The Year of Living Courageously

Biplane

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

I’m a little afraid to write the words.

Be. Courageous.

Writing those words in my journal means I can’t tell God it was only a fleeting thought.

That I was “writing drunk,” as Hemingway said, and planned to edit sober later.

And I can’t blame someone else. No one’s handwriting is that bad.

But it’s the theme I’ve been contemplating for the new year. In 2013, I began the practice of choosing a theme to live by instead of making resolutions.

Yes, it’s already March. No one is blogging about their resolutions or goals or laser-focused  “one words.”

That was SO two months ago.

I’ve been procrastinating. I mean, who am I to choose “be courageous”?

I married a man who lived in India, who survived riots and backyard cobras and Mumbai traffic.

I have a daughter, who at 18 is preparing to leave for North Africa when she should be shopping for a prom dress.

But the two words keep haunting me.

And if I don’t give them physical form, they’ll take matters into their own hands and rise from the ground like some folkloric golem and track mud on my carpet.

So what does being courageous look like?

Nelson Mandela said it was triumphing over fear

Winston Churchill said it is what it takes to stand up and speak and sit down and listen

John Wayne said it is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway

Courage calls you to act. 

If you can do the thing without trembling or throwing up in your mouth or going to God, tugging on his sleeve, and saying, “Can I skip this part?” it probably isn’t courageous.

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Courage is personal.

Your act of courage may look completely different from mine. It could be as quiet as looking a bully in the eye or as loud as launching a nonprofit to fight human trafficking.

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Courage is not necessarily bravery. 

All the English occurrences of the word “brave” in the Bible’s Old Testament refer to brave warriors, ready for battle and able to handle the shield and spear. 1 Chronicles 12:8 (NIV)

The word bravery conjures a picture of the soldier advancing into the desert where the sand may hide a lizard or a land mine. Bravery seems to have more to do with a reaction to danger that is innate in some or ingrained in others. Bravery is the Israelite warrior, the Navy Seal…the mother of triplets.
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Courage doesn’t happen apart from God.

Unlike “bravery” in both the Old and New Testaments, being courageous happens when the believer is bolstered, emboldened by the presence of God. Soldier or paralytic, leader of the Israelites or bleeding woman clutching at Christ’s hem, each of these people in the Bible is commanded to take courage, because God is with them.

That’s why we can all be courageous. We can be like the two disciples standing before their accusers. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were … ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)

[Clive Birtles at the wheel of the car with the dog, Wowser]

So what does the year of being courageous look like?

I’m not sure. We Christians can yak all we want about trusting God, but he can call you to some crazy shit.

Lately, for me, courage has looked like leaning on the peace my daughter and I both sense about her decision to travel overseas instead of the American path of summer job at the mall and majoring in “undecided” at community college.

Maybe courage would mean sticking with my three-year plan to freelance write full time.

Or no longer dreaming every Saturday morning of 10 acres in Realtor.com, North Carolina and actually move there.

Or flying to India to wash the feet of a leper.

The words Be Courageous don’t lend themselves to a bullet-pointed list but rather to a commitment to be open, to be willing. Maybe that’s a better phrase, but it feels a little safe, cleaned up. Being courageous is scarier, messy even.

On a postcard my daughter sent me from her missionary camp, she wrote that I was full of courage. As much as I would like to say, “Awesome, mission accomplished! Year of being courageous completed ahead of schedule!”

I know that whatever it is she sees may only be a glimpse of God beginning to do some work…

…of God empowering an ordinary woman to live, not only the rest of the year, but the rest of her life, courageously.

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What would a Be Courageous year look like for you?

Don’t quit…just keep hanging your mantle in the sun

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

I think about quitting.

Letting go of writing like it’s some wild mammal I’ve tried to raise and train only to have it piss on the furniture and snap at my hand when I try to feed it.

But who would I be if I didn’t write? I have announced, “I am a writer” — followed closely by “I am a mother” — for most of my life.

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I’m not a prolific writer (and I only birthed 3 kids, 1 every 3 ½ years).

I’m not Christian author Ann Voskamp whose words blow out of her brain as regularly as my daily fits of hopeless sighing. She reads her words to audiences; she sells posters with quotes in calligraphy from her books.

But if I don’t write, the mantle God has given me to wear hangs heavy on the fragile wire frame of my heart, soaked with doubt and fear and excuses.

So I write, and hang it out there in the sun.

And it feels good, my heart is lighter. I trust that the words made a small difference. Made one person feel good, made her heart lighter, too.

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sunshine

This is the sometimes uncomfortable part where we do everything unto the Lord. Not the thousands of readers I think I wish I had.

I’m a writer in a blogger bog that sucks most of us up; only a few stand above it somehow. Maybe they’re stronger swimmers, more determined, more called than I am. Anointed even. As my golfer husband noted, for every Rory McIlroy there are 100,000 good golfers.

It’s hard to be ok with that.

It’s hard until I whine to God, sigh heavily for the 27th time that day, and obey when — just like I did with my kids — he feigns a sad lip and tells me to get back to work.

But really, who better than God to write unto? He died for me. For everyone. And for just me.

He hung there and only a few fans gathered at his crushed feet.

He rose again and only one mourning woman was there to witness the greatest miracle.

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Today my friend and I met for lunch, for a 15-minute speed goal-setting workshop in the middle of a day filled with job tasks I don’t always grasp the purpose of.

I could have set goals for a family vacation in North Carolina, for acquiring two more clients for my freelance writing business, and *SIGH* for my writing.

But I didn’t, and she didn’t. She didn’t even bring a pen and paper.

Instead we talked about what we value and not hearing God’s voice and what success looks like if not money and numbers.

I admitted the list I had come up with that morning instead looked something like this…

#1. Don’t quit.

#2. Hang your mantle in the sun.

#3. Do it all for the glory of God. 

 

Surprised by April and Sharp Turns

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

The ground is confused and awakening groggily, because it is too warm today for December.

All those organisms aroused by the surprise of sunshine and high 40s stir, unaware that their future holds a predicted “swath” of 3-6 inches of snow that will unravel a 3-6 inch ribbon of white across northern Illinois and northwest Indiana.

But I embrace this April imposter. I escape my overheated office to fill my lungs with tepid, wet air and the scents of early Spring that is not.

This unseasonable warmth doesn’t bother me, doesn’t dampen my Christmas spirit. I consider it a gift to walk outside without curling into my own body heat; to feel alive and renewed, as if something worth waiting for is right around corner.

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snow-forest

I’ve been feeling expectant lately. Anticipating change does that to a person.

Or it makes you want to close your eyes tight and hold your breath until you pass out until it’s all over.

But I can’t. I am compelled to keep my eyes open on this ride, the kind of roller coaster some sick engineering freak would design on a computer then say, ‘Hey, let’s run this baby in the dark!’

I’m trying to not hold my breath into the new year as we look forward to milestones like college graduations, overseas journeys, and marriages.

Those are the changes we know about and prepare for the best we can.

But what about the dips that await us in the dark?

We are two days past the solstice, and I wait each night for one more bit of light to pierce it like a pin prick. But sometimes in our lives, we feel like we’ll never spy the light at the end of the tunnel.

We turn the sharp corner and don’t find what we expected.

We dive down into black and maybe throw up a little and want to get off, even if that means totally off the track, rolling and crashing as we go.

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Let me tell you that hurts like hell. And takes out small children and animals. I should know.

The funny thing is, that after I have insisted on throwing myself off course because I just couldn’t take IT anymore, I realized when I came to that a Strong Arm still held me tight, kept me in my seat, and had never let go.

Peace Is Giving Me that Look

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

“You have that look.

My daughter says this as we hold each other in an embrace that sighs, “Don’t leave home,” and responds, “I have to go.”

She’s taken to glancing sideways at me when we hug to make sure I’m not crying.

I am on the inside. Wailing like a mad woman.

Still, since the beginning of her plans to graduate high school early and travel overseas as a young missionary, peace has laid over my heart like an unseen hand, the cool one my mother put on my forehead when I was a child and had a fever.

That doesn’t mean I don’t wake up at 2 a.m. to cry or to add to her to-do list — buy passport holder, make dentist appointment, check weather in Uzbekistan — or to pray for real live angels to take over the duties of helicopter parents.

But does that look I get on my face not look like Peace to her?

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Photo by Chris Sardegna 

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Photo Credit: GraceFoto<3 via Compfight cc

In this season of Advent, the second candle we light as we anticipate Christmas represents Peace.

The flickering purple votive glowing amidst all the dark stuff we brought to church with us on Saturday night lit our way to the communion table.

It was a squatty little beacon standing tall.

In fact, Peace stands unwavering, up to its knees in muck if it has to, like a war chaplain with a Bible whose pages between Psalm 91 and 92 are stuck together with dried blood.

I know we have our ideas of how Peace looks. (On occasion, mine happens to look like a good book and glass of cabernet.)

For some, the idyllic pasture scene bathed in light or the quiet of a snowy evening.

Maybe even the hand stayed from the bruised cheek or the uneasy cease fire.

Peace puts up with our definitions and shakes a head at our fortifications of barbed wire and 401Ks, knowing that eventually we will realize that even during the calmest, most lovely sunset moment, our hearts may still roil with agony…

 …that quiet is not the same as peace.

Because it is in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty that Peace really has it’s chance to — what the Bible calls — “passeth all understanding.”

I know it passes my understanding. I’ve questioned supporting her decision to “go out into the world” in light of her physical challenges and despite the cosmic assurance, the neon fingers that have been pointing out the direction of her path for years. Even as I embrace Peace, I glance sideways at it to see if it’s on the verge of weeping, too, or beginning to doubt, or God forbid, rolling its eyes and giving up on us.

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Photo by Drew Geraets

But, no, in the middle of the scariest, most uncertain times, Peace still stands there with that look. Not haughty or clueless or with its eyes shut stubbornly to the dangers or hurts, but confident in the ultimate purpose of our stories, our adventures.

That is what Advent is supposed to be. The Adventure that offers to lead us to the intersection of the birth, death, and resurrection of the Prince of Peace.

Peace looks like the trembling sheep herder beneath the starry night.

Peace looks like the nails gouging the darkest day, the thickest pain, the most unbelievable of hopes.

Peace looks like the quiet conqueror.

My daughter will soon be out of my arms and into a dark world, clutching an unwavering light and her inhaler. 

But the next time we hold each other, I hope that when she glances sideways at me, that look she sees on my face will actually look like Peace.

Confident and with eyes fixed on what lay ahead for good.

The Advent of Impact

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

We are parked in the middle of a dark road in the Wisconsin countryside on our way home from my first ever grown-up New Year’s Eve party in my cousins’ basement. Cousin #1 is wondering why cousin #2, who may have sucked down a few too many Pabst Blue Ribbons, isn’t behind us anymore and stops his car to wait for his brother to catch up.

While Cousin #1 is busy complaining to my parents, I gaze through the rear window at the road behind us, which disappears quickly beyond the faint glow of our tail lights.

Two circles of white appear at the top of the hill not far behind the place where our car sits, idling.

I mutter, “He’s coming.”

Then a bit more loudly. “He’s coming.”

Realizing my cousin hasn’t taken the cue to hit the gas and that his Cavalier probably can’t do 0 to 60 in the next 15 seconds, I try again…

He’s coming!

HE’S COMING!

…as I scoot up between the bucket seats and brace myself.

Advent is like that. (Minus the fear and the cousin full of PBRs.)

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Photo Credit: S.H.P. via Compfight cc

During the Advent season, which begins today with the lighting of the first purple candle (ours happens to be scented Midnight Pumpkin), Christians prepare for Christmas Day.

This first day of Advent celebrates hope and sparks the anticipation of our celebration of a day we believe had a soul-saving impact on the world.

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Not only do we rejoice at the first coming of Christ, we also look forward to the day he will come again.

While that coming could cause some of us to hiss a frightened “He’s coming!” warning rather than make a joyful noise, the way in which Jesus arrived on earth the first time sends a message of love, not fear.

He is come…in meekness.

He is come…in lowliness.

He is come…in the awe that only a baby could inspire.

What more anticipation can any human feel than a mother at the impending birth of her baby as it slides through the agony and flesh and blood and relief and raw wonder of ‘what will be?’

But we are all invited every day to hope in ‘what will be’ far beyond the Advent season…

And to brace for — and embrace — the impact.

Thankfulness from Behind the Rubber Mask

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

As the days grow colder and closer to change in my life–

children stepping outside the radius of a mother’s embrace,

the loss of income that helped put a roof over our heads,

separation from my daughter as she leaves for the mission field–

emotions rush beneath my skin, which I wear loosely like a rubber Halloween mask with those misplaced eye holes that keep you from seeing oncoming traffic…and all the goodies you have collected.

It’s not like I’m enduring some tragedy, just change and challenge.

So why do my weeks read like a Psalm–going from lament to praise, peaks and valleys over the terrain of a single day?

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I asked my husband to pray for me one morning, and that prayer seemed to invite a flood of messages from the universe as if in answer to the muffled cries of Why? What’s next? What’s the plan, God?

A simple exercise to increase well-being and lower depression

First, the Brain Pickings article “A Simple Exercise to Increase Well-Being and Lower Depression” caught my right eye (the only one lined up with an eye hole at that moment) that expounded on the book Flourish by Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology.

Through what Seligman calls the “Gratitude Visit,” one can perform a simple exercise that “promises to enhance your well-being and lower your depression.”

“Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing!”

For several weeks, I had a lovely blank card addressed to my cousin sitting on my desk. Now was the perfect time to write my note and mail it. Inside the card, I tucked a post I had written following my family’s visit to his home in August.

This simple act inspired me to lift the mask and suck in a breath.

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Gratitude is an action verb

But this wasn’t the only lesson about gratitude I received. Our pastor read a quote about the best Christian being a thankful one. Not the generous Christian or the least sinny Christian, but the one who is grateful in all things. So, not the one tossed by waves of change Christian? Darn.

The following week was the same with the reading of Psalm 100, David’s “Thanksgiving Psalm.” I loved the wording in The Message version. “Get on your feet…Sing yourself into his presence.”

While Seligman’s exercise is described as being “rooted in decades of…acclaimed research,” David’s “simple exercise” has proven effective throughout centuries; yet both admonish us to move into thankfulness actively and with a song on our lips.

Beside another Psalm in my Bible, I jotted a list back in 2004. That was the year I read a Psalm daily, each chapter serving as a knot in the long rope I used to pull myself through the next 150 days of the worst time of my life. On the day I read Psalm 37, I noted everything the psalmist urges us to do.

Psalm 37

They are all verbs. 

Which means thankfulness is an act, not a passive emotion.

Being thankful isn’t about sitting around waiting for so-called blessings to rain down on us like sparkles at which point we look up into the ray of sunshine over our head, smile, and wistfully whisper, “Thank you, Jesus.”

Nope. Gratitude can take work.

It isn’t always a feeling, because sometimes things just suck that bad; or they don’t, yet for whatever reason, we’re trying to cross the street wearing that sweaty, rubber mask with the tiny eye holes, and we don’t feel like saying “thank you” let alone feel thankful.

But this morning, as I was finishing this post, my daughter–the one preparing for five months of missionary work–stood over me, took both of my hands from my keyboard, and prayed for calmness and purpose in my life. She thanked God for me.

And I felt challenged to act…to do good and commit and not fret and rest and wait and trust.

Then I lifted the mask and told God thank you.

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Fleetwood Mac and landslides that lead to blessing

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing

‘Cause I’ve built my life around you

But time makes you bolder

Even children get older

And I’m getting older too

Oh, I’m getting older too

- “Landslide,” Fleetwood Mac

By Amanda Cleary Eastep

I had been singing these lyrics in the shower for weeks in anticipation of the Oct. 4 Fleetwood Mac concert in Chicago. Between the stellar acoustics and the sinus infection, I sounded exactly like Stevie Nicks.

At this point in my life, Nicks’ “Landslide” holds more meaning for me now than when I sang it in front of my bedroom mirror in the early ’80s. Next year could bring a landslide of change: a son marrying, one daughter graduating college and the other leaving for the mission field.

And there’s me at the foot of the mountain bracing for impact.

Read more about how change can bring a landslide of blessing at think Christian magazine…

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Fleetwood Mac performs at the United Center