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

when I choose the economy of God

“So, I guess you’re going to have to figure out three things.”

This is my husband, in the still, dark room where we sit and write with the rain outside and the quiet inside. He’s talking about gratitude, something I’m resisting, and I don’t have a good reason, I should tell you that right now.

Actually, I should tell you that I have some bad reasons.

In the economy of an anxious heart, your minus columns are always outlasting your positive ones. In the economy of a perfectionist heart, a minor dip in expected performance is the 1929 crash of Wall Street. A lower grade than you expected of yourself or a missed opportunity to make friends with someone or some nice thing you can’t quite put your finger on but you’re sure you failed to do. You name it for yourself and suddenly it is another thing you’ve forgotten, and you work and live on an ever steepening incline of failure, and somewhere along the way you’re also drowning in your own misunderstanding of yourself, and you’ve mixed your metaphors together so you are a drowning person climbing a mountain with a top you can’t reach, pushing a rock maybe, like Sisyphus, or maybe just pushing yourself, hauling yourself up and up and up and already you are sure you have been defeated.

That’s me sometimes. I don’t know if it’s ever you, but it is me. It is me when the grades and the papers and the research ideas come back with critique or comment or areas for improvement. It is me in the quiet fights and the loud ones. It is me lying in bed on a random Saturday morning cataloguing the friends I haven’t caught up with lately or the places I have not brought peace or the way I should have and could have and would have been a better me.

The economy of God looks nothing like the economy of my anxious heart.

The economy of God is God coming towards us, promising abundant generosity for the laborers who work an hour and those who work a full day. It is a strange, terrifying generosity, the kind that makes my neat columns of deserving and undeserving and the weight and sift of my measurements look foolish. The kind that puts us to shame in our race to merit and earn, but rescues us in the midst of it too. God laughs, I imagine, and sets us free.

Once my counselor asked me what the big bad was that would happen if I didn’t win. If I didn’t get perfect grades or perfect GRE scores or a perfect record of performances. I still don’t know the answer to that question. I think that was her point.

I want the economy of God. I want the economy of generosity, the economy of grace. I want the rescue from drowning my way up a mountain I can’t ever finish climbing, the setting free. I want the economy that will force me to give up my pride in making each and every thing perfect, my disappointment at myself when things aren’t just as I would like them. I want Jesus, in the end, whatever it might cost me and my well-worn anxious heartbeat.

And so I do have to figure out three things, write a story that is full of the richness of a generosity I didn’t earn, full of receiving blessing where I can’t say my goodness or my rightness is the reason, but the only reason is the sufficient reason is that God loves. That’s the new story. God loves, and the richness of the story is there. I’m caught up into it, and set free by it, and this is the better story.

Preston asked me for three things. I won’t tell you what they are, but I’m thinking I might keep a journal somewhere, and start writing them down.

And so in a little way, widen my welcome of the most wondrous love.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: if the impossible is true

Dear Hilary,

I’m learning a lot about probabilities right now, and how to apply them. I’m learning that there are high probabilities for some things and low ones for others, based on evidence, based on prior ideas or beliefs, based on… you name it.

What if there is no probability for something? What if there is no probability that God is real, the way you talk about God? Is trusting in something that isn’t really trustworthy is a bad idea?

Love,
Probably

Dear Probably,

I have a high probability for believing that I am sitting in my apartment typing this to you. I have a low probability for believing I am a brain in a vat, or secretly a monkey typing on a typewriter into infinity. I suppose lots of things are possible, but they have low probability.

Honestly, though, what a curious idea – that you would measure belief by something like probability, up and weigh and judge things by how rational they are and seem. It’s not a bad way of going on for some things, but it isn’t the only way we measure belief. It isn’t the only way we measure familiarity or trustworthiness.

So maybe I wonder whether the probability of me being a brain in a vat or being a monkey typing on a typewriter to achieve Shakespeare’s Hamlet is really in the end the best way to think about your questions about God.

The Incarnation kind of messes around with all our probability.

What is that line, from the L’Engle poem? Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the Child.

Probability is a way of filling the room, the paper, the equation, with reason. And sometimes, when you’re filled up with reason, there is no room for the Child. There is no room for the Incarnation in its particular, improbable, unyieldingly unlikely way, to live in your heart.

I’m just now learning a lot about probability and probability calculus. I’m learning about how much we trust something based on what appears to us to be true or on what an authority says versus what we see, or think we see…

There is a beauty to what it can show you about how you think. There is a goodness and a truth to it, too. But there is this resistant, stubborn part of my heart, or maybe the whole of my heart, that says even when it is good and helpful, it’s not everything.

The improbable is sometimes remarkably true. And our measure of believing in that improbable truth can’t be contained in the neat lines of a pencil on a calculus problem on graph paper.

Had Mary been filled with reason. Maybe this is a post about reasonable-ness, that elusive thing we so often want to defend us. We want to be justified in being angry and hurt and confused when something happens, or being elated and grateful and full of joy. We want reasonableness to keep us on the straight and narrow, give us the right opinions, protect us from being fools or from being in error. We want a hedge of protection around the happenings of the world.

There’d had been no room for the Child.

And isn’t it the Child, after all, that we should stretch enough to make room for?

And isn’t it the Child, after all, that makes room for us?

I want to tell you, young philosopher in the making, you who seek the probability, the justified and justifiable reasons, and even you, who might be reading this, who think that the best thing is the most probable thing –

Welcome the wonder of the impossible: the Lord, come among us as a child.

Let us make room.

Love,
hilary

Jesus is journeying toward us

It’s hard to believe it’s already the second week of Advent, isn’t it?

Hard to believe that we’re already such a ways along in the journey towards Bethlehem, towards Jesus.

This year I realized something new: Jesus is coming for me. Jesus, the King, is coming into the world, into the mess and beauty and hope of the world, for me. For my heart, for my always anxious always joyful heart, for my whole self. Jesus is coming towards me.

We spend a lot of time in Advent talking about our journey to the manger. We’re like the wise men following a star, we’re like the shepherds following the words of an angel, we’re like Mary and Joseph, even, riding on the back of a donkey and walking beside it, when the whole land is to be registered.

But have we forgotten, in our Advent calendars and moving wooden animals and counting down days and lighting candles that it is Jesus who is coming to us?

I so often want to cast myself in the role of the person in the story who climbed up the tree to get a better look, who declared allegiance well before it was popular or easy, who stayed faithful to the end, who went out looking for the Savior and who found him.

But the truth is, most of the time, I am standing still, and it is God who comes out looking for me. It is God who leaves behind everything to catch everything back up into Himself. It is God who promises salvation and then comes to us bringing it. One of my favorite eucharistic hymns – and with blessing in his hands, Christ our God to earth, descendeth, our full homage to demand. 

We cry out, Come, Lord Jesus but sometimes we are so anxious to be seen as the ones running towards him that we forget our helplessness, our wandering in darkness, our on us light has shined. Not our own light, not light we went out and found and sought and made for ourselves, but the light that comes from beyond us is the light that is coming. That is the light that we have been gifted this Advent.

I am standing still, in the thousand thousand winds of God’s coming, and I wish I was one of the angels one of the shepherds one of the wise men one of the righteous one of the wisest one of the enlightened. I wish to be the one who recognizes the movement in the air and who goes after God running.

But I couldn’t, and the stories should be told no less honestly than this: when I could not move at all, Jesus came. 

When I couldn’t take off running for God, Jesus came running for me.

And when even my bones did not know how to cry out, yet even then did God say, behold my Son. 

And even in those moments when I get out of the boat, when I see Jesus, when I whisper and hope and pray – then I fear I am sinking, and even then, Jesus immediately – immediately – reaches out to catch me and whispers, you of little faith, why did you doubt? 

This Advent, can we remember together, the wonder that God is coming for us? That we are the receivers of the light, of the hope, of the great news, that the angels and shepherds and wise men and the sheep and oxen and calves and goats and everything that is in heaven and on earth leaps together in rejoicing –

because Jesus is journeying toward us.

Love,
hilary

when I find dirt on my wedding shoes

I had a plan for my wedding shoes, even before Preston proposed to me. I’d seen them in a magazine the previous Christmas and in so many wedding Pinterest pictures. They were the perfect color pink – ballet pink, the kind that’s gentle but strong and not too flashy but not too pale – made of what look like satin ribbons, flat but elegant. I’ve wanted to be graceful like a ballerina for a long time (far longer than I actually studied ballet, I should admit), and these were the shoes I imagined wearing.

They fit perfectly, and I kept them in their box without ever touching them or wearing them. I would show them off in hushed whispers, the tissue paper crinkling, slip them on for no more than ten minutes and always inside. I couldn’t imagine ever wearing them anywhere – they were the thing I thought would make me beautiful.

photo by Ebersole Photography
photo by Ebersole Photography

And today I was cleaning our closet on a whim listening to the rain outside and I tried on my wedding shoes again, just to see. I don’t know if any of us are very far from thinking beautiful things are magic, and so I stood amid the dust and the old scarves and the sweaters and I slipped them on.

They fit perfectly.

They’re covered in dirt.

I began a lament, half-formed the words on my tongue and half whispered them to the mirror, looking up and down and wondering where all this dirt had come from, if I should put them somewhere safer than in the midst of all my other ordinary shoes, as if they should be kept safe from my ordinary life, from my growing self.

But I couldn’t stop looking, noticing, and then I realized: the dirt makes them beautiful.

The dirt is the witness to the growing of a young marriage, the beginning, the glorious running through the world and the slowing down, the catching each other, the catching ourselves, the being constantly caught up in God. They’re bearing the marks of marriage: the almost five months, the honeymoon where we got tattoos and the wandering through the grounds of my high school where we got married, the scuffs of grass from down by the river where we walked in the haze of a Texas summer. I can squint and see the mystery green pen marks I tried to erase with a Tide pen now permanently etched at their edges. They’re wearing history now, a bit of rainwater, worn from being stamped in frustration or impatience. And they wear the history of love, how different and the same it is, how easy it is to forget that love is always moving in wild uncontrollable circles, bringing more people in, bringing you closer to the one you love, sealing the ark and the ache of marriage with every click of the lock and every first peek of sun too early in the morning.

We tell ourselves to make memories because time goes too fast, to take pictures, to Skype every detail back home lest we lose sight of who we are or were or could become.

But perhaps our lives are already bearing witness to it. Perhaps it is we who are too worried to notice that the rest of our ordinary is holding and bearing to us the story of us, of our marriage and jobs and moves and fights and triumphs. Perhaps our shoes, even those we were so afraid to touch, are beautiful when we let them wear and retell our stories.

Perhaps the dirt on my wedding shoes is a better storyteller of this hallowed beginning than I can hope to be.

And perhaps, I should stand still in the perfect pink shoes now flecked grey and brown and that funny hint of green in my closet on a Saturday and listen.

Photo by Ebersole Photography
Photo by Ebersole Photography

The story they tell is so beautiful.

Love,
hilary

dear hilary: when strength is hard-fought

Dear Hilary,

He hurts. I hurt. We play the game of who cares less: He is winning because I care too much, invest my heart too quickly. Still I do not tell a soul. I wrestle with sexuality, faith, self-respect – aware that this is unhealthy. I cannot fix him, I know. And I too walk through a season of brokenness and loneliness – I am not strong enough. 

Tonight I ache and before I know it, I have spilled my tears and confusion and fear all over the passenger seat of my friends car. He pieces the story together and asks me if I want his advice. I nod and he tells me that I need to get out of this relationship, that I am too good for him, that he does not want to me get more hurt than I already am – that my no will hurt him, anger him, alter the relationship, but in the end, he will respect me for it. 

Alone in my room, I absorb his honest words. I think about what it means to respect self, declare that you are worth more than being used. I think about how it is foolish to expect that I can fix other people or be their saviour, and I know they cannot be mine either. Because the broken cannot fix the broken as the blind cannot lead the blind.

Yet still I think of his arms around me. I fear that I am not strong enough to respect myself.

Love,
sexuality, emotions & other dangerous things

Dear Dangerous Things,

I was in France my freshman year of high school when I learned the word for wound in French: blessure. We were talking about the Normandy Beaches, about D-Day. When I think about things that hurt, when I think about things that ache, for some reason I go right back to the hallway just by the gift shop in some small museum in Normandy where my teacher taught us the word for wound. Une blessure. 

I’ve since looked it up, and in the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the entry for the word “bless” is this idea – to wound or to hurt. It’s from the Old French and the French. I don’t know how often we use it, or if anyone uses it at all these days. But it is there, in its quiet catalogued home, and when I read your letter for some reason I went back and looked at it again.

You have been blessed in just this way – injured. And your letter speaks that out and it is worth attending to. I am not anxious to speak the other meaning of the same word – the meaning that has to do with abundance, with gift, with praise, with being given a blessing. I think perhaps there will be a moment when this one blessing becomes the other, but that’s not for me to say.

It’s just for me to say that your strength does not depend on not having been wounded. Your strength does not depend on you being in top shape all the time. Strength is a mysterious thing. You have it by clinging to it. You have it by insisting on it, daily, in the small ways. You have it not by already having it, not by being without une blessure or even more than one, but by the taking of those things into yourself.

I encourage you think deeply about the conversation you had with your friend. I encourage you to attend to the parts of it that perhaps feel most wounding: that your friend has said you should alter the relationship. That your friend has said you will be more hurt by continuing. That your friend, whatever else has happened, whatever wounds live there, is telling you to go.

That conversation hurts, but I think it is its hurting, its clear-sighted pain, is the strength. Because you will not have strength to go before you go, and there will be no magical moment where you wake up and the wounds have disappeared.

So do not wait. Strength to go will follow your leaving. The healing will follow your binding up of the wounds.

I can’t know how or when or even if this wound, this blessing, will become the other kind. But I know that you will have strength to go by going, I know that you will find that in the first steps you take out from the space where you are hurting, out from attending to it, clear-sighted, there strength will meet you.

For I believe that God’s gesture to us is one of constant coming near. Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that in her book Pastrix – I remember underlining it over and over and over. “God is always coming near us.”

God is always coming near you. Constantly. In this, in the first step away, in the before-you-have-strength, in the strengthening, in the aftermath. In the blessing, and the blessing.

Love,
hilary