dear hilary: building the gates

Dear Hilary,

You seem to be pretty guarded online, while your husband isn’t. This has me asking questions of what I, newly married myself, think about putting my life on the Internet. How do you or you and your husband think about those boundaries? So much of your own relationship, from what I have witnessed, is thanks to the Internet. So, yay Internet! But what about the danger zones or the places where you have to set boundaries?

Sincerely, Newly married and lost in the borderlands

Dear Newlywed,

I was nine years old. I was walking through fields in the south of England, by myself for the first time, on the lanes immediately surrounding my grandparents’ house. In England, when you come to a break in the path and it continues onto someone’s pasture, there is a high gate that you usually have to climb up a few steps, unhook the gate from the other side, climb over and then rehook the gate after you.

I thought I could scale the fence.

In my purple (probably stolen) sweater and boots that were a little too big for me and these polka dot leggings and let me tell you there were also ruffles on my socks. It was a complete outfit – there I was, trying to clamber up over the fence without any pretense.

It didn’t go that well. I got caught on part of the fence and I came dangerously close to ripping said sweater and came very near to losing my balance into a ripe pile of mud and cow pie. I finally gave in and pushed up the heavy iron ring that keeps one post of the fence closed against the other, and proceeded down the other side and on my way to the playground.

What is it about fences?

We try so hard to scale them, Newlywed. We try to be the confidant, the one who is in the know, the person with the most in-depth analysis and interpretation and information. And in a world where so much information is available, is possible to find and have and be the possessor of, I think we take to scaling fences.

It’s not all bad. It’s not all out of malice or wrong intent. Often I think we find something we love and so, in our eagerness, seek to know everything we can about it. And we usually don’t stop long enough to think about whether or not it’s something we ought to know.

And in the world of the internet, where a Google search can find you someone’s high school photos, it’s so easy to start wandering through the middle of the field without thinking too much about where we are walking.

And so my husband and I have worked on our fences. We sat down on car rides or lazy afternoons on the porch while the fall wind ruffled the trees and hammered out where the gates would be. Our blogs – what kind of path of our life did they open to the general public? What kind of personal details do we include in our storytelling along the way? What about Facebook, or Instagram or Twitter?

And we built them slow, and we build them still in the midst of learning about each other, because marriages are living things and so when we meet something new, we ask ourselves: what should go through the gate? What shouldn’t? What can shed light and laughter along someone’s walk in the woods and what is just ours?

We met because we are writers, because we love the way words sound and feel on a page, because of the ache and promise of them. But for every word that’s in the public binary code turned HTML turned text you read on your iPhone screen, there is more to it. There are the thousand things unspoken between us, there are the things spoken only in the whispers across the couch or the front seats of the car, there are the things we remember with and for each other that we keep to ourselves.

The beautiful thing about building fences and gates is that the gate is the gesture of welcome, the fence the gesture of protection, and those two things – welcome, and protection – live together in harmony. Building one doesn’t mean that you need to abandon the other.

We need each other’s stories along this long and winding road. And we need each other’s fences to protect for each other the things that should belong only to a few.

So, Newlywedded, I don’t think you’re lost in the borderlands: I think you’re right where you are, in your plot of land, and you’ve got some timber and some time with your spouse. Start to build.

We’ll love the paths you make for us to walk around in.


dear hilary: talk to me

Dear Hilary,

Finishing up my Freshmen year of college, I have found these last months to be consumed with the desire to fullfill a definition of beautiful and be the sort of person a boy would desire. Everyone around me seems to be speaking of identity and verses are continuing to declare God’s love and claim of worthiness on my life. Yet, I find my self so deeply desperate for the affection of a boy, for a romantic relationship. I have never had a boyfriend and I feel like I have no one pursing me in that way. 

So I’m really wondering, is it okay to dream of this man? Because I used to believe that God had that man for me, it was just a matter of waiting and loving him first. But now I wonder, that perhaps I am called to that single life or an early death or to not finding that guy until I’m in my 30s or to marry someone that is not like the man I have dreamed of. I just don’t feel like I am worthy of being loved in that sort of way or if it is even fair of me to dream of such a guy. How do I approach the Lord in prayer when I don’t even know if there is a guy? And can I dream of a guy with particular qualities or is that un-christ like and foolish because the only thing I should look for in a partner is his love for Christ?

Just Asking

Dear Just Asking,

I was driving home one weekend from college, in the midst of thinking about and wondering about this one guy who was in my microeconomics class. We sat next to each other, we passed notes about where the supply and demand lines met in the graph and whether that always determined the price. We occasionally saw each other outside the regular Monday, Wednesday, Friday clock. It’s funny how you can find yourself in a rhythm of thinking just like the other rhythms of your life. 4:30 on those days saw me turning my thoughts to the what if we dated and the why doesn’t he ask me out? and the ever-present am I worth that? There is a certain kind of ache in the rhythm, a certain all-too-familiar. I would overthink what I was going to wear to class that day, I would write those notes in the margins of my notebook and I would walk back to my dorm wondering everything you are wondering, about love and the person and whether Jesus was going to get around to giving me a person anytime soon.

And I could write a lot about how this remembering is a work of conviction in the heart but also the practice of grace, the realizing that our past selves are not to be condemned as the worst possible versions of ourselves, but to be loved and accepted as being the people that they were, knowing what they knew… but that is a different story.

I am driving home. That’s where we are. I am driving home and I am turning left, sneaking around the bend in the road a little fast than I should, and as I swung the car through the turn I found myself saying, “God, what is the deal?”

And God said, “I see you’ve decided to talk to Me.”

I promptly started to cry. I drove and cried and talked, spilled out the story into the empty car which is not empty because God and I are finally, really, talking. I said everything, the notes, the protests that what if I was not worthy, the questions about if he was ever going to ask me out. I said it, spoke it into being.

And that was the beginning of the change for me. Not when the boy dated someone else, or when the other boy and I ended things, or when Preston and I got together. The beginning of the change was this drive home, the fall whispering through the trees, promising winter, promising, further on, spring.

God, what is the deal? 

We do not always begin in a glamourous, beautiful, prayer. We do not always begin in the right words. But if we begin, then we begin. If we are willing to say something to God, then we open our hearts to be changed, to be molded, to be made more.

I will not tell you whether you should desire specific qualities in a guy or not, dear one – because I do not believe it is wrong to ask and imagine. I believe only that it is more dangerous when you are not honest with God. I mean gut-wrenchingly honest. I mean on your knees honest. I mean with your Bible open and your pen raging across the pages of God’s promises honest. I want you to get real with God so that you can get quiet and hear God.

We hear so many times that we should make our worthiness not about guys. Oh, have I heard this and preached this in the coffee shops and along the sidewalks. But can I tell you, across the wires of the Internet, something?

I think God is more willing to tell us our worthiness without us trying to make ourselves believe it without Him. 

I think God wants to tell you you are worthy. I think God wants you to get alone, to get rage-y, to get serious, to ask the question. I ask it, still. Only when we are willing to ask God, who alone can answer our questions with the fullness of His life, can we begin to feel the life moving in us.

The point of your life and my life and all the lives that scatter this beautiful world – the point is the real conversation with God. Not whether he wants you to love him before he gives you a guy. Not whether you’ll have an early death or be like Paul or find love in college or work 10 jobs or 1. Not whether you are a poet or a preacher or a physical plant manager.

The point is always Jesus, looking at us, looking at you, in the beautiful singularity that you are, and saying, “Talk to me.” When we start talking, and only then, do we start to make our hearts able to hear God. About boys. About college. About love. About worthiness. About the aches wrapping around our hearts.

“Talk to me.” This, my dear friend, this is our invitation.


dear hilary: that impossible brightness

Dear Hilary,

My question concerns (as most questions seem to) fear and love. For a long time, I was afraid to love, and then I was brave and fell deep into it, and then what I was most afraid of happened: I was too much, or I wasn’t enough. The end of it was confusing and tangled and I got hurt again and again, but I held on, thinking that I wanted to show him grace and love and forgiveness. The problem is, I didn’t show any of those things to myself, and now I’m so embarrassed and afraid of how hurt I got, how long I held on, and how badly I was willing to be treated. The question is, how do I forgive myself for that? How do I move through the fear of love ending and fall in love again, now that I know how the ending burns? How do I get over the fear of never falling in love again, which is partly what motivated me to hold on to the love I found for so long after it hurt me?

The Edge of Hope

Dear The Edge,

“It is not the critic who counts.” Can I ask you to go look this up? I won’t say more, but I will say click beyond Goodreads, beyond the quote itself (I’ll give it away – it’s Teddy Roosevelt), and down towards the bottom will be this name, Brene Brown, and if I say nothing to you in this, it’s just that you remind me of her mantra. This letter, this act of describing your question, this being willing to be you here in this space – that is what she calls daring greatly.

Today all I can think about is this time that Preston asked me something that flipped me upside down. “Are you,” he said, pausing over the words and over the rim of his mug (we were sitting in the living room), “always this unkind to yourself?” We were drinking coffee and going through my applications to graduate school and I was telling him with a lot of confidence that I was NOT going to get in and I should NEVER try and I should just quit and not be a philosopher or anything because everyone would find out I was a fraud and… then he asked that question. “Are you always this unkind to yourself?”

I got mad. I don’t really know why. Maybe because the truth doesn’t set you free before it royally pisses you off and arrives at the most inconvenient time and screw up all the plans you had for avoiding it. I hated the question, though, for what it pointed to in me: that my unkindness wasn’t towards others in that instance. It was towards me. It was shame and regret and hurt I piled on and on as a way to protect myself from potentially being rejected. “Who am I to apply to school X? Smart people apply there” or “Who am I to have loved so wildly? Only fools don’t realize what it costs…” or my personal favorite, “Who do I think I am to be enjoying such a good life? It won’t last!”  Unkindness asks that question, tries to protect us in a cocoon of doubt and embarrassment, tries to keep us from making what we think will be a mistake.

The cocoon is not where it is at. I mean, we all go there, we all build one, but maybe specifically here, when it comes to love and fear, I want to put up a big warning sign that says, BE KIND TO YOURSELF. I want to stamp it across every sign you see today. You do not need a cocoon of doubt or fear or embarrassment or shame. Because actually, in fact, I believe you are already stronger than the cocoon. I believe you are stronger without it.

Here, in love, the critic in you does not count. At all. In any way. You loved, and it ended, and it was terrifying and beautiful and tangled and ugly and hurt like hell and probably still does on some mornings (I have those days too). But the forgiving of yourself begins in a kindness to yourself. A basic, gut level kindness. A kindness that says, “I dared greatly. And now it hurts.” A kindness that says, “I was brave. I believed in love. It disappointed me that time.” A kindness that does not hide the truth – the real truth – which is not that you should be embarrassed or ashamed of loving, but the truth which is that you dared and even so it is complicated, and no blame or unkindness will clarify that paradox.

There is an impossible brightness to love: that paradox of daring and fear, of deep connection and also things not working out every time. That kind of love, falling in it, falling out of it, that is where you tell me you learned things about grace and forgiveness and love. I believe you did learn about those things. I believe now is the time to hold them in your hands and offer them back to yourself, not as warning for what not to do, not as judgment for how long you stayed or what you were or were not willing to do for this person, but as the gifts of that time. As the gifts of daring greatly. As the gifts of the impossible brightness of love.

You are already out here in the brightness, love. You don’t need the cocoon. You’re far too strong.


dear hilary: the edge of your hope

Dear Hilary,

I am a recent college graduate, unemployed for five months, living in my parents’ house and watching as my hopes for graduate school disappear as the letters come back. I’ve lived through several tragedies in the past several years — murder, abuse, relationships broken up. I feel as if I am suspended in motion, watching my friends get married, have kids and buy houses – and I wish they had what they have. How do I have hope in the Lord when I am continually disappointed with what happens in my life? Is it wrong to want to be happy?

Afraid to hope

Dear Afraid to hope,

Every time I read your letter, I start to think. I think about you, writing away at your computer somewhere. I think about the way you crafted your story, your question, and what you might have been doing while you wrote it. I think about how courageous you are to write it down at all, because writing makes things a different kind of real. I think about whether you’d drink a latte or something without caffeine in it, if we went out to coffee together.

And your question? There is no pithy quote on this wide and wildly beautiful world that would capture an answer to it. Because you want to know about a living thing – hope – and living things are never as simple as those handpainted lettered signs on the Pinterest page. You want to know about a thing that moves with us, that spills over into the most surprising corners, that feels at once impossible and utterly, undeniably, real.

After I read your question the first few times, I did yoga. I am not great at yoga, so I picked the “easy yoga for beginners” (because that can’t be that hard, right?) on amazon and I started. The first thing we did was lie down. I almost turned the video off and muttered something dismissive about the idea that lying down is a kind of exercise, but for some reason I stayed. I closed my eyes, the way the all-too-peaceful instructor told me to. I willed myself to be calm. That hardly ever works for me, because my heart starts racing and I think of my to-do lists and then before I know it I’m already missing half the warrior pose. 

But that too peaceful instructor, she said something that made its way into the maze of my racing heart and mind. She asked, “Where is your body right now? Honor what your body is telling you. Honor what your body can do today.”

I think there is this part of us all that secretly believes everything important happens in our heads. The disappointments and the hurts and the joys and the wondering, that’s all work internal, in that life of the mind, in that wild wandering heart space. And we think that space is, must be, infinite, able to do whatever we tell it to. We think we can think our way or feel our way or demand our way into hope or faith or love. We think we can order the heart space around, tell it to expand, tell it to get wiser – tell it to memorize Pinterest quotes – tell it to have hope in the Lord.

And that’s where I think we go wrong.

We are just one: body and heart and mind all tangled together. We can no more say to our minds or hearts that we can be more hopeful or less disappointed than we can tell our bodies to sink deeper into Warrior II or arch our backs higher in Cobra. “Honor what your body can do today.”

You have to start testing the edges of your hope. You have to get real with God and with yourself and ask, “Where are you today, body and heart and mind? Where are we with this lived thing, hope?” And sink a little deeper, and honor where you are today. Explore it. Ask God all the things you think you can’t ask because you think if you ask you won’t get closer to hope. I mean the gritty questions: I mean the “Why is this happening to me?” and the “Wasn’t I faithful to you?” and the often-lurking-for-me-anyway “Do you love me? How can you love me when this is what I see?”

Afraid to hope, I am here to tell you hope is hard won, body and spirit jumbled together. It is a tested thing, it is a thing that lives. And this is the greatest gift to us. Because it means that when we honor where we are today, we inch towards more strength tomorrow. When we honor the conversation we are really having with God today, we move towards a new conversation tomorrow.

It isn’t wrong to want to be happy, by the way, but I don’t think what you’re after here is an answer to that. I think you’re after the bigger thing – the hope, the hope that is beyond the optimism we associate with happiness, or with achieving the things we want. You want the bigger thing, the hope. I love that about your letter. I love that you ask such a big question. How courageous you are.

So now, I will ask you to be courageous again: go forward, body, mind, heart as one, and test the edges of your hope. Bang down the door to God, be loud, ask yourself where you are today. Sink a little deeper into the stretch of hope, the stretch of this wild thing that is you and God. Tomorrow, I promise you, hope grows.


dear hilary: make an invitation

Dear Hilary,

I’m here. I made it to college and somehow surviving on my own. I love these people and the opportunities I get and almost everything this place has to offer—but this week especially, I’ve been so afraid. Of everything. I’m afraid that there will be no one to catch me, that I’m destined for life as an outcast. I have people here who care, but they have their own lives and somewhere they belong. They have their own friendships, and even my roommate knows so many more people than I do, I just don’t know how to ask for help—but I want it, but I’m so afraid of being in the way.There are so many deep friendships here, and it’s beautiful to watch, and I don’t want to be jealous, but maybe I am. And maybe I’m starting to wonder ifI’m not worth knowing that deeply, that I’m destined to be on the outskirts. I just don’t see where I fit here. I’m too scared to do much of anything.


Dear Freshman,

I almost transferred my first semester of college. Between the chaos of having chosen a major and suddenly wanting to switch it, living with a stranger, moving from my small, tight-knit circle of friends in high school to this bigger pond where people seemed to know each other after three minutes during the Orientation games or the day trip into Boston, I didn’t think I could make it. I walked around with my old high school backpack, sat in my classes or in the dining hall, and imagined what it would be like to start over. Or better yet, to stop starting over. To spend the rest of my time in a familiar place with familiar people.

I want so achingly ready to be done. And so I hear that same worry and frustration in your letter, and I want to tell you, the way that I seem to write in most of these letters, that it is not wrong to ache with the transition into college. It is not wrong to be unsure of yourself in a new place and unsure of the people who are with you. These feelings belong to you, and they are part of you, and they are part of the story of you in college. It is okay to let them exist in their loud, clattering selves for a little while.

What kept me at the school I eventually grew to love was a woman with a piece of zucchini bread. Yes, that simple. That seemingly small. She called one of those first few weeks in and told me that her mom had sent her zucchini bread in a care package, that she couldn’t possibly eat it all herself, so what did I think about coming over and having tea?

I remember thinking at the time it was the first planned thing I had had in college so far. An RD and her zucchini bread in her apartment on a Friday afternoon. It sounds so simple. It sounds like it wouldn’t be very much compared with the friendships that seem to multiply every night, that make the lounge loud and impossible to study in, that crowd the dining hall and the library and the walkways on your way to class.

But I think it’s more powerful than that.

Belonging is not measured by the number of people at your table at dinner, and by what you think your roommate is doing, or how well they fit in, or if it seems like your whole first year seminar is throwing parties on the weekends. My guess is, honestly, that most of them feel the same way. It’ll show differently in each of us, but I promise that they are also wondering about how to belong and if they will fit and whether anyone is really willing to get to know them beyond the customary exchanges of “hi” and “how are you” (to which your response has to be “good”, though I have no idea why we came up with that). They wonder if you’ll see them, just as you wonder if they will.

So you want to know what you can do, to bridge these gaps, to feel less afraid. Bake zucchini bread. Invite someone from a class to eat it with you. Invite your roommate to go to the grocery store with you because you’d like the company and it’s a chance to get off-campus. Invite these people who right now seem to have it together into a space that you make, a space that you’re creating in and among everything that is new and overwhelming.

There are more rarely moments when we “see how we fit” and more often moments when we help others fit into something new with us. You are already brave enough to ask these questions out loud to me. So I know you are brave enough to google a recipe for something that you love and bake it and bring others in to share it with you.

That first invitation will be more meaningful than you know.


dear hilary: stay at the table

This is a new kind of dear hilary question – but one that I care a lot about, and I’m excited to share.

Dear Hilary,

As Christians, what, if anything, do we stand to gain from political disputes?  Should we just throw up our hands and agree to disagree, even on emotionally charged issues that matter deeply to us?  Or should we dive in headfirst and fight the good fight, even when it starts to poison our relationships and hurt our ability to love those with whom we disagree?

Or is there a third option?

Sincerely, Swing State of Mind

Dear Swing State,

When I lived in the bright chaos of DC, I remember wondering how people “did it” without losing their minds. The mantra of “it’s who you know, it’s the connections you have,” or the walk along K Street with the power houses and the promise-makers-and-breakers was a lot to take in. And it seemed like the longer I spent time there, the more I realized the immense complexity of political life. The process of getting a bill to the floor alone is long enough and complicated enough to want to throw up your hands. And sometimes, when you hear one more report on the 7 o’clock news or one more newspaper headline about gridlock and insider Washington and the stalemate of government and this or that filibuster fight – you think this can’t be what it is meant to be. 

And I don’t think it is. I don’t think we are intended to sit at tables and yell at each other over nicely arranged water pitchers and smoothly swiveling chairs. I don’t think political conversation is meant to be so defensive and so positional that everything we hear the so-called “other side” saying we treat as an attack we must vigilantly rebuff.

But here is the thing. A conversation only dissolves when people leave it. It might be a loud cacophony right now, it might sound like chaos, it might make us want to give up – but it still has life in it. If we withdraw, if we become so dissatisfied that we simply cease to participate, we might send a signal of our dissatisfaction, but we won’t have a better conversation. We won’t get to be agents of that change.

I don’t want Christians to be in politics simply because we represent an important philosophical perspective on matters of political and community significance. That’s true. We care a lot about highly charged issues and our reflections can add a lot to policy-making. I want us to be there because we are fundamentally people of peace and justice. I want us to be there because, if we claim Christ, then we claim a kind of approach to politics, to conversations, to decisions about our common life, with the fiercest kind of commitment to listening. Peacemaking has to begin with listening. Justice has to begin with listening. If we leave the table, how will we hear?

That means if we sit at the table, if we model for others and for each other (because we need that, too) we can make the conversation itself, the very way we go about deciding these things and weighing different opinions, one that is peaceful rather than punishing. We can ask questions and sincerely listen. And yes, maybe the philosophical opinion on one policy issue won’t become law the way that some of us in this wild knit-together family wanted. Maybe it will be less than our original vision.

But we can be a people who don’t retreat into a silo of the like-minded. We can be a people who disagree within themselves, but who know that to do this common life, we have to listen. You say that sometimes our opinions hurt our relationships and makes it difficult to love those with whom we disagree? But whether it’s in politics or families or workplaces or third-grade classrooms this was the charge we were given by Christ. We were told to love. So we have to get down in the dirt with each other and practice it. Couldn’t it be, in fact, that participating in this political life is a part of how we learn to love?

Can we imagine together that this politics thing doesn’t have to be fighting the good fight and hurting those we love? We do that no matter what, so we’ll bring it to politics. But can we imagine that politics could be the kind of chasing after justice with our whole participation at the table, disagreeing with care and attention, being the first to stay at the table when it gets difficult, being a people who listen?

If we leave the table, how will we hear?



dear hilary: the weight of all things

Dear Hilary,

My engagement has come to an end. I am devastated. The life that I thought I had, my direction, my focus, my plans for the future with this person that I so loved, have come to an end. There is no hope of return. I feel so lost. Where do I find God in this, when I feel so abandoned? When all the things I thought were promised for us are now dust? How can I even begin to figure out what is next for me? Please help,

Lost in nowhere

Dear Lost in nowhere,

Oh my dear. I am so completely, utterly sorry. I am so, so sorry. Your letter goes right to my gut when I read it, revisit it, looking for a way to reach through these electric cables and wi-fi signals and tell you that I am aching for you. And I do not understand how it hurts. But in the midst of the terrible mystery of it, and not understanding it, I wanted to reach over and whisper how very, very sorry I am.

Rilke once said, “Life is heavier than the weight of all things.” I wondered at that when I first read it. It seems obvious, somehow, that life is heavy, heavier. But then I thought about how we calculate ourselves into knots. How we try to add up the heaviness to understand when we will heal. How we try to understand how much time will take to grow, to move, to be made whole when something becomes, as you say, dust. But time is not obedient to those calculations, and neither is grief, and neither is ache. So Rilke is right, and his counsel is what I want to give you: Life is heavier than the weight of all things.

You are in the unmeasurable heaviness, in a dark tunnel and right now, I do not want you to strain for light. We blind ourselves when we pretend we push ourselves to make meaning of it too soon. If the tunnel is dark, and there is no light to be seen, do not rush to see what and where and how and why. I’d so much rather you rage and get quiet and get loud and cry and then, stop, and then start again, at the pace and in the way that you must. Your body will tell you how to do this. It is okay to listen to it for a while. It is okay to feel the heaviness in your throat and your heart.

Do not rush to see where God might be going or where He is leading you, or where He will take you next. For though these things have a life, and they do, God does not ask you to see that before He gives you the light to see it by. In the unmeasurable heaviness, in the dark tunnel – He is not asking that of you.

I could tell you I think God is outside the tunnel waiting for you (He is, in a way, but that’s not the answer). I could tell you that He is next to you in the heaviness and the anchoring ache behind your heart that feels like a constant catch in your throat (He is there, too). But when we ask where God is, it is hard to know how to measure that. Could I whisper to you instead something about who God is?

God is the faithful.

This is not a faithful that means there is a “greater purpose” or a “meaning you just can’t see yet.” I call bullshit on that in this moment, because God’s faithfulness is not about that. It is about a promise to dwell in and among us. To be Emmanuel. To be walking in our midst and to draw near when we cry out. God’s faithfulness is a promise of nearness.

So when you cry out, “WHERE ARE YOU?” in your room and in your car and in your office and when you ache with others or by yourself and in the unmeasurable heaviness, in the life heavier than the weight of each thing you wonder,

you cry out to one who is faithful.

You cry out to one who made love manifest in a body, and that One who took on our flesh took on our heaviness took into himself all that we carry and all that we cannot carry. You cry out the truth – that this is a devastating thing, a thing that should not have been, and your cry will reach him. Your cry – if it is anger and sadness and the weight of all things and confusion, just as you wrote to me -

Ask him where he is. Ask him to show himself to you, in the weight of all things and the heaviness beyond it. Your cry will reach him.

Love, always,

dear hilary: call out

Dear Hilary,

What makes a calling big (and none of this bullshit about how we are all called to big things and I should just be thankful for the thousands of gifts I have right now)? Real talk: what does it mean to be called?

Over It

Dear Over It,

So, you want to real talk. We can real talk. We can sit down here, in this space – let me buy you a cup of coffee (dry cappuccino or mocha something or cider, if you want to feel like fall) – and we can real talk.

I could look up calling in the dictionary and talk about the sense of desire for work. But you’d probably see through that, right? Tell me that anyone can look up and parse a definition?

I could tell you the lilting words of the many wise writers that calling is about the sense of doing what you cannot not do, that it is about gladness meeting need, that the world and you meet in a field somewhere, literal or metaphorical or imagined, and hash it out, and you emerge with a sense that you have purpose. But from what you ask me, from the way your question sounded when I first read it, you’d ask for more than that, too, right? You want something else. You want more.

Here is more: you aren’t supposed to fake a contentment in your life just because others appear to have found it. On the road to the unfolding of your calling there is nothing more problematic than trying to pretend you have found it before you have, to tell yourself the lie that this is all you have been given so you better sit down and play at peace and joy because you won’t get anything else. Peace and joy aren’t playthings. They’re things you hunger after with your whole heart and mind and body and things you fight for (and sometimes with) and the thing I want to tell you is that you cannot fake your way to a calling.

So why don’t you wrestle?

Why don’t you hang on with your limbs and stray thoughts tangled together, with everything you have, to the question what is my calling? Why aren’t you fighting harder for a way through the thicket, or standing at the edge of things and shouting that you want to know where God is and where He is going, that you are tired of living in the pretend of “already-finding-contentment” because that’s not gratitude, really, is it? We both know that. We both know that it is better to go out and holler in a field that there is nothing you know right now than to sit on the concrete sidewalk and be wounded by what you haven’t actually wrestled with.

Peace and joy more often arrive fiery. Peace and joy aren’t pretty feelings, they’re movements in and around you. Contentment is about a stillness that comes both without and within, about a listening to God, about a listening to yourself. Your letter to me tells me that you haven’t shouted much about it. And we are both like this. I cup the questions of big calling or wild calling in my hands and run in the woods with them, careful like I’m holding a baby bird that will break. But the question isn’t fragile. And God is not.

And the truth is, I am not, either.

We are both wild and brave enough to face the question of a big calling, without the comfort of trying to make ourselves content with what we see. We are both brave enough to launch out and say, “THIS I LOVE” or “THIS I CHERISH” or “THIS, THIS, GOD, DO YOU SEE ME?” and wait for an answer.

It is a long story in the Bible of people who strive with God, who go out into the field to yell and holler and ask.

You have to do that before you can get still enough to hear an answer. And being called?

Maybe for us, maybe for you, it means actually more about how you are calling out to God and asking to be called back to. Maybe it is about the sound of your voice meeting the Word, being silenced and changed by it. Maybe rather than worrying that you have or don’t have a big calling, or what it even means (because I doubt anyone can tell you the feeling or the way you know or the kind of thing that it is)

you can call out -

Do you see me? 

And hold that up, and hear.


dear hilary: go more gently

Dear Hilary,

I am lost, here in this new place.  The person I thought I was, the Christ I believed I followed, the people I learned to trust, lie now in a hopeless heap of feeling-wholly-helpless, and I continue on, digging my grave among the ruins.  This unknown, this not being known, scares me silly.  And when I am with the one who wants to know me?  My goody two shoes and those giant red flags scream at me, telling me to guard my heart because his heart doesn’t belong to Jesus.  But right now, I just hardly seem to care.  Help?

Dear Fearful,

The scene: February (why do things always seem to happen in February?). A Starbucks table, the kind not really big enough for two people so you’re crammed together, holding your drinks, each allowed one elbow on the table. It’s early afternoon, I think, and I look harried and there are creases in my collared shirt because I don’t really want to bother ironing it (truth be told, to this day I’m not great with an iron). I hold a mostly-empty cup, toss it back and forth in my hands. I have everything and nothing to say.

Let’s be simple about it: I had no idea where God was and I wasn’t really sure where to start looking. I was scared out of my mind and I didn’t want anything to change and I wanted everything to change. And I was so tired I didn’t know if I could physically worry any more. And now, I read your words and they stay with me, I think about them and I think about you, and I imagine us in a Starbucks somewhere, October instead of February, at some cramped table tossing our cups back and forth in our hands. Thank you for your sincerity. For being brave enough to say it, that where you are is lost, that where you are is unsure. I hope you know how brave you are.

Building in this life can’t begin somewhere less than your courage.

You say you’re digging a grave among the ruins, but I think you can be a bit kinder to yourself here. Yes, the not-being-known, yes, the unknown, yes, the being lost in the forest of your faith and how it is moving and changing, yes, that is real. But I don’t think it’s ruinous and I don’t think you’re digging a grave. I think you’re in a giant heap of questions and the pinpricks of light between them don’t feel like enough to be guided by. It applies across the board, every time you come to a new question – what do I do about the feeling of being unknown? What do I do about the person I thought I was? What about Christ? What about the boy? – everywhere you look, the question looks bigger and the agony of not knowing the answer grows bigger, too.

You’re in this giant pile of questions and you’re turning around and around inside them, and with all that movement, it’s hard to see anything.

Go more gently.

In the year of February meltdown in Starbucks, I took a ballet class. I learned quickly that I was not as flexible as I thought I was.  And I would get into trouble if I tried too hard to get there faster – to get to a perfect arabesque at the barre, to get to a pique turn with the right releve. I couldn’t do any of it when I tried to do it all at once. How ordinary, the need to slow down. And how true. In ballet, like in the deepest spiritual and emotional questions, we must be gentle. We must be willing to submit to a gentler pace that leaves us longer in the uncertainty, longer in some of the fear, longer, even, in some of what is hardest.

What does this mean for you? I think it means you should stand still for five minutes and watch yourself breathe. I think it means you should go for a walk outside and yell everything you think you’re not allowed to yell at God at God, tell Him about the boy, tell Him about who you thought He was and who you thought you were. I think you then get really quiet with God and ask Him He is. Don’t ask yourself to hear or understand what He might say or not say. But ask that. Leave the question aloud in the night. Return to it, see how it changes.

And as for guarding your heart and the red flags around the boy? I have a lot of thoughts about it, but most truthfully, Fearful, I think the pinpricks of light around those questions will grow as you watch yourself breathe and talk to God and get really quiet. You care more about this than you first told me. Why else could you have put words to it? Guarding your heart is about so much more than the particulars of this person who knows you, who wants to know you, who you care about – it is about all the questions in the heap of questions. It is about being gentler with yourself. You will know more about where your heart is when it comes to this other person when you’re gentler with your heart, period. If anything, I want you to release yourself from the expectation that you can know what guarding your heart looks like perfectly now. It’s so much more important to me that you are gentler with yourself. It’s more important to me that you get those five minutes in the miracle of breathing and that walk in the woods (or in the park, or wherever it makes the most sense for you to go).

And, just as gently, I believe the light will grow.


it is about being seen

I don’t need this I don’t need this I don’t need this. I repeat it over and over to myself, sinking into the scratchy wool chair in the downstairs lobby. I’m here because my parents tell me I need to talk to someone, need to walk through the perfectionism, need to admit the things I don’t want to admit – I don’t need this I don’t need this I don’t need this. I look around – the water in its bulky upside down Poland Springs dispenser, the packets of Swiss Miss, the old copies of Martha Stewart Living or Bon Appetit, which I flip through foolishly (I barely cook anything) as I wait. Pumpkin sage ravioli. Pumpkin chocolate cookies. Something with cinnamon that sounds beautiful and impossible. I toss the magazines aside and move my feet around the edges of my chair.

I don’t need this - isn’t this for those who really struggle, not for 19 year olds with perfectionist tendencies and maybe some insecurities but nothing major, nothing she can’t get a handle on if she would only try harder and shape up and be better?

I don’t need this – it was just one or two comments to my parents about feeling not good enough or that I was a bad friend and a failure.

I don’t need this – I’m Hilary. Hilary is put together. Hilary doesn’t need to go to counseling.

She comes downstairs to get me for the appointment and I walk quietly behind her.

Her couch is softer than the chair downstairs, and the office is quiet, and there are paper cups for the hot tea I know she must offer or make for most of the people who come through in a day, in a week. I see the rain on the glass panes of the window behind her chair, and though I am afraid, though I worry, though I think in my head still, I don’t need this – something in her smiles tells me it is okay to keep talking.

She asks me questions no one has asked before – asks me to tell her all about what I think to myself as I walk through a day, asks me to tell her about school, and how I perform, asks me to tell her about my stray thoughts and my someday dreams and what it is I think will happen if… And I find myself back, week after week, spreading the questions like puzzle pieces between us. I talk about how things make me feel. I talk about what I wish I was, and don’t believe I am. I talk about my desire to be prettier, or thinner, about my perceptions of the world, about friendship, about trust. I talk about boys, long, winding conversations where I can’t tell beginning from end, the heartbreak from the hard conversation from the new possibility. We take our time.

Nearly three years later, we sit in leather chairs. Her office has moved to a different building on campus, and it’s only a brief meeting – we’re both in between so many things. But I have to tell her – not in the words, I’m engaged! – but in the smile, in how I tuck my hair behind my ear and how I smile (I smile differently now, softer, I think, but also bursting with life), tell her that she has made a difference. A big one.

It was as simple as being seen those years ago on her couch. It was as simple as her kind smile amid the puzzle pieces and the grace that pours out when we see one another. And as I untangled all the knots of not needing it, I realized – I did.

I needed to be seen. And she saw me – saw me wild and free and imperfect and so desperate to share myself with the world and so afraid to do anything. Three years later, and we are both near tears, and I tell her the words I should have said a long time ago:

This was one of the things I remember most from college. You were one of the most important people I met here. And you, seeing me? 

It meant everything.

Can I ask us again, wherever we find ourselves? Can we see each other again? Can we pause, and look for each other, look past the Oh, I’m fine, and the schedule and the college exams and the minivans. Because it means everything.