Friday, May 3, 2013

One Thousand Gifts, Chapter 8

"Desperate to Trust"

(I cringed when I saw her open with a quote from Emerson, America's premier Transcendentalist. Sigh. Why do Christians quote him in spiritual contexts? Moving on ...)

Voskamp addresses a common difficulty for many women: Worry. Anxiety. Stress. Fear. Distrust.
Her Farmer husband tells her, "Relax ... just trust. Just trust."
 But for Ann, it's not so simple. "Anxiety has been my natural posture, my default stiffness." She calls is "an identity" (143).

She returns to her early childhood and her sister's death. "In our house, we don't talk of heaven; the dead bury the dead."  Her parents are emotionally dead in their grief. They have no hope, no talk of seeing their child again, of Jesus holding her in His arms. There's only despair. Ann develops an ulcer when she's only seven years old from the strain of growing up in this family.

Is it any wonder that a child in such a home would turn into a fearful adult? That she would have trouble trusting? She's told she has agoraphobia:  "anxiety about being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult."  Think -- that's what life is! A place from which escape will definitely be difficult! How do we conquer such anxiety?

Interestingly, she at last calls something a SIN!  She says that the way we respond to our own stress can be sin. The opposite of stress is trust. "Can trust be conjured up simply by sheer will, on command?" (146)

She spends rather a long time on this theme, which is fine, but it's nothing new. You can read Christian women coping with daily stress and hunting for faith on a hundred blogs each day.  Voskamp works her way slowly through what I'll call a theologic, a progression of causes/effects that makes sense to her. Here's what it looks like, in a nutshell:

Belief is Trust, which is an Action, and the Action is to Give Thanks.

Belief -- Trust -- Action -- Thanksgiving

And it isn't surprising that Voskamp in the end would find the perfect answer to her problem of distrust and fear, simply by being thankful. That's been her recurring theme for seven chapters so far. That's why this chapter, while nice, feels a bit repetitive.

She continues, regarding this act of trust: "That's my daily work ... the work I shirk. And trust is that: work. The work of trusting love. Sometimes, too often I don't want to muster the energy. Easier to ... worry than to exercise discipline." (147)

I'm sorry to say that in this statement she steers perilously close to saying that her faith is a work, a work she must dredge up enough energy to do each day. Her own work. Working for her faith, her salvation. Because make no mistake:  the belief she's talking about here is "saving faith." "Are stress and worry evidences of a soul too lazy, too undisciplined, to keep gaze fixed on God? To stay in love?" (147) When she's anxious and fearful and faithless, she seems to say that she needs to work harder and be more disciplined.

Voskamp is hard on herself; she pulls no punches. The downside of that is that she's also hard on her reader, the Christian woman who identifies with Voskamp's life. She faces up to her fear:  "If authentic, saving belief is the act of trusting, then to choose stress is an act of disbelief ... atheism. Anything less than gratitude and trust is practical atheism" (148).  So, do we look at ourselves in the mirror on days when we're worried and anxious, and say to ourselves, "You are an atheist! You don't believe in God at all! Your anxiety proves it!" Hmm. I think that response takes it a bit too far. Does Jesus tell us not to worry, not to fear? Yes. Does He call us atheists when we worry? No. He's gentler than that.

Let me pause and say that there so much good in this chapter, but also a bit of bad. When Voskamp trusts God, she feels freedom and such exuberant joy. It's a pleasure to read it! She feels peace in her spirit. "I feel no fear and it makes no sense" (150). She's experiencing "the peace that passes understanding" of which Paul speaks, and this peace is utterly miraculous, because it's overwhelming, tangible, and has no source, no cause, except the hand of God. It's miraculous, stunning to experience. I loved reading this part! This is good.

But Voskamp can never stray far from her security blanket, her magic wand:  giving thanks. If thanks doesn't play a part in any minutia of her life, then she assumes something's wrong.  "I invite thanks. For this is His will, thanks the one thing He asks to be done in everything and always and only because He knows what precedes the miracle." (149) By page 160, she's placing these words, "Eucharisteo always precedes the miracle," into God's mouth, as if it were a piece of Scripture she's forgotten the reference for. She writes that God is saying it to her. But this magical cause-and-effect relationship between her giving thanks and miracles happening, this is a figment of her invention. By this point in her life she believes it so strongly, she cannot imagine God without these words in His mouth. Personally, I think this is bad.

Voskamp reminds us that trusting God is tied closely to remembering. I find this to be eminently Biblical. Throughout Scripture, God's people are told to trust Him as they remember how He's provided in their past.  "The God whom we thank for fulfilling the promises of the past will fulfill His promises again" (158). And I tell you, it's not easy, but this remembering does work to alleviate one's worry. It takes time, and sometimes worry rears its ugly head again, but after decades of seeing God rescue you repeatedly from disaster, it does become easier to believe He'll do it one more time!!  This is good!

In Psalm 77 and 78, I recently read about remembering. Ninety-two verses of remembering God's rescue. "I shall remember the deeds of the LORD, surely I will remember Thy wonders of old. I will meditate on all Thy work, and muse on Thy deeds."  "And our fathers have told us ... tell to the generation to come the praises of the LORD."  "That they should put their confidence in God, and not forget the works of God." And on and on. In ninety-two verses, there lots of remembering, but not a word of thanksgiving. Not a word!  But Voskamp, of course, says that the remembering must be done with thanks, the magic wand. "Trust is the bridge from yesterday to tomorrow, built with planks of thanks. Remembering frames up gratitude" (151). "Count blessings and discover Who can be counted on" (151). And it makes a little sense; remembering God's previous work in your life is about the same as counting your blessings, right?

In my opinion, Voskamp takes it a bit too far. "This is the crux of Christianity: to remember and give thanks" (153). "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" (153). "Eucharisteo returned me to God as non-eucharisteo had caused the fall from God" (153). "Gratitude is what births trust ... the true belief" (153).  "It's only when you live the prayer of thanksgiving that you live the power of trusting God" (153). Notice her use of the exclusive word, "only."

I hope you see that Voskamp says we cannot be saved unless we give thanks. To her, giving thanks is essential to salvation to such a degree that without it a person cannot be saved. Now, I agree that thanksgiving is fabulous, and is a normal by-product of being saved from damnation, and should be present in the Christian. But I don't prescribe it as an essential element to saving faith, so that a person who otherwise has faith would be damned without it.  In this part of the chapter, I do find Voskamp's view to be bad.

And if that is not bad enough, she continues on with the Eucharist theme, the Lord's Supper. This section is where I took the greatest exception to Voskamp in this chapter, I'm afaid. She drifts into a confusing story about fearful children trying to sleep during World War II, and then ties their comfort to receiving a chunk of bread to clutch in their hands as they drift into sleep. Anyway, then Voskamp says this: "Eucharisteo, remembering with thanks, this is the bread. We take the moments as bread and give thanks and the thanks itself becomes bread. The thanks itself nourishes" (158).

Did you read that? Did she just say that the bread we eat during the Lord's Supper is actually our thanks? That if there is symbolism involved here, and spiritual nourishment to be had from the bread, it's our thanksgiving that does it? Oh. My. Word. I want to make this crystal clear: The bread of the Lord's Supper is one thing and one thing ONLY. It is Christ's body, crucified for us. The bread is His body, and nothing else. Nobody, not Voskamp nor I, can redefine what that bread is.

But this is often the approach of the mystic. They like to remove traditional boundaries in religion or faith. They like to expand. They like to redefine and thus find new wonders that others might have overlooked. By calling the Eucharist bread her own thanksgiving, Voskamp elevates her thanks-list to an exalted plane. Giving thanks becomes a sacrament. Giving thanks becomes the sacrifice that is made for sin -- Jesus's body. Except now, instead of Jesus doing something for her, Voskamp is doing something. She's giving thanks. It's subtle, and I'm certain it's very well-intentioned. But I think this tiny chunk of this chapter is very, very bad. I don't think Voskamp intends to denigrate Holy Communion. I imagine she thinks she's elevating it, and giving it a new wonder that other theologians have missed. But I think she's in error. And in case we wonder whether Voskamp sees her own role as a mystic, she says, "I'm a wanderer ... eating manna, eating mystery"  (158). She's aware of the mystery.

After writing this last part, I'm so discouraged about her views that it's hard to proceed. There are other interesting aspects of chapter eight, but I think I'll leave them unsaid. I'd encourage you, dear reader, to ruminate on this last part because it's of vital importance. It's fair warning to all of us to be so careful in our spiritual thoughts. Do we have one area of our faith that we give too much importance to? Do we read it into Scripture more than is actually there? Do we begin redefining terms? Altering even the sacraments themselves? Even someone with the best of intentions, like Voskamp, can fall into error, one step at a time.


  1. One thing strikes me - the impulse to separate and reduce. Yes, eucharist means thanks or thanksgiving, but that is just one aspect of the Eucharist. If Christ is in the Eucharist, then we need to be careful about reducing it - Him - to something we can tidily wrap our minds and words around. It's better to just receive Him and cry, "Holy! Holy! Holy!"

  2. Yes, Gretchen. And you make a very important point -- that in the Eucharist we are receiving -- receiving so much! It is also a time to commit ourselves, to remember, but I think fundamentally the Eucharist is about receiving what God is giving us, not as much about what we're giving to him. That the reversal I see in her understanding of the Eucharist. She tries to turn thanksgiving into something she's receiving, but that doesn't really make sense to me. Thanks is something we give. The Eucharist is something we receive. After we receive the Holy Christ and all His wonder ... then we give thanks!


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