The presenters at the Q Conference do an excellent job in a limited timeframe. It is late Thursday morning and we are on our sixth presenter, Ann Voskamp. I am a little tired by this point, and it is difficult to pay attention. As Ann got up, I thought, “another conversation on grace. What could she add to a long list of books and discussions that have been on that topic?” As usual, God surprises you with a special message from the Holy Spirit just when you do not expect it.
Ann begins by talking about the farm she grew up on, with its beautiful fields and consistent hard work. She will never forget one day. There is a delivery person sitting in the kitchen talking and sobbing to her parents: “I am so sorry, I never saw her . . .” Ann’s little sister had died that morning as a delivery truck ran over her in the driveway. Her broken body lay crushed and lifeless in front of the house. How do you find God’s grace and joy in such a painful situation? Ann talked about the pain of burying her sister and of never seeing her again. She asks the question, “How do we wake the world to God’s grace when we are stuck in our own pain?” She remembers the image of her mother, locked in a psychology hospital, unable to find solace and peace in the loss of her daughter. What do you do when you are locked in pain? Where is God in this dark world?
Ann notes that she does not know why little girls die in accidents, why children die of cancer, why there is war, or why tornados destroy communities. She made this profound statement: “We can only survive in the wilderness of our world if we live and experience mystery.” Now, she was inviting me into a conversation that I find very difficult. What do you mean, “live in the mystery”? I always look for a rational explanation and for assurance. Surely there is a theology that will help explain and understand our pain.
Ann went to the Old Testament to present her case. When the children of Israel were in pain and hungry in the wilderness, God provided the “mystery” food, manna (literally, the “What is it?” food). He asked the people to eat of this mystery, to take it in and believe that God would provide day after day. So, Ann says, we are asked to experience God in our deepest pain. At the darkest moment, God is closest and is most clearly at work bringing about redemption. God takes our most hideous ashes (our deepest pain) and brings life.
Ann has become convinced that, in the midst of our pain, God asks us to give thanks. In her life she is seeking to create a doxology in the midst of all of life’s frustrations and difficulty. She has experienced her most intimate moments with God when she gave up her own control and rested in God. She notes, “In the midst of the suffering of Jesus, we are given life.” In the Last Supper, Jesus takes the bread and says, this is my body that is broken for you, give thanks and “eat of this mystery.” Give thanks to the Lord; his love endures forever.
Ann notes that she is trying to grow a gratitude community and encourage people to give thanks in the midst of everything. “I only deepen the wounds of the world when I fail to give thanks. When did bitterness ever rescue the world?” God asks us to become “broken bread” for the world. It is her contention that people who begin the discipline of thanksgiving are transformed, and with them their communities also find a greater sense of joy.
Her message was not a trite message that trivialized the pain we experience. She suggested that, in the midst of her pain, the only way she truly found peace and comfort was by experiencing the transcendent and mysterious power of God. At times there is no answer forthcoming to the question “Why?” We are called to give thanks to the Lord; his love endures forever. Her powerful personal testimony spoke clearly to all of us in the room.