Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dear Hilary, Love, Hilary: The Tuning Fork

Today I'm linking up with Joy's life, unmasked, to share the mess and wonder of living this life. Won't you come and share your stories, too?

Dear Hilary,

I want to please other people. I want to do whatever will make them happy. You want 100 photocopies in 3 minutes? Done. You want a strategic plan for the future of an organization at this college? Done. You want me to be there, run this errand, listen to this problem? I would love to. But then I run headlong into this wall. I really want to be a writer. I really want to be a counselor, of some kind. I really want to put writing and counseling together in some strange beautiful combination, and I don't want to lose threads of theology, or of my love of French, or my love of theater... When I ask people what I should do, they tell me that I would be a great PhD student, of history or political science or philosophy. They tell me I could run an organization, a school even. I want to please them, and I don't want to disappoint anyone's dreams. Help?

Afraid to Disappoint

Dear Afraid to Disappoint,

Our piano is out of tune at home. The keys clink strange half-tones, and I swear I can hear it groaning when someone asks it to sing one more rendition of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming." Have you ever watched someone tune an instrument? They take that strange fork instrument and hit it against something - your knee, or a piece of plastic or wood, the door frame, or something. And then they hold it up to their ear to hear it ringing. The air moves between the two tines of the fork and the note - a middle C, or an A - becomes the foundation for the rest.

I have been thinking in these last few months that certain loves in our lives are like a tuning fork. They give us the foundation for the rest, a measure against which we can understand how other things might fit into our lives.

Sometimes it's terrifyingly clear that they don't sound the same. I do not love everything in the magnitude that I love writing. I do not breathe, and ache and live in biology; I do not yearn for one more hour with a potter's wheel or a linoleum block printing press. And why should we be afraid of this? We will never be able to do everything, anyway. In the small amount of time we are gifted, why shouldn't our hearts be caught up in the work we love most?

I think you ache to write. I think your body physically feels the need to put words on paper. Why else, sweetheart, could you have written? I think you are beginning to tune the piano of your life by the writing tuning fork. So strike it and listen. Does counseling sound like that? Does teaching? Does directing plays or traveling to France? Does politics, or philosophy, or history?

You write to me that you don't want to disappoint others in their ideas of what you should do. I can understand that. You don't want to say no to a career in history or political science or philosophy, partly because you love these professors and mentors. You want to honor their work, affirm the value of their field. That's admirable. But, Afraid to Disappoint, I have to tell you that the only sure disappointment in this life is living less of you. You are the unlikely combination of counseling, writing, French, history, politics, philosophy, and faith. You are the unlikely wedding planner meets chemical engineer. You are the unlike-everything-else musician turned playwright turned nanny turned environmental advocate...

We all have deep loves that roar inside us. I think yours is writing and counseling and teaching and ten things I don't know yet. So your task in this world is to live that. Live more of you.

So strike the tuning fork.

Life: Unmasked

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Slow Temptation (The First Sunday of Lent)

So hold fast, children of the Father, and look with eagerness and reverence towards the Resurrection of Christ Jesus. 

It only takes a moment to forget God. On one walk across the Quad in February when my feet scrunch the still frozen ground, I forget to bow my head as you walk and say, "Thank you." In one early morning class, I forget to be alive with His love, and I snap at my students, or I roll my eyes impatiently towards them. In one small moment, I deny who He is, what He has done - I am silent when a hard question rolls towards me or I choose to tell a loud story about how unfair He is, how difficult everything is. 

This is the slow temptation: that we forget God. That we wrap ourselves up in our lives, in our own questions, in our own loves and losses, and we forget Him. We might not even notice it happening. Just a few days without praying. Just a few weeks without Eucharist. Just a few moments of scoffing at Him, at His message, at His love for the world. 

But Lent is a moment when we turn our attention on temptation. We read about how Jesus was tempted in every way as we were, yet was without sin. And when Satan came to Jesus, and offered the kingdoms of the world, and challenged his power, and challenged his truthfulness - Jesus did not forget. 

His words echo in my heart this morning, as I realize how long I have been this week in the slow temptation of forgetting God. Satan said, "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4.8-10)

In the moments when I am tempted to forget Him, to tell my story without His presence, to take credit for the blessings and push off blame for the failings. When I want to forget what He says and who He is, because I know it asks a lot of me? I remember that Jesus' words were simple. Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.

Do not serve the forgetfulness. Do not let the slow temptation overtake you. But hold fast, because the message we scoff at now is the message that brings us life. This Jesus of Nazareth, who calls fishermen, and heals the sick, who preaches the Kingdom and gives us living water - He does not forget us. 

This week, as we begin our pilgrimage towards Easter, may we remember God. May we reply to the slow temptation with Jesus' words - Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.

Pray with me, from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be
tempted of Satan; Make speed to help thy servants who are 
assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest
their several infirmities, let each one find thee mighty to save; 
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and 
reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for 
ever. Amen.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

he remembers that we are dust, letter eleven, hilary to preston

On Tuesdays and Thursdays around our small corner of the blogging world, Preston and I write letters back and forth. We share about theology, about grace, about the mystery of becoming like the One who is our peace. I'm writing back to Preston today. Read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

I was sitting in the Ash Wednesday service in Chapel here, waiting to feel the dusty thumbprint of the priest across my forehead. If you can, picture this: I have an impatient, perturbed expression on my face. You see, I've been feeling a bit anonymous lately, and I've complained loudly about it to anyone who will wait long enough to hear me.

I've complained that the work is unseen, or not right, or not enough. I've complained that God isn't giving me what I want, when I want. I've been jealous, grasping at the joy others have in some strange attempt to have it for myself. You see, I want the acceptance letters, and the financial aid packages, and the affirmation that yes, they want you. I want to be sure of what's next.

So I'm sitting in Chapel, with my feet propped up against the bar that holds the hymnals and the pew Bibles, staring at my feet in their copper colored Sperry's. And then the priest says something that picks me up by the scruff of my neck and flings me back against the pew, back against the back wall. He says something that has a mighty rush of truth, and I'm quaking under it.

Go read Psalm 103. 

It doesn't seem like much. But I wrote to you not all that long ago that I felt like it was time to let Scripture into my heart. And I forgot about it, and didn't read, or didn't devote the right time to reading, not as I should. Not as I said I would. So the words - "Go read Psalm 103" felt like being flung from one end of the sanctuary to the other.

And when I read it, the Lord said:

 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
   slow to anger, abounding in love.
 He will not always accuse,
   nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
   or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
   so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
   so far has he removed our transgressions from us
As a father has compassion on his children,
   so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
   he remembers that we are dust.
The life of mortals is like grass,
   they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
   and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
   the LORD’s love is with those who fear him
   and his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
   and remember to obey his precepts.

Preston - I forgot. I forgot that I'm dust. In my haste to believe I'm more, that I deserve something, that I am owed something, that God should have given me something other than what He has given me... I forgot that we are dust. That I'm dust. Fallen, fragile, so easily broken and so deeply sinful. 

But He remembers that we are dust. And He gives us everlasting love. He remembers that the wind blows over and it is gone, and so He gives us righteousness to our children's children, to those who keep His covenant. He remembers us when we cannot remember ourselves. And in spite of my posturing, my pride, my strutting around like a peacock preening her feathers? He flings my sins as far as east is from west, and gives me compassion. 

I'm blown away, blessed beyond measure, and still dusty. And I wonder how to hold this lesson, this reminder from God that He has a story to tell me about real love. 

Perhaps we must begin with our fragile selves. Perhaps the only place to begin is Ash Wednesday. Perhaps the story starts with remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. 

Love, and grace and peace in all their fullness,

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dear Hilary, Love, Hilary: The Lovely Things

Today I'm linking up with Joy's life, unmasked, where we share the messy and the beautiful of our lives. We watch together as God works through it. I unmask through letters, but I hope you'll come share however you best tell the miraculous story of you.

Dear Hilary,

It's the beginning of Lent, and so I was trying to think about what I wanted to give up. I was looking in the mirror this morning with the same frown on my face. I'm hardly ever happy with what I see. I judge that girl - not skinny enough, hair an in-between color, clothes not trendy enough... I don't even know what it is that I'm measuring. So I was thinking about giving up thinking frustrated, unloving things about my body but then it seemed impossible. How can we give that up?

Lenten Discipline

Dear Lenten Discipline,

I remember not long ago giving up makeup for Lent. I said it was impossible. I said it couldn't be done - how can anyone go for six weeks without makeup? How can anyone bear to walk out their front door without being sure that they've made their face look exactly as they want it? But every day, when I walked to the mirror, and I slapped my hand away from the makeup drawer. I moved more quickly through that part of the morning.

I learned that there is something beautiful about naked, makeup-less faces. It scared me to no end to imagine what I looked like without makeup. I swore there would be no way, no way, NO WAY that I could do it, that I wouldn't like my face, or other people wouldn't recognize me, or what if they talked, or noticed, or those dark circles under my eyes and... I discovered that you radiate out from your skin. That it will glow brighter for having been scrubbed clean of expectations. That you will smile and fill a room with it. That you will be free.

I believe in this discipline for those of us who think angry, unloving things at our reflections early in the morning. I don't know what merry-go-round we're trapped on. It makes us believe lies about ourselves. It takes that word enough and chains us to it. So we're never enough. And we could run 20 miles, eat only grapefruit halves, poke our bellies or our shoulders or our hip bones for hours in a mirror only to discover that we are still living inside ourselves. We can't escape these bodies. They're home for us. Wouldn't it be amazing to think about those homes as beautiful, breathtaking, lovely things? To love them that way?

Please give up thinking those frustrated, unloving things, sweetheart. I can't think of anything better to do in Lent. Lent is the time to prepare your heart to burst open with the Resurrection. Lent is the time to make room inside yourself for Love. Lent is the time to undo the lies, and clear a path. So please give up those things. Give up the mirror. Give up the tired eyes that judge. Give up the expression of disgust. Give up the second guessing at the second piece of cake. Love yourself. Let the love fill you this Lent.

And in all those moments where you are tempted to think the unloving things, to hop back on the merry-go-round of which outfits and which second glances and if you're turning heads or if you spilled tomato sauce on your favorite shirt and should you go to the gym four times a week or just three?

Can you think the lovely things? That you can breathe, and think, and move. That your body carries your heart inside it. That your body feeds you, and that it has lived for years, and years, carrying all of your stories.

Think the lovely things, love. Think the lovely things this Lent. 

Life: Unmasked

Monday, February 20, 2012

our second beating hearts (the sixth week)

The only way to make a writing dream come true is to write your way towards it. The only way to live with good words is to search for them, find them, and love them. So over here on Mondays, I share with you some of the good words I've found throughout the week, and some of my own scribbles. And together, we write the contours of our second beating hearts. 

Good words I've found throughout the week:

Antonia for #ATLT at See Preston Blog: crosses, confessions, concussions
Betsy at Part of the Main: a mother-daughter valentine's tea (I loved the pictures!)
Julie at Ra(y)conteur: Mugs and Mentoring
Chris at from the smallest: Curse? of a Compassionate Heart?

A poem to hear sounding through your week (this one made me cry):

Meditation from 14A (Jennifer Maier)

And what if the passage out of this life
is like a flight from Seattle to St. Louis -

the long taxi out of the body, the brief
and terrible acceleration, the improbably

buoyancy, and then the moment when,
godlike, you see the way things fit

together: the grave and earnest roads
with their little cars, stitching their desires

with invisible thread; the tiny pushpin houses
and backyard swimming pools, dreaming

the same blue dream. And who but the dead
may look down with impunity on these white

birds, strewn like dice above the river whose name
you have forgotten, though you know,

having crossed the Divide, that it flows
east now, toward the vast, still heartland,

its pinstriped remnants of wheat and corn
laid out like burial clothes. And how

you would like to close your eyes, if only
you could stop thinking about that small scratch

on the window, more of a pinprick, really,
and about yourself sucked out! anatomized! -

part of you now (the best part) a molecule
of pure oxygen, breathed in by the farmer

on his tractor; by the frightened rabbit
in the ditch; by a child riding a bike

in Topeka; by the sad wife of a Mexican
diplomat; by a dog, digging up a bone

a hundred years in the future, that foreign city
where you don't know a soul, but where you think

you could start over, could make a whole
new life for yourself, and will.

And a poem from me:


The house died when he did.
It boarded us out, grew dust as a protection
over the tables, the fireplace,
the circle stained into the sideboard.

It closed the petals on roses climbing the white doorframe,
latched the gates, rusted the locks,
encouraged weeds in their savage pursuit.
It knocked stones out of the garden wall.

We tried to coax it back from mourning.
We wore black, vacuumed, sang too loudly.

Year after year, we walk into his absence,
the old smell of tobacco and shaving cream,

and the house remembers.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Bond of Peace (The Seventh Sunday of Epiphany)

She doesn't wait for me to be ready for her questions. As soon as the water glasses have been set down in front of us, she launches. "How are you going to prevent this pattern from reoccurring through the rest of your life?" she asks me, leaning forward into the question. "What?" I half laugh, half sigh. "That's your opening question?" 

But she is serious, and I watch as her love for me, and her worry, and her listening pour out onto the table between us. It is hard, we admit to ourselves and each other. It is hard, and real, and it can't continue. It's not sustainable. I'm rushing, anxious, too tired and never quite peaceful. And as I talk, and trace my finger around the rim of my glass, unwilling to meet her eyes, I can feel the truth pulling up a chair next to us. She's right, you know, it says. She's right about you. 

The miracle of time with my mentor is that she betrays how much she has studied me in the questions she asks. She can preface any question with what she knows I'll be thinking in my head. She can stop me and tell me what I was going to say, and she's almost always right. She can look me in the eyes and tell me, "I know that you don't like this, but it's the truth." And she knows that I don't like it, and she also knows that I still want to hear it. 

We sit in the car on a side street eating cupcakes and talking about how I've changed in these four years. How time has done things inside me, how I've become a little more patient and a little more peaceful. I see a long road ahead. I see a long road of obedience, and submitting. I see a long road where I have to make hard choices and hear hard questions, where I don't get what I want and I say the word "no" and learn its consequences. I see a long road knocking at doors, and getting on my knees in the dirt, and doing the work. 

But you see, she sees that long road too. And she says she'll walk down some of it with me. It's not her road, it's not her journey, exactly. But she promises to be there, as I climb hills and scrape my knees and cry and laugh and pray. She promises to be here. 

This is the bond of peace we should pray for: that we would seek it together. That we would desire it, together. That we would hope in it. That we would rejoice to watch each other grow closer to Him, and encourage one another to seek Him, and trust that His peace is sufficient for us. 

This is the bond of peace: that along those long roads into our futures, we might long to become peaceful, and full of Him. 

This is the bond of peace: That you and I can sit in the car on the side street eating cupcakes and remembering how we've become the people we've become, and you will tell me the hard truth and I will listen to it, that you will be right about me, and I will submit to that. And that in it all, through it all, we meet Christ. 


Thursday, February 16, 2012

be brave enough to be empty, letter nine, hilary to preston

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Preston and I blog letters back and forth, about theology and mystery and grace. We hope you'll join us. I'm writing to Preston this morning, and you can read his last letter to me here.

Dear Preston,

When I thought about whether or not to write, to put my fingers to the keyboard and attempt some kind of communication, I hesitated. Not because I don't have thoughts, or I don't still find it magic to put those thoughts into words. No, I wasn't sure how to tell the story of this week, how to weave together the person I have been, and all that has happened, and all that I am learning.

You see, yesterday I only found five minutes. Five minutes between 8am and midnight that belonged just to me. I used them to sit on the needing-to-be-vacuumed floor, with my winter coat still on, gloves stuffed into the pocket that has a hole in it, and cry. I used those five minutes to feel utterly bewildered. I used those five minutes to let my body physically express what I have so much trouble saying. That five minutes in a sixteen hour day, is not enough.

So I'm writing to you at 7:10am on a Thursday morning. My well feels a bit empty. My heart feels a bit heavy. My hands are full of the good, the beautiful, the true in the people I love and I am only realizing now that the way I want to love really might ask everything from me. It might really ask me to breathe deep and give again, and again, even when I don't feel like it and even when I don't know how to do it. I think this is grace, that when I go to the well and it is empty, His is full. When I look at my heart and see nothing else to give, no words for a facebook message, no smile for a passing classmate, no time for a friend, no... well, anything? He gives me what He has in His well. And He never runs dry. 

I want to tell you, Preston, to go drink from His well today. I don't know if that is Scripture or cappuccino, if that is a walk with a friend or reading for your thesis alone at a desk in the library. Maybe it is as simple as closing your eyes and asking to hear and see His love around you. But drink from His well today. He doesn't run dry, and His water is living water.

And we are women at the well thirsty and skeptical. We disbelieve. We say to ourselves, oh, no, there is nothing different about His water. We say, I might as well do it on my own. I might as well not ask for help. After all, what does He have? But I'm crawling to that well today and I have to believe He has living water there.

You said in your last letter that you don't know what you need. This is paralyzing, almost terrifyingly so. For if we knew what we needed, we could go searching for it. We could write a letter, buy aspirin for the headache, take a nap, write... but we don't know what we need. We can't just fix ourselves. We can't buy or borrow the cure because we can't diagnose what is wrong. I do not think this is a bad thing, actually. I think it might be grace to us. I think it gives us over wholeheartedly to God, makes us crawl to the well of living water empty, and say, here, You help me. I don't even really know what's wrong. 

Be brave enough to be empty. Be brave enough to drink living water, knowing that it illuminates all of the ways you aren't self-sufficient and you need God, knowing that it reveals just how small and fragile we can be, knowing that it is not by our strength we are healed. Be brave enough to be empty.

I believe He will fill you.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dear Hilary, Love, Hilary: And We All Break Open

This week I'm linking up with Joy's life, unmasked series to share a bit about my life, unmasked. I write it out in letters to myself, but I hope you come over and share with everyone, however you tell the beautiful story of you.

Dear Hilary,

I think I have a broken heart. I know, it sounds so melodramatic. It sounds petty. It sounds ungrateful. After all, who am I to have a broken heart, when there is so much beauty in the world, and so much to be thankful for? Why are hearts so heavy?

Weight of the World

Dear Weight of the World,

Oh, love. I know this question well. I used to walk around campus in college some nights, blinking back tears because I didn't want anyone to think that I was sad, but feeling like my heart was going to break my ribcage open with everything it carried. I held so many people in my suitcase heart - that's what The Weepies sing in "Slow Pony Home" and I would sing it to myself and walk through the empty sidewalks. My shoulders sagged forward, and I would feel my lip tremble, my throat tighten in just the way it does right before you're about to cry.

I don't know that advice in these moments is really what you want. So I want to give you something, small and fragile, to carry with you: we all break open. 

Yes, we all break open. For some, we break over love - unrequited, unfair, uncontrollable, misunderstood, messy, beautiful love. For some, we break over honesty - when we have it, or when we don't, when it confronts us or we run from it. For some, we break over the job we desperately wanted and didn't get. We break over the city we left years ago and still dream of. We break over the dishes not being done and the bills unpaid, over the unread blog posts we published and the loneliness of an extra three hours' of work on a Friday night.

You do have a broken heart, dear one, you do. That doesn't change the real beauty, how the wind and the leaves whip themselves into a frenzy when you run by the pond in the morning. That doesn't change the good things that have appeared before you - the note from a friend or the surprise free time or the news that someone you love has had something wonderful happen to them. Your broken heart won't break those things.

I know it's possible you can't trust those answers, or you can't hold them or hear them. And that's okay. Those nights walking around campus blinking back tears singing "Slow Pony Home" I could not hold all the beauty and all the gratefulness and all the joy. And even now, as I write these words to you, I know there are days when I cannot really understand why our hearts break, and why we must allow it to happen.

But we all break open. We are all gutted from the inside out, all opened by difficulty, all widened by pain. You are entering the midst of all of us, with your suitcase heart set next to ours, and even if we cannot understand who you carry inside you, we can make space for you. Even if we do not know what particular ghosts and questions linger at your shoulder, we can hold you. We all break open so that we can bleed more love. We all break open so that we can begin to build out towards each other. We all break open to pour out.

Break with us. And I promise we will hold each other close as we do.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Bigger Grace (the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany)

We get dressed quickly, watching the snow and sleet twirl outside our window. We are going to breakfast together, so we pull on boots and jeans, scarves and coats, and head off into the day. We pull onto the highway, towards Sugar Magnolia's, pancakes and the keeping of each other. 

When we are sitting down, mugs of coffee in our hands, awaiting eggs and hash and monkey toast (which is caramel banana French toast), she looks at me and asks me to keep talking. "You were saying..." she smiles and settles into her chair to listen. We trade this position back and forth, leaning forward and back, the toddler at the next table making us laugh as he sends a plate, the tip and a pile of napkins onto the floor. We sit on the big front porch of each other's hearts, and look out at the world together. 

This week I am trying to tell her, tell myself, what I've learned about grace. I think that's what I'm going to talk about. I think I'm going to talk about how when you find the dream inside you that gives you life, when you find the thing which you must do, then your heart expands towards the rest of the world. You aren't jealous of other people's success. You are no longer worried about the future. You know only the work that is before you and you pour yourself into it. 

But the funny thing is, instead I find myself confessing as I put a piece of banana in my mouth that I really want to be wanted. I find the words leaking out of my mouth that I know that being desirable isn't as simple as having someone desire you, but that I wish I had it. The corners of my mouth pull down. I fiddle with my coffee mug. I cross, and uncross my legs. 

She looks at me and gets it. I see the recognition pass through her eyes like I'm wearing a sweater she knows. She fiddles with her mug, too. And when she looks at me, as she settles into the porch chair in my heart and looks outward at the world I see - I realize, the bigger grace is the space to say how much I do not know. 

The grace I would have talked about is true; and discovering what you love to do is a grace that widens and expands you to see and love others better. All the words that I imagined myself spilling across the plastic table are true. But the bigger grace is the space to live out the confession that I don't believe it yet, that I do really want to be wanted, that I long for an answer to that question. 

Sometimes when we go to talk about grace we receive it. Sometimes when we set off to tell a friend about the lesson we've learned, we learn a different, bigger one. 

Her hands move across the air between us, reminding me about the difference between our small college and the bigger world, or about what beauty lives in us despite others and ourselves' seeing it. We pick up our bags and sign our receipts, and push open the door. We step onto the street in silence, travel in step towards the car. 

This is the bigger grace: she makes the space to tell the truth. This is the bigger grace: between monkey sweet bread toast and house coffee, and two girls at the beginning of it all, she offers me the space to be uncertain, to be wondering, to grow.

The bigger grace is the love.  


Thursday, February 9, 2012

which are almost unsayable, letter eight, hilary to preston

On Tuesdays Thursdays Preston and I write letters to each other, to share the wonder of talking theology and grace and mystery together, across the blogs and emails and tweets. I hope you visit his space for At the Lord's Table: A Blog Conversation, and that you find the words there refreshing. I'm learning so much from spending time reading those incredible writers. Today I'm responding to Preston's beautiful letter from Tuesday.

Dear Preston,

This year for Christmas I got what is probably the most wonderful book I have ever received. It's a daily readings from Rainer Maria Rilke - every day a small paragraph, a small treasure, a poem or a letter clipped out and saved for these unlikely readers, who Rilke never met or perhaps even knew about.

When I read your letter, I wanted to write back right away, I wanted to put all these words to what you expressed, how difficult it is to feel like the other, and want to be seen as the same. I wanted to give you all these words, to fill up the places that feel empty or to overflow your inbox with a reminder that you are part of this community, part of this place, part of belonging here.

But you see, that was February 6. And on February 6, Rilke's words to me in that book were:

"Things are not nearly so comprehensible and sayable as we are generally made to believe. Most experiences are unsayable; they come to fullness in a realm that words do not inhabit. And most unsayable of all are works of art, which - alongside our transient lives - mysteriously endure." (Paris, February 17, 1903)

His words shook me. I kept wanting to give you words, words of comfort or truth or life, words that would heal and bind up and restore... And there is Rilke, reminding me that some things are not nearly so comprehensible as we believe.

So I wanted to tell you that while I long to give you words, I think it more important to stand in the face of your questions, of your silence, next to you and be silent too. Perhaps there isn't enough of standing in silence together anymore.

That's what the part of me that lives in the Orthodox Church says we should go. We should stand in silence together before what is so very difficult, what is almost unsayable. You know from all our conversations that the Orthodox Church is a large part of my heart, and some of my head, and always a wonder and a mystery about whether the rest of me will end up there. I'm remembering this prayer that they sing in the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: Lord, our God, whose power is beyond compare, and glory is beyond understanding; whose mercy is boundless, and love for us is ineffable; look upon us and upon this holy house in Your compassion. Grant to us and to those who pray with us Your abundant mercy.

Those words make me stand silent. His power, beyond compare. His glory, beyond understanding. But His mercy, boundless, and His love, ineffable. There aren't words for that. Not really. Yet the Church repeats the words, and holds the silence that the words point to, holds what is unsayable in her spaces and in her people.

Could it be that in these moments when we look in the face of what is so unsayable, about Him, about us, about all that we do not know and wish we knew, we are meant to carry each other's silences? That for we who blog and write books and papers and who spend our time in theology and philosophy and literature, that in the end the words point to the silence beyond them?

I wish I could give you words, Preston. I long to. But I wanted to at least say that I will stand with you in front of what is unsayable. We can carry each other's silences. 


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dear Hilary, Love, Hilary: The Not Sudden Death

On Wednesdays I get the chance to share a bit of my life, unmasked with Joy over at Joy in this Journey. It's a chance to share the messy and the beautiful and watch God at work in all of it. Won't you come share yours too?

Dear Hilary,

Time is running out, isn't it? Time to meet a boyfriend, or time to marry and make a family, time to chase my dreams of writing, and being a provost somewhere, and teaching and starting a school. I have all these dreams and I'm terrified I won't be able to do any of them because graduation is coming and I don't know what I'm doing yet and I'm not sure whether to panic or to rejoice. And mostly I just want to know if any of these things are going to happen to me, too?

On the Sidelines

Dear On the Sidelines,

There was this girl once, who in high school was the pinnacle of the overachiever. I mean, she did it all, did most of it really well (she was never very good at art). She directed plays, ran a debate team, wrote poetry, tried to make Gatsby and Daisy make sense in a deeper way. She taught French to other students, she led meetings on Hurricane Katrina's ecological effects and social ramifications... this girl, if anyone, seemed to know it all and have it all and be racing like a champion horse to the finish line.

But can I tell you what she discovered when she got to college? Do not try to live your life like it's sudden death overtime, all eyes on you, the one winning shot yours to make or break. Don't do it, Sidelines. This girl, she found that the system in high school was still the system in college - do everything perfectly, do everything just so, please the strangers you will never see again, appease all, never let on that you're hurting or broken or unsure. This system is the same in college, is the same in the workplace, is the same in graduate school, because it's what you've taught yourself to run on. It's not the truth; it's just what's worked so far.

You sound like this girl I knew in high school, Sidelines. You sound like you're living your life in a sudden death overtime. Don't do it. Wise Ann Voskamp says, "Life is a gift, not an emergency." Did you hear that? The time you complain isn't enough, to do everything you want, to be everything you want, to please enough people, to check off enough boxes... this time is a gift to you. You did not earn it. You do not deserve it.

So live it without the urgency. Live it without the warning bells firing off in your head that every decision you make is a final, irrevocable, gut-wrenching life-altering one. You say you're terrified that you won't be able to do any of them. But the only way you will know if you can do them, love, is to do them. You won't protect yourself from time by trying to avoid it, trying to box your life in and duct tape it shut. So walk into it. Into the game. Into yourself.

I don't know yet if you'll marry and have kids (I hope so, sweetheart, I really do). I don't know yet if you'll become a kickass writer or a provost or a school founder down past the Mason-Dixon. I don't even know yet what my life holds. None of us do. That's part of what make this a gift. You might have all, or none, or some combination that blows your mind with its power and beauty.

On the Sidelines, I think you wrote to me because you know this in yourself already and you want my blessing or my reprimand to do it already. So here it is: life is the not-sudden-death-overtime. Life is a gift to you. 

Life: Unmasked

Monday, February 6, 2012

our second beating hearts (the fifth week)

The only way to make a writing dream come true is to write your way towards it. The only way to live with good words is to search for them, find them, and love them. So over here on Mondays, I share with you some of the good words I've found throughout the week, and some of my own scribbles. And together, we write the contours of our second beating hearts. 

Good words I've found:

Lisa-Jo at the Gypsy Mama: Because sometimes empty is better than full {an invitation}
Julie at Ra(y)conteur: An Approach to Church
Fr. Stephen at Glory to God for All things: The Song of God
Renee Ronika Klug, over at #ATLT: that we may be one
Suzanne at faceless mignon: Life: Unmasked, Enjoy

A poem to hear sounding through your week:

Misgivings (William Matthews), found through the Writer's Almanac from February 4, 2012.

"Perhaps you'll tire of me," muses
my love, although she's like a great city
to me, or a park that finds new
ways to wear each flounce of light
and investiture of weather.
Soil doesn't tire of rain, I think,

but I know what she fears: plans warp,
planes explode, topsoil gets peeled away
by floods. And worse than what we can't
control is what we could; those drab,
scuttled marriages we shed so
gratefully may augur we're on our owns

for good reasons. "Hi, honey," chirps Dread
when I come through the door, "you're home."
Experience is a great teacher
of the value of experience,
its claustrophobic prudence,
its gloomy name-the-disasters-

in-advance charisma. Listen,
my wary one, it's far too late
to unlove each other. Instead let's cook
something elaborate and not
invite anyone to share it but eat it
all up very very slowly.

And a poem from me: 

In the South of France, Musing about Why You are a Farmer
(To my friend Lisa, who teaches me to love the land)

You might not have been a farmer,
Except for the weeds you gently divorced
From their cabbage neighbors.
You might not have been a farmer,
Except that your gut
Feels the emptiness before harvest
And you fill your hands
With the miracle of dirt.
You might not have been a farmer
Before you picked the first ripe lemon,
Before you put your ear to the ground to hear the worms
Dig their patient tunnels,
Before you watched rows unfurl
And the horizon explode with ripeness.
Cézanne drew this mountain
Over and over and we thought his drawing
Made it new every time.
But you know
the land changes each moment,
And Cézanne drew the newness he saw.
The lavender and poppies that swell
drench the land in light, and color:
untamed, unyielding.
You might not have been a farmer.
But you yearn for what is wild,
Recognize what blooms,
and farmers are nothing less. 


Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Living Water (the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany)

The Eucharist followed me through to the end of my week. I wrote about it in my Thursday letter to Preston, wondering how it is that I stake my whole self on these words:

I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, he who comes to me shall not thirst. And I will raise them up on the last day.

We must obey the call to eucharisteo, to thanksgiving. Somehow we have to trust and wonder and fumble with the people we love. We rarely do it well, but we ought to try. Somehow we have to look like fools with our hearts cut open and beating for the world, minds bending with the weight of joy and trial, hands heavy with the things we carry for each other. This, dear friends, is Eucharist: that we bear one another to the altar.

Today Fr. Liias reminded us of the altar in Ezekiel 47:

Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and there was water flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east... Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross; for the water was too deep, water in which one must swim, a river that could not be crossed... This water flows toward the eastern region, goes down into the valley, and enters the sea. When it reaches the sea, its waters are healed. And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live.

And this is the beauty of the living water that flows from the temple. Everyone who touches it, everyone who meets it, will live. This water makes the temple green with life. This water makes our hearts alive with Him. What was it that the woman at the well said? Lord, give me this water. 

Why is it, that we are afraid to swim in this living water? Why aren't we thirsty for it? I drink from hundreds of wells:

the well of comfortable words
the well of acceptance
the well of praise
the well of achievement
the well of perfectionism
the well of what is easy...

And this Sunday, those wells are empty. And I come, thirsty, to the hymns and the red Prayer Book and the rich words strewn across the pews, the words of the Word and of the Table. I come, thirsty for water that flows from the altar and through the temple and out into the world.

If Eucharist is that we bear one another to the altar, then love is nothing less that we bring each other the living water. We cup our hands under the mighty stream, swept up in its flow, and give each other something to drink. We sit, in our pews, with our Bibles and our hymnals and our winter coats, and drink the living water together.

This week, I pray that these words, in this small space, are my hands offering you the living water. I pray that all the people you meet, the ones you know, and the ones you don't, the ones you love, and the ones who you don't yet love, drink from the well of living water.

Because everything living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. 

May we bring each other this water.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

I am the bread, letter six, hilary to preston

On Thursdays Preston and I write letters to each other, to share the wonder of talking theology and grace and mystery together, across the blogs and emails and tweets. I hope you visit his space for At the Lord's Table: A Blog Conversation, and that you find the words there refreshing. I'm learning so much from spending time reading those incredible writers. Today I'm responding to Preston's letter from Tuesday.

Dear Preston, 

Your letter rang out like a gong on Tuesday night, when I finally exhaled long enough to read it carefully. I heard in it the same self-knowing that I feel sometimes blessed and sometimes cursed with; when at the end of a day you can see how you walked through it covered in the dust of fallenness. How you didn't speak the words of love, but instead spoke the quick ones of anger. How you let resentment build up, and trust falter. And your word for the year - trust - seems to be difficult in these times. 

But I am learning it in a strange and graceful way through thinking about the Eucharist. I know we've talked before about what Eucharist is, and you said in your letter you hoped we'd get there - and my way might be a roundabout one, but maybe it's a beginning. 

I feel like a fool when I say that I believe something deep is happening when the priest prays over the bread. I feel presumptuous, and nervous, and unsure. I don't know what's going on. I don't know if it's acceptable to believe that He is Present there in a new way after we've prayed for it. 

But when He said I am the bread of life, unless you eat of Me and drink of Me you cannot have life in you? I believe Him. 

And every week I go to the altar and I meet Christ there. I kneel, knees knocking together on the soft red velvet, hands cupped up, empty. And He fills me. I don't know if I've told you this, but I fast before Eucharist on Sundays. I don't eat anything, and by the time I walk towards the altar rail I feel hunger clawing my insides. But I take this thin wafer, and I hear the priest tell me, "The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven, take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on Him in your heart with thanksgiving." And then the cup comes, and I hear, "The Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation." And I take both. And He fills me. I walk back to my seat with something else in my heart besides my troubles and anxieties and small sorrows. I walk back with Him inside me. 

I don't really think I believe in Thomas' transubstantiation explanation. It seems too neat, too crisp, for the mystery that I encounter. I would much rather the mystery of the Orthodox way: we do not understand how, but we trust. And Alexander Schmemann says it best: "The purpose of the Eucharist lies not in the change of the bread and wine, but in our partaking of Christ, who has become our food, our life, the manifestation of the Church as the Body of Christ." 

So perhaps there isn't the kind of certainty that I imagined I could have, about whether it is Real Presence or memorial, whether as the Anglicans say, it is consubstantiation or Thomas is right after all. But He is our life, our bread. When we try to feed and nourish ourselves with anything else, we stumble. 

And He said: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world." (John 6.51)

Maybe it is more about trust than I thought. Trust that this is the bread of life. Trust that He fills my hunger. Trust that even in the difficult teaching, He comes to dwell in us. 

Grace and peace to you. 


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Dear Hilary, Love Hilary: Get in the Dirt

It's Wednesday, a chance to join Joy with life, unmasked, where we share the messy and the beautiful in life. I unmask in letters - trying to find the voice that sounds inside me.

Dear Hilary,

I'm crazy comparative. I measure everything, wonder about what it means that they have that and I have this, or that they got into that PhD program while I couldn't even bring myself to take the GRE. But there is this map in my head, of where everyone is, and how fast they are running, and I watch myself running alongside them, lagging behind, not doing enough. I'm jealous of their success, jealous of their certainty, jealous of their smiles and clothes and friend groups. I know this is bad. I can feel the jealousy roar from my insides. How do I get rid of it?

Reluctantly Jealous

Dear Reluctantly Jealous,

I think today I'm going to be a bit blunter than I normally am. I don't write bluntly because I don't love you. I love you, you crazy comparative racing writer. As my hero Sugar says, you are a "dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy tortured talent rising star glowbug." Know that I believe this about you, and when I read your letter, I hear in it the wonder of you.

Get over yourself. 

Phew. Bare bones are sometimes best: we need to see our own skeletons, see what the trouble actually is, instead of what our fanciful imaginations make it out to be. Your imagination has run away with you, Jealous, and it's taking you for a spin that will do more harm than good. Our imagination tells us lies, and we have to be willing to strike back with the truth.

Lie Number One: Success is measurable.

Lie Number Two: Jealousy is so complicated, such a difficult and messy thing, that it's impossible to really get over and therefore you can just wallow in the trauma of it and write me letters about how terrible it is.

Okay, Lie Number One is simple. Success is measurable. Have you ever watched a really humble person work? Have you watched how they bend their hands and head low to the ground, how they sift the soil of their lives through their fingers? Have you ever noticed that truly humble people do not pay attention to the titles they have, or if the woman or man next to them has a fancier one? They say thank you to compliments and mean it; they are thankful that you took the time to appreciate their work, thankful for the work, thankful for the hands they've been given to use. 

Be humble. Say thank you and mean it. Be generous with your praise, and imagine that the woman and man sitting next to you, who just got into that PhD program, who just had 12,000 hits on their blog in one day, who just got engaged - they should capture your attention. Watch them, dream big with them the dreams hidden in their heart, listen to them, pour out yourself for them. Not in measured quantities, not in calculation, but in a fullness that defies the world. Get over yourself, and get to work. 

So we're at Lie Number Two. And here is where I'll borrow from John Woolman. And oh, how my mentor will laugh to know that I'm quoting him (ask her someday to tell you the story of my first encounter with John Woolman). "Where people let loose their minds after the love of outward things, and are more engaged in pursuing the profits and seeking the friendships of this world than to be acquainted with the way of true peace, such walk in a vain shadow while the true comfort of life is wanting." This is what I want you to understand, Reluctantly Jealous: your imagination wants you to spin in circles trying to solve your jealousy problem. But jealousy isn't that complicated. 

It is hard. But hard is not complicated. Hard is just hard. So get on your knees in the dirt in your small plot of life, get down in the work, and forget the rest. It is hard to stop those charts and bar graphs of achievement in your mind. It is hard to believe that you can just find a way out of the trap you're in.

But it isn't complicated. Jealousy isn't a mystery illness, or a tortured complex. Get in the dirt, Jealous, and tell your imagination to shut it.

Get in the dirt.  

The view is better from there.

Life: Unmasked


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