When a more or less ordinary character, someone who is both kind and self-serving, somehow finds that place within where he or she is still capable of courage and goodness, we get to see something true that we long for. ~ Anne Lamott1
As I watched women walk into their own freedom stories, I was struck by their bravery. Many were stepping out into the call of God, into the unknown. Many were moving into uncharted waters with God, full of hope and faith.
A sixty-year-old woman told me one spring evening, “For years I’ve been asking God to take my life; tonight I asked him to save my life.” A fourteen-year-old girl who had just been released from rehab told me God gave her joy to start again.
Countless women — fighting depression, suffering from trauma, treating cancer, holding off divorce, overcoming addictions — were declaring, “I’m done with the life I’ve created. I want to take Jesus up on what he offers. I want to expect more from a passionate and relentless God. I cannot continue to operate from a place of wounding. I want purpose and freedom.”
Humbled by the bravery of these women, by their willingness to confess sin, to seek healing, to walk into their own callings, I considered my own struggle with bravery, how I tripped into it from my earliest days.
I’ll never forget my first decision toward bravery, my decision to jump at the end of my elementary years. At the community pool, I climbed to the top of the ladder and walked the plank of the high diving board. As my knees knocked and my toes curled over the edge, I glanced at the deep end below. The ripples felt too far; ten feet was a mighty distance for any nine-year-old. I turned back and descended the ladder, rung after rung, until my bare piggies relaxed on dry ground. For weeks, I tried again. I climbed; I ventured out; I retreated in shame.
What was holding me back?
If grown-up Rebekah could have told nine-year-old Rebekah that the thrill of the release was worth it, she wouldn’t have believed it. Letting go couldn’t possibly be the point. Instead, I remained enslaved to fear, freedom just beyond my reach. My mom saw my timidity begin to win and quickly enrolled me in a diving class.
Armed with a comrade coaching from below, I felt brave, even invincible. Within a week I closed my eyes and jumped. It was exhilarating. Proud of myself, I scurried up those steps faster a second time and then a third. My diving instructor didn’t stop there. The following week he suggested I try a back dive off the high board.
By this point, I was hooked, so I faced backward, heels arched, arms outstretched, and slowly fell back. There was just enough airtime for my body to rotate as my arms raised to cut the water. Just like that, I’d done it.
Each time I surfaced, I squealed a little. My giddy grin couldn’t be stopped. My heart pounded with adrenaline each time I climbed the metal ladder, which I did over and over. I began to cheer for the rest of my team, “It’s easy! You’ve got this! Just close your eyes and fall!”
Courage is meant to en-courage others.
My triumph on the diving board spilled into other areas of my life. I performed in piano competitions every year starting at age eight. We took music theory, written and auditory tests, all morning, and ended the day with a piano recital where we were judged on a piece played from memory. My hands trembled every time. I got used to the knot in my stomach right before going onstage. I’d sit down, smooth my skirt with sweaty palms, place my fingers on the starting keys, and begin.
These are the lessons we learn in our youth: the more we face fear, the braver we become. We see people doing brave things and we think, “If only I had courage like her!”
Fast forward to adulthood.
The first time I ever spoke in public was at a writing workshop, six months before my first book was released. They invited me as a favor to my husband, who was speaking on the main stage. He told them that my story might resonate with the audience, so they added me to the laundry list of breakout sessions. When I stepped up to the microphone, I scanned the eighty people in attendance, and said, verbatim, “This is the first and last time I’ll be speaking in public, so here goes.” What a great way to begin a talk.
(In hindsight, I don’t recommend this.)
I proceeded to cry through my story, sniffling into tissues, ending my time with a rousing offer to pray. I held out little hope of a response. Even my friend Stacy, who had joined me for moral support, sat in the front row, her eyes glued to the ground.
To my surprise, at the end of my session, about fifteen women formed a line to talk. They, too, had been crying. From their comments, I understood that my story had touched them, had offered them something they needed. I’d given language to anxiety and depression, something not often talked about in church. We stayed and prayed for what must have been an hour. My new friends found they were not alone, and a part of each woman’s heart came alive. I left hoping to get the chance to speak again, and knew I’d begin differently the next time.
The speaking invitations crept in. While I never intended to speak about the subjects I had written about, saying no would have been an abdication of responsibility. Writing is a solitary sport, something I can do from the safety of my living room sofa while sporting flannel pajama pants. Now, just months after my book was released, I found myself leaving home and flying to new places to speak.
It’s worth noting that my first panic attack had occurred when I was on an airplane. Yep, that was the setting. The irony wasn’t lost on me as I boarded an airplane each week and buckled myself in to go speak about God’s rescue of me. I developed a routine to help calm me: aisle seat, first eight rows if possible to enable a quick exit, relaxing music in my ear buds. No magazines or drama, just my Bible and journal, not because I’m disciplined or spiritual, but because I need truth to envelop me like an airplane blanket. And guess what?
The old place of panic became my sanctuary in the sky.
But airplanes weren’t my only barrier to bravery. Speaking itself brought greater fear. At first, I’d write out my talks word for word, only to find myself speaking with my head down, following the script too closely. If I looked up to reference a slide, I’d lose my place in my notes.
A few months into this new vocation, I found myself on another airplane headed to give three forty-five minute talks at a conference. This time, due to weather, my flight was running behind. Stress and anxiety began to creep up. I had only thirty minutes to make my connection in Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport — one of the busiest in the world. I ran from my arrival gate at concourse C, jumped on a train, got off at concourse A, and took the escalator up. Zipping past food stations and SkyMiles promoters, I was the last to board for the final leg of the trip.
As the door of the plane closed and we pushed back from the gate, I had a moment to take a deep breath. As we reached 10,000 feet, I leaned down to get my laptop and put a few finishing touches on my upcoming talks.
My laptop was still in the seat pocket of my last flight.
I arrived at my hotel in a puddle of exhaustion, fear, and frustration. Now what? No notes, no computer for tracking and gathering new thoughts. I tried scratching something out on a pad of hotel notepaper, but there was too much ground to cover. I was at the end of myself.
Falling to my knees, I remembered telling Jesus in my journal one year prior, “If the words become my own, make me mute.” Was this His way of getting my attention? I confessed right then:
Never have I wanted my teaching to be about what I bring. I don’t want my words to be my own, my talks to be controlled or predictable. But I’m afraid not to plan every word.
I fear I’ll be left standing there on stage, lost in thought, staring into space or scratching my head. I’ll never feel ready enough, prepared enough, or equipped enough to speak for You.
Will You please help me? Speak through me? Surprise us all with what You have?
God gently responded, Do you trust Me? Do you trust I will give you My words?
I remembered how God spoke through Isaiah to Israel,
“For I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar — the Lord Almighty is His name. I have put My words in your mouth and covered you with the shadow of My hand — I who set the heavens in place, who laid the foundations of the earth, and who say to Zion, ‘You are My people.’” – Isaiah 51:15-16
God promised often to put words in our mouths.
After a quick shower to pull myself together, I dressed and arrived at the venue with my Bible and those precious, whispered prayers. I could feel courage starting to form. During our time of worship just prior to my first talk, verses kept flashing through my mind. I remembered reading in John about Jesus saying the Spirit offers us the ability to recall everything He’s ever said:
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. – John 14:26
God was looking for this little girl to simply be brave. To not hide behind my notes, my preparation, or my own knowledge, but to walk in faith and be a vessel for Him to use. Instead of being constrained by my own words, I would need to be free in order for His words to flow. I’d need to trust that He could do what he said he would do. Sure enough, He showed up.
I taught three sessions without notes that weekend. It was the most free I’d ever felt standing in front of a group of women. We laughed, we cried, we prayed and had the most fun. I was finding a new freedom as I trusted the Spirit to lead me in the moment.
As it turns out, I love telling stories on the fly.
There comes a moment for each of us wherein we must decide — will we be brave, or will we remain enslaved to fear? Will we be brave enough to confess? Will we be brave enough to walk into God’s calling? Being brave means no shrinking back or blaming obstacles.
A lifetime of sweaty palms and racing heartbeats has shown me the plain truth:
Bravery is moving scared. Bravery requires stepping out.
The key is to never stop. Nothing may change about our circumstances, but we make a decision. To move. To trust. To be brave.
Excerpted with permission from You Are Free by Rebekah Lyons, copyright Rebekah Lyons.
1. Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Thoughts on Writing and Life (New York: Random House, 1994).
Jesus came to set the captive free. You are free to be brave in every arena that terrifies you. You are free to soar into whatever God has for you to be and do! Come share your thoughts with us on our blog!
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