I was speaking to about three hundred women at a church event, and telling my newest story "Starfish". (I've gifted you a copy of it below to watch later if you feel led.) In the beginning of that story, the main character is a tired discouraged single mother at the end of her rope, playing her guitar in the kitchen.
She was sitting there in the dark,
Strumming on that old guitar,
And watching her tiny baby sleep.
In her faded calico dress,
One wrinkle shy of being pressed,
And wondering how she'd ever make ends meet.
How would she tell her baby girl,
That this was her world,
Where daddies leave,
And mammas live in fear.
All she'd counted on,
Had long since been gone.
She wished she could just disappear.
Sitting at that kitchen table,
Been so long since she'd been able,
To remember the words that Mamma used to sing,
About clouds that roll back like a scroll,
And someone Mamma called her King.
So that was how the story (and my speech) opened. Fast forward through a silly yard sale held in the front yard of the church, to the end where the woman is now in a new place of encouragement and hope, sitting back where she started, in that kitchen strumming her guitar. And finally it comes to her, the words to that song.
And the words they rolled over her soul,
The words her mamma used to sing,
And like a warm soft coat they held her close,
As she sang to her new King.
As the creator of that story (or as I like to think, the vessel of that story) I knew the song she was trying to remember. And when I got to that moment in my story/speech, I knew that I wanted to sing it. But I can't sing – not well – which has never stopped me from singing on stage before, but this was a serious moment, not a funny one. I wanted to do it justice and not break the spell. So I decided to just speak the first verse of the song instead of sing it. Just the first few lines.
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever thy lot, thou hath taught me to say,
It is well. It is well with my soul.
No sooner had I gotten the first words out (and I mean just the first couple of words) and the entire audience, with no prompting, sang it to me instead. It was absolutely breathtaking. They were giving me a beautiful unscripted gift. And I drank in their harmonies in that suspended moment of hope and encouragement and something bigger than I can describe.
But it gets even better.
The event had ended and I'm standing there hugging necks, exchanging stories, wiping away tears, and laughing with my new friends in that social time that can often last longer than the speech itself. (I just love that part,) And there is this one woman hanging back, waiting for everyone to leave. When it was finally just the two of us, she told me about losing her husband recently. Her breath caught as she tried to compose herself and proceeded to tell me how much she missed him, and how she had been desperate for a sign. Just one sign. Anything to put her heart at peace. "Tonight," she said with a smile and tears in her eyes, "I got that sign." I was so blessed to hear that my words had touched her, and probably somewhere deep, a little too proud. But she wasn't finished. "My sign was when the women started singing," she said. "That was my husband's favorite hymn. And those were the very last words he sang to me before he died."
I got into my car that night and just sat there in the dark empty parking lot, unwrapping the gift I had received, relishing its message, and giving thanks to the one who sent it. "Okay, I get it," I whispered. "This isn't about me. It never was. You picked the one moment I didn't plan – the one moment I didn't script – to send that woman her sign. And in so doing, you gave me my sign. A sign that something bigger is happening – beyond my planning, beyond my best intentions. This isn't about me. I just get the honor of having a front row seat."
That night gifted me a shift in perspective – one that sometimes I stray from, and have to find my way back to over and over again. And perhaps my sharing this story will cause a shift in your perspective. Or at the very least, remind all of you motivational speakers out there, that despite all your planning and scripting and crafting what you want them to hear – sometimes they will walk away with an entirely different message. And that's perfectly divinely okay.
I used to think that I had control over what I give to my audience – how I make them feel, what I challenge them to think. And to some degree that's true. But over time I have come to see something bigger happening – something that I didn't plan, didn't craft, and have no control over – where many times I am as much a receiver of that gift as they are. And I have learned to honor that something deeper. To move out of the way. To step out of the spotlight and let something else take over. Feeling thankful and deeply humbled, that I was given the honor of having a front row seat.