I am about half way through a book written by Ann Voskamp called One Thousand Gifts. It was one of those bookstore finds, I read a few pages before it was time to go and I was drawn in hook, line and sinker: How does a book with that kind of title begin with such tragic loss? But then again, how not? For how often has my true acceptance and understanding of God’s gifts, of God grace, of God’s forgiveness even, come through the pathway of suffering? And perhaps it is the only way it can come. I know my broken heart has shown me the deep issues within, the shallow faith, the width of doubts, and the fast spreading roots of bitterness in the soil of a soul soaked in tragedy and thus the need for this grace abundant. So the gift/loss paradox invited me first to, once again, run my fingers through the pain.
Chapter one: “An emptier, fuller life” she writes, and I look down at the scar running down my sternum. I look back up at the page, full with wounded words, “They say memory jolts awake with trauma’s electricity. That would be the year I turned four. The year when blood pooled and my sister died and I, all of us, snapped shut to grace.” It happened within me too, that year when old scars infected underneath came to surface, that year when I lost one I loved, and with him all the other past losses accrued and were finally felt with this one loss. It happened, however subtle, this shutting the door to grace and love, this holding out a “clenched fist” to anything God would give, for sometimes what God gives us is pain. And in this pandemic condition I flailed for survival—the full life I desired seeping through desperate fingers and the beauty I once knew marred, slashed through, in the canvas of my world.
Broken heartedness is an injury that takes years to heal and mostly because it is an injury that fights back. Flash back–my heart failing, my soul wheeled into the operating room of God’s grace and I fighting. Seeing that all the places that lay there jagged open must only be further cut, by the Master, the chief Surgeon who crafted the breaking, to make a clean edge I guess. And amidst all of this openness of heart to wind though, I remember laying there in the cold operating table, cold with the sufferings of a life, trying to wake up enough to put my hands over the gaping hole in my chest, thinking, “No, God! It hurts too much.”
I kept trying to breathe, trying to “keep the body moving to keep the soul from atrophying.” But as long as I held onto the broken parts the slithering lie of old lingered:
Can there be a Good God? A God who graces with good gifts when a crib lies empty though long nights, 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?
I remember sitting in the middle of the school’s chapel, listening to a speaker boast on the greatness of our God, and I though it, “Is He?” Oh, how I burst into tears the first time I heard it loud in my mind, and slapped my hand over my mouth as if to prevent me from really, really saying it. . . I burst into my mentor’s office and asked, “Am I loosing faith? Am I loosing sight of the real God? can I really even ask this question?” And why, why now that I wanted to see His greatness most was everything so dark? She stilled me with calm words, “God can handle our questions.” And so I came to Him with so many, undue questions, begging of Him unmerited answers, and crying all the while.”Where is grace bestowed when cancer gnaws and loneliness aches and nameless places in us soundlessly die, break off without reason, erode away. Where is this joy of the Lord…?”
This joy of the Lord!? The joy that, when set before the God-man Jesus, enabled him to endure a cross death, the joy that made Paul sing when chains bruised his wrists, and his back bled from floggings for preaching the message. The joy of the Lord. How far I was from thinking of it then, desiring it, knowing it , yet I longed for a “full life”, one not held back by depression, a life in which I could laugh again. But, how? “How do I fully live when life is so full of hurt?” she asks, “How do I wake up to joy and grace and beauty and all that is the fullest life when I must stay numb to losses and crushed dreams and all that empties me out?” My mind goes back years and years, and how the question echoed through the emptied rooms within me, bounced off plain walls, and hard floors, landed on hands clenched around thin air. I refused to risk opening them again when the possibilities were so dauntingly partial to failure and loss.
Yet, Voskamp asks me directly, how often do I think of the brokeness of this place as the result of our fall, of our rejection of God and all He had given us in the perfect beginning? Hardly ever. My eyes were open but also closed. She writes, “Infected by that Eden mouthful, the retina of my soul develops macular holes of blackness. . . Losses do that. One life-loss can infect the whole of a life.” Wow. I have glaucoma vision from day one and unfortunately the blind spots are heaviest when looking for the Divine, the Good, the One that, if I could now see Him, I may die then and there. I see a world of lack and injustice, but it is because I cannot see the whole, I cannot see that:
From that Garden beginning, God has had a different purpose for us. His intent, since He bent low and breathed His life into the dust of our lungs, since He kissed us into being, has never been to slyly orchestrate our ruin. . . ‘ His secret purpose framed from the very beginning is to bring us to our full glory’ (1 Cor. 2:7). He means to rename us—to return us to our true names, our truest selves. He means to heal our soul holes.
How patiently He held my hands, my knuckles white with fear holding the splintered heart together, how gently He pried them open finger by finger, showing me this pseudo-healing would not do. And how deceptive can my heart be even in its pitiful state screaming, “I don’t need You, I am fine . . . thanks, but no thanks.” But eventually I sat there still, and watched the anastomosis of collapsed arteries and veins, the sliding in and out sutures, the Surgeon working sometimes against my own will. True healing—a worthy pursuit, and one that the very God I tried to shut out in my sadness will pursue to its end. How can I fit my thanks that He does into adequate words?
I come to the end of chapter one: “An emptier, fuller, life.” I read the very last paragraphs and I see the filling after the emptying. I look at the surgery suite I have left, I look up at the Surgeon-Father who invites me to walk beside Him every day, and I see the life I have been given back through His hand and realize these scars are places I now cherish, places I can “see through to Him”
The rent in the canvas 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 which tears open our souls, those holes that splatter our sight, may actually become the thin open places to see through the mess of this place to the heart-aching beauty beyond. To Him. To the God whom we so endlessly crave.