“Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.”
—Eugene Peterson, The Message (Romans 12:1-2)
Early in 2016 but far enough into the year that I considered myself late to the New Year’s resolution game, I wrote about choosing my first-ever word of the year. Or, more accurately, how God pressed the word upon me until I said, “Okay, okay!”
I don’t like committing to much, because a commitment is a commitment. If I break it, I’ve failed—and failure is embarrassing. Keeping a commitment to a single word that I was supposed to weave throughout my entire year seemed like a terrible idea, setting myself up for humiliation. Especially a word like brave.
We were over at our friends’ house the other day, and the kids got into the dress-up clothes. As they paraded out to the living room as a flower fairy, a princess, and a bear-T. Rex-dragon-king for admiration from us four adults, we oohed and aahed and wowed, and then our friend said to his daughter and mine, “You look so brave!”
Not pretty, or beautiful, or fancy—brave. Not a compliment based on their appearance as adorable little girls (though they are), a compliment given intentionally based on what he wanted them to believe about themselves. They can be brave. They are brave, whether they know it yet or not.
I don’t know that I’ve ever had someone say to me, “You look so brave!”
Before this year, I don’t think I ever believed that I was or could be.
I’ve never been a risk-taker. I’m kind of a fraidy-cat. Even in leaps of faith, I’ve been acutely aware of the soft cushion I knew would catch me if my leap turned out to be a belly flop. I’ve been good at faking bravery, but underneath I’ve been afraid, cautious, skeptical. “Be careful!” I say to my kids, to my husband, on repeat.
This has been a grim year for many, many people. I can’t ignore this. I won’t pretend that I haven’t sludged through days of grief and anger over events that have taken place in this broken world in 2016, both in the lives of friends and family and for countless people I’ll never know personally but who have suffered in unimaginable ways—all, loved and cherished image-bearers of God. I too have wept over the horrors we’ve seen and fought the urge to give up hope.
But pause with me a moment before chucking 2016 into the dumpster. Did you change at all this year (as a result of the bad stuff, or in spite of it)? Learn anything new? Try anything new? Grow, even in the tiniest increment? We can’t let ourselves be overwhelmed by darkness. We’ve got to look for the light.
For that reason, I can’t stay silent and deny God glory for the change he has brought about in my heart over the last 12 months. So many tiny steps have led me toward becoming a different person than I was when the year began. And when I follow each of the winding story trails back to their origin, I find myself staring at the one little word he gave me that has altered my life: brave.
That sounds so dramatic. It isn’t, and it is. No acts of bravery have felt huge to me in the moment. My brave is likely someone else’s perfectly mundane. Mostly it’s been about paying attention to God’s nudging and saying, “Oh, this? Really? All right then… let’s do it.” An uptick in my heart rate here, a gentle awareness there, a prodding to take a step or to speak up.
I made friends this year. The brave part was letting people know me, flaws and all. I met, in person, women I’d connected with through social media. Booked tickets and an Airbnb and traveled to a conference (with my sister, whose word of the year by coincidence and providence was also brave) that I didn’t know a whole lot about. Took an online creative writing class. Joined another writer’s book launch team and cheered her on.
I quit some things that didn’t feel right anymore. Said no to a few and yes to others. Launched a newsletter with a friend to help women find freedom from the need for perfection, and in doing so, took up a battle stance against perfectionism in my own life. It has changed me.
I took on volunteer roles in my church that I never agreed to in the past with the excuse that they weren’t my “gifting”—children’s ministry, greeting, and serving communion. They all still feel a little uncomfortable, but it’s a good discomfort—the kind that stretches you. I cry through communion sometimes, standing there in front of the congregation. Sorry if your pita bread is wet. (One week I knocked the basket and spilled half the gluten-free crackers onto the floor. I half-jokingly told one of the elders afterward that I should be fired. “No,” he said with a sympathetic smile. “The people were served, weren’t they?” I cried again.)
I lift my hands in worship these days. Not always. But more than I did before.
I applied for a volunteer gig I never thought I’d land but did, and started writing on behalf of women on the other side of the world whose daily lives I’d never taken the time to acknowledge before, much less care about. We need to hear these stories and care. That has changed me, too.
I’m still working through the urge to hide behind “introvert” but am beginning to understand that I can be both introverted and a leader. I’m inching toward embracing the latter role one tiny step at a time.
I talk to strangers in 2016. I make eye contact with my neighbors and wave. I never used to do that before. Is that brave? It doesn’t feel brave, but it feels like it matters.
I pitched pieces to online publications and got rejected. I kept writing anyway.
I joined a women’s Bible study group that I didn’t know much about. We’re studying Matthew and what kingdom-living should look like. I realized that kingdom-living—observing and then doing my best to emulate Jesus—didn’t actually look much like my life the way I was living it.
So I made a few changes that, if you’d suggested to me a year ago, I’d have balked at, offended. I struggled deeply through the election, for the first time asking myself hard questions about the intersection of my faith and my voting. What I discovered in the process was unnerving. I’m learning to seek God in these decisions and then trust my own discernment. I’ve ruffled some feathers and maybe lost some followers, but that’s okay. Honesty and bravery walk hand-in-hand.
I set some (maybe unrealistic) writing goals and admitted it publicly when I failed, and I was really okay with it—another first.
When I’ve had supplies handy, I’ve started rolling down my car window and handing care packages to men and women standing on the side of the road with signs: Homeless. Hungry. Please help. For a girl who’s spent a lifetime double-checking the locks on her car doors and averting her eyes, this is a big deal.
I started reading, keeping up with current events, following the lives and stories of people I have little, perhaps nothing, in common with, striving hard to pop the bubble I’ve been living in for so long. Again, not brave by the standard definition. But knowing that becoming informed might lead to caring, feeling pain? That frightened me—affirmation that it was necessary, part of the change God wanted to bring about in my heart.
It’s here that I discovered compassion, which I’ve been feeling quite sure for a few weeks now will become my word for 2017. It scares me, a lot actually, because I’m learning that caring is costly.
But like a dear friend pointed out, if next year’s word scares me and I choose it anyway, then brave must have taught me pretty well.
I think she’s right. Brave has taught me well, and I think, I hope, that I am better for it.
Changed from the inside out.
All glory to God.
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