the gratitudes, the way that you must ask of yourself the work of remembering, of thankfulness, because even the deepest love becomes accustomed to itself sometimes and even the thing that was and is and will keep being so wondrous, like making a home with your best friend, asks to be remembered among the work of building it.

He has told me more than one about the importance of telling stories, so that things will not be forgotten. He told me again on a drive into the city, my feet in their customary position tucked up under me and my eyes half-closed against the sun. I didn’t say anything in the moment, and I should have. He has a wise heart. I should have said that, should have said then and there that he is teaching me the work of remembering and telling the stories, the love stories, the ordinary grace stories, the extraordinary provision stories, the stories that we will write on doorposts in our house that the generation to come might yet praise the Lord.

I should have told him the story again of the drive home from the airport the first time, when everything was so new and I didn’t know how to lace my fingers through his, when we knew and didn’t know how we knew, on that walk leaning late into the hazy rain of June.

It is a month of gratitude, the thousand thanks Ann teaches, spilling out over our days. We must do the work of remembering the blessings, tell again and again the story of manna coming down from heaven and the way that we are provided for, the way that we are loved. We must tell the stories of love at first meeting and the way we build love, gesture  by gesture.

This is my first month of gratitude.

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.

What is it about fences?

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