I am late in learning the news that one of my favorite authors is “controversial.” But, then again, what author who entrusts her words to the world isn’t controversial at some point?
While listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago featuring Ann Voskamp, she spoke about the pain from misunderstandings, accusations, and dismissals of her book as less than orthodox. I’d read her book under scrutiny—One Thousand Gifts—myself and closed its back cover with no qualms or critiques. Even if I would’ve had disagreements, I probably would’ve still finished the book. After all, there are almost always points of intersection or takeaways from reading anything.
After finishing Voskamp’s interview, I started digging and found the less-than-gracious book review from 2012 that stirred further praises and criticisms from both camps.
I learned something truly beautiful about Voskamp along the way: she emailed the man who reviewed her book–with all of his assumptions and interpretations, published for the world to read–and invited him to dinner at her home.
Then the book reviewer apologized:
“As a writer myself, I ought to remember that words are meaningful and revealing and in some way a part of the person who writes them. Every word comes from somewhere deep inside. Every word of One Thousand Gifts is a part of Voskamp just like every word I write is a part of me.
“I did poorly here and I can see that I need to grow in my ability to critique the ideas in a book even while being kind and loving to its author. There was reason for the shame I felt when I saw [her] name in my inbox. I had put effort into reading the book and understanding and critiquing it, but no real effort into showing love and respect for the author. I had assumed poor motives and, in arrogance and thoughtlessness, had squelched useful discussion of the book’s strengths and weaknesses.”
What an example of reconciliation this was in blogosphere. Rather than returning his hurtful criticisms with more blows, the author welcomed the critic to the table, and the critic asked for forgiveness, humbled his posture, and reoriented his perspective.
Although she didn’t specifically mention the book reviewer by name, Voskamp did publicly respond on her blog and reiterated her tightly held (and orthodox) convictions, all the while privately inviting him to the table.
One writer said Voskamp had exercised “the spiritual discipline of earnestness.”
Earnestness. I look up the word’s definition, and it’s “sincere and intense conviction.” Beyond the art forms of a well-written book, blog, or even Facebook post, this is the art form that’s often missing today around our dinner tables: the centerpiece of earnestness embellished with respect.
I ask myself this question: “How often do I invite those with whom I disagree to my table?” and I’m afraid this is why we often don’t have the chance to practice the spiritual discipline of earnestness–of holding sincere and intense convictions–because our circles are busting at their circumferences with homogeneity: with people who think and believe like us, look like us, act like us, create like us, vote like us, and spend like us.
Will and I visited a church in New Orleans last weekend where the pastor read this short poem:
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
-“Outwitted” by Edwin Markham
The pastor continued and explained that the church strives to be one that is welcoming but not necessarily affirming, meaning that its people will always uphold the respect and dignity of others, even amidst earnestness and even disagreement.
We often buy one of two lies: either we believe we must agree in order to gather around dinner tables, or we believe we must sacrifice either love or conviction in the presence of disagreement.
But what if you and I drew a bigger circle? What if we pulled up more seats to our tables? What if the earnestness of others didn’t threaten our own? What if we invited the book critics of our own stories to dinner? Even more daring, what if we asked those Facebook friends with whom we disagree if we could meet for coffee rather than un-friending them? What if we remembered that our neighbor is, first and foremost, an image bearer of the invisible God, and our love and respect preceded our knowledge and convictions?
The Enemy of our souls and our Savior celebrates every time we draw small circles; but what if we find the wit to win–to make more room and take people in?
“When we practice the discipline of finding, making and cultivating beauty, God allows us to see people and creation as holding higher value than our likeminded circle, our tight grip on political or theological stances.” –Micha Boyett
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I’ve had conversations recently with Christian friends who are single, and I sense in their voices the frustrations: the glib apologetics to view singleness as a gift; extended family members’ not-so-subtle prompts to ‘settle down;’ and feelings of being overlooked or undervalued in their local churches.
If this is you, my guess is that you know the “right” answers today and every day. You’ve likely wrestled with what you believe and feel you have your theology worked out as it relates to seasons of singleness and marriage.
But some of my close friends have been honest with me that this knowledge can fall short when friends have dinner reservations with significant others or roommates have waiting for them on your doorstep a vase with several red roses and a small stuffed puppy with a heart sown to its lips.
Last week, I came across 1 Corinthians 7 in which Paul (the writer of 1 Corinthians) promotes singleness. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians made me ask, “How do his words inform both my season of marriage and my friends’ season of singleness?”
If you are single and still reading, I am certain of this: you and I share the same Valentine today and every day. Because in every season—married or single—our greatest Valentine as followers of Jesus is always Jesus.
As I read Paul’s words about singleness, I was convinced they are just as much for me as they are for you. The goal of our lives in Christ is never all-out devotion to singleness or marriage but to the Valentine of our souls:
“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord… the unmarried woman is anxious about the things of the Lord… I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint on you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” -1 Corinthians 7:32-35
The soul that wholly loves its Maker—the One who loves it most—is “free from anxieties” and “undivided” in its devotion.
Yes, dating and marriage distract from and compete for the soul’s affections, and this is what Paul seems to be driving home. But single or married, the soul’s purpose is unchanging.
I think through this as I read: singleness or marriage must not be the gift itself. No, the gift must be more. Maybe the gift is ultimately this freedom from anxiety. Maybe it’s this fixed devotion to our Maker in this weary world with all of its expiration dates:
“This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy has though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” -1 Corinthians 7:29-31
The gift is the “get-to”—to experience and participate in God’s kingdom here and now and to know that you and I are living for something beyond Valentine’s Days. Dozens of roses droop as February fades into March. Half-eaten boxes of chocolates go to waste, melting in kitchen trashcans or backseats of vehicles. Spouses disappoint when workdays are too demanding. Texts fade out with realizations of incompatibility. Husbands and wives are taken too soon. Disappointment stirs and stews as well-meaning extended family tells you your biological clock is ticking. Companions fall short when they don’t fully know or understand you.
But there is a Valentine who is a sure and steadfast anchor for both the single and married soul (Hebrews 6:19). There is a God capable of fully knowing yet fully loving you and me. This is the identity of the single and married souls in Christ on Valentine’s Day and every day.
And still, theology takes time to travel from the head to the heart.
But this is what I know:
Your season—single or married—is no holding place for future fairytales or children or ministry opportunities. It is a giving space for God’s present love and promises and purpose for your life.
Your spiritual stature is not defined by your relationship status with some one but by your relationship with the One who spoke the stars and galaxies into existence yet speaks into your soul today.
Yeah, theology takes time to travel from the head to the heart. This is why Paul recognizes both the mourning and rejoicing that we will inevitably face, even if we know what we see isn’t all that is.
One of my favorite gifts is a beautiful bouquet, and I am an all-out celebrator of Valentine’s Day. But isn’t it ironic that we honor a saint by the name of “Valentine”—martyred in his pursuit of following Jesus—with cheap chocolates and stuffed animals that oftentimes find their way in our cardboard boxes with “Goodwill” written on their sides.
Singleness is not the gift, and marriage is not the goal. A soul undivided in its affections for the One who unfailingly loves it back? This is the gift. And it’s the sweetest gift, even when theology feels inadequate on Valentine’s Day.
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This blog was in the works longer than I want to admit to you.
It’s actually undergone two redesigns since I stopped writing in my tiny corner of the blogosphere two years ago.
But Facebook updates and Instagram captions can no longer hold space for the words in my head and heart. (I’m sure my Facebook friends are thankful I’ve made this move, since my status updates are oftentimes long enough to be blog posts. This is my attempt to get away from that!)
How does the most comfortable next step for us feel like the most uncomfortable next step for us at the same time?
This is the paradox of writing for me. It’s something that I cannot completely abandon. There’s a sacred comfort in writing for me, yet there’s also a scary discomfort in releasing vulnerable words from the heart and into the world through writing.
But I’m learning that the most uncomfortable thing we’ll ever do can also be the most comfortable thing we’ll ever do—like the familiarity of pulling in your driveway, walking through your front door, and slipping off your shoes after some adventure. It feels like coming home.
It’s most comfortable because it’s that uncomfortable thing that makes you come alive—that nagging of the soul that won’t let it go.
Dare I say it feels like obedience to God Himself?
Among an audience of college students last week, I heard a pastor share three indicators that you’ve found your God-given gift:
- You experience joy when you use your gift.
- You are equipped for your gift.
- God affirms your gift through others.
Writing is a gift to me, and I say this because I feel like it is more of a God-given “get-to” than a me-given gift to Him or you. There is a deeply satisfying joy when we “fan into flame” (as Paul calls it in 2 Timothy 1:6) God’s gift to us.
Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I believe this is what Paul meant when he wrote to Timothy to “fan into flame” his gift.
I think Thurman’s question is important, and writing is what makes me come alive most. It’s that space where comfort and discomfort coexist and obedience is born.
Maybe it’s in that tension between the comfort and discomfort—the now and not-yet, the under-qualified but overjoyed, the fearful but brave—where we uncover our God-gifts and take our faith-leap.
After all, we serve a God more than able to grow our wings on the way down.
What is your faith-leap?
Welcome to mine. I’m so glad you’re here.
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