i pray you have a wilder imagination

Dear tiny person, 17 weeks alive now,

You will start hearing my voice soon – the sound of my heartbeat, loud and steady, the movement and rhythm of my body in the midst of all the ordinary work of these spring days. And you’ll hear Dad’s voice, the voices of the people around us, the noises of this life you’re coming into.

I have been hearing a lot of questions about you. People ask me, “but how will you still be a student?” and “will you quit school?” and “aren’t you going to need more time off?” and when I say no, they look at me surprised, a little concerned, a little knowing. They let the silence hang between us, the wide-eyed looks that carry the message across the inches of dusty floor – surely, surely, you didn’t think all this was possible. haven’t you underestimated how hard it will be? 

I am praying that you never hear these questions from me.

I am praying that when your dad and I hold you, we tell you the stories, again and again, that we are a people who never underestimate anything but the power of the Lord Jesus to walk into our lives and unfold the most surprising, most marvelous, most extraordinary things.

Your life is the gift that your dad and I never imagined we would be so privileged to see so soon. Your life is the greatest gift God has given us.

I pray that I do not ask you questions that say your imagination is too unrealistic. That you can’t possibly think you can do this and that at the same time, that you are underestimating how hard it will be, how much work it will be, how likely it is to fall apart.

I pray that you will hear me say instead that our imaginations should be wider, and wilder. I pray you will hear what I know in my bones, that we too often live limited lives because we limit our imaginations. We think that motherhood and philosophy graduate seminars can’t possibly both be successful; we think that you must choose between art and biology; we think that you cannot travel AND or be married AND or work this challenging job AND or …

and we teach this to each other, with our well-meaning questions and our expectant looks, with our heartfelt, “but how will that work?” Our imaginations grow small in the shadow of what we think more realistic.

I pray that your imagination is wilder than that. I pray that you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, who will call you to get out of the boat, to leave behind what you know, to go into towns and cities, to leave the empty tomb with just the wild hope and these words: “I have seen the Lord!”

I pray you know that this is enough reason to rejoice in even what seems difficult or strange in the eyes of the world. It might not satisfy other people. And right now when I put my hand over the place where I know you’re growing, and I tell those who ask me these questions that I am not afraid to be a student and a mother, to be a wife and a philosopher and to hold you in the long nights and read to you about epistemology and the Rainbow Fish –

when I do this, it probably doesn’t satisfy the person who asked me.

But if it does not – if the question still lingers, how can she think all this is possible, then I dare them all to take that question and place it before the Lord Jesus. I believe Jesus will widen their imagination. I believe that Jesus will remind them of the stories:

Abraham, who left everything he knew to follow God,
Moses and the people of Israel, who followed God into the water of the Red Sea and walked safely,
Ruth, who left everything she knew to go with Naomi,
Hannah, who did not leave God alone in praying for her son,
Mary, who gave birth to God Himself in Jesus,
Peter, who got out of the boat, and even when he doubted, cried out and Jesus saved him immediately,
of the people Jesus healed, and ate with, whose faith, whose wild imagination carried them into the very heart of God.

And I believe that you, and me, and Dad, we are one story numbered among the thousands that Jesus tells about those who love Him. They are all stories of wilder imagination. They are stories of people who love, and this love, it casts out their fears, their idea of limits, their idea of what will be too hard and too much and so hard to imagine how it will all work. 

And so, beautiful, breathtaking tiny human being listening to my heartbeat, I pray that you are filled up all these many years with a wild imagination. I pray that you feel these stories around you, in your bones. I pray that you know most of all that God loves you, wildly, beyond your imagining – and when God calls out to you, you need never fear – it is His love, calling you to Himself.

Love,
mom

love is the unrelenting muscle

By now maybe you’ve heard through a grapevine or around the web, the news that Preston and I are expecting a baby. I had thought years ago I would do a lot of blogging about becoming a mom when it happened, that I would want to catalog my daily questions and thoughts in the midst of all the changes and strange cravings and morning sickness, the moments of realization, the moments of gratitude.

I don’t, anymore. It seems a season for quiet, for listening close, for making silence, as we used to tell my Sunday School students. Becoming a mom is among the most wondrous things that has happened in my life – but I probably won’t say too much about it here.

But I want to tell you about the sound.

I want to tell you about the sound of his or her heartbeat, at 9 weeks, in an ordinary doctor’s office on an ordinary Friday, trying to lie still as my nurse practitioner moved the Doppler monitor below my belly button. At first it was just the sounds of searching out the little life that I’ve been taking on faith is growing inside me, but then.

Then, there is this sound, this unbelievable, unyielding, steadying heartbeat. And it isn’t my heartbeat. It’s hers, or it’s his. It’s the baby’s heart, beating away.

The heart is the most unrelenting muscle I have ever heard. The heart is the muscle that begins its work and does not cease, not for one moment. And it begins first. It’s already beating as the brain grows and takes shape, begins to assemble thoughts still as mysterious as whatever lies on the other side of this thin place, where heaven and earth are tremblingly close to each other.

The heart, beating. It sounds so ordinary and then it sounds so unbelievable. Her heart has been beating for weeks now, without me knowing. His heart began to beat before I knew it, before we tuned in with the monitors and the watches and the steady checking in of doctor’s offices.

And this matters to you, because your heart, your faithful, steady, unrelenting muscle has been beating in you for longer than you can imagine. It has kept you.

I think about how we connect the heart, not the brain, with love. I think how we talk about the heart of God, not the cerebral cortex. And though God is far beyond any attempt to imagine Him having a literal heart, I do not think that we are completely wrong to imagine ourselves, to imagine this world, as in the heart of God.

Because God’s love is the same unyielding, unrelenting, steadfast muscle. God’s love is the patient, ever-present sound echoing through our bodies and our lives. God’s love is not too tired to carry us. God’s love is the unrelenting muscle that carries us.

And this baby, he or she is reminding me that there is something not to be forgotten about the mystery of a heartbeat. About the mystery of how we say that we are close to God, that we are held in His heart, that God loves us.

Because love is found in the unrelenting muscle of our lives. And we must love this way: unyieldingly, mysteriously, beginning from before we know it or decide it and continuing long after we think we have done enough, that we are satisfied, that the other person does not love us back or we have given too much of ourselves. We should love this way because it is costly but it is freeing, because it is difficult but familiar, because it is unlike anything in the world and yet it is the foundation of the world.

We should love one another this way, because this is how God loves.

This baby, he or she has a heartbeat set in motion by God. And this heartbeat, which is different from mine, is teaching me to love again more wild, more free, more unrelenting. Like a heartbeat.

Love,
hilary

the impossible brightness, again

“It is not the critic who counts.” Almost a year ago, I wrote a letter on my blog about that. I was talking about the cocoon we spin around ourselves, one that is supposed to protect us from things failing or falling apart or changing uncontrollably. I was talking about loving, daring greatly, how in that work and wonder the critic in us, the cocoon-spinner, does not count.

Far beyond romantic love, I spin cocoons of protection around every paper, every possible declined application, every possible mistake, every possibly possible … you understand, I think. I spin cocoons of anonymity and safety, of carefully worded posts or no posts at all, of endless caveats of when I become more of … then, I will do and be and think the braver things.

But daring greatly is not about the someday marvelous thing we might do. It is not the moment we suddenly defy ourselves and our cocoons and spite the critic in us. Those are marvelous moments, yes, but they are not all there is to daring greatly.

Daring greatly is believing that you carry in you the impossibly bright love of God. It is about entering into the impossible brightness that God prepared for us before we did any marvelous daring thing. It is in all of our tiny revelations, our smallest moments. Daring greatly is saying, “I need to talk to you about this,” three fourths of the way through the long flight when you’ve already argued and made peace and you think, if I say it now I will surely ruin everything. Daring greatly is pressing the “send” button when you’re so sure that if I send that, it will be rejected. Daring greatly is getting on your knees when you think every trace of God’s calling and purpose has disappeared, and even then, saying, Our Father. 

And it’s showing ourselves to care too much, to be un-aloof and earnest and eager and people of a brighter believing:

it’s doing the dishes and trying to find the Chinese restaurant in the unfamiliar town so you can do something spontaneous for someone you love, it’s making and remaking the same plans as you learn the rhythm of a friend’s heart, and it’s helping on a logic problem even though you could say you don’t have time,

it’s praying with, not just for, it’s being unembarrassed in the restaurant or the bank or the escalator in the mall to pray blessing over the stranger in the grey flannel two steps up from you,

it’s admitting that we are lights in the world, even in our yoga pants during rainy Mondays when we feel the least influential, admitting that we are lights that God would have put on a lampstand to illumine the house long before we ever thought ourselves worthy.

Because love is impossibly bright, and it is already alive in us. Because Jesus has gifted us His brightness, not for ourselves but for the house, for the stranger who knocks on the door, for another’s stepping toward Jesus.

Daring greatly is not just for the marvelous things that defy gravity – it is for the every day revealing and sharing of ourselves as bearers of the impossible brightness of God’s love.

That is the impossible brightness. That is daring greatly.

Love,
hilary

when this is the seventh month of gratitude

I promised a long while ago that I would keep up this accounting of gratitude for marriage, for the spin of our ordinary days, for the way you learn to move, two by two, day by day, in the quiet and the loud and the in between. I promised myself, maybe in some way I promised this blog, this space I keep carving in, bit by bit, marking where I am and where God is.

We’ve been married almost eight months.

When I say that it sounds long and short. It sounds like newlyweds and it feels like we’ve been married forever, we’ve always been here, always been rounding another bend of time. I forget to be faithful with the laundry. I get mad at myself which makes me avoid it even more, til there are two laundry baskets and a hamper full of things quietly asking for my attention, for my simple act of caring for the space we share and the work we take on, two by two. And it’s so gentle, this forgetfulness, that it makes me so angry I’ll pick a fight over something completely unrelated because I have this idea of what kind of person I should be in a marriage, what kind of house I should keep, what kinds of things I should do and say and feel and think…

I get mad about the laundry. That’s the truth in this seventh month, and the gratitude is as simple as that: he waits for me.

He waits for me through the rage portion, the avoiding eye contact and getting eerily quiet portion. He waits for me to lose my temper and then go silently inside myself to find it again. He waits even when his hands are full of dishes. When we have only 10 minutes to get somewhere and we are already behind. He waits.

And in waiting, he keeps his heart open to me. He waits for me to find the words, to find the thread, to walk my way back from the edge of cliff or from the confusion or the silence.

Marriage is the fullest kind of mirror. It shows the ways that you’re loved right in the midst of showing you all the things you really do and say and think. It reveals and it redeems. Marriage calls you out of your secret, silent heart and into that hallowed space where your belonging sings in your bones. In this, the seventh month, where I know I’ve gotten mad about laundry or sad about not going on a walk every day or worried about absolutely everything for no good reason… in this seventh month I can list for you all of those things, but what I know most deeply is just this:

The love of my life will stay at the sink with the dishes undone or sit in the car when we’re already late or hold me in our living room with all that unfolded laundry, and all the while, he is teaching me that love is patient.

I’m grateful for this: that the love of my life waits for me, especially now that we’re always around each other, always nearby, always close. He still waits. And that waiting is a great gift.

Love,
hilary

when I am learning to worry heaven (on prayer)

We have been worrying heaven on your behalf!

She says this laughing from the pulpit, voice bright with the joy of a Sunday morning, and the congregation shouts sings nods claps its approval, its affirmation. We have been worrying heaven on your behalf. We have been up at night and during the day, in the midst of our praising and our praying, telling heaven about you, reminding heaven about you, worrying heaven for you.

How long has it been since I worried heaven for another person?

How long since I got on my knees, face to the floor, or prayed loud in the car or on a run, how long since I was bold enough to declare that my words spoken in the name of Jesus have power? That when I’m talking to the Almighty, I believe that the Almighty is listening, is hearing, is attending to me?

Have we forgotten what it means to pray? Have I forgotten in my desire to make sure I’m contemplating the right issue or the right person or the right non-self-centered words, have I forgotten that Jesus gave me power to worry heaven for another human person?

I think about the faithful who wouldn’t let God alone, the widow who pursues the judge, the men who carry their brother to Jesus and lower him through the roof, the disciples who panic and cry out on the water, the crowds who clamor for loaves and fishes, the Israelites who wander and persist and insist with God that God has cut a covenant and God must keep it.

Why am I so timid when it comes to praying? I don’t want to sound like I want something too much or like I wouldn’t be happy if God gave me something else? I don’t want to be a bother, I don’t want to overstay my welcome in the family?

But this is what the word of God says in the stillness of my heart when I stop long enough: you cannot overstay your welcome in this family.

We have been worrying heaven on your behalf!

The courage it takes, to come bold before the throne, to come as our fullest selves, selves that persist and insist and come back again and again with the same prayers: safety for this person and life for this one, hope and patience and a new job and the truth to come out and a smoother transition and the thing that they really need.

I want to pray like that again.

I want to make my home in the tangled knot of the family of God, where we cannot overstay our welcome, where we cannot pray too much. I want to worry heaven for the ones I love.

I’ve been trying to write this blog post for weeks, and I couldn’t find the words. I’ve been sitting at the computer, waiting, and the words haven’t arrived. But the other morning, while Preston made coffee and I put off getting out of bed for as long as possible, I heard it: why are you waiting for the right words? The Spirit will teach you to pray. 

Perhaps I waited so long to write this blog post because I was hoping I could write it about how great this new way of praying is, and how much I have become good at it. And, of course, God hears that too.

I don’t know how to worry heaven or how to pray with a wild, relentless confidence. But the Spirit will teach me, will teach us.

So, courage or not, confidence or not, today I am on my knees, learning to worry heaven. And falling deeper in love with Jesus, who teaches me how.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: when you go into the woods

Dear Hilary,

My question for you. I have been living in Norway for the past 4 months. I was asked to intern at a church here for 9 months, and I thought the opportunity was exactly what I had been wanting. I completed a ministry school, interned as a small group leader for a ministry school, traveled to France, Haiti and Israel and felt that I was called to the nations. With that being said, since being here there has been unexpected circumstances which lead me to feel so discouraged and confused. My heart longs to return home, and yet there is a fear of simply choosing what is comfortable rather than what is best. Currently what I had thought I would be doing I am not. My heart is aching to do what I love, and yet I feel almost stuck. I am wanting to pursue what is on His heart for me, and I feel unsure of where I am suppose to go from here. I am choosing to live present and make the most of every opportunity by serving, and doing the best with I am given but I find myself again feeling I am not doing what I truly want.

Love,
Feeling Unsure

Dear Feeling Unsure,

Have you ever seen Into the Woods? The Sondheim musical, that is – there’s a recent movie too, but for the purpose of this letter I’m thinking particularly of the original musical. I watched it a little while ago, and I have been thinking, and singing the soundtrack, for weeks now. And it’s not a devotional in the traditional sense and it’s not a Bible verse, but I can’t stop thinking about it when I think about your letter.

There is this song, full of things I’m not sure about, about wishes and making our own right and good, but the refrain, it’s the refrain –

no one is alone, truly, no one is alone.

We often ask God for direction and guidance. We often crave a map, a path, a bit of light on the way. I spent months praying every day for clarity about life after college and months praying for a boy to fall in love with me when all I found was uncertainty. I spent my heart asking, asking, asking, for the clarity. For the suredness to come back (had I ever had it before?), for my way to be obvious. For the feeling in the pit of my gut that said, not this, or maybe this or worse still, I don’t even know how to decide if this or if not … to disappear.

I got on the floor of my bathroom the other night while my husband made us dinner while he sang praise songs. I got on the floor and wept for no other reason than life is still confusing and I am in the woods with you, somewhere I’m not sure of, somewhere new. All after the clear calling to grad school and marriage, all after the work of it and the months of being in it and becoming familiar and even after there has been so much that has felt sure.

And everywhere, there is someone who went into the woods, like you, trusting the One who calls and who now sits on her bathroom floor or in his car with the engine running, and everywhere there is a fighting to believe it: you are not alone. Truly. No one is alone. 

You aren’t failing or falling short because your heart hurts for home. You didn’t mishear a good calling, or make a wrong turn, or disappoint anyone. Hurting for home, for the familiar, for the certain path, is part of how we are made and remade and sanctified, yes, even this longing is caught up in that greater work.

If you go home tomorrow, if you stay for ten years, if you long every day to go home but stay, or if you find the hurt leaves you for a little while – these are not the markers of being in the will of God. Nor are they the marker of pleasing God or living out a calling.

Those things you are already doing because you are in the woods calling out for Jesus. For what is it that we are made for but to learn endlessly how deep and wide the love of Jesus, that it is finally, irrevocably true: you are not alone. Truly. 

You are calling out in the woods, and many miles from you, I’m doing the same, and there are thousands of us calling out, and this is the fullness of every calling: to call out for the Lord in the middle of the woods and to become more and more and more fully assured of Jesus. Believe me, Jesus hears you, loves you, and is in the middle of the woods with you.

You have already done so much that is brave and breathtaking. Trust now that you can pause and ache and wonder, and go where you go, and all the while, you are not alone. Jesus goes into the woods with you, and even now, He is near.

Love,
hilary

tonight, welcome the wonder

Dear friend,

There is a scene in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead I want to remember with you.

After a while the baby cupped her hands and poured water on her mother’s arm and laughed, so her mother cupped her hands and poured water on the baby’s belly, and the baby laughed… The baby made a conversational sound and her mother said, ‘That’s a leaf. A leaf off a tree. Leaf,’ and gave it into the baby’s hand. And the sun was shining as well as it could onto that shadowy river, a good part of the shine being caught in the trees…

After a while we went on back to the car and came home. Glory said, ‘I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.’

I can’t read this without tearing up. That sunshine and the shadowy river, the baby laughing, the leaf and the ordinary unconscious teaching of the wonder of the world, in a muddy bit of a river in Iowa. How can I not cry? That sunshine. That teaching. That wonder.

It’s the day before Christmas, and I am caught up in the ordinary wonder of today. There is sunshine through trees, and my father-in-law and I spent a morning drinking coffee and looking out big bay windows and talking, our minds wandering new and familiar paths and it is that, the making of memories of laughter and wisdom shared and questions asked, in the unhurried way of daily life – that is the wonder of Christmas. That is the wonder we are welcoming in this moment, in this night. We welcome the wonder of new life, Heaven colliding irrevocably with earth. We welcome a baby, who bears our flesh, our ordinary, who is now in the midst of us and among us and in us.

How can I not cry? We welcome the wonder of all wonders. Not apart from the ordinary, but entering the heart of it.

I sing Christmas carols around the house when I clean these days. I don’t notice it all the time, but then suddenly I do: the same wonder, the rhythm of the cleaning of the floors and of my heart, too. I sing Christmas carols loudly and without worrying about managing all the right notes in the original key. I sing these stories loud. Something about the soapy water and the quiet and the ordinary work that never ceases: this is the work of wonder. The task of it, to repeat it in the midst of everything.

Tonight, we welcome the wonder of all wonders, the Lord of Heaven come to earth. We do this work of welcome in the middle of being so very much ourselves. I am myself, 24 years old, young in marriage and love and wisdom, me, the desperate seeker of a wilder love. I am welcoming Jesus as me, because Jesus comes for me. I am welcoming Jesus in the midst of my ordinary, singing Christmas carols with the Swiffer in hand. I am welcoming Jesus crying over Gilead. In the heart of the ordinary, the extraordinary enters in.

Come with me even unto Bethlehem? Bring your ordinary, your uncertainty, your wearied heart and hands and self? Even unto Bethlehem?

Tonight, the wonder of all wonders is born. Come with me, and greet Him?

Love,
hilary