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

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