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.


to the girls in my zumba class

Dear girls in my Zumba class,

Dear you who is willing to jump up and down to music we don’t really know the words to, you who is willing to do the moves with more energy after 50 minutes than I think I have in my whole body, who laughs at our blurred reflections in the mirror,

you are what makes me brave.

I’ve been up and down the mountains and hills for a little while now, with this question about food and how to eat and the fact that sometimes I don’t know how to finish a bagel in the morning, I’m so nervous that it will upend my life. I’ve been in the thicket of the thoughts about mirrors and beauty and whether the scars on my stomach from the time I had my gallbladder removed are moments of skin knit together, moments of pride that my body is always doing a healing work on itself, or if I should be embarrassed and try to hide the thin pink line that dances near my belly button.

I’ve thought about writing and not writing, I’ve written and deleted, and in the end of every day I don’t write a blog post about this journey up and down the mountains of that question – am I beautiful? -

you are the people I see at the other end.

You jumping up and down in the aerobic studio to Pitbull and Lil’ Jon. You in old T-shirts and yoga pants and running shorts and neon sneakers and bare feet. You, afraid and unafraid, because we are all a little of both if we are honest. I can’t describe how much courage you breathe into my lungs just being in that second row with you.

And yes, you know, it is courage to shake my hips and courage to swing them in something that I think might someday look like a circle. And yes, it is courage to keep dancing at minute 50.

But it is also courage to be.

You give me courage to be, without walls, without the tap tap tap of the prison guard of my mind that says I should eat less run more be more do more perfect more. In Zumba, there is no better and no best, there is just us and the courageous being of us.

If I could tell you anything it is that yesterday at the end of class I walked out and realized that I think you are all, each, singly, remarkably, beautiful. I realized that I know this in my bones, that you are beautiful, that you are courageous.

And maybe it’s time I walked out of a class and thought of me alongside you, as one of those beautiful and bright courageous beings. Maybe it’s time I walked out of class and let the lessons you are teaching me sink into my bones.

I wish I could paint this for you, write the way you have built my courage from my pink sneakers to my heart, how you have changed me beyond what I had imagined could change. You, with every routine and every sigh and laugh you are rebuilding my idea of what it could mean for me to be beautiful. To be courageous. To be whole.

Gratitude is not measured in a word count, so I will only say, again, you have done infinitely more than you know. And this girl, she is learning beautiful from you.

Love, hilary

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.


i run again

The woods turn golden this year, a fierceness in their leaves. The wind has changed its rhythm along the familiar path. I set out over the stream, across the roots of the ancient trees, weathering the season with them.

I often wish I was more than I am.

I pound down the first path around the smaller pond. It is always muddied by couples trying to find the gravity to keep them  together in a midnight walk or the cross-country team training for the weekend. I pass no one in the afternoon, and my feet are angry against the earth. I feel them praying resistance to God even though I pray out loud for a heart that can hear, a listening heart. Our whole bodies pray, don’t they. Mine prays at war, angry and confused, patient and devoted. It is an out of rhythm prayer. The sweat clings to the back of my neck and I dart among the corners of the path, chasing myself, or God, or running from both.

I often wish I was more than I am. The old lie, that there is an other we might be, better than what was first made and called good, cuts the air from my lungs. 

The path widens and I hear behind me another runner and his dog. The dog bounds up beside me – a beautiful lab, her fur the color of wheat in summer, deep-set eyes and a lightness to her running. She touches my leg with her wet nose. I look down, smile, but ignore her as I run ahead. The dog hangs back, but only for a moment, and then she races forward to tag me again, a bark to get my attention. We go on in the game, running ahead only to be caught. We stop together at the opening to the pond, where the wind is, and the dog dashes into the water and begins to play.

“She likes to run with the head of the pack,” the runner explains as he catches up to us. I smile slightly. “She’s beautiful,” I say. Another moment, watching her chase down a shimmer of sunlight, and I keep running. I wonder about the dog playing tag with me on such an ordinary day.

We  often choose to wish we were more than we are.

“Thank you, for the dog,” I hesitate – could God be pleased with that? Was that even prayer, to be thankful for a dog while out running in the woods alone?

There was a poem that a friend gave me, about geese that turn into light. About how we were not leaving, but arriving. About an indescribable wedge of freedom in the heart. You know this poem, I pray – David Whyte, The Journey, a poem that changes you,  clings to you like the leaves piled high in the silent woods.

“Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.”

The one line, the one about freedom, the one about the golden fall and the leaves that cling like fire to the trees, the one that captures, just for a moment, the certainty of the presence of God?

“Thank you,” I whisper, over and over, tears falling, as I turn left up the steep hill to go home. “Thank you, for the dog.”

I wish for nothing but to draw nearer.


dear heart, love hilary

Dear little one,

I already lost count of the ways I love you. Mom sent me pictures of how you grew inside her, for months and months, we waited for those brief glimpses of the two of you together, and I would yell every time and stop what I’m doing and stare at the two of you (because that’s the funny thing about pregnancy – a picture of Mom is also a picture of you for nine months). Your mom is a gently beautiful person, full of joy, full of life, and now that you are here, I know that flows into you too, with the physical life she offers. She gave you a special kind of life from her heart and her body these long nine months, and now, you are here. We are beyond excited – we are out in the field of wild joy. We are out dancing in our kitchen and we are outside under the bright summer sun, laughing and praying and trying to find the right days and times to fly out to meet you.

When your parents got married I fell down the stairs at the reception. Not all the way, not dangerously, just in enough of a way to be completely embarrassed and wish that I was safe from the memory. But we are a long remembering family, and so your uncles on our side and your parents and grandparents won’t let me forget it – and trust me, your soon-to-be Uncle Preston won’t let me forget either (he’ll love telling you all kinds of stories about me). But their wedding day was a day about your parents, about two becoming one, about love. And these are the roots of love you grow from. I can promise you, little one, they are deep roots. You will grow in a richer love than you know.

That day, the reading was from 1 John 4 – about how we love because He first loved us. How we know love at all because it has been shown to us by another, by He who is love. You will be fed on love that is rooted in His love. You will be loved, in the midnights and the hurried mornings, in the laughter and the snow, in the every moment, by parents whose love is anchored and rooted to God’s love.

And I remember that day knowing your mom – my sister – and your dad, my brother-in-law, became a family. And now you are here, and you are a part of our family, and we are jumping up and down with joy over it and I might fall down a hallway or an airport or an escalator as I run towards you when I meet you.

But we anchor each other in a deeper love.

We will – this whole family of yours, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents – promise in our own ways and times, to love you wild and deep and forever. There is so much I don’t know about you, dear one, so much I cannot wait to discover. But I promise you a deep and wild and forever love in this family.

I promise you all of my love, too. I promise you all of it, anchored in His.

Aunt Hilary

dear hilary: keep a vigil

Dear Hilary,

How do you love your friends when something happens – something hard or scary or sad or all of the above? How do you say something when everything is unsayable? When you’re thrown for a loop, when someone moves and the other stays, when someone is changing and it all seems to go so fast you can’t get your mind to wrap around it, and it feels like everything is on the brink of being lost? How do you love them when you don’t even know yourself what it is you should say, or all the words dry up like sawdust in your mouth the second you think to speak them?

A worried friend

Dear A worried friend,

A friend loves at all times. That’s Proverbs. I heard it first on a promotional video at a conference full of women older than me, women with children and husbands and dreams I sometimes had trouble understanding, we were in such different places. I heard it, the words lilting out over a full audience while I held a seven month old girl as she whimpered for her mother, who was the one speaking those words, her South African accent adding a dip and pull to the syllables. I stored it up, those words in her voice in that crowded hotel ballroom, stored it up for a moment like yours, when the telephone lines of friendship get tangled and we fear, desperately, that we have lost a connection.

A friend loves at all times.

You have to keep a vigil now. It is a deep and difficult practice, one that will test your ability to forgive and be the forgiven. You have to walk the long road in the middle of the night, the daily work of loving in the midst of change, the daily work of accepting that perhaps you do not understand but you love, and understanding is not needed before we love, it is a gift we receive in the midst of love.

You have to keep a vigil, because when we are fragile creatures of bones and skin and heart muscle beating out of time with itself and when we live in a world where everything that we thought we knew we did not know, and all that we assumed we could never face until we were grown up we face today. Keep a vigil over this friend, from whatever distance or proximity, from whatever time of day or night.

The same night I heard that message I remember not sleeping. It might have been the pullout couch mattress in the hotel room, or it just might have been my heart, sore and tired from asking those hungry and impatient questions. I crept out of bed, and into the tiny hotel bathroom, and stared at myself in the mirror. My face was pale, my freckles like tiny stars sprinkled over the bridge of my nose. I was so tired, and I wanted to sleep, and I stood with the cold bathroom tile against my feet and then I lay down on the floor, curled into a ball, and cried and cried and cried. I stopped only to worry that I was waking the woman sleeping peaceful in her bed next to me. I stopped to listen for the baby, and her steady breathing. But oh, how I cried that night, that hotel bathroom in Hershey, Pennsylvania keeping watch over me and the people I was holding onto and the people who, I knew, I must set free.

That was a vigil.

It’s sometimes like that.

Be unafraid to keep it messy. Be unafraid to have days when you don’t want to watch, when you run and your hands brush your face and you wonder why you have been called to this. Be unafraid of how your heart is fragile and is breaking, always breaking, because in breaking it is freed again and again for that refrain, which I know you can hear echoing – a friend loves at all times.

Keep a vigil over it. And look out over the night – can you see us all, our thousand tiny flames lit beside you? You are not alone.


when there are everlasting meals (guest post)

You guys remember Preston, right? We wrote letters last year, and between the time zones, the words, the Skype, and the way of things, something kind of amazing has happened. Is happening.

I’m not going to say much more, right now, because I blush furiously when I try to talk about this person, and I get tongue tied, and my heart decides to practice for a marathon, and I can’t stop smiling. You kind of get the picture.

But today, I wrote something over at his space and well, I’d love for you to read it? You can click here.

When your father is crying on the morning drive to school and whispers that Granddad died in his sleep the night before, you don’t eat the whole day.

You don’t eat anything in seat 48H on Virgin Atlantic, except the chocolate pudding, and you have two helpings of that, and return to your books. You read the words over and over but they’re swimming in front of your eyes, and the turbulence outside is nothing to what’s raging in your heart.

Keep reading, over here?


P.S. In case you didn’t know, Preston is pretty amazing. I still can’t quite believe the story of us. But here I go, blushing. But he is. Amazing. And I am a really lucky girl.

this is where I learn something

A day is not a long time. 24 hours, minutes ticked by in neat regular fashion, so many of them already dressed in the colors of what we must do – emails that need writing, conferences that need planning, phone calls and food and sleep and sweating to Zumba routines in your brother’s bedroom so you don’t break the 200 year old floorboards of your upstairs hideaway. Not every minute is extraordinary. But sometimes a stretch of unextraordinary ones, sleek and swift, upend you.

I am driving back to Berlin to fly home. I start thinking about my blog. The rows of trees along the autobahn are neater than the ones at home; the fields are bright yellow with an unidentified crop. The cars blur past our windows, a sky still swollen with rain that hasn’t started falling. I’ve been in another country; it feels like going home is to travel somewhere unfamiliar again.

I’m thinking some unpretty thoughts about my blog along the German highway. I’m defensive against this nagging worry about me and writing, and something someone who really matters said to me before I left, “Are you their Holy Spirit?” And he was right – that’s the question to stop me short.

But the defensive thoughts have lingered across the ocean and some days of separation from the online world, my lungs full of self-righteous air, so justified in what I think I do when I write about perfectionism and being “enough” and grace.

And in the way of it, as it always is when you travel, you catch the eye of the land spread out before you and something looks back at you. Maybe it is just the gentleness of the horses in their pasture, but the one who makes eye contact with me has a fierceness about her that makes me momentarily afraid. She isyoung, stamping her foot impatiently at the green earth, and she tosses her mane just as we flyby. We stare at each other a while after.

God tells me often that I ought not to imagine myself so wise and knowing. But I’m 22, and I assume that I can learn it on my own and teach it twice before my time.  I place my words around me like fenceposts and bricks, laying my comfort and security in them, but the true things I say, o dear foolish heart of mine?

God gives them because I need saving.

Maybe the mare who looked at me could see that I confuse the two, the why I write and the who I want to be and the real way of grace.

Maybe she shook her mane at me because of that.

Or maybe God has been speaking to me about this for weeks and it was only her look that stopped me in my brick piling fence laying defensiveness. God has been speaking.

I don’t have wisdom about being a perfectionist. I write about it, here and here and all over my heart, but I don’t have it. What I bring is just this: that God sometimes lets us write out what we do not really know in order for us to learn it. What I bring is me, bricks and fence posts abandoned as I walk curious toward the truth that God saves me, and the most surprising thing is that is forever a one-way street. We set tables, that person with the right questions tells me.

And we bring our words not as bricks but as bread, here for the breaking open and sharing, here because we are all hungry.

Back on the road in Berlin, I am now thinking about the mare in the field. About the sleek and swift moments that upend us. About how traveling, however long and far, brings us home again.


dear hilary: pull up a chair

Dear Hilary,

I’m not a loud person. I don’t write op-eds or shout my thoughts during class. I don’t feel like I fit – I’m afraid to say something because, I might be wrong. But I admire people who give their opinion. Who have thoughts and opinions on things like infant baptism and an ideology that lines up with Hegel or Gadamer or St. Thomas Aquinas. But I don’t have something neat and I’m not confident my opinions are right. Where is there a table for me?

Too Quiet

Dear Quiet,

When I lived on Capitol Hill I went to a Baptist church on Sunday mornings. It was a ten minute walk, easy to get to, and every Sunday they served free lunch to the starving intern and college student populations that flock to the city in search of a place at a table. They would pile lasagnas or pieces of chicken or ham sandwiches, and once I think I saw pizzas, their white boxes stacked unevenly in the serving window. At those lunches there was a table of excited students – some from my program, some from schools in the city, a few post-college interns – always talking and laughing, gesticulating wildly with whatever was on their fork. I would creep down the hall towards the room after standing too long by myself in the “book sale” section of the church next to books about the loneliness of single life and searching in vain for the remarkably good looking man who had once talked to me as we both walked out of the metro at Union Station.

But I never sat at the table. I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than a piece of celery once, standing in the back, and I think my roommate once insisted that we at least eat some bread and spaghetti. I still hovered anywhere but that table of smiling, confident people talking loudly about their view of resurrection and grace and the “political game.” I assumed that their table was for the people who knew where they stood and who they were. Who had it sorted out. Who had opinions. Who didn’t stand too long next to books on singleness waiting for the mystery man from the metro.

I wish I had asked your question out loud, by sitting down next to one of them.

The thing about tables is that they’re these places of invitation and acceptance, a give and take between each person there, across the plastic blue tablecloth or the fine linen, three chairs apart or bumping elbows. The table in the Baptist church might not have seen or recognized me – but I don’t think I made myself all that visible. It felt at the time that I wasn’t qualified, wasn’t a part of the crowd, but I think the harder, quieter truth is that I wasn’t really listening for their invitation. And I didn’t trust that there was something I was going to offer simply by my presence, elbow against elbow, passing the extra napkins or the brownies or the salt.

Where is there a table for you? You are needed and welcomed in surprising places.

You can’t be everywhere, sweet pea, and perhaps you cannot have dinner at every table you encounter. But you can, when you come across people who make you think, who you admire, who cherish good words and ideas – you can pull up a chair.

It will not always work. I’m scared to give you this advice because there are moments when the grace runs dry and the harshness runs wild, and you aren’t invited to draw nearer. I’m sorry in advance for those moments.

But I am on the side of trusting that you bringing yourself, even without your loud and confident opinions is something wondrous. I am on the side of thinking it is worth it to pull up the chair, to believe you have something to bring with you, because you are.

I am on the side of believing that tables are the beginnings of the truly beautiful between people.

There is a table, many, in fact, for you in this world. Somewhere, there is a beautiful waiting to begin.


in the church parking lot

“They don’t tell you that being brave also means hurt.” God and I are back in my car on a Sunday morning. It’s before anything has happened in the day, but I’m dreading going in. “I don’t want to talk to you. Just so you know.”

We sit in silence, and I imagine He is waiting next to me. He isn’t impatient but we both know the clock moves its way forward and that soon, I have to hold sticky hands and smile.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” I begin again, but God is a bit too gentle this morning for me to keep my posture. “How could you do this to me? After all of it? How could you ask me to give that up? How could you ask so much of me all the time? It’s too hard. I can’t. And I know you say you’re Alpha and Omega, that in you my heart is safe and all of that. But where have you taken me?”

God frightens me out of talking. The silence in the car is so absolute I might have stopped breathing. My heartbeat has quieted to a dim metronome. The cars on the highway don’t notice, but I wonder if the trees in front of me have softened their blossoming, just for a moment, to eavesdrop.

“I told you it would be costly, Hilary Joan.” That voice. Always, that voice.

I turn in my seat, knock my glasses off and begin to wail.

“But where are we? Where am I?”

As if knowing that God and I have gone up to a mountaintop to look out over my life wasn’t clear enough, he offers me the metaphor. I type this and the silence deafen.


I keep typing, deciding that I will make this blog post about being brave and how it hurts, that I will make it about what I am doing, learning, how I have grown the wings and can fly now. I turn the radio on, and the sun creeps through the windows.


I pause in my typing, close my eyes.

“Remain in my love.”

I keep my eyes closed. The light tickles my eyelids and the birds have taken up a chorus about the coming morning.

But nothing more comes. The voice is gone.

remain in my love.

I sit still.