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Q&A with Ann Voskamp, Author of One Thousand Gifts
Q: What does taking the dare to live fully really look like?
A: By default, most of us have taken the dare to simply survive. Exist. Get through. For the most part, we live numb to life — we've grown weary and apathetic and jaded... and wounded. And we live these days of walking lifeless, years calloused and simply going through the hollow motions, the self-protecting by self-distracting, the body never waking, losing all capacity to fully feel—this is the hardly-life we stumble through that makes us the wild walking dead.
And to take the dare to fully live? This is about giving thanks for all the moments we've brushed by oblivious and bolting awake to this one ridiculously glorious life and battling hard to give thanks in every moment because this is how we win the struggle for joy in every moment. We are in deepest happiness in the posture of grateful worship and in choosing intentional thanks we begin to deeply, fully feel life — in all its ache and all its beauty — and we are doing what we are made for: giving wholesale glory to God! Could there be more to living fully alive than this?
Q: This dare to embrace everything as a gift, was a great struggle for you. How did you reconcile such indiscriminate gratitude with all of the evil in the world?
A: This has been an ongoing, heart aching struggle for me. My sister was crushed and killed before my mother's eyes, as I stood beside her. And like everyone, dear friends have battled cancer. And I have walked through city garbage heaps in developing countries where children live and call home and run barefoot along the open sewers, amidst the rotting corpses of rats and my stomach has churned ill with the evil and injustice in this world.
But I keep coming back to this: I know there is poor and hideous suffering, and I've seen the hungry and the guns that go to war. I have lived pain, and my life can tell: I only deepen the wound of the world when I neglect to give thanks the heavy perfume of wild roses in early July and the song of crickets on summer humid nights and the rivers that run and the stars that rise and the rain that falls and all the good things that a good God gives. Why would the world need more anger, more outrage? How does it save the world to reject unabashed joy when it is joy that saves us? Rejecting joy to stand in solidarity with the suffering doesn't rescue the suffering. The converse does. The brave who focus on all things good and all things beautiful and all things true, even in the small, who give thanks for it and discover joy even in the here and now, they are the change agents who bring fullest Light to all the world. When we lay the soil of our hard lives open to the rain of grace and let joy penetrate our cracked and dry places, let joy soak into our broken skin and deep crevices, life grows. How can this not be the best thing for the world? For us? The clouds open when we mouth thanks.
Q: In One Thousand Gifts, you write that there is one forgotten secret proven to increase happiness, improve physical health and deeply please God. Is there really one thing that can do all that?
A: Sounds amazing doesn't it? And it's completely true, proven time and time again in research, but more importantly, is supported by Scripture. The last ten years of research by Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at UC Davis and Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology, indicates that, the just the one practice of gratitude "can increase happiness levels by around 25%. Second, this is not hard to achieve - a few moments of writing a gratitude journal over 3 weeks can create an effect that lasts 6 months if not more. Third, that cultivating gratitude brings other health effects, such as longer and better quality sleep time." And fourthly: it pleases God when we answer His call to give thanks in all things. And He asks us to do this — precisely because it will make us happier, healthier — and fully, wholly alive!
Q: There are countless mothers who are wearied by the repetitive tasks of running a household. What would you tell a mom to help her see that overflowing laundry basket and that pile of dishes, not as a task but as an opportunity for finding deep joy?
A: I am one of those mothers — I've had six babies and I'd like to first cup that weary mama's face close and whisper, "I know, I know. You are not alone." And then I'd share with her that one line I murmur when I am struggling hard: "This is my song of thanks to You ..." In the moment of singing that one line, dedicating the work as thanks to Him, something—the miracle—happens, and every time. When service is unto people, the bones can grow weary, the frustration deep. Because, agrees Dorothy Sayers, "whenever man is made the centre of things, he becomes the storm-centre of trouble. The moment you think of serving people, you begin to have a notion that other people owe you something for your pains.... You will begin to bargain for reward, to angle for applause."
When the laundry is for the dozen arms of children or the dozen legs, it's true, I think I'm due some appreciation. So comes a storm of trouble and lightning strikes joy. But when Christ is at the center, when dishes, laundry, work, is my song of thanks to Him, joy rains. Passionately serving Christ alone makes us the loving servant to all. When the eyes of the heart focus on God, and the hands on always washing the feet of Jesus alone—the bones, they sing joy, and the work returns to its purest state: worship. The work becomes worship, a liturgy of thankfulness.
Mother Teresa encouraged with this: "The work we do is only our love for Jesus in action," writes "If we pray the work ... if we do it to Jesus, if we do it for Jesus, if we do it with Jesus .... that's what makes us content." What makes us content? It is doing all the repetitive tasks as gifts of thanks back to Jesus. Doesn't blessing Jesus, makes us the happiest? "I slept and dreamt life was joy," wrote Tagore, "I awoke and saw life was service, I acted and, behold, service was joy." Here, in the midst of the laundry and the dishes and the dust and cookbooks, we can become the blessing, a little life that multiplies joy, making the larger world a better place. God can enter into us, even the mama in the midst, and use these hands, these feet, to be His love, a love that goes on and on and on forever, endless cycle of grace!
Q: Many Christians say busyness is an obstacle in their relationship with God. In One Thousand Gifts you talk about slowing down time. What do you mean by that?
A: Oh, I know it! In a world with cows to buy and fields to see and work to do, in the beep and blink of the twenty-first century, with its "live in the moment" buzz phrase that none of the whirl-weary seem to know how to do, who actually knows how to take time and live with soul and body and God all in sync? God gives us time —- but who has time for God? We're addicted to speed, and we blur the moments into one unholy smear. And all this hurry makes us hurt.
This is it: Time is a relentless river. It rages on, a respecter of no one. And this, this is the only way to slow time: When we fully enter time's swift current, enter into the current moment with the weight of all or our attention, we slow the torrent with the weight of us all here. We can slow the torrent by being all here. We only live the full life when we live fully in the moment. And when we're always looking to give thanks for the next blessing, looking for the next glimpse of glory, we slow and enter. And time slows. It's this counting the blessings, looking for gifts, sleuthing for the glory that slows a life gloriously. Giving thanks for one thousand things is ultimately an invitation to slow time down with weight of full attention. It is thanks for this moment that slows this moment in time.
Q: In One Thousand Gifts, you were able to share extremely personal stories. You've suffered from agoraphobia, panic attacks and cutting in your teens. There was a horrific accident that killed your sister and put your mother in a psychiatric ward. How did this list of one thousand gifts help you break free of those ghosts that threatened to kill you?
A: Oh, the past and the pain can just about kill us and it's the tight grip of fear keeps a life small and I've lived the strangle. In a storm of struggles, I have tried to control the elements, clasp the fist tight so as to protect self and happiness. But stress can be an addiction and worry can be our lunge for control and we forget the answer to this moment is always yes because of Christ.
I've been the woman hurting, the woman anxious, the woman overwhelmed, and writing a list of a thousand blessings gave me this gift: I am the woman wooed! And writing out a list of a thousand blessings healed me because it was this: counting all the ways He loves me. Love saved me! What I knew in my head, I now knew it in my veins: I was loved. I was held. I could open up my hand and say yes to this moment — whatever the moment held — because the list of 1000 gifts taught me this deep down in my bones: God is always good and I am always loved. I could let go. Let go of trying to do, let go of trying to control ... let go of my own way, let go of my own fears. I could leave the hand open and be. Be at peace. Bend the knee and be small and let God give what God chooses to give because He only gives love and I could whisper surprised thanks. Counting His graces has awakened me to how He cherishes me, holds me, and passionately values me. I can empty of all the fears because I am full of His love. I can trust. Perfect love casts out all fear.
Q: You confess to being a control-freak and you've wrestled with negativity and anxiety. How have you learned to silence that with practical answers?
A: I have discovered this: You can't positive-think your way out of negative feelings. Feelings work faster than thoughts; blood runs faster than synapses. The only way to fight a feeling is with a feeling. The only way to fight feelings of anxiety and negativity and stress —- isn't with thoughts and mental affirmations — but with another feeling: Gratitude. Can I intentionally and purposefully give thanks in this moment— even if aloud, if need be? It's impossible to give thanks and simultaneously feel fear. We can only feel one feeling and a time and the feeling of joy begins in the action of thanksgiving. This is the anti-anxiety medicine I try to lay in my wide-open palm every day.
Q: As you write, life is filled with losses. Every day we know that eventually we're guaranteed to lose every person we cherish. How should Christians respond biblically to this reality?
A: Life is loss. Every day, the gnawing ... What will I lose? Health? Comfort? Hope? Eventually, I am guaranteed to lose every earthly thing I have ever possessed. When will I lose? Today? In a few weeks? How much time have I got before the next loss? Who will I lose? And that's definite: I will lose every single person I have ever loved. Either abruptly or eventually. All human relationships end in loss. Am I prepared for that?
And one life-loss can infect the whole of a life. Like a rash that wears through our days, our sight becomes peppered with black void of all that is gone, loss, ache.
First — to learn what it means to biblically lament the losses — and not simply complain: Lament is a cry of belief in a good God, a God who has His ear to our hearts, a God who transfigures the ugly into beauty. Complaint is the bitter howl of unbelief in any benevolent God in this moment, a distrust in the love-beat of the Father's heart. Complaint implies doubt in His love. Lament aches and hurts and is real in expressing that pain — but trusts the heart of God.
And in this genuine, authentic lamenting of our losses, God whispers to us in this thrum of love all around us: You may suffer loss but in Me is anything ever lost, really? Isn't everything that belongs to Christ also yours? Loved ones lost still belong to Him—then aren't they still yours? Do I not own the cattle on a thousand hills; everything? Aren't then all provisions, in Christ also yours? If you haven't lost Christ, child, nothing is ever lost. Remember, "through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God" [Acts 14:22 NASB], and in "sharing in [my Son's] sufferings, becoming like him in his death" you come "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection" [Philippians 3:10 NIV].
Q: The heart of your book is really about imitating what Jesus demonstrated in his final hours and you call it "eucharisteo." To you, this is the heart of Christianity that most people haven't noticed before. Tell us why you think eucharistic living is what it means to be a Christian?
A: Yes, it's all Greek to me, but this is the word that can change everything: "eucharisteo" — it comes right out of the Gospel of Luke:
"And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them ..." (Luke 22:19 NIV). In the original language, "he gave thanks" reads "eucharisteo."
The root word of eucharisteo is charis, meaning "grace." Jesus took the bread and saw it as grace and gave thanks. He took the bread and knew it to be gift and gave thanks.
Eucharisteo, thanksgiving, envelopes the Greek word for grace, charis. But it also holds its derivative, the Greek word chara, meaning "joy." Charis. Grace. Eucharisteo. Thanksgiving. Chara. Joy.
Deep chara joy is found only at the table of the euCHARisteo—the table of thanksgiving. The holy grail of joy, God's set it in very the center of Christianity — the eucharist is the central symbol of Christianity. Doesn't the continual repetition of beginning our week at the table of the Eucharist clearly place the whole of our lives into the context of thanksgiving?
One of Christ's very last directives He offers to His disciples is take the bread, the wine, and to remember. Do this in remembrance of Me. Remember and give thanks.
This is the crux of Christianity: to remember and give thanks, eucharisteo.
Why? Why is remembering and giving thanks the core of the Christ-faith? Because remembering with thanks is what causes us to trust—to really believe. Re-membering, giving thanks, is what makes us a member again of the body of Christ. Re-membering, giving thanks is what puts us back together again in this hurried, broken, fragmented world.
It was these verses that upended my understanding what it means to be a Christian, verses I think we've generally under interpreted: "One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well." (Luke 17:15-19 NIV)
But hadn't Jesus already completely healed him? Exactly like the other nine who were cured who hadn't bothered to return and thank Him. So what does Jesus mean, "Your faith has made you well"? "Well" is sozo in the Greek. Many translations render sozo as being made "well" or "whole," but its literal meaning is—"to save." Sozo means salvation. It means true wellness, complete wholeness. When did the leper receive sozo—the saving to the full, whole life? When he returned and gave thanks. Our very saving is associated with our gratitude. If our fall was the non-eucharisteo, the ingratitude, then salvation must be intimately related to eucharisteo, the giving of thanks. Thanksgiving is the evidence of our acceptance of whatever He gives. Thanksgiving is the manifestation of our Yes! to His grace. Thanksgiving is inherent to a true salvation experience; thanksgiving is necessary to live the well, whole, fullest life.
Q: Please leave us with one inspiring story of how the list of gifts has changed you and how you live today.
Every breath's a battle between grudgery and gratitude and we must keep thanks on the lips so we can sip from the holy grail of joy. Nowhere else in the whole tilting universe lies the joy of the Lord but in that one word. And one day, after years of writing thousands of His blessings, I stood in our kitchen with the dishes and a basket of laundry on my hip, looking out the window towards the apple blossoms filling all the orchard, and I can hear Him, what He's telling the whole world and even me here: this is for you. The lover's smile in the morning, the child's laughter down the slide, the elder's eyes at eventide: this is for you. And the earth under your feet, the rain over your face upturned, the stars spinning all round you in the brazen glory: this is for you, you, you. These are for you—gifts—these are for you—grace—these are for you—God, so count the ways He loves, a thousand, more, never stop, that when you wake in the morning you can't help turn humbly to the east, unfold your hand to the heavens, and though you tremble and though you wonder, though the world is ugly, it is beautiful, and you can slow and you can trust and you can receive each moment as grace. Eucharisteo. Eucharisteo. Eucharisteo.