when no one else can believe it for me

We were back at a church we love this past Sunday. I’m a long-road Anglican, winding my way along a path from childhood and pink dresses at First Communion to that St. Michael and All Angels confirmation, a swirl of the Spirit descending and those words, this is a new anointing, my daughter. This particular church, where the light spills in across the altar, where the choir and the electric organ sing bold to hymn and spiritual alike, where there sits this beautiful banner I stare at every time I go in – yellow, gold, that proclaims: Yours is the glory, Risen Conquering Son. is where I first saw my husband in the midst of being deeply and irrevocably in love with God. This is where I learned that there are ways of being traditional that sing spirituals and pray for the Spirit to come and fall upon us. This is, in short, where I relearned how to encounter the Lord Jesus.

On Sunday the pastor preached on fear.

On Sunday, Jesus came and sat down beside me.

We sat together, my eyes on my hands, hearing what by now feels so familiar – that anxiety is not our nature, that we are fearful from the first moment of disobedience, that perfect love, who is the person of Jesus, casts out fear. And you all know, in your journey with this rambling heart, that I am acquainted with fear. I’ve lived and wandered inside it often. It’s the kind of dark where my eyes adjust quickly, my adrenaline kicks in, I feel my way through the blackness and so often think I’m doing just fine.

And you all know that I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I keep writing about it. I’d say it was some kind of theme or meditation for the season, but I think it’s more likely that God is content to dwell with us where our hearts most often go to hide from Him, and so He waits for us, comes out into the dark after us, beckons us into the midst of His very self.

So here we are, me and Jesus, and I’m counting the invisible threads in my skirt and I’m hearing again that Jesus will cast out fear, I am hearing that the Holy Spirit lives in me, I am hearing, I am hearing… Jesus, just the stillness of Jesus, is near me.

Then the pastor says, “I cannot believe this for you.”

I bristle at the thought. Aren’t we carrying each other? When the road is long and we are weary aren’t we leaning hard on the faith of each other, on the promises kept generation to generation, of the stories others tell us when we cannot tell ourselves?

But then there is this moment, where I think about it again. I close my eyes, stop counting the threads.

Jesus desires relationship with me. Me, without helpful scaffolding or hiding behind the true things someone else has said. And having faith isn’t just assenting to what someone smarter has said. Jesus doesn’t desire my agreement with someone else. He is too in love with the being of me to want less than my self. My whole self. My whole self, believing.

I do believe we should lean on each other. I believe we should carry each other. Oh, but how we must believe this without hiding from the nearness of God to each of us, in the just-us-ness of our being?

I told my mother once I was doing something because of the lightness of me. I think God’s answer to that question, the one we keep asking, the one we keep hiding from, the one not about God’s goodness or qualities or cosmic salvation or any of that, but just the one about how God loves -

because of the being of you. 

Because of the you that is so gorgeously alive. And you are enough of a reason for all the nearness of God. It is our whole self that must believe. It is our whole self, believing, that God is desperately in love with.

That kind of love is so particular, no one else can believe it for us. We have to believe it, too.

Love,
hilary

God is speaking joy

“And I think to myself, how long has God been speaking this joy over my life, and I have been too filled up with anxiety to hear it?

I tell this to her on the phone pacing outside the building where I spend most of my time as a new graduate student. I try to let my feet carry me where they will on the winding paths of campus, past library and other classroom buildings and people on skateboards and scooters, past trendy backpacks and BPA free water bottles.

I am relaying a conversation I had with Preston about callings, about anxiety about the future, about what is happening in our lives and what it will mean and how it will happen, and it’s in the midst of telling her about the conversation (not even the conversation itself) that I realize it:

God has been speaking joy over my life.

Anxiety is an unruly substance – it fills up the spaces wherever you let it in. It creeps into the corner of yourself and becomes the drumbeat and gives the marching orders.

And I fill myself up with anxiety so much that I cannot hear God speaking. And it is in the very act of resisting anxiety that we will find, that we can hope to find, the ears to hear.

Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 

Habbakuk, 1.5.

When was the last time I was astonished at the Lord? When was the last time I was astounded? When was it that I stopped and marveled and felt my knees go weak from seeing the wonder and the blessedness?

When I resist anxiety, even for a moment, I can catch a glimmer of the song God is singing over my life: joy.

In resisting the anxiety there is promise, there is purpose, and no, it’s not a new life plan with a bigger God stamp on it. It’s purpose that is drawing nearer to the Father and purpose that is becoming more like Jesus and it is purpose that will lead you to a new city in a new state in a new marriage so that you might know God better and love him more. The places where we live out our vocation have a tendency to substitute their purposes for the ultimate purpose: we think that we’re here to become a certain kind of scholar or a certain kind of teacher or a certain kind of electrical engineer, and that’s the real reason God said go. But in that we forget: we forget that Jesus first and always and finally calls us to be a certain kind of human being, one who is made glorious by the Spirit dwelling and moving inside them, one who bears God’s image, resplendent, made new, gracious and graceful and alive.

Before Preston and I got married, I memorized Romans 8. I don’t know why, except for the ways that, daily, I have had to remind myself of it. Remind myself that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Remind myself that you are in the Spirit. Remind myself that those whom he called, he also justified, and those whom he justified, he also glorified. 

And here again, I remember: nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus. 

In the midst of what is unknown, we are not apart from the love of God. In the midst of what can make us anxious, we are not apart from the love of Christ Jesus. In the midst of hoping and praying and waiting and raging, in the emptiness and the fullness, the silence and the singing, we are not apart from such love.

Be astonished! Be astounded! For nothing will be able to separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus. And thus, rejoice.

Love,
hilary

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