Wednesday, August 8, 2012

One Thousand Gifts, chapter 7

"The Ugly Beautiful"
In chapter 7, Voskamp continues what she began earlier.  What does the thankful person do with the bad things in life? For Voskamp, the key is to change the bad thing to a good thing, with her thanks. "I look for the ugly beautiful, count it as grace, transfigure the mess into joy with thanks and eucharisteo leaves the paper ..." (127).  We've addressed this concept before -- the idea of changing bad to good by transfiguring it.  In chapter 7, Voskamp gives us a good, commonplace example of how she does this. It involves her two sons, grumpy attitudes, and a piece of toast.

You know how it is with kids:  they fight. They may use sticks, fists, words, or just eyeballs, but they fight. Ann has normal kids. The son she dwells on in this chapter is entering adolescence, a problematic age with some kids. (Boy, could I tell some tales!) When the conflict explodes in her kitchen, she scrambles to address it, in herself, with eucharisteo. She stops in mid-conflict, in the unrest of her own heart, and thanks God. "Father, thank You for these two sons. Thank You for here and now. Thank You that You don't leave us in our mess" (127).  She says it feels weird, but she prays this anyway.

It's important to me to stop here for a moment and note this crucial fact:  this activity really works for Ann Voskamp. And it works for many people. Expressing thanks to God is truly the silver bullet, and magic elixir, the answer!! that solves every problem. I say that only because Voskamp says it herself, over and over. Thanks is the solution to every conundrum, the resolution to every conflict, the peace for every war. This has been eye-opening for me, because I would never have considered it. I did not know there were other Christians, walking around on this planet, for whom this was a massive struggle -- the hardest thing to do! To give thanks. But clearly, it is true. I say this because it is not the magic elixir for me. I wish it were; it would be much easier (for me, anyway) than what really does work, for me. Just as thanksgiving is a struggle for Ann, repentance, confession, saying "sorry" -- these are my huge pills for me to swallow. Even in the the privacy of my own heart, it has been difficult for me to look at God (with my mind's eye) and say, "I have been wrong. This is sin. I'm so sorry. Please help me!" That's what my own personal 1000-list project would look like:  1000 ways of saying I'm sorry to God. It is what heals my soul, slowly softening it and changing it. It's taken years.

Does that make sense? Ann's solution works for people who also have her problem. Mine works for me. I wonder how many other kinds of Christians there are out there, with their own personal issue with God, and their own good solution?

The "Ugly Beautiful." I've already discussed why I don't particularly like calling an ugly thing beautiful, or a bad thing good. I think it's not godly. But we've discussed that. Let's look at some of the "ugly" things that Ann wants to transform. Here's a few things from her list: toys all over the floors, two-month-old-paint tape around trim, mismatched socks, lost library book, apple cores, dusty shelves, splattered mirrors."

Well, you can hardly call those catastrophes. These are life's little inconveniences. She calls them ugly. I think she uses the word "annoyances." Care to add to the list? Stinky toilets, flat tires, dead watch batteries, horrible commercials, failing eyesight ....

Ann's way of altering herself is to alter the things she dislikes. She changes them into good things, using thanks as her magic wand (I promise I don't use that meanly -- I think it's a lovely image), and this in turn changes the way she sees her world, turning it into a pretty world, which changes herself. It's convoluted, but it works for her. She knows that fundamentally, it is she who must be changed really. She states over and over how she needs new eyes -- a new way of seeing the world. She wants to see it from God's perspective, which means to see all ugly things as beautiful. Right?

I simply don't read the Scriptures as indicating that ... at all. But that's another argument for another day. But here's my take on achieving the same results as Ann:  when I'm grumpy about the socks/toys/toilets/dust/and on and on, I change myself with repentance. It goes something like this: "Father, I have a nasty mood this morning. It's not glorifying You, and not helping anyone. It's destroying relationships, which tells me it's SIN. Please forgive me. Please help me to realize that all these little inconveniences are not eternal. They're not worth worrying over. Give me strength. Help me remember what does matter -- my attitude, my kids' attitudes. Our souls." Then I set about trying to address attitudes, not things. By the time I realized this useful method, and implemented it fairly well, all my children were basically grown, of course!

I really relate to Ann's experiences in this chapter, and much of her way of dealing with conflict is clearly helpful. She is gentle, loving. She speaks privately with him. She uses Scripture. It worked with her son and they agree to do the thanks-list together. If I could speak with her, I'd only encourage her not to assume that it's the method that will solve everyone's self-issues. It worries me slightly that she never really alludes to SIN. Is she dancing around it? I don't know. I don't think she wants to look inside her son, or herself, and ever see SIN. Sin is bad, and she is all about transforming the bad to good. I wonder this -- will she ever write these "ugly/beautiful" things on her thanks-list: lying, hitting, cursing, unfaithfulness, hate, death? I don't think she will. What do we do with these items? She does name one sin in this chapter; she calls herself a blasphemer, when she looks at the world around her and fails to see the Face of God, when she looks at the ugly and doesn't see the beautiful. Whenever she fails to take the joy from the well of thanksgiving, then she's a blasphemer. She says it this way:

"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 .... But if I don't believe God cares, if I don't want or seek the joy He definitely offers ... I don't want God.  Blasphemer" (130)

My heart breaks for Ann here. She is so hungry for joy. She has found it, overwhelming, when she gives thanks. But in crisis moments, she forgets, or she doesn't quite know how to do it. How does one give thanks for an angry son? When she fails, she labels herself a blasphemer. A sinner, yes. "Forgive me, Lord!" That's what I would cry. "Thank you, Lord!" are the words she reaches for.

I do not fault either approach. (I have already expressed my dissatisfaction with some of her theology she uses to arrive at her position.) I wonder if she will confront any moments in which she will be unable to squeeze any joy out. Are there life situations in which one cannot even whisper, "Thank you, Lord"?  Paul tells us to be thankful for all things, at all times. He was even able to thank God for his sufferings and persecutions. But I do think there are times when we must pray, "Forgive me, Lord, I have sinned," before we can pray anything else.


  1. M.K., I'm afraid you have hooked me into thinking about your books with you - oh, dear - I don't have time for this Tyranny of Books.

    I was about to comment on this Gifts book review, but then I thought What am I doing? I haven't even read all of M.K.'s reflections on the book, so I went to your older posts and see that you even tried The Big House, which I am just getting to the end of and don't know how I will ever review, but I feel compelled to...

    I appreciate your thorough thinking about the Voskamp book, on topics that I can really relate to, but -- maybe I'll have to leave it at that. The book I was reading on the plane was theological/philosophical too and I have ideas for eight or so blog posts just from it! I better let you write your own reviews. :-)

  2. I didn't know you were reading "The Big House" too! I really like his writing style. I'm looking forward to what you think of it.

    All these book reviews are really wearing me out. Honestly, I wish I'd never decided to do Voskamp's book chapter-by-chapter, but at the time, I didn't see how I could really address it well, if I didn't. I think I'm running out of time with the library; I've already renewed it twice :)

    At least I'm working my brain cells! I'm looking forward to your blog posts again, GJ!!

  3. Again, thanks. I go to so many blogs where the women are following the 'eucharisteo' mindset without pause.

    My husband has always said to be wary of what EVERYBODY thinks is a good idea. The sheep mentality usually backfires.

    Okay, I'm of a melancholy personality, but Voskamp's book is so ultra-melancholy. Seems that she's hunting so deeply for joy (as you said) and is almost trying to convince herself.

    Must hush now! :)

  4. Melissa, thanks for reading all of this stuff! I really run at the mouth. You touched on something I also felt, but didn't verbalize -- the innate sadness of Ann's book. I know she doesn't intend it, and many people perhaps wouldn't sense it. But it seems so to me. It's her longing for joy -- nothing wrong with that. But as you say, it's hard for us melancholy types to read much of that b/c it strikes a chord.

  5. Why is everyone looking for some kind of secret??? Just read God's word's all right there.


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