the gift is given

It’s a slow morning, the kind that you take a long time to wake up fully, not sure if your dream has shifted into sunlight or if you’re still in the midst of it. There is a quiet to this kind of morning and an unrest, too, and the heart is full, always, achingly, full.

I’ve been trying to sit with the Bible more lately. I’m a lover of the liturgy, prayer book guidance to the Word. I’m more likely to trust what someone else appoints for me to read than I am to trust my gut telling me where I need to go. So when I sit, alone for a few moments, on the familiar porch, and God says, read about washing the disciples’ feet, I’m almost too quick to resist it.

Isn’t that always the giveaway? We find a reason not to, a reason it’s out of order or our sermon series has us meditating on something else, we must consult a calendar and a guide to be in the Word the right way?

So I slink towards John, chapter 13.

And Jesus got up from the table.

He got up from the table and took off his outer robe and took a basin and knelt and washed their feet. These, whom he loved until the end, these, whom he cherished. These, who knew so little about what they had seen. These scattered sheep. He washed their feet.

“You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

I am only the first few steps along the cracked cement of understanding, and I’m holding my arms out to balance myself as I read out loud these words.

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 

Is there anything more beautiful?

Is there anything more precious than this? That we were taught by his way of living. That we were known in the washing of our feet, and this morning I need Jesus to wash my feet again.

I need Jesus to show me how he will come into the midst of everything that is still a mess inside me and he will hold it tenderly, he will change it, he will do this wild act of grace on my heart and set me free. I need Jesus to make the lesson alive in the doing of it, not just the thinking or the idea-making or the understanding-seeking that so often and so quickly becomes misunderstanding. It wasn’t about the prayer book appointed reading today, it was about Jesus coming to me and taking off his robe and washing my feet.

And I do not understand one thing about this love but that it is gift and it has been given to me.

These mornings I go to the Word because the Word is life because the Word is a lifeline in the days where the joy meets the ache and it collides in my heart. These mornings I sit and shrink away but I keep going back because I am sold out to this Jesus, who washes the disciples’ feet, who tells us again and again to love as he loved us, we whom he calls friends, not servants. I go back, again and again, to King Jesus because King Jesus is life, because he is freedom, because he is the fullness of beauty, because he knows me.

And I do not understand one thing about Jesus’ love but that it is gift, it is washing my feet, it is meeting me on my familiar porch, with such tenderness, with such freedom. It is gift, and it has been given.


go free, prisoner

I find myself looking at Jesus out the window of the borrowed Highlander in the midst of Waco.

He is there clearly in my mind, maybe car windows can be like the iconostasis some days, that piercing window into heaven, that stirring up of your spirit to meet the Spirit.

It’s just a few days before Pentecost.

I have been in the midst of telling Jesus that I am trapped in my mind, lost in the sea of obligations. I have been telling Jesus with the bold and arrogant assumption more often made by the accustomed Christian that Jesus is mild-mannered and so tolerating this rant, and that eventually the emotions will subside and I’ll go on, and Jesus will go on, both of us mostly unchanged.

Let me tell you something: that is not Jesus.

Instead I hear the thought ripple – no, that’s too gentle – rip into my mind, hurricane wind, not just a little bit of fire in the voice. I am telling you, go free, prisoner. 

I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jesus, the easiest lie, the lie of pretended incomprehension, because a God that we say is so beyond our knowing surely cannot be speaking so clearly to us, to me, as I stare out the car window hoping against hope that I can find my way around the words.

I am telling you, go free, prisoner. 

It takes nothing less than the Spirit to shake us out of our assumed ignorance back into the obvious truths, the who we are before and afters. Because I am so much of the time a prisoner rattling the iron walls when the door behind me is swinging open and it is Jesus who stands there, arms open, waiting. I am the too busy noticing my own struggles to see that the shackles are at my feet, that the sun through the window is the first day of the week and I’m living in the time of the resurrection.

I do this with the story of how eating became harder, or how I don’t know how to stand up for myself, or how I am too people pleasing or too quick to worry or how I don’t know when to allow myself to feel grace because I worry that if I give myself room to not be perfect I’ll collapse altogether. I rattle the walls of the prison of I should be better or I should do more or I am not good enough at 

and then there is Jesus, calling for me - go free. 

Me, in that car, driving through Waco, and there is Jesus, caring so much more than I imagine he does. Not mild-mannered, not indifferent, not unconcerned. No, I meet Jesus who says, Go free, prisoner, and who keeps calling out to me, who is relentless in the message that my heart is no longer bound anymore, but freed. That there is no need to rattle the walls because the door is opened, because life is beginning.

Just a few days before Pentecost I hear again the old story, the Gospel of the radical concerned grace of God – that God will not be mild-mannered or indifferent with us, but come to us, driving through Waco or when we are in front leading worship or as we glance back at the iconostasis, and Jesus will keep saying, go free, prisoner. I have loved you, I have freed you, you are urgent and important to me, you belong to me. 

Oh, how the Gospel needs preaching again and again to this tired heart.

And oh, how good God is, to still come shout it over me.


for when God has time for you

He pulls me onto his lap in the chair he always sits in to type out the emails, the tasks, the daily-to-do’s that pile high in the cramped spaces of our lives.

It was a series of comments about this or that thing not fitting well anymore, this or that salad I should have could have eaten, this or that friend I probably should have texted again but didn’t…

He held me there when I started to pull away, back into the familiar chaos of the busy, making the customary excuses to avoid the quiet place – you’re busy, I’m busy, no one has enough time, this will be too unwieldy, this mess of my heart and don’t you want me to just buckle down and get myself under control? We only have this many days until everything changes.

“What would Jesus say about that?” He repeats the question twice before I make eye contact, and again once I do, holding my waist still.

I gulp, oxygen suddenly a precious gift, because it’s the Name, Jesus, that still undoes my heart at its sounding. I am not sure how to breathe anymore because my husband to be asks me what Jesus would say to me. He doesn’t try to fix it with his words, just keeps his hands fixed, because I am going to run away from Jesus if he doesn’t help me anchor myself there. Because he knows, and I know, that Jesus has something to say to me.

“I don’t know!”

I get angry, the second kind of reaction. If not flight, then fight, and it comes out biting and cold and full of frustration. I don’t know, which means why are you asking, which means can we please not do this and can we please not encounter this.

But this life does not obey our fighting or our flights, and encounter is gifted to us in the worst times because the worst times are the needed times.

I don’t want to answer this question, because the answer is this: Jesus would say, Come here. I have time for you.

I have time for your mistake

I have time to talk about all this chaos, this wedding, this waiting, the days when it feels impossible to do the work I give you

I have time to breathe next to you

I have time to hear you

I have time to remind you that not everything you have ever done is wrong

Jesus is Lord of time. Who am I to tell him he doesn’t have enough of it? Jesus is the Word made Flesh dwelling in the midst of us. Who am I to tell him he doesn’t want to spend time with a sinner-trying-to-be-saint like me? Jesus is the tabernacling, ever-drawing-us-nearer Physician of the soul and body. Who am I to tell him that he shouldn’t be interested in healing me?

My husband to be keeps his hands on my waist while we sit in that all-too-familiar chair, and keeps me there, so that I can answer this question. What would Jesus say to that?

And fellow wanderers, worshippers, lovers of leaving, caravaners on the road and you who are lost in the jungle and you who are scorched by the sand in the desert at noonday and you who walk so calmly and you who ask the fourth question of God when we all stop at three and you who doesn’t know how to believe God has time for the sinners, for the people who should know better and still break -

Jesus says,

Come to me.


when we are not competing

I go to the gym and almost start to cry. There is a row of treadmills and a row of elliptical machines, pristine from the spray-and-wipe-down routine religiously followed by most of the gym-goers. I don’t know where to start, and so I choose an elliptical machine, a familiar one, and I plug in my headphones.

But I can’t shake this worry that starts after about minute 3 that the soccer girls next to me are much better at this. I can’t shake the worry that the woman to my left is decidedly unimpressed with the level I put my resistance at and that she is better because hers is over 30 and mine is just 22. I keep my eyes fixed on the orange blinking lights, minute by minute, and amid the shouts of encouragement from the first string center forward to the striker who are running faster than I will probably ever run in my life, I start to calculate it – more loved based on calories burned or miles run, better person, more virtuous version of herself, actually excellent, more good and beautiful than me.

A little while ago I read this post from the lovely woman over at Scissortail Silk, about we aren’t each other’s competition, not one more standard to measure against in this already overmeasured world.

And I am fired up and I start this post, my blog says, at the end of March. I think, we are not competing, and I wanted to write and say it out loud, that we, the bakers and butchers and lawyers and authors and midwives, we are all in the ragged band of beautiful making our way towards heaven.

We are all, I want to tell you, the raw art, the rare creation. We are all, not in the diluted universals we always use, but in the particular concentration of mitochondrial DNA and endless cells recombining and holding us together, in the concentrated, intense, fiercest way – we are all and each the uniqueness we cannot fathom.

I wanted to say this when I first read those true words – we are not each other’s competition – but somewhere I lost the message. I went out into the world thinking I had the voice of a prophet and I still preached a fear of the bathroom scale. I still proclaimed scarcity.

It can be hard to remember that the work of becoming well is a series of hills you fall down, and the falling and rising, they live together. And so I marched out in March thinking I could wear the banner of the not-competition, and it is May, and I am still sewing the pieces together.

But here is what I know, what I preach next to you, in my nervous ponytail making our way through the jungle of the kingdom of God:

God is too particular about us to compare.

God is too intent on us, on the molecules of being, on how we move and lie down and arise, to watch the numbers at the gym and mark us in a rank of better to worse, against each other.

If it is true that God wrestled with Jacob, if it is true that Jesus appeared to Mary and called her name, Mary, like that, each syllable resounding with news of the resurrection and life -

then we cannot be competing.

Because as Jesus calls her Mary, so Jesus calls me Hilary. So Jesus calls you, calls the striker and the first string center forward, calls the Zumba class ladies and the lawyers and butchers and authors.

If God is really wrestling with each of us, our bones pressing against God, our lungs stretched to keep breathing the air that gives the life as we wrestle with the Lifegiver,

then we are not competing.

We are each the beloved, particular, wrestlers with God.

We are each the remarkable made alive again.

We are each so singularly loved that God laughs at our comparisons, touches our hip socket with His laughter.

And so shall I be delivered.


i bind unto myself

There is a feeling, deep in the pit of my stomach, when I sing. It’s not there when I sing just anything, though. I can belt out “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” at a Cabaret night in high school or sing along with Jack Johnson that senior year beginning in the fall with the lazy sunset and the cabin where the seniors got to spend the last night, without it. It isn’t just the love of opening my mouth and hearing my vocal chords spill over into the air, into the room, into your hearing.

It only happens when I sing hymns.

I used to think them too old, but I didn’t grow up in the youth groups and the guitar lessons, the right chords to Hillsong and Chris Tomlin. A friend who went to a congregational church did, filled with stories of the ski trips and missions trips and summer bible studies, filled with games and the healthy junk food and the praise songs, that got you up off your chair and swaying, as you closed your eyes and, it seemed, something wondrous happened.

I was an Episcopalian becoming Anglican, thinking about Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and I didn’t know those songs, only the old hymns, the 1982 blue hymnal hymns, the tunes we would plunk out on the piano or I would offer to sing into the few standing microphones we had at the church. I wanted to sing with some kind of lark angelic sound. I wanted to bring others near to God with my singing, make something happen in the seats, in the church, out in the world. But I didn’t think hymns could do that.

But St. Patrick had a hymn – we call it St. Patrick’s Breastplate – the hymn of “I Bind Unto Myself Today”. It has seven verses and verse six has a completely different melody than the others, and verse one is short -

I sang it first tripping over the words and syllables in a small church in New England where the altar was hidden far back and the priest climbed stairs to the pulpit to preach, and then again in St. John’s Hall, where the praise band played it with guitars and a drum set as we set a kitchen table groaning with altar cloth and frontal piece and those gifts, through and by the Spirit the Body and the Blood, where we made the space alive with our voices and cupped hands. I sang it unsure then -

and then again, and again, I have watched that hymn follow me across state lines and countries, through empty fields where I only remembered one half of one verse in England or along highways and -

you see, when I sing it, the words coming and going like water, when I sing it, close my eyes in church or stand in the shower or just hum bits of it to myself in the car, I realize -

the hymn binds me to Christ.

This song is an act of prayer, this song is an act of worship, this song, this hymn, with all its mystery, the cadence of its sounds, this binds me to Christ.

I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three. 

The feeling in the pit of my stomach is less about my singing, more about my spirit.

I bind unto myself, today.


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.


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.


unless you bless me

I will not let you go unless you bless me.

How long did those hours stretch, Jacob to a stranger’s flesh, clinging tighter as his muscles weakened, felt the strain of his back and hands and arms and still he held onto the belief that he would not let go, unless.

Unless you bless me.

Once in an Orthodox Church I was told the story of how Mary entered the temple as a child, how she ran to the Holy of Holies without any fear, how it seemed to recognize and welcome her, who would become the bearer of Christ to the world. I stood beneath the playtetera, the icon of Mary stretched in prayer. I imagine her like Jacob, muscles flexed and strained under the weight of such open hands, such reaching and presenting of Jesus to the world. I imagine her muscles ached with faithfulness, with that clinging of behold all nations shall call me blessed.

I used to promise God I’d stop asking to be blessed because I thought prayer was an ever-interceding for another. I told God my prayers were too selfish as they were, too centered on me, on a desperate desire to be better known and better know, my small muscles clinging beneath white dresses or ripped jeans or running shorts, anxious for a blessing. But I imagined prayer like a laundry list I had to keep track of, each tick of another person’s name off my tongue a checkmark, a satisfactory nod from the One who cannot be named – so I kept away from asking to be blessed. I kept away from asking for guidance, except my muscles returned again and again to Jacob’s posture, then to Mary’s, always aching with the desire to be closer.

I told God it wasn’t right, that prayer was about others, not ourselves, that it was pious of me to put my knees to the floor and name the gifts given, pray for the family and the house and the friendships and the broken bits and pieces of other stories. I thought myself good at praying in those days, when words tripped off my tongue, eloquent and sweet.

And then last week on Sunday I read the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel, alone in the night, and how Jacob held on, though his hip was out of joint, and how he said, I will not let you go unless you bless me.

And as I stood there, my voice joined in that mysterious way to Jacob’s, my hands found their way to stretch open like Mary’s -

we can wrestle, pray wide into the spaces in our own hearts for a deeper knowing, for muscles that ache with faithfulness, for hands that open towards heaven.

And not let go.


would I catch flame (a synchroblog with addie zierman)

It wasn’t that long ago that I came to college with my bags packed and my mind full of theology I didn’t understand. I’d grown up in old rhythms: liturgy on Sundays and Eucharist like manna, a provision from heaven I didn’t know how to need. I grew up so desperately hungry for understanding of God that I read more than I could stomach: Catholic books and Eastern Orthodox theology, books with complicated titles. I talked big about ideas with all the confidence of a teenager who learned the word “eschatological” three days ago and wants to use it, wants to fill the world over with what she thinks she knows about God.

I grew up Christian but thought I could grow up as the next C.S. Lewis, write the apology for my generation, tell the world why it was logical and reasonable and rational and right to be what I was. I grew up Christian, learned the habits of prayer and the way that the seasons change in the church – preparation to celebration to growing to Pentecost and again and again how I tried to understand too much about too much, cram heaven into my head while I still didn’t know how to French braid my hair.

That summer of going to college I thought I’d figured out what it meant to be Christian, to live out a life of faithfulness: it meant knowing the answers and complicating them, tracing the shapes of ideas into journals and class discussions and making my heart so safe in the right theology that it might never need to wonder about the presence of the love of God.

I drove up to the dorm and I unloaded my laundry basket of things – a few picture frames, books, notebooks and pens in neat piles, and waited.

I waited that whole year to feel right. I waited to hear God the way the people around me kept hearing Him, the way they closed their eyes in worship and put their hands above their heads to the songs by the bands I didn’t know existed (but I could sing a hymn, and I was proud of that, thinking I’d escape God into the warm and safe arms of the old ornate words and the incense and the icons). I waited for the moments where I would finally understand what falling in love with God felt like, finally make myself read my Bible and have quiet time in the mornings the way, it turned out, youth group taught you. And I hadn’t gone to youth group and I hadn’t played the Chris Tomlin CDs and maybe I hadn’t done much falling in love with God, I thought, as I walked to and from class trying to fit my theology around the worry that I might never catch fire.

But the fire of Pentecost can descend at a moment, like ice, like clear water, like dust that spins you and settles you and unsettles you again. Like Eucharist manna – the provision of mystery, in mystery.

I was in a parking lot, on a Sunday morning, tears tracing the indents my dimples make in my face whenever I move.

Then I was in a still Chapel late at night, the kind of stillness that bends towards a heavenly silence.

Then I was in a blue TV room in Washington DC learning that the very word Jesus was power.

Then, and again and again now – I take what is unto me the very Body and Blood, the mystery provision, and I fall in love with God who teaches my heart how to make room for Him, not the words about Him.

And the fire is small and flickers daily. And the Spirit descends. And I catch flame.


I’m linking up with Addie’s synchroblog to celebrate her book release of When We Were on Fire. I can’t wait to read it (because her words are good words, food-to-the-soul words).synchroblog-photohome_uk

a midwife in heaven

She will go before Shakespeare.

She will go before Shakespeare in the wild parade of the blessed, after the striving, after the yearning ache or the clambering up mountains to see something (was it just ourselves we wanted to see, after all?).

She will come forward, who labored two new beings into the world – the mother, the child – kneeling on a cold bedroom floor in countless houses in the town, kneeling to watch that which God made, new and new again.

She will be known among the crowds of the heavenly, and Shakespeare, laughing, will sweep his words aside to make room to praise her.

Because this is the kingdom of God, where love is too wild to be measured, where the parade is laughing and ever laughing, at the knots we tangled ourselves in thinking if only we had the recognition or the security of it, the words embossed in prizes or publications, the fame, the knowing.

But this is the Kingdom of the anonymous faithful named for all that was glorious in their calling, where the hierarchies are scattered in our abundance of eagerness, where we leave behind how we have named one another – famous or critically acclaimed or somehow not quite enough yet (oh, how often have I named myself that?) -

where we leave it behind because the Kingdom is coming, and our joy sees its fullness, and so we abandon decorum and procession and we run, children again, to the throne.

This is the Kingdom where a midwife marches in step with a poet, where the bankers and bakers and those who mothered and fathered six children walk through the streets, unknown by accomplishment but known by calling.

And some days I sit in a train car with a man whose calling I can hear sounding in me as fierce as my own heartbeat, and I write these words on the back of a receipt from a coffee shop where I met someone two months ago and told us both what I want to write here, what I want to shout to everyone: in the Kingdom of God there is too much joy and too much wonder and too much life abundant that our ladders will be unraveled by the power of the river of living water.

I write that the midwife will go before Shakespeare, and laughing, they will praise each other. She will whisper how she saw Twelfth Night once, and he will whisper that he ought to have written ten sonnets in praise of her hands.

I sit in a train car in a green dress in summer, remembering how my friend, she first told me this truth: that a midwife will go before Shakespeare, that in a Kingdom where last is first, our measurements fall to pieces, and this will be joy to us.

Thy Kingdom come.