One Thousand Gifts

When I first read about Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, I couldn’t wait to read it. The title, and the trailer I watched over at the author’s blog, seemed to promise something I need.

For the most part, the book delivers. It recounts Ann Voskamp’s odyssey of gratitude, which began when she responded to a dare to list 1,000 things she was thankful for. She laid a journal open on the counter and began, without any idea of how the process would change her heart and her experience of faith. As she puts it,

A lifetime of sermons on “thanks in all things” and the shelves sagging with books on these things and I testify: life-changing gratitude does not fasten to a life unless nailed through with one very specific nail at a time.

I was challenged to start paying closer attention to my life. Honestly, it has been awhile since I felt the real goodness of it. I remember a time several years ago when I was out running one morning in the spring, and I was so conscious of the richness of the ordinary. If I had to put into words what my reflexive mindset is now, I’d say “weary.” I can list some practical reasons. But things weren’t perfect before, either, and some aspects of life are better now — present stresses notwithstanding. Why am I so tired? I was interested in what Ann Voskamp had to say, and I come away with a renewed understanding of God’s generosity and love.

I struggled with the book too. The writing reminded me of Annie Dillard, whose prose is so elaborate it distracts me from what is being said to how it’s being said. It’s tempting to call it poetic, but the best poets are spare and disciplined with their words. They work to stay out of the way.

There were a couple of other stumbling blocks that kept this book from really winning me over. But it is a very personal expression of faith, an honest account of its author’s spiritual journey, and in that sense it’s an offering I prefer to receive with, well, thanks. Many of us may be tempted to think of ourselves as “glass half full” or “glass half empty” people by nature, but One Thousand Gifts reminds us that we are new creations. Something as simple as a notebook on the kitchen counter can become an open door to change at the deepest levels of our spiritual character.


Yesterday, my mother-in-law told me that she had led her father to the Lord. He had left his wife and family many years ago, when she and her brother and sisters were all little kids. Now he’s in a nursing home in failing health. She has walked the difficult path to forgiveness and grace, and felt that the Lord wanted her to share the gospel with him. Her obedience bore eternal fruit.

It’s a wonderful story in itself, but it’s made more wonderful if you back up and see the larger story it’s a part of. It starts with my parents, or even more fundamentally, with my mother. When she and my father married, she was a believer, but he was a skeptic who thought Jesus was merely a great moral teacher. When I was around 5 years old, he came to faith — largely as a result of her gentle, quiet witness.

Shortly after that, someone invited my parents to a dinner in their home. There would be a speaker there who would explain God’s plan of salvation. After much prayer, my parents decided to invite some friends to come along: my husband’s parents. The two couples had met in prenatal class for our older brothers, and the friendship had blossomed when they found themselves renting apartments in the same duplex after the babies were born. Now both young families had graduated to their own houses, but their friendship continued to grow. My husband’s parents came to the dinner, and gave their lives to Christ there.

The ripple effects of the Holy Spirit’s grace have continued to spread and influence many lives. My marriage, of course, is part of the story, and the lives of my children.

It’s such an encouragement to step back and see this larger redemption story my life is a part of. I’m willing to be a channel for God to continue unfolding it. But I do feel encapsulated by the “Christian bubble” in this season of operating so fully out of our home.

How will He use me?

Week in Words: Glory

I’m pausing in my swim through the archives, lifting my head out of old blog posts for a breath of air in the present. And what I’m reading is 1000 Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp.

Her writing reminds me a lot of Annie Dillard, and also of Dillard’s predecessor, Thoreau. Especially this passage I read this morning:

How I want to see the weight of glory break my thick scales, the weight of glory smash the chains of desperate materialism, split the numbing shell of deadening entertainment, bust up the ice of catatonic hearts. I want to see God, who pulls on the coat of my skin and doesn’t leave me alone in this withering body of mortality; I want to see God, who gives gifts in hospitals and gravesides and homeless shelters and refugee camps and in rain falling on sunflowers and stars falling over hayfields and silver scales glinting upriver and sewage floating downriver.

It’s a very similar sentiment to what Thoreau expresses here, in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Both writers feel something so similar when they’re out in nature, yet they come to such different conclusions about God. I also notice the contrast between a feminine perspective that absorbs the wonders of nature, and a masculine one that seeks to dominate (“drive life into a corner”).

Both passages stir me up and encourage me to go into this day alert to the possibilities. As Ann Voskamp goes on to say, “I pay tribute to God by paying attention.” I hope this will be a digging-deep, thick-scale-breaking, skin-coat-tugging kind of day.

Safely Home

I’ve been dragging my feet about writing this review. I know that this author has a real following, and I don’t want to be overly critical. Yet my reaction is very mixed.

My mom gave me this book. She and my dad had both read it, and she explained that though it wasn’t a fun read, it was an eye-opening one. I would agree. It’s a novel about two men, one in China and one in the States, and their contrasting journeys of faith. As the story unfolds, we get a disturbing glimpse of the fate of Christians in China, where they face persecution — as well as in the United States, where they face perhaps too easy and comfortable a road.

My reading coincided with the Chinese president’s recent trip to America. This made the book all the more thought-provoking, since the American character in the story is a high-powered business executive who seeks to carve out a lucrative niche in the Chinese market.

In addition to the themes of friendship and persecution and their effects on faith, Alcorn attempted a theodicy of sorts by inserting passages that show us what’s going on in Heaven as the characters live out their lives on earth. I didn’t like this aspect of the book. To me it was a failure in both imaginative vision and effective argument.

Not that a novel should be, in my opinion, an “argument.” This was where I was most disappointed by the writing: it seemed heavy-handed about its message, failing to develop the characters fully, or to make the dialogue and situations seem very realistic. Some of the concepts are simply borrowed from other more able pens — most recognizably C.S. Lewis, but used in the service of a spiritual and artistic sensibility I doubt Lewis would have felt very comfortable with.

Here is the startling thing: I found Safely Home deeply moving anyway. It makes me think about how slippery a book is when it comes to “evaluating” it. As characterization, I thought this was unrealized. As theology, I found it somewhat thin. As a plot, I found it stretched my credulity.

But as truth, for a believer, it strikes chords I need to hear:

  • I need to be reminded that persecution, historically, has ended up encouraging the faith and causing the church to flourish.
  • I need to be reminded that questions about God’s goodness or why He allows suffering are usually asked by comfortable people in comfortable houses with comfortable educations, but they’re answered by those who are walking through the most extreme trials.
  • I need to be reminded that there are places in the world where martyrdom for believing in Jesus Christ is real.
  • I need to be reminded to pray for my brothers and sisters in these places.
  • I need to be reminded of the great treasure the Bible is, and how the more of it I can get from the pages into my memory, the more it will be made incarnate.
  • I need to be reminded of the transience of earthly life.
  • I need to be reminded that there is only one Person in the audience who I want to impress with my life.
  • I need to remember the eternal influence a single life can have.

Safely Home is worth reading if you need reminding of these things too. As an artistic creation, perhaps it’s not as good as I wish it were. But God can reveal Himself in unexpected vessels, and He doesn’t demand that they be perfectly rendered. Would I prefer that all Christian writing (including my own)  be stellar? Sure. But in the end, I’m very thankful that God is more gracious than to require that. I would take a humble novel that God anoints over a superb but empty work of art any day.


Lately, I’ve been aware of how it dogs me: ambivalence. Double-mindedness.

  • I intend to eat three meals, one helping, no snacks, no desserts. But then 4:00 hits. I graze.
  • I intend to pray, read and exercise at 5:00. But between the bed and the coffee, the computer ensnares me, and I waste half the hour “just checking my email quick”… then the weather… then the headlines…
  • I intend to check off every item we list on the whiteboard in the morning by 1:00 PM. Instead, I’m smitten with the spirit of spontaneity and we whirl into this or than cool educational project, then find ourselves slogging through math worksheets after lunch.

I have not really looked hard at this phenomenon till the last few days. How is it that I’ve become so wishy-washy? Five years ago, I was extremely disciplined. My house was cleaner. I folded laundry right away when it was done. I played the piano and wrote poetry. Had I been homeschooling then, I don’t doubt that I’d have been following the plan every day. And I weighed about 15 pounds less than I do now.

What’s happened to me?

I notice two things. One is healthy. Much of my productivity in the past has come from being rigid. I maintained my weight, for example, not by always eating wisely, but by exercising excessively. I’d run 5 miles before daylight, then come home and do Pilates for 45 minutes more. I could eat whatever I wanted. I was lean. But I was destroying my body. Two years ago I had to have foot surgery to correct some of the damage that may have shown up anyway — part of the problem is hereditary — but it would not have been for another ten or fifteen years.

Yesterday I looked through my old pictures, and I like my thinner self much better than this self. I felt more “me” 15 pounds ago. But I am achy, and I am a former bulimic. I’ve been free of that for… 16 years now. There is a very strong wariness about getting too focused on losing weight, and in many ways my fleshier present-self is healthier than my skinny 5-years-ago-self.

There is something healthier about flexibility in meeting our educational goals too. I can’t fail to notice that rigidity about the schedule kills my own joy, and consequently the girls’ joy, in school. There is more joy, more heart, when there is at least a little bit of chaos around the edges.

I would even venture to say that there is more depth in my relationship with God when I am relaxed about my time with Him. It doesn’t mean I throw away the plan to meet with Him at the start of the day, or fail to guard the time. But it does mean every day doesn’t have to look exactly the same. What relationship is like that? There is more grace in some give and take, as long as there is an underlying discipline about prayer and study each day.

Okay, what was I talking about? Oh yes — the first thing I notice about my ambivalence is at least partly positive: it has to do with letting go of some of the rigidity, some of the external crutches, that have locked me into certain courses of action in the past. Even positive fruits, like thinness or regular devotions or checking off items on the to-do list in school, are tainted by joylessness when they’re maintained by enslavement to structure.

The second thing I notice is that my ambivalence has been fed by the computer. I’m not anti-computer, and this is not a post about technology. But I find that my computer time is a default activity, and what I’m talking about when I speak of ambivalence is being entrapped by the default mode. I go to the computer when I don’t feel like doing other things. I am entertained without effort or thought. Time passes. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but I can’t fail to notice the link between this and these other things I’m noticing — the gentle slide away from discipline and into default as a systemic issue. Think of it as exercising my default muscles. I do it a lot — more than I exercise my disciplinary muscles.

Here’s Galatians 5:

16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.

There’s the flesh, motivated by selfishness. There’s the Spirit, bearing God’s fruit.

Then there’s “you.” Or in this case, “me.” The third party that mediates between the others. The party that “chooses this day whom I will serve.” Paul says that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” In other words, there is no default. That third party can’t die into one or the other side of the battle. It has to stay separate from both and interact with God.

I have to admit, that sounds exhausting. There’s an illusion of rest in semi-conscious, default living. But in the end, I’m reminded, it’s really exhausting and noisy. I dislike the sound of quarreling, but the truth is that there is an inner quarrel going on all the time within me, and I am have become the unengaged mediator. I get to the end of the day and feel like I haven’t accomplished much or experienced much inner quiet.

Lord, help me today to change that. I see that it’s a lie. Your Spirit is life and joy and peace and rest. My caving into default mode is the real treadmill.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, a black woman named Henrietta Lacks was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins. She died very quickly from the disease, but during treatment researcher George Gey biopsied her tumor without her or her family’s knowledge and was able to reproduce the cells in culture. Known as the HeLa line of cells, they became “immortal” and have been used around the world in scientific research for decades.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot tells the human story of these cells. It’s a compelling, if not an easy, read. Henrietta left behind a husband and five children, none of whom learned till twenty years later that their mother’s cells had survived and were being used. This is the story of their family history, marked by tragedy, but exhibiting an enduring bond and strength of spirit too.

It’s a story of the slow development of conscience in the American medical community as well. One might think the Nuremberg trials and the Hippocratic Oath define obviously ethical behavior when it comes to medical experimentation and respect for human beings, but this book suggests that it has taken time for the field to rise to the level of its ideals. To read it is to face legal and ethical questions: How much do patients have a right to know? Who owns tissue, once it’s removed from your body? To the extent that cell culture has become an industry, who should profit?

As a racial story, this book exposes the politics of white and black, the communication issues between groups, and the breadth of the socioeconomic gap. In that sense it becomes a story of justice, as Henrietta’s family discover their roots and finally are acknowledged. But there is no feel-good ending. I closed the book with the sense that we have a long way to go. There are aspects of this tale that are disturbing or incomplete, achingly so. But as a critique of science interwoven with the more personal story of a family history, it’s a very readable, compassionate, truthful book. In fact, it’s an offering on behalf of human decency, one I read with gratitude to its author for having the courage to write it.



We’ve been enjoying hamster stories around here. Last Christmas, the addition of two of these little rodents led the kids to dub our home “New Hamsterdam.” Then a few months later my daughter won a local writing contest with a hamster story of her own. It was inevitable that we would discover Betty Birney’s stories about Humphrey, the “exceptionally intelligent and handsome” classroom hamster of Room 26B at Longfellow School.

So far we’ve either read or listened to the audiobook versions of The World According to Humphrey, Summer According to Humphrey, Trouble According to Humphrey, Adventure According to Humphrey, Friendship According to Humphrey, and Surprises According to Humphrey. All are equally entertaining, and all share a few basic qualities:

  • They showcase Humphrey’s curiosity about human behavior. He keeps a little notebook hidden in his sleeping hut where he jots down quotations, new words, and observations about people.
  • They reveal the kinds of struggles elementary-aged children face as they try to learn how to live in a world of people. There are strains between classmates, and the books show how to arrive at a positive outcome. Humphrey goes home with different children on the weekends, so he gets to observe and compare family dynamics, too. Humphrey himself even has some obstacles to overcome when he has to make room for Og the frog, a new classroom pet. And he learns that first impressions aren’t always reliable when he gets to know Mrs. Brisbane, the teacher who inherits him from free spirit substitute teacher Ms. Mac.
  • They depict Humphrey helping people. Often he hatches plans to guide his friends toward greater understanding and better communication. These plans frequently involve temporary escape from his cage, thanks to his “lock that doesn’t lock.”
  • They present a positive view of school and learning in general. The classroom activities the kids do are fun, and the kids are realistic. Humphrey is eager to learn and pays attention in class.
  • The same cast of characters reappear in each book: “Lower-Your-Voice-A.J.,” “Raise-Your-Hand-Heidi,” “Stop-Giggling-Gail,” “Speak-Up-Sayeh,” and “Pay-Attention-Art,” for instance. Then there are Aldo the custodian and Principal Morales, Ms. Mac, Mrs. Brisbane, and Mrs. Wright, the whistle-blowing P.E. teacher. We’ve developed a liking for all of them.
  • I have to make a pitch for the audiobooks as well. Hal Hollings’ voicing really brings the stories to life.

Humphrey is an indomitable little rodent who gets hurt or disappointed from time to time but never loses faith in people. He views himself as a full-fledged, participatory member of the class and models what it means to belong. That sounds rather grand for a hamster narrator, but the stories pull it off without being didactic or overly cute. It’s no wonder these tales are so popular among young readers.


Find it.

Read it.

It’s not often that I feel this way about a book. Usually if someone picks up a book because I made it sound appealing, I feel a little nervous. But with Unbroken, I believe that whoever you are, whatever you’re living through, however busy you are, you’ll love it.

What a book! I want so much to talk about it — to write about the events it recounts, my favorite parts, the ways it inspires me, the ways it overwhelms me. But I would hate to dilute its power by giving anything away. I read it without knowing anything beyond what the cover says: it’s “a World War II story of survival, resillience, and redemption.” I knew also that its main character was a person I’d never heard of: Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who became a World War II Air Force bombardier. It just might be that part of the reason I couldn’t put the book down was that I really didn’t know all the twists and turns Zamperini’s (true) story would take.

It’s not just the great story that blows me away, though that would be enough. It’s that the story is so well-told it leaves me in awe. The comprehensiveness of Laura Hillenbrand’s research, conducted over a 7-year period, combined with flawlessly paced writing, does justice to its subject. The older I get, and the more I read, the more amazed I am by some authors. When I was younger, I felt confident that I could subject any book to my tastes and analyses. Now I cringe that I could have had such hubris. The best authors go so far beyond anything I could ever do myself that I simply feel humbled reading them.

There are plenty of reviews around that provide fuller plot summaries if that’s what you’re looking for. I’m afraid all you’ll find here is raving enthusiasm. Ask my family; I told them the entire story at the dinner table last night. Ask my husband, who knows I usually fade by 10 PM, but who has been finding me still wide awake and reading at midnight.

Incidentally, this is the first book I’ve read all the way through on my Kindle. None of the books I’ve started on it have really caught my fancy, and I have struggled with the smallness of the Kindle page; I’m used to being awash in a sea of print splashed across two pages at a time. But Unbroken got me past my land-locked feeling. It’s the kind of tale you could get lost in if it were written on a pile of gum wrappers, the story is so absorbing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Son of Hamas

Son of Hamas recounts the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of one of the founders of the Palestinian Islamic organization Hamas. The book takes us in roughly chronological order from his youth in a devout Islamic family, through a growing involvement in Hamas and resulting imprisonment(s), to becoming a spy for the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet, to conversion to Christianity and eventual relocation in the United States. It’s a wild ride, written in a fairly fast-paced style and purporting to be an expose of sorts.

Several things struck me as I read. First is the confusion of life in Palestine. It’s impossible not to think of the Tower of Babel as we read of the different religious and political factions battling for control. Within individual groups, contradictory goals and methods are pursued, at times violently as members turn on one another in self-sabotage.

In addition to the political disunity is a religious incoherence Yousef begins to see as inherent. He explains,

Islamic life is like a ladder, with prayer and praising Allah as the bottom rung. The higher rungs represent helping the poor and needy, establishing schools, and supporting charities. The highest rung is jihad…

Traditional Muslims stand at the foot of the ladder, living in guilt for not really practicing Islam. At the top are fundamentalists, the ones you see in the news killing women and children for the glory of the god of the Qur’an. Moderates are somewhere in between.

It becomes increasingly hard for him to reconcile the bottom rungs of the ladder with the top rungs.

Yousef’s account of his first reading of the Bible is striking in its simplicity. Attending a Bible study out of curiosity about history, he is moved by the beauty of Jesus’ words.

I couldn’t put the book down. Every verse seemed to touch a deep wound in my life. It was a very simple message, but somehow it had the power to heal my soul and give me hope.

Then I read this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45).

That’s it! I was thunderstruck by these words. Never before had I heard anything like this, but I knew that this was the message I had been searching for all my life.

It takes 6 years for Yousef to come to faith that Christ is the son of God, but it seems this initial encounter with the pages of Scripture seals his fate. He explains in the afterword that he is not offering himself as a teacher or role model; he is still young in the faith. But his testimony is a powerful one just the same. I think what was most remarkable to me was the way Yousef came to see that both the human parties involved — Palestinian and Israeli — were equally fallen, yet he came to love people on both sides, and to want to protect the innocent from harm.

I felt strangely unsatisfied when the book ended. There is something unresolved about it. But I suppose for any legitimate autobiography this would be the case. Our lives are unfinished.

Son of Hamas is a real page turner. It recounts a life full of more intrigue and action than I’ll ever see. But it’s above all a tale of transformation, and I recommend it as a profound encouragement about the love and amazing creativity of a gracious God.

Tabitha’s Travels

Tabitha’s Travels was our Advent read-aloud this year. I learned of it through a posting at our homeschool group site, where it was recommended along with the two other Advent storybooks Arnold Ytreeide has written. The others, Bartholomew’s Passage and Jotham’s Journey, have boy protagonists; Tabitha’s Travels focuses on a girl.

Whatever mixed feelings I have about it, the girls loved it. It’s a real cliffhanger, and they were totally involved each day as Tabitha’s adventure unfolds. We read it at breakfast, where I seldom got one bite of cereal before the eager pleading would begin. Several times, my youngest ran up the hall to report on the latest plot developments to my husband while he was shaving. There’s a chapter for every day of the Advent season.

Tabitha is a daughter of shepherds — yes, that’s right, the shepherds, to whom the angels eventually appear on Christmas Eve. Tabitha’s travels unfold after her father is arrested by the Romans on false charges, and Tabitha is left alone to make her way among various towns in search of his citizenship papers in order to rescue him. Over the course of her journey she meets Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph, Herod, and, as a convenient segue to the other books in the series, Jotham and Bartholomew. Her tale is full of thrills and chills, kidnappers, malicious Romans, thieves and murderers. As entertainment, it was (judging from the girls’ reaction) quite successful.

So what’s my problem?

I think the basic story of God coming to earth has thrills and chills enough without laying on such a thick coating of fiction, for one thing. It was unfortunate that by the time the angels appear on the hillside, and the Christ child — who, of course, Tabitha actually holds in her arms at one point — is born, they seem like afterthoughts. That’s not to say that the idea of holding the infant Jesus didn’t still make me cry. It’s just that in terms of the story’s construction, the main course is Tabitha’s “one girl against the world” journey, and said journey has been woven of such unlikely and sensational ingredients, the real miracle doesn’t carry sufficient impact. My idea of a truly successful book would have saved the main stage for the true hero.

My other criticism has to do with the girls vs. boys theme. Tabitha’s tomboyishness and independence make her relatable to a modern girl, but they seem totally implausible. The same can be said for the comments her father and Zechariah make about what a shame it is that girls aren’t allowed to study the Torah the way boys can in the Jewish community. On the whole the attempt to create a bridge between a modern Gentile mind and an ancient Jewish one so distorted the truthfulness of the historical picture that I had some misgivings about reading it.

The girls are already anticipating reading about Jotham and Bartholomew next year. Sigh… What to do? I would rather not. But at the same time, I’ve been convicted lately about the way I take strong stands on things that really aren’t that important in the big picture, creating prickly walls around myself but not accomplishing much else. What’s more important here, accuracy or delight? How do I even begin to answer that?

Without being too curmudgeonly, I did raise the issue with the girls of mixing fiction and fact. The same issue turns up when we watch Moses Prince of Egypt — a movie I absolutely love, but one which does make some changes to the Moses story. We talked about the importance of knowing what the Bible says, and being aware of the actual details of a story. Once in awhile we can have fun with adaptations that take some liberties, and they can even help us to notice things in the real story that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, but it’s important to know the Bible and to acknowledge its authority on the facts.

That’s basically where I come down on it for now. This book gave us a fun way to experience Advent together. It prompted reflection on what it was like to be one of the countless anonymous bystanders going about their ordinary lives when the greatest event of all human history occurred. It took some liberties, but… isn’t this the mindset we’re hoping for during Advent?