Ann Voskamp wrote a book a little while back called ‘One Thousand Gifts’. There are a number of reviews out there, some dead against the book, and others loving it. It came to me highly recommended, and after having looked at and enjoyed her blog, I thought I would pay attention to the book. The fact that I am writing a devotional book which is partly, just as Voskamp’s is, about slowing down and experiencing God more deeply, makes me particularly keen to see what she has to say.
I read it while on holiday, and I feel that I want to leaf through it again and create my own copybook of the phrases I enjoyed especially. I recall that she comments that rushing is never of benefit; as someone who explicitly has to tell himself not to rush, this is of great value. Only the things which are done deliberately and carefully achieve their full result. Reading Proverbs recently has impressed upon me the importance of wisdom, of holding your peace, of considering options and getting wise counsel rather than rushing into something just because you feel it’s a good idea. I suspect that social networking and hurried approval of ‘friends’ has more of an impact on our own behaviour, consumer choices, and even more significant decisions than we realise.
Let me attempt to explain how Voskamp works. It’s not quite how I plan to function in the book I am writing, and at a couple of points I wearied of her approach, but at the same time I admire her; I’m not sure I could quite achieve the same effect myself (says he superciliously). Make no mistake, this is a marvellous book and a wonderfully well-written piece, and is worth it for a number of straightforward reasons:
1. She has read widely and shares her treasures with us (maybe a third of her sources I did not know)
2. She is writing out of real experience as a daughter, mother, farmer’s wife, Christian trying to make sense of it all
3. She does not shirk the difficult questions – she faces up to them with an honesty that is rare in many Christians
4. Her writing is birthed out of the principle that we MUST be grateful for everything we have received, and I feel that this is in itself a very biblical and very healthy approach to life – even though it is open to parody.
So, back to her method. She walks us through a domestic incident, or chore, that she is currently engaged in. Perhaps washing up, preparing a meal, supervising her children, with the odd slightly more unusual activity (for example, doing mission work in Chicago, or flying to Paris). She then lets us in on her inner thoughts, her problems; perhaps a flashback to a previous event. She then reminds us briefly of the current event – perhaps the time has moved on slightly, and the children are coming in for a meal, and the food is being passed round. She finds in the activities that she mentions the sacred, the eucharisteo, the moment of thanksgiving, blessing, presence of Christ. There may well be a disruption, a distraction, from that inner sense of well-being, and she is thrown, and we are thrown with her. She journeys back from that disruption and difficulty into peace and a deeper understanding of the Lord. We take these journeys in each of the eleven chapters in the book. At times, after reading a chapter, I have felt the need just to pause, to breathe in, to consider – even to get some space from the intensity and gravity of what she has said.
What this book is not and what you will not find in it. It is not a biblical treatise. It is not a systematic theology. (Some of the online reviewers appear to treat it as if it is – especially charging her with the doctrine of panentheism). You will not find instructions on how to live in there. You will discover a model – incarnated Christianity. One fallen woman living as she best knows how according to faith, according to thankfulness. I know from reading her blog that after every meal her family ‘eat’ the Bible. She attends a brethren church, and comes from a Reformed persuasion, and a Dutch background. But to read ‘One Thousand Gifts’ is to start to become aware of a much deeper mystical tradition within the Christian faith, and to realise that the reading that is required of us is not critical, but devotional.
You cannot read Voskamp to criticise it, and at the same time read it to allow the Father to draw you in. It would be like reading A Kempis’ ‘The Imitation of Christ’ and saying ‘Well, he got that all wrong’. It would be similar to reading Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and complaining about the clunky allegory. I do not think it is a perfect book. But I want to finish this brief blog entry on it (because I want to do a couple of blogposts on some other things I have been reading, and then might come back to it), with a few extracts from a chapter I haven’t seen referred to online, ‘Seeing Through the Glass’. There is humour in this episode too, as she has brought some sunflowers into the house, ‘bringing beauty in’, and then her sons come in and make toast, and one of them throws toast in the other’s face, and she is very angry:
Straw comes in all shapes and the back of a camel can be weak and it’s toast and surely there’s something behind it that I should seek out but I don’t even care. It’s my own face that obscures the face of God. How can I help this son of mine see when I can’t see? The parent must always self-parent first, self-preach before child-teach, because who can bring peace unless they’ve held their own peace? Christ incarnated in the parent is the only hope of incarnating Christ in the child – yet how do I admit that people made in the Image can make me blind to God, my own soul contorting, skewing all the faces? Why gouge out your own eyes when crusading for Beauty? Pain drives us to mad acts.
I have just re-read the chapter and it’s not possible to do it justice here, but she draws unusually on Hagar, the slave-wife, out in the desert and weeping, full of despair, when God tells her to lift her eyes and there is a well where she least expected it, for her and her son. Voskamp reflects:
In this wilderness, I keep circling back to this: I’m blind to joy’s well every time I really don’t want it. The well is always there. And I choose not to see it. Don’t I really want joy? Don’t I really want the fullest life? For all my yearning for joy, longing for joy, begging for joy – is the bald truth that I prefer the empty dark? Prefer drama? Why do I lunge for control instead of joy? Is it somehow more perversely satisfying to flex control’s muscle? Ah – power – like Satan. Do I think Jesus-grace too impotent ot give me the full life? Isn’t that the only reason I don’t always swill the joy? If the startling truth is that I don’t really want joy, there’s a far worse truth. If I am rejecting the joy that is hidden somewhere deep in this moment – am I not ultimately rejecting God? Whenever I am blind to joy’s well, isn’t it because I don’t believe in God’s care? That God cares enough about me to always offer me joy’s water, wherever I am, regardless of circumstance. But if I don’t believe God cares, if I don’t want or seek the joy He definitely offers somewhere in this moment – I don’t want God.
The book is full of these questions and moments where you think ‘Hang on, this is going too far’, but at the same time I find myself nodding that I understand what she means. In the same way that 1 John is full of bald, striking statements: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” And you cannot hate your brother and love God.
Just a final comment: the book is a difficult read. It is a beautiful, meditational, generous and opulent read… but it is also deeply painful in parts, especially at the start, and near the start, and again towards the end. I couldn’t stop crying at some points. But that didn’t make the book worse, I felt. Not any old book can make me cry.