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Tag: ann voskamp

books for the soul: december edition

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because it’s Christmas and Hanukkah in the days just ahead, this morning is bringing you two posts, and first comes the latest roundup of books for the soul. from the pages of the Chicago Tribune, and tucked here for anyone poking around in search of a something special to read… 

Ann Voskamp leads this week’s spiritual roundup 

By Barbara Mahany
Chicago Tribune

‘The Broken Way’
By Ann Voskamp, Zondervan, 288 pages, $22.99

From the first sentence of “The Broken Way,” Ann Voskamp, a writer of exquisite capacity, does what she does best: She pierces into a vulnerability that’s rarely explored with such truth-telling and almost never mined for hope. Yet she makes us believe that our deepest blessing is born of our brokenness.

“We can be brokers of healing,” she writes, “exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”

Voskamp, a best-selling author with a devout following (her book “One Thousand Gifts” sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 20 languages), is at her breathtaking best in this exploration that hollows our souls and leaves our hearts in pieces.

“I just know that — old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” she writes in one of her opening, bracing paragraphs.

A wheat farmer’s wife and the mother of seven in Ontario, Canada, Voskamp has known grief ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. It’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and use them to pierce “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

And yet, out of that brokenness, Voskamp finds a way. She comes to understand that operating out of love — a wild, abundant love — wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. In one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, Voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. And that’s just the start of it.

“God is drawn to broken things,” she writes, “so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

‘Light When It Comes’
By Chris Anderson, Eerdmans, 181 pages, $16.99

The clue to reading “Light When It Comes” is nestled in its foreword, where we’re instructed to “pay fierce attention to the holy of everything.” The brilliant essayist Brian Doyle, who penned the foreword, goes on to write that in ancient Irish tradition that’s the task of the seanachies, or story-catchers. Theirs is an imperative calling, he insists, because “stories of grace and courage and humor and love and wild tenderness are compass points and lodestars, and if we don’t catch and share stories that matter, we will have nothing but lies and blood, and can’t we do better than that?”

Chris Anderson, professor of English at Oregon State University, poet and Catholic deacon, is one such story-catcher. And here he writes impressionistically, a pastiche of images, snippets of story, all connected through the singular thread of looking for and stumbling on joy. Stumbling, too, onto the indescribable holy, those moments where we understand at some deep level that we’ve encountered the sacred.

Drawing on the ancient Ignatian prayer tradition of the examen of conscience, a daily practice spurring us to take stock of the joys and sorrows of our every day, Anderson puts words to the practice in these pages that record the fleeting moments of joy.
However small, however ephemeral those moments, he writes, “this is where God is calling us.” It’s a connect-the-dots theology, but in the able hands of Anderson, an evocative writer, a fine-grained observer of light and shadow, the image we see in the end is one that insists God is all around. But we must pay fierce attention to notice.

‘The Paraclete Poetry Anthology’
Edited by Mark S. Burrows, Paraclete, 224 pages, $20

Consider this a short course for the soul. Or, perhaps, the syllabus to last a lifetime. Herein, Mark S. Burrows, a poet, translator and professor of historical theology and literature in Bochum, Germany, becomes one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers who illuminates the way into the depths of a subject we’ve never before seen so clearly.
In his introduction, “‘A Sense of Presence’: Poetry and the Education of the Soul,” Burrows makes the case for why poetry is a sure road into the uncharted landscape of the divine.

It is through “the startlements of language” that a poem begins its work, in its capacity to awaken “the sense of wonder by which we discover again and again traces of the beauty that saturates our world,” Burrows writes, drawing fluently from a pantheon of poets. “In moments of surprise, we sense light breaking forth from the dark we carry within us,” the professor writes. Poems attune our minds “through the practice of attention.” And they invite us “to wander into truths often hiding in plain view.”

And then, as if we’ve been invited into a book-lined library, one curated across a lifetime, Burrows lines up a litany of poets and poems illustrating that very thesis.
Gathered here we find selected and new poems from a contemplative monk or three, an Episcopal priest, a rabbi, a protege of Thomas Merton, an Iranian-German poet, a theologian, a flock of English professors, and poets from Ireland, Poland, West Virginia and Tennessee. Tucked amid the poets’ roster, we find Rainer Maria Rilke, considered one of the most lyrically intense German-language poets, in new and previous translations by Burrows.

You’ll wear out the pages and the binding before you’re ever ready to put down this book.

Barbara Mahany is a freelance writer whose next book, “Motherprayer,” will be published in the spring.
Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

maybe this will help…

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it’s not even six on the big-faced clock that hangs above the kitchen door, just beside the cookstove. it’s pitch black outside. i couldn’t sleep. again.

that’s how it’s been so many nights of late.

the truth is, i feel broken. deep down inside and all around. it’s the state of the world. the state of domestic affairs (and by that i do mean the nation). and a few other worries besides.

i try not to bring my bundle of knots here to the table. i’ve tried mightily not to be a cry baby. but the truth is, the past few weeks have steamrolled me. maybe you too? as much as i cringe at institutions and norms being turned on their heads, like so many chairs in a tavern strewn after a beer brawl, it’s the oozing of hate, of ugly words, and pent-up outbursts that’s making me quake deep inside. getting to be it’s hard to go a day without bumping into someone spewing some sort of ugly all over the place.

i’m not wired for that. i’m guessing neither are you. when God was making me, i must have been funneled through the light-weight department. i’m of delicate nerve, i suppose. which is why, too often, i shatter. (fear not, God was looking out for me, so i got a double dose of feist, which when in desperate straits i can muster. been known more than once to pull myself up my bootstraps. i’ve taken blows that could have toppled me for good. some day i’ll tell some of those tales. but for now suffice it to say i’m equal parts shatterable and watch-me-pick-up-the-pieces, leaning toward the latter.)

which is where this tried-and-tested old table of friends comes to the rescue. i stumbled into something so good the other day, i had to haul it over here. it’s a book i was reading for work (God bless a job that commands you to read and read deeply). and while i’m not keen on self-help tomes of any kind (truth is — and we’re truth-telling here this dark morning — books that promise salvation-by-baby-step, they make my skin crawl; i’m flat-out allergic), this particular book, which hadn’t set out to fix me or anyone else, more or less set in cement something i’ve always believed: you can find your way out of your brokenness by exercising rampant and wild love beyond measure.

or, as the brilliant ann voskamp writes in her breathtaking new book, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life:

“we can be the brokers of healing exactly where we have known the most brokenness.”  

or: “God is drawn to broken things — so He can draw the most beautiful things.”

and: “maybe the love gets in easier where the heart’s broke open?” a theory posited by voskamp’s young son.

a canadian wheat farmer’s wife and “the mama of a half dozen crazy exuberant kids,” as she often puts it, voskamp has known grief all her life. ever since she witnessed her baby sister’s skull crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck outside her family’s farm. it’s a grief that led her to pick up shards of glass and pierce the sharp edge along “the inner softness” of her arm, “the whole thick weight of hell” pressing against her chest.

it’s a grief that led her into the deep well of darkness: “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?”

and yet, out of that brokenness, voskamp, who five years ago wrote the runaway bestseller, One Thousand Gifts, finds a way toward blessing. she comes to understand that operating out of love—a wild, abundant love—wielded in unexpected, unplanned ways throughout the day, she breaks free. in one afternoon’s itinerary of rampant acts of kindness, voskamp and her flock of kids stuff bubble gum machines with quarters, tuck parking fees in envelopes on random windshields in a hospital parking lot, buy a cart of groceries for an unsuspecting soul in a checkout line. and that’s just the start of it.

she leans into science to back up her scheme, the review of general psychology, in particular, and a study that showed that “those who perform five acts of giving over six weeks are happier than those who don’t.” and here’s why, according to voskamp’s squad of research psychologists: “when you give, you get reduced stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased endorphins. acts of kindness reduce anxiety, and strengthen the immune system. five random acts of kindness can increase happiness for up to three months later.”

in this particular instance i’m going with it, abandoning the newsroom adage of “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” i’m flat-out buying the science, and the instruction, because frankly anyone got a brighter idea?

i might call it the fireworks rule. do something kind, do something crazily wild driven by love, and don’t tell a soul that you’ve done it, then wait for that tickle, that pop, that night sky of sparkle and light, rising up from deep down inside. it’s the lightning bolt of adrenaline, perhaps, oxytocin oozing all over. it’s God, maybe, tapping you there on the heart, whispering, “hey, sweetheart, high five. that’s what i’m talking about when i talk about love. love and love madly. love with abandon.”

voskamp circles back to her newfangled notion a few chapters later, when she asks: “why hadn’t somebody showed up a long time ago in a three-piece suit to tell me those small acts of intentional love actually trigger the brain’s receptor networks for oxytocin, the soothing hormone of maternal bonding? that little acts of love actually release dopamine, the hormone associated with positive emotions and a natural high? why hadn’t anyone told me: bend low in small acts of love, and you literally get ‘high’?”

chances are, we knew this already. or at least we had a mighty strong hunch. and chances are, too, we’ve lived it. given it the occasional workout.

but somehow, in this long stretch of feeling quite bulldozed and broken, voskamp’s words and her litany of random, wild abandon loving, it all went a long way toward helping me see the dim light of hope in the distance.

in case you’re inclined to play along, here’s more from the list of crazy wild loving that filled one voskamp day, a day that happened to be voskamp’s own birthday: she filled a mason jar with gladiolas from her garden, and drove them to an old man she knew in a nursing home. but she didn’t stop at just his room, she and her kids ran up and down the halls, leaving a trail of mason-jar glads, room after room. and on their way into town, they drove past a squad car and circled back to leave a box of cookies on the hood, hoping aloud that it wasn’t “mistaken for a bomb.” then, for the joy of it, the whole lot of them grabbed a pie at the market and dropped it off at the town doctor’s office, to “thank him for catching babies.” then, they stopped at a coffee shop, and sprang for the coffees of every single person in line. next up, a dozen donuts dropped off at the town hall. just because.

that’s not all. voskamp wondered aloud what would happen if you walked into a diner, and whispered to the waitress that you’re paying for the dinner of that family over in the corner, a family you’d never before seen, and likely wouldn’t see again. and all that was preamble to the litany i mentioned above: the bubblegum quarters, the windshield parking fees, the cart piled with groceries, paid for in full.

be audacious is the point. love audaciously, the insistence.

“don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake that moves another heart to give,” voskamp writes. “what if the truth really is that every tremor of kindness here erupts in a miracle elsewhere in the world?”

i’m willing to subscribe to the voskamp theory of tremors and earthquakes of kindness. i’m willing to sign my name to the roster of crazies.

it’s the closest i’ve come in the past few weeks to seeing my way toward the light. and i’m lurching toward that flickering flame.

before it goes out.

how bout you? since the whole point is not to divulge your own wild acts of kindness, how bout recounting the times you’ve been so blessed out of the blue? perhaps a litany of blessing, of random kindness exercised madly, is just what the doctor ordered to lift us out of our blues?

one + one + (a step-stone arithmetic to joy…)

one + one sunrise

i’m not one for self-help. (actually, i tend to seem to excel at self-demise, throwing myself down the proverbial dark stairwell before i’ve given myself a chance to trod two steps up, or sweet-talking myself out of risk-taking for 1,001 safe, solid reasons before i’ve so much as squirmed from my cozy armchair.)

so wasn’t i surprised — flabbergasted, flummoxed, fill in the exclamatory modifier — when this week i found myself reading along in a book i’d long been meaning to peek inside.

the book is lovely, is this:

one thousand giftsthat’s ann voskamp’s poetic, riveting, often soaring flight to ecstasy, bound under the bird’s nest cover and quietly titled, “one thousand gifts: a dare to live fully right where you are,” (zondervan, $16.99). while the writing alone is worth the ride, it’s the simple profound premise at its core that just might launch a revolution of the soul. (my soul, anyway.)

voskamp dares you — dares me, dares herself — to train a scrutinizing eye on the everyday, and begin to count to 1,000. that’s one thousand blessings — points of joy, moments of grace — in the course of one holier-than-you’d-imagined year.

she begins:

1. Morning shadows across the old floors

2. Jam piled high on the toast

3. Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce

she doesn’t even bother with periods at the end of her 1, 2, 3s (though she does employ upper-case starts to her each and every blessing). and she sits easy with the notion that her jottings are rooted in the quotidian, the messy, the right-before-her-blurry-eyes. this is not some celestial divination going on. just sponge-mopping up the poetry that spills and splatters and muddies up the daily works. and counts for joy.

she explains that what she’s doing is “eucharisteo,” giving thanks, the word in ancient greek, a word whose very root is charis, meaning grace. she writes that eucharisteo also holds the derivative, the greek word chara, meaning joy.

grace, thanksgiving, joy, “a triplet of stars, a constellation in the black,” she writes. “a greek word that might make meaning of everything?”

it’s a sacred calibration: the height of joy, she calculates, dependent on the depths of eucharisteo, thanks.

she stumbles on what turns out to be this holiest of paths because she’s found herself plopped, of all places, in a chair at the beauty salon, and the woman next to her is reading the best-seller, “1000 places to see before you die.” that gets voskamp — voskamp, a canadian farmer’s wife, mother of six, woman who witnessed her baby sister get crushed under the wheel of a delivery truck back when she, voskamp, was a mere child of four, and who felt her heart and soul slam shut in that very bloody instant — it gets her to thinking about why it is we think we need to travel far and wide to gather up armloads of wonder.

she writes: “isn’t it here? the wonder? why do i spend so much of my living hours struggling to see it? do we truly stumble so blind that we must be affronted with blinding magnificence for our blurry soul-sight to recognize grandeur? the very same surging magnificence that cascades over our every day here. who has time or eyes to notice?”

and you know it wouldn’t be a book, bound between those lovely covers, if she hadn’t found the answer to that rhetorical question. so what she does, on a blithely-flung dare from a friend, is she begins to track her grace notes. and in time, in not so much time, she realizes “this daily practice of the discipline of gratitude is the way to daily practice the delight of God.”

once she’d counted past the halfway mark, had teetered past 513. Boys jiggling blue Jell-O, she realized she couldn’t stop. she was “always looking for just one more in this unfolding of a chronicle of grace, our life story in freeze frames of joy.”

maybe it had a sudden and deep resonance with me because i’ve been a list maker my whole life long. i’ve called them wonderlists, and they’ve served as blueprints and launching pads for a life i dreamed of, and they’ve been the inventory of a day i’d hoped would come. i tick through lists of of blessings all around. but i’d never set out, as if a lepidopterist equipped with long-poled net, to catch myself a year’s — let alone a day’s — flock of godly wonders.

i’d made the mistake of list-making as wishful thinking, failed to exercise the possibility of list-making as blessing counting.

but i’ve started to think that voskamp — a writer whose sentences often make me stop, stare, hit re-wind and read again, for the sheer joy of discovering such wonder packed in words — has hit on something at once profoundly simple and simply breathtaking. something that just might fill the glass with wonder. even when it’s half empty by worldly measure.

if we can count our joys, pick up pen, jot words to paper, consecutively, one + one + one, we’ll soon arrive at a notepad account of accumulated and undeniable graces. we’ll hold it in our tight-clenched fists. we’ll read it, black-etched words on unbleached paper.

you might see fit to snatch up a moleskin pad or two. or perhaps at the grocery store, you’ll scoop up nothing fancier than a spiral-bound lined-rule pocket notebook.

the point is, you’ll be engaged in the exercise of combing your every day for the poetry of grace, as it falls across your old pine floors, your whisker-worn bedclothes, or even the orange-juice-splotted kitchen counter.

i’ve a hunch you too will be caught up in the counting. in the accumulated wonder that won’t escape your gaze.

once we teach ourselves to pay attention, the 1s and 2s and 3s come tumbling swiftly.

next thing we know, we are deep in the 300s, 500s, 800s, counting our way to seeing what’s always been there: heaven’s grace seeped into the cracks and crevices of a life we might have mistaken for humdrum and rather parched.

when really, all along, it was spilling over with joy upon joy upon a thousand joys. God’s way of whispering, “you are so abundantly awash in love.”

start counting…

anyone inclined to begin the 1, 2, 3s? and if so, the space below is a fine place to jot whatever snippets of the divine you’ve captured in your counting net….

p.s. ann voskamp is a blogger, too; in fact, that’s how i first heard about her, when a friend sent the link to ann’s blog, a holy experience, and said she thought i’d love the writing and the gorgeous photography. that friend was right. and though i’d known she had a book, i’d not found it in the library till last week, when i had reason to scan the daily-blessing bookshelves. 

the tangerine sky, above, is one recent morning’s first tabulation of the brush stroke of wonder, just beyond my windowpanes….