courage (noun): mental or moral strength to persevere and withstand fear and difficulty
If you asked me to describe myself, "fearful" is not a word that immediately comes to mind. Cautious, perhaps. Careful, definitely. But fearful? Of course not.
Back in September of 2016, I lost my job. It comes as a surprise to a lot of people because, beyond a small circle, I didn't really talk about it. Though I hadn't loved my job, it was still an unexpected thing that took a fair amount of time to process. I wound up spending the next 2 1/2 months unemployed, which had both its advantages and disadvantages.
When anything in your life takes an unexpected turn, it's only natural to step back and take stock of where you've been, where you're headed, and if there are any changes you want to make.
To the best of my ability, I aimed to do this when I lost my job. Though there were certainly days I slept in far later than necessary and did little besides sitting on the couch and binge watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix, for the most part I was intentional about searching for potential jobs, setting up meetings to talk with different people, and taking the time to sit with myself and seriously think through the next steps I wanted to take in my career and life.
Honestly, I'm still not sure exactly what I want to do with the rest of my life or even the next couple of years (to make money, at least), and though I'm working again on a temporary basis, that big question of "what do I want to be when I grow up" still feels like it's looming most days.
One thing my unemployment provided me, though, was a lot of time to sit with myself and just be quiet. It's something I don't do nearly enough. Though I'm working toward simplifying my life and slowing things down, my default setting most days is still busy and noisy and loud. It's for that reason that Jesus usually has to do something big and noisy and loud to get my attention — like moving me to a new state or causing me to lose my job.
Throughout Scripture, the Lord used a variety of different ways to get people's attention. Some, like Abraham and Isaiah, seemed particularly attuned to what God was doing and saying. He didn't have to do a whole lot to get them to pay attention. Others, like Jonah, required a bit more of an in-your-face approach.
I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Historically, the Lord has used quiet and stillness to teach me the most about who He is, who I am, and how those two things intersect. But because I gravitate toward busy and noisy and loud, He usually has to do something big to get me to slow down and be quiet long enough to hear what He's saying.
When you're unemployed and all your friends are gainfully employed on a normal 9-to-5 schedule and you're trying not to talk about your unemployment because you're still a little bit ashamed of it, you spend a lot of time by yourself. As an introspective individual, this meant I also spent a lot of time inside my own head and, much like the 11 months I spent living in a small town in northeast Georgia, those 2 1/2 months proved to be quite revealing for me.
No, they didn't provide me with all the answers to all the major questions in life (as evidenced by the fact that I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up). What they did is force me to stop long enough to ask myself if the direction I'm heading is where I still want to be going.
That happens more often than we'd like to admit, doesn't it? Sometimes it feels a bit like life is a hill and you're a ball rolling down it. You started down the hill on a certain trajectory and life seems to get faster and faster and you think that maybe you want to be going in a different direction or rolling down a completely different hill, but you have no idea how to slow yourself down enough to do anything about it.
That's what this time did for me. And while I still have a lot of questions about what even the next few months of my life will look like, I did learn one rather important thing about myself: I have spent much of my life afraid.
I am an extroverted person. Anyone who's spent a small amount of time with me will likely be able to tell you that. Combine that with being a creative and a performer, I've never struggled with things like stage fright or meeting new people. I don't have any major fears like heights or spiders. I've been known to do somewhat risky and crazy things like cliff jumping and it's on my bucket list to go both bungee jumping and skydiving. In fact, there have been moments in my life where I've been described as fearless.
So you can imagine my surprise when, in the quiet of my own heart, I heard that small whisper: "Sarah, stop being so afraid."
The first glimmer of fear came when I started weighing options for next steps in my career. For most of my adult life, I've worked jobs I didn't particularly care about, mostly because they were stable and they paid well. In fact, after spending 2 1/2 years as a government contractor and swearing I'd never go back to that again, I did exactly that after spending three months temping in 2015. I knew as soon as I walked into the building that it was a terrible decision, but I was afraid of instability, so I just dealt with it.
I've circled around the idea of freelancing or working for myself for years and made various efforts toward such a life. But at some point or another, I've always stepped back because of fear — fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of burning out. And as I started toying with that idea again, fear reared its ugly head.
It's somewhat astonishing when you realize how much of your life has been guided by fear. You begin to wonder how different your life would be right now if you'd made decisions out of a place of courage and trust in the God who created you, rather than fear of instability, failure, or man.
For many years now, C.S. Lewis has been one of my favorites writers. I first discovered him through the well-known and loved Chronicles of Narnia, and in the years since, I have continued to enjoy and love practically everything I have read by him. In fact, one of his novels is in contention for my favorite book of all-time.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the third book in the Chronicles of Narnia by publication date (fifth in chronological order), there is a moment in the story where Caspian, Edmund, Lucy, and the rest of the Dawn Treader's crew are sailing and come upon darkness. Lewis says, "It is rather hard to describe, but you will see what it was like if you imagine yourself looking into the mouth of a railway tunnel—a tunnel either so long or so twisty that you cannot see the light at the far end. And you know what it would be like."
At the encouragement of Reepicheep, the crew of the Dawn Treader sails forth into the darkness, not knowing what lies before them. After a time, they hear a voice calling for help and pull a man on board who immediately tells them to turn back — "Fly! Fly! About with your ship and fly!" — for what lies before them is the Island of Dreams. The crew rejoices at the thought until they realize, as the man tells them, it is "where dreams—dreams, do you understand—come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams."
As the Dawn Treader attempts to turn away from the Island of Dreams, it seems they are getting no closer to the edge of the darkness, so Lucy whispers, "Aslan, Aslan, if you ever loved us at all, send us help now." Moments later, a speck of light appears ahead and its beam falls upon the Dawn Treader, lighting it up as a searchlight. And Lewis writes:
"Lucy looked along the beam and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross. It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, "Courage, dear heart", and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan's, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.
In a few moments the darkness turned into a greyness ahead, and then, almost before they dared to begin hoping, they had shot out into the sunlight and were in the warm, blue world again. And all at once everybody realised that there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been."
Every year since 2014, I have chosen a word to shape my year. People often ask me how I choose my word for the year and I've always answered that I don't choose the word, the word chooses me. It might sound cliche, but it's true, and this year is no different.
I haven't read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in years, but as I sifted through my thoughts and the reality of my fears, I felt a quiet peace in my heart and that still, small voice whisper, "Courage, dear heart."
And that's when I knew that 2017 was going to be the year of courage.
Over and over in Scripture, we are told to take courage, to be strong, to trust that our God is a good God, a sovereign God, and that He's got this. We may not know what He's doing or see how it will all work out or what plans He has in store, but we can always trust in the fact that He's got this and He works all things together for our good. We are told that God has not given us a spirit of fear or timidity. We are given the assurance that perfect love, found in Christ, casts out fear. We are even encouraged to approach the throne of grace with confidence.
Nowhere in Scripture does it say that we are to give way to fear. Nowhere in Scripture are we told to live from a place of fear. Over and over the opposite is not only encouraged but commanded of us, which means a life lived out of fear is a life lived outside of the Gospel.
I don't know what 2017 has in store. My life has flipped upside down in a matter of days before, so I'm not going to even try and guess what God has planned for the next 11 1/2 months.
But what I do know is this: in the very near future, "courage, dear heart" will be written on my arm (yes, that means I'm getting another tattoo) and, as a result, I hope by the end of the year, it will be written on my heart. And who knows what Jesus will do with that?
Here's to a courageous 2017.