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One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

by Ann Voskamp

Learn More | Meet Ann Voskamp
Standing at the side porch window, watching my parents’stunned bending, I wonder if my mother had held me in thosenatal moments of naming like she held my sister in death.

In November light, I see my mother and father sitting onthe back porch step rocking her swaddled body in their arms. Ipress my face to the kitchen window, the cold glass, and watchthem, watch their lips move, not with sleep prayers, but withpleas for waking, whole and miraculous. It does not come.The police do. They fill out reports. Blood seeps through thatblanket bound. I see that too, even now.

Memory’s surge burns deep.

That staining of her blood scorches me, but less than theblister of seeing her uncovered, lying there. She had onlytoddled into the farm lane, wandering after a cat, and I can seethe delivery truck driver sitting at the kitchen table, his headin his hands, and I remember how he sobbed that he had neverseen her. But I still see her, and I cannot forget. Her body,fragile and small, crushed by a truck’s load in our farmyard,blood soaking into the thirsty, track-beaten earth. That’s themoment the cosmos shifted, shattering any cupping of hands.I can still hear my mother’s witnessing-scream, see my father’seyes shot white through.

My parents don’t press charges and they are farmers andthey keep trying to breathe, keep the body moving to keepthe soul from atrophying. Mama cries when she strings out thelaundry. She holds my youngest baby sister, a mere three weeksold, to the breast, and I can’t imagine how a woman onlyweeks fragile from the birth of her fourth child witnesses theblood-on-gravel death of her third child and she leaks milk forthe babe and she leaks grief for the buried daughter. Dad tellsus a thousand times the story after dinner, how her eyes werewater-clear and without shores, how she held his neck whenshe hugged him and held on for dear life. We accept the day ofher death as an accident. But an act allowed by God?

For years, my sister f lashes through my nights, her bodycrumpled on gravel. Sometimes in dreams, I cradle her inthe quilt Mama made for her, pale green with the handembroideredHumpty Dumpty and Little Bo Peep, and she’ssafely cocooned. I await her unfurling and the rebirth. Insteadthe earth opens wide and swallows her up.

At the grave’s precipice, our feet scuff dirt, and chunks ofthe firmament fall away. A clod of dirt hits the casket, shatters.Shatters over my little sister with the white-blonde hair, thelittle sister who teased me and laughed; and the way she’dthrow her head back and laugh, her milk-white cheeks dimpledright through with happiness, and I’d scoop close all her bellygigglinglife. They lay her gravestone f lat into the earth, ablack granite slab engraved with no dates, only the five lettersof her name. Aimee. It means “loved one.” How she was.We had loved her. And with the laying of her gravestone, theclosing up of her deathbed, so closed our lives.

Closed to any notion of grace.

Really, when you bury a child — or when you just simplyget up every day and live life raw — you murmur the questionsoundlessly. No one hears. Can there be a good God? A God whograces with good gifts when a crib lies empty through longnights, and bugs burrow through coffins? Where is God, really?How can He be good when babies die, and marriages implode,and dreams blow away, dust in the wind? Where is gracebestowed when cancer gnaws and loneliness aches and namelessplaces in us soundlessly die, break off without reason, erodeaway. Where hides this joy of the Lord, this God who fills theearth with good things, and how do I fully live when life is fullof hurt ? How do I wake up to joy and grace and beauty andall that is the fullest life when I must stay numb to losses andcrushed dreams and all that empties me out?

My family — my dad, my mama, my brother and youngestsister — for years, we all silently ask these questions. For years,we come up empty. And over the years, we fill again — withestrangement. We live with our hands clenched tight. WhatGod once gave us on a day in November slashed deep. Whorisks again?

Years later, I sit at one end of our brown plaid couch, mydad stretched out along its length. Worn from a day drivingtractor, the sun beating and the wind blowing, he asks me tostroke his hair. I stroke from that cowlick of his and back, hishair ringed from the line of his cap. He closes his eyes. I askquestions that I never would if looking into them.

“Did you ever used to go to church? Like a long time ago,Dad?” Two neighboring families take turns picking me up, aBible in hand and a dress ironed straight, for church servicesonSunday mornings. Dad works.

“Yeah, as a kid I went. Your grandmother had us go everySunday, after milking was done. That was important to her.”

I keep my eyes on his dark strands of hair running throughmy fingers. I knead out tangles.

“But it’s not important to you now?” The words barelywhispered, hang.

He pushes up his plaid sleeves, shifts his head, his eyes stillclosed. “Oh . . .”

I wait, hands combing, waiting for him to find the wordsfor those feelings that don’t fit neatly into the stiff ties, thestarched collars, of sentences.

“No, I guess not anymore. When Aimee died, I was donewith all of that.”

Scenes blast. I close my eyes; reel.

“And, if there really is anybody up there, they sure wereasleep at the wheel that day.”

I don’t say anything. The lump in my throat burns, thisember. I just stroke his hair. I try to sooth his pain. He findsmore feelings. He stuffs them into words.

“Why let a beautiful little girl die such a senseless, needlessdeath? And she didn’t just die. She was killed.”

That word twists his face. I want to hold him till it doesn’thurt, make it all go away. His eyes remain closed, but he’sshaking his head now, remembering all there was to say no tothat hideous November day that branded our lives.

Dad says nothing more. That shake of the head says it all,expresses our closed hands, our bruised, shaking fists. No. Nobenevolent Being, no grace, no meaning to it all. My dad, agood farmer who loved his daughter the way only eyes canrightly express, he rarely said all that; only sometimes, whenhe’d close his eyes and ask me to stroke away the day betweenthe fingers. But these aren’t things you need to say anyways.Like all beliefs, you simply live them.

We did.

No, God.

No God.

Is this the toxic air of the world, this atmosphere we inhale,burning into our lungs, this No, God? No, God, we won’t takewhat You give. No, God, Your plans are a gutted, bleeding mess and Ididn’t sign up for this and You really thought I’d go for this? No, God,this is ugly and this is a mess and can’t You get anything right and justhaul all this pain out of here and I’ll take it from here, thanks. AndGod? Thanks for nothing. Isn’t this the human inheritance, thelegacy of the Garden?

I wake and put the feet to the plank f loors, and I believethe Serpent’s hissing lie, the repeating refrain of his campaignthrough the ages: God isn’t good. It’s the cornerstone of hismovement. That God withholds good from His children, thatGod does not genuinely, fully, love us.

Doubting God’s goodness, distrusting His intent,discontented with what He’s given, we desire . . . I have desired. . . more. The fullest life.

I look across farm fields. The rest of the garden simply isn’tenough. It will never be enough. God said humanity was notto eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. AndI moan that God has ripped away what I wanted. No, whatI needed. Though I can hardly whisper it, I live as though Hestole what I consider rightly mine: happiest children, marriageof unending bliss, long, content, death-defying days. I lookin the mirror, and if I’m fearlessly blunt — what I have, whoI am, where I am, how I am, what I’ve got — this simply isn’tenough. That forked tongue darts and daily I live the doubt,look at my ref lection, and ask: Does God really love me? IfHe truly, deeply loves me, why does He withhold that whichI believe will fully nourish me? Why do I live in this sense ofrejection, of less than, of pain? Does He not want me to behappy?

From all of our beginnings, we keep reliving the Gardenstory.

Satan, he wanted more. More power, more glory.Ultimately, in his essence, Satan is an ingrate. And he sinks hisvenom into the heart of Eden. Satan’s sin becomes the first sinof all humanity: the sin of ingratitude. Adam and Eve are, simply,painfully, ungrateful for what God gave.

Isn’t that the catalyst of all my sins?

Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, thatwe aren’t satisfied in God and what He gives. We hunger forsomething more, something other.

Standing before that tree, laden with fruit withheld, welisten to Evil’s murmur, “In the day you eat from it your eyeswill be opened . . .” (Genesis 3:5 NASB). But in the beginning,our eyes were already open. Our sight was perfect. Our visionlet us see a world spilling with goodness. Our eyes fell onnothing but the glory of God. We saw God as He truly is:good. But we were lured by the deception that there was moreto a full life, there was more to see. And, true, there was moreto see: the ugliness we hadn’t beheld, the sinfulness we hadn’twitnessed, the loss we hadn’t known.

We eat. And, in an instant, we are blind. No longer do wesee God as one we can trust. No longer do we perceive Himas wholly good. No longer do we observe all of the remainingparadise.

We eat. And, in an instant, we see. Everywhere we look,we see a world of lack, a universe of loss, a cosmos of scarcityand injustice.

We are hungry. We eat. We are filled . . . and emptied.

And still, we look at the fruit and see only the materialmeans to fill our emptiness. We don’t see the material worldfor what it is meant to be: as the means to communion withGod.

We look and swell with the ache of a broken, batteredplanet, what we ascribe as the negligent work of an indifferentCreator (if we even think there is one). Do we ever think ofthis busted-up place as the result of us ingrates, unsatisfied, wewho punctured it all with a bite? The fruit’s poison has infectedthe whole of humanity. Me. I say no to what He’s given. I thirstfor some roborant, some elixir, to relieve the anguish of whatI’ve believed: God isn’t good. God doesn’t love me.

If I’m ruthlessly honest, I may have said yes to God, yes toChristianity,but really, I have lived the no. I have. Infected bythat Eden mouthful, the retina of my soul develops macularholes of blackness. From my own beginning, my sister’s deathtears a hole in the canvas of the world.

Losses do that. One life-loss can infect the whole of a life.Like a rash that wears through our days, our sight becomespeppered with black voids. Now everywhere we look, we onlysee all that isn’t: holes, lack, deficiency.

In our plain country church on the edge of that hayfieldenclosed by an old cedar split-rail fence, once a week onSunday, my soul’s macular holes spontaneously heal. In thatchurch with the wooden cross nailed to the wall facing thecountry road, there God seems obvious. Close. Bibles lie open.The sanctuary fills with the worship of wives with babies inarms, farmers done with chores early, their hair slicked down.The Communion table spread with the emblems, that singularcup and loaf, that table that restores relationship. I remember.Here I remember Love and the Cross and a Body, and I amgrafted in and held and made whole. All’s upright. There,alongside Claude Martin and Ann Van den Boogaard and JohnWeiler and Marion Schefter and genteel Mrs. Leary, even thelikes of me can see.

But the rest of the week, the days I live in the glaringharshness of an abrasive world? Complete loss of central vision.Everywhere, a world pocked with scarcity.

I hunger for filling in a world that is starved.

But from that Garden beginning, God has had a differentpurpose for us. His intent, since He bent low and breathed Hislife into the dust of our lungs, since He kissed us into being,has never been to slyly orchestrate our ruin. And yet, I havefound it: He does have surprising, secret purposes. I open aBible, and His plans, startling, lie there barefaced. It’s hard tobelieve it, when I read it, and I have to come back to it manytimes, feel long across those words, make sure they are real.His love letter forever silences any doubts: “His secret purposeframed from the very beginning [is] to bring us to our fullglory” (1 Corinthians2:7 NEB). He means to rename us —to return us to our true names, our truest selves. He meansto heal our soul holes. From the very beginning, that Edenbeginning, that has always been and always is, to this day, Hissecret purpose — our return to our full glory. Appalling — thatHe would! Us, unworthy. And yet since we took a bite out ofthe fruit and tore into our own souls, that drain hole where joyseeps away, God’s had this wild secretive plan. He means to fillus with glory again. With glory and grace.

Grace, it means “favor,” from the Latin gratia. It connotesa free readiness. A free and ready favor. That’s grace. It is onething to choose to take the grace offered at the cross. But tochoose to live as one filling with His grace? Choosing to fillwith all that He freely gives and fully live — with glory andgrace and God?

I know it but I don’t want to: it is a choice. Living withlosses, I may choose to still say yes. Choose to say yes to whatHe freely gives. Could I live that — the choice to open thehands to freely receive whatever God gives? If I don’t, I am stillmaking a choice.

The choice not to.

The day I met my brother-in-law at the back door, lookingfor his brother, looking like his brother, is the day I see it clearas a full moon rising bright over January snow, that choice,saying yes or no to God’s graces, is the linchpin of it all, ofeverything.

My brother-in-law, he’s just marking time, since FarmerHusband’s made a quick run to the hardware store. He’stalking about soil temperature and weather forecasts. I lean upagainst the door frame. The dog lies down at my feet.

John shrugs his shoulders, looks out across our wheat field.“Farmers, we think we control so much, do so much right tomake a crop. And when you are farming,” he turns back towardme, “you are faced with it every day. You control so little.Really. It’s God who decides it all. Not us.” He slips his bigDutch hands into frayed pockets, smiles easily. “It’s all good.”I nod, almost say something about him just leaving thatnew water tank in the back shed for now instead of waitingany longer for Farmer Husband to show up. But I catch hiseyes and I know I have to ask. Tentatively, eyes fixed on his, Iventure back into that place I rarely go.

“How do you know that, John? Deep down, how do youknow that it really is all good? That God is good? That you cansay yes — to whatever He gives?” I know the story of the manI am asking, and he knows mine. His eyes linger. I know he’sremembering the story too.

New Year’s Day. He asks us to come. Only if we want. Idon’t want to think why, but we know. “Already?” I search myhusband’s face. “Today?” He takes my hand and doesn’t let go.Not when we slide into the truck, not when we drive the backroads, not when we climb the empty stairwell to the hospitalroom lit only by a dim lamp. John meets us at the door. Henods. His eyes smile brave. The singular tear that slips downhis cheek carves something out of me.

“Tiff just noticed Dietrich had started breathing a bitheavier this afternoon. And yeah, when we brought him in,they said his lung had collapsed. It will just be a matter ofhours. Like it was at the end for Austin.” His firstborn, Austin,had died of the same genetic disease only eighteen monthsprior. He was about to bury his second son in less than twoyears.

I can’t look into that sadness wearing a smile anymore.I look at the f loor, polished tiles blurring, running. It hadonly been a year and six months before that. The peonies hadbeen in full bloom when we had stood in a country cemeterywatching a cloud of balloons f loat up and into clear blue overpastures. All the bobbing, buoyant hopes for Austin — f loatingaway. Austin had hardly been four months old. I had been thereon that muggy June afternoon. I had stood by the fan hummingin their farm kitchen. The fan stirred a happy-face balloon overAustin’s placid body. I remember the blue of his eyes, mirrorsof heaven. He never moved. His eyes moved me. I had caressedmy nephew’s bare little tummy. His chest had heaved for the air.And heaved less . . . and less.

How do you keep breathing when the lungs under yourfingers are slowly atrophying?

I had stumbled out their back steps, laid down on the grass.I had cried at the sky. It was our wedding anniversary. I alwaysremember the date, his eyes.

And now, New Year’s Day, again with John, Tiffany, butnow with their second-born son, Dietrich. He’s only fivemonths old. He was born to hope and prayers — and the exactsame terminal diagnosis as his brother, Austin.

John hands me a Kleenex, and I try to wipe away all thisgut-wrenching pain. He tries too, with words soft and steady,“We’re just blessed. Up until today Dietrich’s had no pain. Wehave good memories of a happy Christmas. That’s more thanwe had with Austin.” All the tiles on the f loor run f luid. Mychest hurts. “Tiffany’s got lots and lots of pictures. And we hadfive months with him.”

I shouldn’t, but I do. I look up. Into all his hardlytamed grief. I feel wild. His eyes shimmer tears, this dazedbewilderment, and his stoic smile cuts me right through. I seehis chin quiver. In that moment I forget the rules of this Dutchfamily of reserved emotion. I grab him by the shoulders and Ilook straight into those eyes, brimming. And in this scratchyhalf whisper, these ragged words choke — wail. “If it were upto me . . .” and then the words pound, desperate and hard, “I’dwrite this story differently.”

I regret the words as soon as they leave me. They seem soun-Christian,so unaccepting — so No, God! I wish I couldtake them back, comb out their tangled madness, dress them intheir calm Sunday best. But there they are, released and naked,raw and real, stripped of any theological cliché, my exposed,serrated howl to the throne room.

“You know . . .” John’s voice breaks into my memory andhis gaze lingers, then turns again toward the waving wheatfield. “Well, even with our boys . . . I don’t know why thatall happened.” He shrugs again. “But do I have to? . . . Whoknows? I don’t mention it often, but sometimes I think of thatstory in the Old Testament. Can’t remember what book, butyou know — when God gave King Hezekiah fifteen moreyears of life? Because he prayed for it? But if Hezekiah had diedwhen God first intended, Manasseh would never have beenborn. And what does the Bible say about Manasseh? Somethingto the effect that Manasseh had led the Israelites to do evenmore evil than all the heathen nations around Israel. Think ofall the evil that would have been avoided if Hezekiah had diedearlier, before Manasseh was born. I am not saying anything,either way, about anything.”

He’s watching that sea of green rolling in winds. Then itcomes slow, in a low, quiet voice that I have to strain to hear.

“Just that maybe . . . maybe you don’t want to change thestory, because you don’t know what a different ending holds.”

The words I choked out that dying, ending day, echo.

Pierce. There’s a reason I am not writing the story and God is.He knows how it all works out, where it all leads, what it allmeans.

I don’t.

His eyes return, knowing the past I’ve lived, a bit of mynightmares. “Maybe . . . I guess . . . it’s accepting there arethings we simply don’t understand. But He does.”

And I see. At least a bit more. When we find ourselvesgroping along, famished for more, we can choose. When weare despairing, we can choose to live as Israelites gatheringmanna. For forty long years, God’s peopledaily eat manna — asubstance whose name literally means “What is it?” Hungry,they choose to gather up that which is baff ling. They fillon that which has no meaning. More than 14,600 days theytake their daily nourishment from that which they don’tcomprehend. They find soul-filling in the inexplicable.

They eat the mystery.

They eat the mystery.

And the mystery, that which made no sense, is “like wafersof honey” on the lips.

A pickup drives into the lane. I watch from the window,two brothers meeting, talking, then hand gestures mirroringeach other. I think of buried babies and broken, weepingfathers over graves, and a world pocked with pain, and all themysteries I have refused, refused, to let nourish me. If it weremy daughter, my son? Would I really choose the manna? I onlytremble, wonder. With memories of gravestones, of combingfingers through tangled hair, I wonder too . . . if the rent in thecanvas of our life backdrop, the losses that puncture our world,our own emptiness, might actually become places to see.

To see through to God.

That that which tears open our souls, those holes thatsplatter our sight, may actually become the thin, open places tosee through the mess of this place to the heart-aching beautybeyond. To Him. To the God whom we endlessly crave.

Maybe so.

But how? How do we choose to allow the holes to becomeseeing-through-to-God places? To more-God places?

How do I give up resentment for gratitude, gnawing angerfor spilling joy? Self-focus for God-communion.

To fully live — to live full of grace and joy and all that isbeauty eternal. It is possible, wildly.

I now see and testify.

So this story — my story.

A dare to an emptier, fuller life.

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