i write to keep believing

Someone once told me that my blogging personality was like sweetened, condensed milk. She said it perched on the edge of the swiveling chair just inside the office where I worked. It was late on a Thursday and I was working overtime, filling in for someone on maternity leave, half-distracted, half-exhausted, maybe less than half-hearted. She swiveled, proud of the declaration, or maybe just the uniqueness of her metaphor, I’m not sure which. I must have turned around in an angry kind of way, asked “What?” in that biting tone girls perfect for and against each other, and she stopped twirling, poised to defend her view. “It’s not really how it is with you, is it, the stories you tell on your blog? It’s just… sweeter.”

I think tiredness offered me a good reason to accept defeat on the point, so I just nodded and started to close up the office. We didn’t talk about it again, but it still lingers, that metaphor, that question – is that really how it is with you – that makes me wonder whether I’m really being honest with anyone who happens to read this. Wonder if, somehow, I’m lying to myself.

Preston, a few years ago – “You have opinions and thoughts. And you should put them out there. Your blog should be a place you explore those things. Edgier.” I don’t remember the order he said those things, or if he said all of them, or if some are my interpretation mixed with his words mixed with the fog that accompanies memories. I do remember he was Skyping me from his kitchen while he made lunch for a friend of his. I do remember that we were still trying to figure out what being friends would mean to two people who had been so entangled in not-realized-it-yet love letters. I do remember that I was drinking iced green tea with lemon that my mother buys every summer from a plastic cup.

I wrote a post in response saying that I couldn’t write an edgy post because that wasn’t me. Sweetened, condensed milk me.

I wonder still whether I should have written about my opinions of education reform.

My counselor and I in a late January evening, the night black and the stars few and far between. Her office is warm and well-light, which makes the night seem blacker as I stare determinedly out the window. “I don’t want to talk about it.” And her wisdom, always pouring through – “But does anything grow the eating disorder as much as silence? As much as pretending it isn’t there?”

And so I blog a few posts and whisper in them the fears that feed it, the fears of enough, the fears of how I look and what it means and whether I am beautiful. I don’t want to say much more, and I go back week after week saying that I didn’t write or I didn’t really talk about it, and my counselor, and her wisdom: “But you will know the right places to talk about it, and the right people to talk about it to, won’t you?”

So I go back to writing about Jesus and the ordinary aches of a heart growing up, I put my one word in front of the other in a steady parade of characters on the screen.

This afternoon, when I’ve despaired over enough of the workload I have to leave it behind for a few hours, I ask Preston for a writing prompt. He reads me something from Joan Didion, about truth and fact and writing and why she keeps journals and the words dance by me too fast. But I start to think about this blog. Why do I write?

I don’t write for sweetness. I don’t write to make the days drift by in a haze of vague hopefulness or nice feelings.

I don’t write for edge – I don’t think I would even know anymore what that would be, a raw honesty that forgets the truth that spaces are our responsibility, that something belonging to us means we answer for what we bring forth into the world in it.

I don’t write, even, to keep a journal of what I have and haven’t done and accomplished and worked through or where I have or haven’t failed or fled.

I write, I discover, to keep believing.

I write to fix my hope in the firmness of the Resurrection. I write to hear Jesus calling for me. I write to believe that Jesus is calling for me, to believe that there is a wild calling on my life in the days where I don’t believe it. I write so that, in saying it out loud, I can hear it. My heart has a quiet voice sometimes next to the girl in my head with her giant megaphone, and I write to hear over the noise of my life.

I write to believe, to keep believing.

O Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief. 

I don’t think I have ever told anyone that’s what I pray most of the time when I sit down to blog.

Except, now, you.

I don’t remember a word of the Joan Didion quote Preston read me. But maybe the point of it wasn’t to remember that, but to remember this: that writing is getting quiet enough to hear and believe in Jesus, writing is making my heart louder than my head. 

And writing is receiving: grace enough.

along the dark and twisty road

Did you know, that there is such a thing as becoming more confused by your obedience?

The things I wish someone had told me.

Obey, and the road will get darker and twistier. Obey, and the clarity you prized will vanish. Obey, and the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living will become the prayer for water on a desert highway, the simplest, most desperate question – is there manna for me today, Lord? - with no thoughts of hoarding it or storing it up or anything but the one meal, the daily meal, the crumbs from the table meal.

Obey, and that sweet daydream you had about what you would be like and sound like and do, the person you glorified in your mind, you in maxi skirts sweeping through your life with such grace and such ease, she is crying on the couch, yet again, making lists, yet again, asking again for a manna she doesn’t know how to find on her own.

And you think about how to say it because you think there is nothing more embarrassing than admitting it, that you don’t have it together on this dark and twisty road.

I keep thinking about Jacob.

I keep thinking about all the moments when I have likened myself to Jacob, wrestling, strong, prevailing through the night. I keep thinking about all the times that I have said I have wrestled with God and yet my life is being delivered. Or even because I am wrestling so my life is being delivered.

It was night when Jacob wrestled. I never noticed that before.

Jacob wrestled until the day broke open.

Jacob went out into the dark and twisty night, into the utter unknowing, and wrestled until there was light.

I will not let you go unless you bless me. 

I will not let you go.

I am saying this in the dark. I am saying this to a God who I grasp for and hold onto, praying that I have, in fact, found God, that the wrestling is a holding fast, that in the midst of the darkness is the closest kind of encounter.

The things I keep inscribing on my heart and the sides of my notebooks during class, that this is the place of closest encounter and Jacob, he walked with an ache in his hip because in the ache is the remembering of how we wrestle with God, all of us, and how in that is the closeness, the hope.

I’m out here on the dark and twisty road of obedience, and if you’re there, too, then can I whisper a hello, I can see you? And together we will wrestle until day breaks open.

Love,
hilary

a story about learning

I was on my way out of the classroom on a Thursday when he handed back my paper. In it, he told me he had been honest, as I had asked. And then, as I kicked gravel under my Puma sneakers in the hazy fall sun, I read his comments.

He told me that I was a better writer than what I had produced. That I had, in my gleeful mistaken assumptions about the author, the text, the implications of the words on the page, taken offense to the author of the text. I could have done much better, he wrote. 

I cried about it hysterically on the car ride home, one of those few days when I was picked up alone by my Dad and we got donuts from Dunks on our way back to our old red house, the home of what I thought was my list of ceaseless triumphs. I am a good girl ever being re-formed back into a whole self, and in high school, I ran myself hard in marathons of expectations and disappointments, the weight of each heavy in my heart. 

There is something about being new to graduate school that, if you’re new or old there, or new or old in any kind of work, big or small, apparent or hidden, that keeps making me think of that high school version of me. 

I was so unwilling to allow for wrong. I was so unwilling to believe that some things are learned by slow osmosis. By a silence that enters and changes us, by a year upon year returning to the same question the same text the same author the same gracious God who is over and through and in all. No, I would tell myself in the walk between buildings, you must learn immediately and remember forever. You must never make the same mistake twice. You must never relearn something you should have known or were already taught. 

It was true for me in French class, loathing my forgetfulness of the conditionnel passé. It was true in theater, forgetting a line or a gesture that was all-important in the scene that we had already rehearsed. It was true in friendship. It was true in faith. 

So by the time I was a senior hearing my favorite teacher tell me that I was, in fact, a better writer than what I had turned in, I cried hysterically on the way home because his words meant I had to relearn something. I had to go back. I had to try again. I had to revisit something I believed I should have already mastered. And that must mean, I thought, that I was never capable of knowing it at all. That I was never going to be smart enough. That I was never going to see the light or come to a good conclusion or write a better paper. If I couldn’t do it perfectly now I could never do it. 

Eventually, I realized God was there. 

I don’t mean footsteps, or whispers in fire or rain or wind. I mean the slow awakening, that itself is the result of practice, of grace received, of many mistakes. And ours is not a God who believes in instant mastery. 

There is no lesson that is not to be relearned. There is nothing to be either good at (and capable of) or bad at (and incapable of) in the most important works we do. There is natural gifting, yes, but how gracious and wild and freeing is it that even those with abundant gifts are given the same tasks to work at, again and again? 

That we are all taught to trust God over the whole of life – each season, each event, each uncertainty – and that such relearning is not for the faint of heart only but also for the strong? 

That we are tasked to revise, reimagine, recreate, relearn the most glorious things about God in the most mundane and everyday ways? 

Because there is nothing new under the sun and that makes everything new. 

I can’t do it – faith, graduate school, philosophy, creating a family, learning to cook, teaching – any of it, perfectly, and I don’t serve a God who sees me as a failed marathon runner in expectation and disappointment. 

I serve a God who retaught His disciples the same things about the kingdom of heaven in many parables. I serve a God who reteaches the people Israel the meaning of trust in Him, in manna, in the stories of Abraham and all the faithful, in the prophets. I serve a God who is unafraid to teach me again the things I couldn’t understand, didn’t do right or perfectly or well, the first time. 

Maybe in all of us there is a hidden high-school self that is asking us why we can’t just wake up and not need to relearn all the things we keep needing to relearn. Maybe in the work you do, wherever you are, there is a self asking why you think you can do it at all since you couldn’t the first time, the thirtieth time, the hundredth time. 

To that voice, in as much love as I can muster, I say: there, in the repetition, in the almost-giving-up, is the God who leaves us breathless with how He loves to teach us the same things for the thousandth time. 

We don’t need to be afraid to re-learn. 

Love,
hilary

when this is two months of gratitude

There are long days. The days where you wake up full of your own self, your own thoughts, your own worries – and there is the other person, the one whom you love, awaiting you.

And you brush your teeth and think about what clothes to wear and what work needs to be done that day, and you think you’ll fall behind if you don’t spend every ounce of yourself in your new work, in school, in all the big bold things God brought you here to do.

And you’ll eat your yogurt and say something you don’t even think twice about, which is the problem, of course, that you didn’t even think about it, and then you are caught, not just by this person whom you love – no, you are caught too by that description of Jesus from Philippians 2 -

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited;
but emptied himself
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.”

And it goes on, this kenotic hymn of such clarifying, terrifying beauty, you know that moment you hear something you keep wishing you wouldn’t hear?  Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2.4-8 above, then 12-13)

Most of the time, my husband goes first in the self-emptying.

I am grateful that marriage is a self-emptying work. One that I fail at, more often than I can accurately describe. Because the work isn’t a trick of convention or a sudden blaze of glory. It is smallness made holy, an unbecoming of so much of what we grow accustomed to being – caught in our own worlds, however beautiful they are, however good, however purposeful. We grow used to our largeness, the hero-of-our-own-life-ness, the safety of being wrapped up in ourselves.

And then we are charged to work out our salvation, to self-empty, to loosen our grasp of the secure circular thoughts and to love one another. To love another.

My husband so often goes first. So often, he asks the first question, calls out for me, insists on knowing what’s behind the sigh or the half smile or the look-away or the hopeful side glance. And in the long days, when even your two-months-of-gratitude post is late, that calling out is an aching kind of love.

I don’t know if gratitude can truly capture it, how it makes me see him, see myself, how often I forget that we live and move in tandem with each other, how it is such work, such hard, gratifying, knees in the dirt work, to love each other.

He reminds me to cherish the work that is love.

The longest days, when it takes self-emptying, you sense that you are at the very beginning of the work. You eat your yogurt and you hear God tell you again -

This work of love is the coming alive of you.

To have this mindset, as was in Christ Jesus,

to empty, to become small again, to remember

the terrifying and beautiful fear and trembling,

and God, who works in us.

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

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