advent 4 (how to delight)

The lights dim just as the couple and their two boys, bedecked in Fair Isle sweaters and tiny yellow rimmed glasses, settled next to us. The boys can’t be over four or five years old, and they beam out their excitement when the first tiny dancers, the street urchins, appear onstage. The costumes are new this year, the set is new, the people, perhaps, are new too. Somehow, in this matinée theater, we are all being made new, made children again by this familiar music.

I love the ballet for a thousand reasons. I love the delicacy and the strength it requires. I love how joy is captured in movement, but perhaps it is a gift of joy as much as the joy for the dancer, the knowledge that the audience behind the lights is receiving something from the watching. I love the way that the story is ours to imagine with the music, with those onstage. I love the way this story in particular is about so much and yet is so simple. I love how ballet reminds me about the truth of balance:

everything pulling in the right direction, tension that produces harmony unlike any other, a stillness that, underneath, is held by tremendous strength

and how to desire it.

And in this matinée, the day before the final Sunday in Advent, when the word is joy, when Christ is near to us, when we are anxious with the anticipation of what will come, I sit with  my mother and celebrate what it means to be childlike in our unabashed delight: the costumes, the Arabian section of the second act, the costumes, the Snow Queen and King, the Sugar Plum Fairy. We lean forward in our seats, marveling, and the boys next to us, our faces are mirrors of each other. We wonder what it would be like to be at the Boston Ballet School. We lose ourselves in the setting and the thousand pairs of shoes that the dancers go through each performance. We almost float out of the theater, humming and singing the melodies, now well-worn in our minds, but somehow, again, new.

And isn’t this the promise and work of Advent? That we must be ever more familiar with the coming of Jesus, and yet be as delighted as the first time we heard such news? We must learn the rhythms of a life lived before the Lord, and yet we must discover that such a life will make us as free to wonder and delight as the first time we ever hear God say, “I know you.”

And so I dance my way out of the Opera House, marveling at the ballet, making my posture straighter to mirror those dancers, moving a bit lighter on my feet all the way back to the car, and next to me, my mother does the same.

What is truly good and beautiful must always make us new.


advent 3 (the glorious music)

My brother and I love the Messiah. We sang the Hallelujah Chorus in high school together, our voices beaming out those waves of joy, our faces alive in the light that shines in the midst of the darkness of winter. Later, in February or March, when the snow was melting, I’d find myself humming it as I went along the winding roads towards school. There was something in the music, I said.

So a few years ago, when I realized that the music was beloved by many more than just me and my brother, I bought us tickets. We dressed up, took a train in the freezing cold to Symphony Hall. It was a 3pm performance, that first time, I think, and the first Sunday in Advent. Our seats were student rush seats, nothing special, but somehow the feeling that we were grown ups, going into the city to see something, walking up the cool steps with ladies in fur coats and men in tweed jackets with elbow patches, meant something. We were learning to be us, we were learning to love the us that we were.

And then the music began, and over and over again the words and sounds crashed around our ears, Comfort, comfort ye my people, saith your God. The tenor that first year was beaming, I remember, and though his body was calm, it was as if his voice left his body, to come to each of us, tapping us on the shoulder. Did you hear me? It whispered. I am singing to you, thus saith your God. I have loved choral music ever since I sang Rudolph and Holly Jolly Christmas in my elementary school gym/cafeteria/auditorium/multi-purpose room. I have loved to sing. But then, in that first Sunday, when the waiting had just begun? Then I loved music for the first time.

We went back this year. A new night, a new concert hall, a new choir, a new tenor opening God’s words to us and proclaiming the comfort of God’s people, the coming of the Messiah. A new feeling, sitting in what I think was the same outfit I had worn two years ago, leaning forward in my seat for two hours while I cling to each word like the manna God once sent to the unruly people Israel.

And I heard, again and again, not just that we are comforted, but that line from the Hallelujah chorus I sang all those years ago -

the kingdom of this world, is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and of his Christ.

I have been unruly this Advent, anxious for God’s coming but perhaps not for what it will bring to me. Anxious to celebrate, but not to prepare. I have been hungry for the good news but when it begins, as it must begin, in the reminder that we are a people hindered by our sins, in the knowledge of how we have wronged each other and this world, how we have gone astray, how we have fallen apart from God – then I do not want to know the good news. Then I do not want to face the manger, the angels in that field, the Christ child.

But the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. And of his Christ.

And he shall reign.

However unruly our hearts, however we fear the goodness of the news, the light it shines on us – can there be better music than this? That he shall reign forever and ever.


advent 2 (maranatha)

I only know the word as an Advent word. I only hear it as a crying out, a prayer, desperate and true -

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

There is a holy impatience in the word. Perhaps, a holy impatience in Advent altogether. It is the impatience of a people who, though not ready, want to be made ready, a people who cry out prepare the way even as our hearts falter and fumble. Even as we still say the unkind or ungenerous thing (oh, how many of those I have said and thought), even as we still forget to open our homes, even as we treat each other without the care of a people walking in the light, even then -

we want Jesus to come.

Maranatha. Lord Jesus, I long for you.

I used to ache to light the second candle on the Advent wreath. I used to long for nothing but to be old enough to read out to the congregation – “Today we light the second candle of Advent,” – I used to bounce around these old walls and floors with the knowledge that we were closer to Christmas. My child self knows how to be impatient for the wonder of Jesus better than I do. And though perhaps the impatience was mingled with a few hopeful glances at my stocking (I have it still, decorated with my name in felt and a bear holding a present), though perhaps I was easily caught in the swirl of the season -

even then, I was longing for him.

Maranatha, maranatha.

Is it so soon that I have forgotten how words are whole prayers? I have sat here this afternoon wondering about whether I can, or should, or even know how to write in this space anymore. I have asked God, didn’t I know how to pray here, once?

But only the word is sometimes the widest prayer. A clatter of syllables on a thirsty, impatient heart.


Come, Lord Jesus.

Pray it with me?


all that christmas music

Preston and I were driving to the airport this week (the not fun kind of drive, where we know it’ll be a little while before we can see each other again), and he was playing a CD of Advent and Christmas music. It doesn’t surprise me that much anymore to discover the things that this man knows and loves are close to my heart – old hymns set to new sound, simple melodies that whisper through the cold drive that we are waiting for the Messiah, that we are anxious for him, that we are hopeful, that we are preparing the way.

But since that drive, I’ve been listening to all that Christmas music – the kind that plays in the Gap and on the Michael Buble Holiday Pandora station, the music that surrounds us with dancing sugarplums and dreams of warm fires and friends and falling in love.

And a dear friend was talking on Wednesday about how couple-y Christmas can feel. How that can be hard.

All those images of ice-skating on Frog Pond, you know? And the way that the TV seems to tell us Christmas is really about love, and love is really about romantic love, and romantic love is really about Kay Jewelry, and the logic twists and turns around us and we feel trapped in a story we were never writing ourselves, left to ourselves.

Last winter I wrote this post for Lisa-Jo, about how I wondered if my skinny jeans would still fit while I ate my way through a bag of peppermint bark looking at all the heart shaped icons on Facebook. How I felt sitting in those jeans and how I didn’t believe it would happen, how I told God that it would not happen, how God said, “I have named your life beautiful,” and how desperately and deeply that has changed me.

This year is the first year I’ll have ever had someone to call mine on Christmas.

The first year I’ll have the chance of kissing anyone under any kind of hanging plant at a holiday party, or clinking champagne glasses with. And I sing along with the holiday stations thinking about love, how to keep it safe from too many commercials telling stories to us in our skinny jeans or our pjs eating our peppermint bark watching hearts pop up on Facebook or another rerun of the holiday love movies.

And while I love the Christmas music, the warmth and familiarity of it, while I play the Pandora stations and you might even catch me swaying my hips in time to Lady Antebellum in a store this weekend -

I want to tell you that the love I love most this Christmas is the love of the man who took me to Panera and to see Frozen because he knew I would like it. The way he catches my eye and does the dishes and tucks my feet under the blanket on the couch because he knows I get cold. The way he kisses my forehead, just because.

And the love I love most is not less than this: the love of my mother, who laughs with me as we curl up under the covers. The love of my father, who wraps me tight in hugs sometimes for no apparent reason, other than he loves me and wants to remind me, right there in front of the stove. The love of my brothers, with their fiercely handsome hearts, the way that they teach me to give more of myself, to listen better, to drink Dunkin’ Donuts and watch Despicable Me. The love of my sister, our FaceTimes with the baby nephew, the love of my brother-in-law and laughter over sausage pizza and the quiet of the family gathered together. The love of the friends that call and text and write and give of themselves in the way that teaches me how – the love that teaches me how to love.

That’s the love I want to sing about, in between Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe” and Michael’s “Cold December Night” and someone else’s something else that tells us Christmas is only one picture of love.

Because Love comes down this Christmas, because Jesus becomes known in the hugs and laughter and making space for each other, passing around the peppermint bark.

Because I want the fullness of love for us this Christmas.


when I crawl back into the word

“What do I possibly have to say about that.” – my response to a thoughtful prompt by my ever-thoughtful fiance when I complained I had nothing to write about.

He is too patient with me to say anything to my complaining, to the whine he must hear in my voice through the typed messages. He reminds me that I could write nothing. But how do I explain that I want to be writing, that my heart is restless and I must do something, put something on paper to feel again the way that I feel most alive, that after being quiet here I want to be loud, even if just for a moment? That I want to have something to say.

Maybe that’s what we all want, scattered in our various lives. We want to have something to say – to the post office lady or the checker in the long grocery store line, to the question over coffee and the quizzical look in passing the peace in church. If I say nothing, how do I know I still have a voice? If I say nothing, am I still here?

So I open this blank screen and I start to type and it sounds furious because a part of me is furious, furious that words are what the are, furious that you cannot control them and sometimes you have nothing to say and furious even more because the voice that I haven’t been listening to is telling me, “You haven’t been listening.”

I already know it. I haven’t  been. I haven’t found God in prayer and I haven’t sought God in church and I haven’t gone into God’s word like the woman I am, the one who was at the well, her thirst wrapping around her like a veil.

Because wasn’t it the Word that was water to her soul? And didn’t he say to us, meditate on this day and night?

So when she prays in her email that the word would be bound to my forehead and around my wrists,

when he is patient with my raging about how little I have to say,

when the only thing I hear in church is that I have not been in Word, and Hilary? That’s why you feel apart from me,

then, I crawl back into it.

I open Isaiah and read, slow, deliberate, and the words are loud with God’s wild anger and desolation over the beloved chosen people, who have all gone astray, and how there is nothing anymore that gives honor and glory, and Isaiah asks, at the very end, “How long, O Lord?”

I crawl closer.

I want to hear God’s answer.


advent 1 (turn to light)

I once heard that Christmas was celebrated at the time it was because it was the time that pagans celebrated the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It was the time when people ran after candles and lampposts and fires, tried to beat back the darkness for the sake of the wild light that illumines, keeps safe, anchors. It was the time when the dark  was long and the sunlight raced across the sky and it feels, it always feels, like light is a scarcity we must hoard for ourselves and keep close until summer comes again.

I’m not sure if that’s the entire reason Christmas is celebrated in December, or if there is something beyond that, but perhaps it isn’t as important as this word, light.

And all the poets who have used the word seem to take a step toward me in my quiet non-writing life these weeks, all the lines of poetry that echo through the hallways of other years:

somewhere overhead, the geese are turning into light again  – David Whyte

For the child at the bright pane surrounded by

Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear. – Richard Wilbur

She is awake and stars at scars of light – Mark Strand

he fixes a funnel of mirrors, a trap for light. - May Swenson

I think of the word, “light” the way it cuts us off even as we want it to go on forever, sounding the promise of seeing. I think of the way that we hunger and wonder for the light, the way it moves, the way it must move, beyond us.

And you and I today are the people who have walked in this great darkness, these lengthening shadows, and today we are the people who must, who must always, turn our hearts in Advent towards the coming of the light.

And on us, who have dwelled in a land of deep darkness, on us the light has dawned.

Can you see it now, the shimmers of it on each other’s faces? Can you see how it begins to warm us, color our eyes bright with its beams? Can you feel, just softly at first, how even the promise that we have been walking in darkness, even the word light, stops our hearts short with its certainty?

Might we be the people who turn to light again.


though you are small (Advent 4 and Christmas)

It’s snowing here this morning. The flakes swirl just outside my window. It’s a lull before the cooking begins in earnest. It’s a quiet kind of snow. The kind that makes you quiet inside, listening to the Radiolab podcast while you bake peanut butter cookies for your family, while you give thanks. While you remember that Jesus is born today. The celebration is for something that un-theologically-complicated. For something that big contained within something so small.

On Sunday we talked about the prophecy in Micah – “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are of old, from ancient.” (Micah 5.2)

Though Bethlehem was small, though Mary was young, though the story was on its face all difficulty and pain and uncertain outcomes?

Out of that small story comes one who will be ruler over Israel.

As I looked at the small faces in the children’s service last night, wandering up the center aisle carrying sheep and shepherds, carrying an angel, carrying a star to the manger, I heard it again:

but to know me, Hilary, you must become like one of these little children. 

For it is in smallness that God sends might. In the lonely midst of winter that He sends life. And the children, in twirling reds and silvers, in matching shoes and headbands, in stiff collared shirts they want to trade for fuzzy pajamas – they lead the way to the manger. It is these children, squirming through the one hour service, who know Him in the unashamed deep ways we are so often afraid to know Him. They come to the stable unburdened by our shining theology, our complicated words and objections. They come, small ones to see another small one, in the small town in Israel.

Oh, dear friends, have we become too big for this story, with our nuance, with our questioning, with our yes, but…? Have we forgotten that this story does not bring logic, but love?

Because my small friends know. They know when they can’t sit still while we light, finally, the white candle. They know when they carry breakable Mary and Jesus to the manger with their brother and sister. They know when they gather around to sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” loud and off-key in their parents’ ears. They lead the way this Christmas, to the small town and the small baby, to the Love come down bright and everlasting.

Don’t be too big for the story this Christmas. For though Bethlehem was small among the clans of Judah, from that smallness comes the great miracle.

Love, not logic, this Christmas. And the children lead me. 

Love, always, to bear you up and bring you nearer to the great story,

dear hilary: on extraordinary gifts

Dear Hilary,

How do you give gifts to people for Christmas, gifts that mean something, gifts that are treasures, and not just one more shiny wrapping paper token?

Confused by Advertising

Dear Confused by Advertising,

This is what I imagine giving.

I imagine wrapping up your red truck. I give it to you shyly, keys already in your pocket, Dunkin’ Donuts cups in the cupholders waiting for us. I give it and we drive, miles on the tires and country on the radio, and some days it’s quiet in our hearts and some days it’s loud. But you make me this home, brother. You make me this space in your life, this space of welcome even in the late summer evenings and the long thunderstorms. So I give you the breakfasts at the Depot and the kids flying into your arms on your way back from Communion, your steady hug after once again, I’ve hurt my heart in longing and disappointment. I give you the forever love of a big sister who’s in awe of you.

I imagine holding out a cup of tea to you, no wrapping paper. We are only at the beginning of knowing each other, and it’s only been a little while since we first sat in Starbucks and laughed about boys and swapped stories about our journeys at Gordon and our hopes for the future. But I give you this cup of tea, this promise, because even at the beginning of this friendship I can feel your care radiating out from you. I give you this cup of tea (and maybe a truffle, too) – with a small smile, knowing that we have so much to look forward to. Knowing that the beginning of the story of knowing you is more beautiful and more worthwhile than I could have dreamed.

I imagine giving you a framed picture of us on your wedding day. It wasn’t very long ago, you know, but that day, I remember giving a toast from a napkin hidden in my pocket and falling down the stairs and all the while I was overwhelmed  by the joy of watching you make those big promises. I want to tell you with this gift that we’re always and forever family, and I will love you fierce through these new seasons and this new world that we’ve stepped into. I will tell you as I give you the gift, that no matter what, when I think about our room and NCIS and baking cookies and not finishing my books because you want to paint our nails, that I will rejoice. Because you are rare. Because the love of sisters is rare.

I imagine I would give you a plane ticket to Michigan. It doesn’t have a date on it, just the destination, but I’d hand it to you as part of a promise, that distance stretches us and grows us. I would give it to you with the long afternoons that stretch into evenings of macaroni and cheese and Entemann’s raspberry danish and tea, and Searching for Bobby Fisher and dance movies, and always the moment when I reach for the blanket I love and look over, and know that you are still there. That no matter what, when I call or worry or doubt again, you hold all my questions next to me and laugh and somehow, the world brightens. I’d give you the plane ticket with that same laugh, the snow outside bright.

You see, Confused by Advertising, our hearts know the gifts we must give better than we do – the gifts of the people we’ve been given to share this life with, these miraculous beautiful heartwrenching friends and family and mentors and inspirations who walk into our lives and transform us.

Don’t worry about the right iPod case. Don’t worry about the better gadget or kitchen appliance or the newest Spiderman movie. Don’t worry about homemade chocolate.

Look at each of those people, the ones who hold you up when you fall apart, the ones who walk into your office and offer you a word of hope. Look at each of them, and with all of your heart, just say thank you.

Because all of this is gift from another Giver. Because when we empty ourselves of the need to impress and dazzle, we find simply that we are thankful.

So give thanks.


for me (Advent 3)

My heart crawls slowly to the manger.

Friday afternoon, it feels like I can’t breathe, for thinking about the children, thinking about the tragedy, thinking about how everything here is a thin veil, torn away, and the ugly and the wound is deep and raw, this world we wander through feels dark. I sip tea, cry in my office, look forlornly at my post-it notes, because how, O Jesus, can you come into a place with this much hurting?
How can you come dwell with us, when you see us rip each other apart with words and deeds, a world violent and terrifying?

Sunday again, and I hold my breath when I see them coming through the white door. Because these are the children, just this age, in their red ruffled coats and big boy sneakers. These are the children, sticky fingers from dipping them in the glue bowl and anxious to tell me that they have been driving to see all the Christmas lights in their neighborhood. These are the children. And I whisper to them to listen closer, and to sit down, all the while wanting to hold them next to me and fix their pink hairbow and listen to them tell me about Horsey and Emma the bear and give them kisses because I don’t know what else to do, and I am 22 and helpless and in Sunday School.

Where we talk about a God of big love. Where we pray to Him, our voices piping up and running over each other. And we light three candles on the Advent wreath.

“For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given.” “What does this mean?”Miss Andrea asks. It means something about this violent terrifying world of hurting, but I don’t know what. I whisper to myself, feeling Kate scooting her mat a little closer to mine. O Jesus, what are you doing?

The glue bowls sit untouched, the candles flicker. The clock ticks towards closing time. From the room next door, we can hear singing about Jesus the life. Our three to six year olds sigh and shuffle, and the purple cloth on the prayer table holds the dancing shadows from the flames. I hear rain outside, shiver. Kate hands me her pink hair bow – a gift, and puts her head on my knee.

“Who do you think the child is for?” She asks. There. The real question – the why is all of this happening. The question I want to ask Jesus, when I sit in my office fearful for life and light. Afraid of the dark again.

But Kate sits up straight, without her hairbow, and shouts to us on our mats, to the room, to the world – “FOR ME!”

For me. This child comes into this broken, bleeding world, for her. For each of them in the circle, for the teachers, wide-eyed in wonder, for the congregation, crying and praying Collect after Collect, for the families who sit in desperate grief, for each of us, who grieve next to them. The child comes for this: that each of us might have life so abundantly that we remember He has undone death. That we might be so wrapped in His love that though we walk in the valley, we fear nothing. That we might, each of us, pink hairbows and winter boots and bare feet and hungry eyes, know, know, like Kate knows: that YHWH is our Shepherd, and He is born for me.

My hearts makes it to the manger.


I made this for you (Advent 2)

This Sunday a six year old made me cry. It was a gut-wrenching week. It was a week where you climb the three flights of stairs to your office again, and again, each time telling yourself you just can’t do it anymore. You just can’t, can’t, can’t hold anything else in your heart. You can’t hold yourself. You can’t hold other people. You can’t breathe for all the work and worry, for the whispers about “if you were really truly a good worker and really truly a good person and really truly a good friend you’d try harder…”

It was one of those weeks where I think really hard about whether I have forever failed at this work of my life.

And one of those weeks where I couldn’t face God. Not even slightly. Not even really think about it.

But Sundays arrive whether you want them to or not, and with Sunday comes the children. With Sunday comes their presence, their hands sticky with glue stick and stray blonde curls in a frenzy around their forehead. When I got up with my weary heart on Sunday I put on jeans and a blue silk shirt (because it’s Advent, and I wanted to pretend I was trying). I put on the shoes that remind me of peacock feathers. I put my hair in a bun secured with a rubber band because I’ve lost my hair elastics and I can’t be bothered to buy new ones.

It was a day in a different classroom, this time with 6-9 year olds. It was time to hear God’s word to his people. We talked about how prophecies are promises from God to us, his people. I smiled sadly as the children squirmed on their mats, sang half-heartedly the chorus about Christ being the Light. Because when you are trapped in the lie that none of what you do is really good, it’s hard to believe God’s promises apply to you. In the wrongheaded math of my universe, I couldn’t believe that I, in my jeans and blue silk shirt and hair in a rubber band, am the person that God makes promises to. That I’m the person He was thinking of when He thundered His messenger to the world to ask Mary to bear Christ to us.

I sat there, but when Ms Kirsten said we should go to our coloring work, I sat with Lily. We cut out construction paper to make an Advent wreath. She was shy at first, and we sat in silence, gluing and arranging the yellow paper flames over the candles. But when she asked if I could pull out a piece of stained glass coloring book paper for her to color, I caught a glimpse of a smile.

It lit her face, and mine, too. She had on a red and gold dress, the kind I used to love to wear, the kind that twirls. And I remember how extravagantly loved we can feel in those clothes, as if we are sparkling from head to toe, as if we are the most beautiful and beloved creature to be shining in Sunday school in a dress that we waited to wear. So I told her how much I loved it. And she smiled wide, reaching for a pink marker.

“Lily! This is so beautiful! Would you like to take it home?” It’s the end of class, and we are putting everything away, and she has finished her coloring. But Lily shakes her head, smiles up at me. “It’s for you! I made this for you.”

She giggles, twirls her red and gold skirt, and is off to the next thing. But I sit, my heart thudding out its beat against all the odds, because this girl has made me a picture to hold up against the cold winter light and see myself in it. She has given me the promise again – the very one I can’t believe God has in store for me.

I made this for you. 

God wants to give us a gift at Christmas. A promise. A fulfillment, a transformation. He wants to overcome our sin and wretchedness with love. With a stained glass paper picture, colored in greens and pinks. With the relentlessness of His arrival.

Do you know what I heard Him whisper, as I sat there, holding my gift, near tears at her generosity and love?

I’m not waiting for you to get it right. I’m not waiting for you to become good the way you think you should be able to be. I’m not waiting for you to clean up all the mess and all the worry and all the lies running around in your heart. I’m not waiting, because I love you. Because my love doesn’t rely on your perfection, but on your being. Because my love is bigger than your fears about it. 

Because God so loves this world, and because He loves too much to wait for us to be ready.

Lily? Thank you. I’m hanging that picture in the window above my bed – so Mary, Joseph, you and me, we can watch God’s love arriving.