Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: One Thousand Gifts

I think this book came along for me at just the right ripe moment, for it opened my eyes to things I could not see. I found myself taking frantic notes ... copying down numerous quotes that rang true for me and met me in my darkness.

This book is life changing! If you are in the same spot Ann began at - with fists clenched, dreading the start of each repetitive day of challenge, crying from a pit of despair, trapped in a life that only seems to hurt - then you will marvel at her transformation and wish to be transformed as well.

Ann Voskamp opens her tale with the raw wound she has carried since the age of four, when her two year old sister wandered after a cat and was run over by a delivery truck in their farmhouse driveway. That was the beginning of her clenched fists.

But as she observes, "the first sin of all humanity, [is] the sin of ingratitude ... we aren't satisfied in God and what He gives.... If I'm ruthlessly honest, I may have said yes to God, yes to Christianity, but really I have lived the no. I have. Infected by that Eden mouthful, the retina of my soul develops macular holes of blackness."

And then she dares to ask "How do we choose to allow the holes to become seeing-through-to-God places? To more-God places? How do I give up resentment for gratitude, gnawing anger for spilling joy, self-focus for God communion?"

When a friend challenged her to make a list of one thousand things she loves, she began to see. At first it was difficult. As she puts it so eloquently, "Long I am woman who speaks but one language, the language of the fall - discontentment and self-condemnation, the critical eye and the never satisfied."

Indeed, when I myself began to attempt to make a list, I noticed a clear shift within. It was not just that I was seeing small gifts (like the call and response of birds in our trees, the joy of a boy finding a four leaf clover, the sway of the swing under the tree and the shimmering light of the sun on the top of a body of water) but more importantly, that I was SEEKING them out constantly.

Other people have encouraged me to see the blessings in my life, but so often they spoke to me from full, mountain-top lives. It is hard to hear someone when they are on the mountain and you are in the valley. Ann Voskamp's words did not attempt to minimize what I felt (a tactic my husband often employs, pointing out how we have it so much better than many others) because she had already acknowledged how painful it is to be in that clenched position, barely able to breathe, the weight of the world pressing down heavily.

I love her explanations because they illustrate exactly where I'm at. She writes: "I know how monstrous inhumane I can be. Raging at the children for minor wrongdoings while I'm the one defiling the moment with sinful anger.... I forget everything [learned] and these six kids lean hard into me all day to teach and raise and lead and I fail hard and there are real souls that are at stake and how long do I really have to figure out how to live full of grace, full of joy - before these six, beautiful children fly the coop and my mothering days fold up quiet? How do you open the eyes to see how to take the daily, domestic, workday vortex and invert it into the dome of an everyday cathedral?"

Voskamp argues that thanksgiving (eucharisto) builds trust in God. She urges the reader to live a James 1:2 life ["When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy."]. She asserts that gratitude for blessings causes us to become a blessing.

I strongly recommend this book for the first nine chapters. It was only in the final two chapters that I found myself talking back to the book and writing questions. Voskamp begins the tenth chapter with the assertion, "I can bless, pour out, be broken and given in our home and the larger world and never fear that there won't be enough to give." The chapter becomes a long list of ways that she is blessing the larger world and I no longer found myself identifying with her quite so strongly. She is no longer a peer, but someone lofty ... above. Yet, it is clear that she obviously has numerous OTHERS pouring into her.

I found myself asking, "What of the woman, like me, who is daily giving out, without community to pour back in?" I am literally starving for community, companionship. Thus, even the listing of God's graces, while it does help me breathe, step away from the frustrations that build with boys who create messes faster than I can clean and who drain me dry, even still I am skeptical that the listing alone, the recognition of these tiny blessings sprinkled through my day could actually be enough to fill me enough to give where I am called to serve. She has listed numerous names of women and family members who pour into her. Family steps in so she can take a week to find rest and wonder in Paris. What if you have no such support? What if you feel alone at the table of communion?

Her final chapter becomes almost too mystical for me - taking one small principle and making it the entire key to close communion with God. Her sexual imagery of "making love to God" trips me up. I'm not sure I believe that such a level of fullness and unity with God is possible until we reach heaven.

Then my mind wanders to other issues. What of those whose troubles land them in institutions, like her own mother? What of those who daily struggle with living their spirituality to that level. I don't believe we can fault those who have not discovered this one key of eucharisto. Each of us do the best we can at whatever point of the journey we are on. That is enough, I believe.

Listing one thousand ways that God steps into our lives with blessing cannot hurt us. It can only bring a greater vision for ways that God is reaching down and into the mess of our lives. It has allowed me to finally hear the gentlest whisper from my Maker. And if it has caused my eyes to shift more in His direction, then this book has been valuable indeed!

Even if you don't take time to read Ann Voskamp's book, you might take a moment to watch this beautiful promotional video for her book.

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