Ann Voskamp is the Ontario farmer’s wife, wildly successful – and wonderfully humble – author of The New York Times bestseller One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, and most recently The Broken Way: A Daring Path Into the Abundant Life. Voskamp met with Faith Today editor Karen Stiller in a hotel lobby in Toronto to discuss her latest book, how we can all be more honest about our brokenness and why that’s so important.
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Faith Today: When you began to write The Broken Way, did you know where you were going with it?
Ann Voskamp: My editor said, "The reason readers want to do life with you is because you are authentic and honest about how messy it is. Don’t make this neat and packaged." I knew The Broken Way was the other half of One Thousand Gifts, the two were sister books. The story continued.
I’m back to the Lord’s Supper. What did Jesus do? He took bread, that is the eucharisteo that One Thousand Gifts explored. Then what does He do with that? He doesn’t consume the gift, He doesn’t hoard the gift. He takes the bread and He breaks it and gives it.
So, after counting a thousand gifts, do I become the gift in the midst of my own brokenness? As you start to incarnate and flesh the gospel, it’s messy and your own brokenness gets caught up in that and circumstances arise.
FT: Why are we still afraid of being open about our brokenness in the Church?
AV: The culture around us is about "Avoid suffering, bury suffering, do whatever it takes to avoid it." It’s how we’re wired. No one really wants to participate in the suffering of Christ, or in our own suffering and pain and brokenness.
So much dysfunction is a function of trying to avoid brokenness and suffering. We come to Jesus in a vulnerable place being willing to say, "I’m broken and I need you, Jesus." But then after that we think we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps instead of saying, "No, Jesus now holds me." We put on masks, but in wearing masks what ultimately gets masked is Christ.
The Broken Way really is a dare to live a life of humility, of vulnerability, of generosity. To get to that point of deep intimacy, connection and communion, not only with Christ, but with other people. But the pathway to get there starts with breaking the masks, breaking open our own hearts and vulnerability. The Broken Way is so paradoxical and upside down.
The cover of the book, and I’m a farmer’s wife, is a seed [that] has to be broken and crushed. We want change, we want transformation and growth. Those are the endpoints we are trying to get to, but the only way to get there is through brokenness.
When we circumvent the brokenness, we never get to the transformation and the growth, so I think it’s a call to go ahead. I said it over and over again in the book, and it’s become my refrain – "Don’t be afraid of broken things."
If Christ is drawn to brokenness, we in the Church need to be drawn to brokenness because we trust that resurrection can happen in those places. If I want deep transformation in my life, I need to live authentic cruciformation in my life. If One Thousand Gifts was about eucharisteo and giving thanks for all the gifts, that’s the vertical beam of the cross. All the gifts come down and all my thanks go up. But then what do you do with that?
You live out koinonia, which is what The Broken Wayis exploring. We think koinonia just means fellowship, but you can’t get to fellowship without sharing, without you breaking off part of you, without living like bread broken and given. And not just out of the strong places of our lives, but what do you do with your [own] broken heart? You give it away. There is deep fellowship and communion in that. The only life we ultimately get is the one we give away.
FT: You tell a great story about on your birthday how you rethink the idea of the bucket list, to be about a list of things we have to give.
AV: The tendency and default is when we feel like failures and we feel broken, and depression is pressing in on the fringes of things, my tendency is to get really myopic and insular, and pull the covers over my head and say, "Okay, the world can go on without me today. I have nothing to give."
Burnout happens if we think we can give in and of ourselves. But if I stay in communion with Him, in intimacy with Him, only because of that do I have anything to give at all. It’s not "pay it forward" because I don’t think we can pay back the universe. Everything is a gift, everything is grace. All I can do is take the grace and give it forward.
FT: That’s very different.
AV: It is. None of us like to feel indebted in any way, so we think we will pay it back. But if I can destroy the myth of scarcity and live into the mystery of abundance – that because I have Christ, He is infinite, there is always enough – then I can go ahead and give it forward today in such small ways.
I had started that birthday feeling I had failed in so many ways. I really was on the brink, and the midlife crisis had unravelled itself at the same time, but just realizing if I can choose to give it forward, to be the gift, and focus on other people and meeting their brokenness in small, simple ways, you really do encounter a kind of communion, a kind of connecting, a kind of intimacy that is so fulfilling.
I deeply understand feeling burned out: I’ve nothing left to give, I need more before I can pour out anything. I’m back to the story of the rabbi in the book, that if you want more, the only way to get more into the bottle is to pour out.
It’s so counterintuitive, what we’ve really been experiencing living in the last year, adopting a little girl from China with a broken heart. She’s been home with us for seven months. At the same time we as a family worked with the Mennonite Central Committee in private sponsorship of a Syrian refugee family. My husband was like, "We’re being pulled thin."
But in the thin places we have experienced God, and the story is profoundly more fulfilling living this way.
But we also realize that both of us had really bought into if you were living a good Christian life, it looked tidy, it looked neat, it looked together. We have realized that living cruciform, living upside down Kingdom is messy. It’s not neat.
FT: We did a DVD study of One Thousand Gifts for a women’s Bible study in our church. In one scene, as you are kneading bread, you are pouring olive oil from a mason jar. A couple of the women felt intimidated by –
AV: How beautiful it all was. I knew that’s where you were going. I think One Thousand Gifts really was about, Can you look for the beauty? Can you see the beautiful? Can you see there is beauty all around us if we’ll slow down and see that there is grace?
I think in The Broken Way I’ve tried to be really intentional about destroying any pedestals and platforms. I really did. I heard it and I thought, Oh, goodness. Please understand my default is not Pollyanna and my life is messy and crazy.
It was an intentional habit of trying to become a grateful person, and not because it came naturally to me, but because it was so unnatural to me. My husband once, we were in a Bible study group, and it was one of those icebreakers and everyone had to write down their pet peeve. We read them around the table and tried to guess whose was whose, and my husband had written on his, "Living with ungrateful people," and I thought, "Oh, my goodness. That’s me."
I’ve had to be so intentional. My default is cynicism and perfectionism. Living in a broken world, it’s easy to see the dark. It’s the brilliant who look for the light, and that can look Pollyannaish, but no, you are choosing to have a focus.
So much of photography for me is the art of subtraction, which I think mirrors faith. What am I going to choose to focus on?
FT: You’re a wonderful photographer.
AV: I’m not. For me, it’s a spiritual discipline. It’s "The house is a mess, we haven’t accomplished what we need to accomplish, oh, my goodness, the to-do list isn’t done." A camera lens, there is me saying What is pure, what is good, what is lovely, what is right, see grace in this moment, see God in this moment, but also that can become part of the problem of we’re all wearing masks, that this is all perfect.
The broken way is to say, "You know what? The only people who think the masks work are you." Everyone else sees the masks are flimsy, that we are hypocritical. They see there is brokenness in your own life. If we don’t tear off the mask, why in the world would brokenhearted people come into the Church? We have nothing for them there.
As Christian leaders we are responsible for trying to destroy the platforms and the pedestals, and that means you have to take the broken way. You have to have enough humility to live into the vulnerability of saying, "Hey, I am choosing to look for beauty, but let me tell you that I cut [myself] all through my teen years, and I’m in my 40s and I still struggle on hard days with the temptation to self-harm." I still have to preach gospel back to myself. I feel like a profound failure as a mother on so many days.
I’m busted and broken, but that doesn’t disqualify you from being a world changer because the busted and broken can be the ones most empathetic to the ones who are broken-hearted.
FT: In the book you talk also about lament, especially in the evangelical subculture. We don’t honour lament, something you define as "an outrage that still trusts in God’s good outcome."
AV: I’ve spent the last five or six years talking about eucharisteo and giving thanks, but our God is big enough to take our grief, to take our brokenness. The Church has to be a safe place to practise not only our gratitude, but the art of lament.
You take David and all those psalms. He encapsulates giving thanks, but those psalms start off with the art of lament, with sharing, "This is my brokenness, my anger and my rage. This is me being profoundly vulnerable with my broken heart."
If we take that broken way of lament, he gets to the practice of gratitude. We do great damage to people when we slap on clichés, like "Be grateful." You will get to gratitude when you see how the Lord meets you as you are vulnerable with your brokenness.
FT: Tell us about how we comfort other people. Some people are so uncomfortable with suffering and they don’t know how to show up.
AV: Just show up. There are two ideas in the book. I hate when people use the word passion, as in, "What are you passionate about?" But passion means what are you willing to suffer from? We want to be compassionate people. The characteristic you see most attributed to Christ in the New Testament is compassion. He was moved to compassion. Compassion is co-suffering. We like the idea of being compassionate, but are we willing to suffer with people? And we make it about us. We say, "I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do in these situations."
I believe that in the deepest grief, words should be the fewest. You don’t need to say anything. In shared tears is multiplied healing. I think if we just sit with people, and weep with people, that waters a kind of communion, a kind of healing. I think sometimes we just say "Withness" breaks brokenness. God is who? Emmanuel. God with us.
Sometimes we say we want an explanation for suffering, but really we want to experience someone with us in the suffering. I’m just here, you’re not alone. And then the needs arise from just being with you. "I can do this for you."
Please, Lord, keep us from being Job’s friends. People don’t need explanations as much as they want to experience God, and we get to be the hands and feet and heart of Christ, and that’s just being with someone, not necessarily saying anything at all.
FT: Just showing up again.
AV: When we show up Jesus shows up in the middle of all of that. Let the Holy Spirit do what He needs to do in all that. Just come with a little cup of light, come with the light of Christ to someone and be present. So that the ever-present Christ can be seen. That’s all. That ministry of presence is so much more powerful in lots of ways. It’s just the "withness." We don’t need to say anything.
FT: Can you speak to the idea of protecting ourselves from burnout and hurt?
AV: Yes, you want to live a cruciform life. That’s going to feel like a thousand little deaths. Instead of self-protectionism, He’s I believe that in the deepest grief, words should be the fewest. You don’t need to say anything. In shared tears is multiplied healing."calling you to break down those walls and live broken and given.
But at the same time, you need to be in deep communion with Him. Listen to the Holy Spirit say, "This is a safe person." There are toxic people out there that it might not be a good idea to give your [own] broken heart to.
But at the same time I think we lean so far toward self-protectionism with everybody that we don’t want to be broken and step into that way of humility and vulnerability with our broken heart, that we miss out on what could be a profoundly intimate healing experience.
FT: I think we know that answer.
AV: It is to move slowly, to stay in safe communion with Christ. Okay, this is vulnerable. With One Thousand Gifts I took a million arrows for that book. And there are deep scars where I felt like I laid my heart out on the table in profoundly intimate ways, and especially in that last chapter that was profoundly misinterpreted by other people. I felt like I shared my broken heart and it wasn’t a safe place to share it. It felt like a spear in the side, a thorn in the side that I still carry.
Even if we take the misstep of sharing our heart in a place that wasn’t safe, I can testify God can turn even that into grace, into gift. If you take a misstep and give your broken heart to someone and it wasn’t safe, He will redeem even that as it makes you wiser, more sensitive, as it makes you more humble and causes you to do deep soul work, to process that whole experience.
FT: Thank you, Ann.
This interview has been edited and condensed. You can hear the entire unedited interview on the new Faith Today podcast.