How busy people draw closer to God

Watch2It flashed across my screen, this question about how to be closer to God when daily commitments are pulling and tugging at the seams of good intentions.

I thought at first maybe it was a question meant for someone else, someone who dutifully spends an hour each morning reading and praying. But she meant it for me, a mother whose house is rarely quiet and whose life is anything but routine, so I prayed and began my answer.

It starts with how we view time.

It’s not a matter of carving out an hour to dedicate to God, it’s about realizing that every hour belongs to him. Every moment and every task. The nine minutes after you hit the snooze button and roll over in bed, the commute to work, the hours spent typing or tinkering, the 10 minutes spent folding each load of laundry. That’s his time, too.

You pray in the shower. You tuck a devotional in your purse. You put a Bible on your bookcase at work. You read books about faith to your children and listen to spiritual music while you wash dishes. You watch the ordinary unfold before your eyes and you search for the extraordinary, the thread that leads you back to God and his handiwork.

When you find God in those little moments, he becomes seamlessly part of your day.

I also like the idea of praying at certain times of the day, something I’ve seen while visiting the Trappist monks at the Abbey of the Genesee. I imagine it stitches the hours together and steadies the life. One of the monks suggested that those of us outside of the monastery set alarms on our telephones and computers – that we use everyday objects to call us to prayer.

And that pesky Ann Voskamp, a writer who makes it hard to splash around in shallow spiritual water, has been urging people to memorize scripture. I think secretly she’s talking to me. I fell out of the habit of memorizing scriptures back in middle school, and I hadn’t thought of it much until the author of “One Thousand Gifts” reminded us how important it is to commit words to memory, to heart.

I’ll start my memorization work in January because this woman who asked the question, well, she’s not alone in wanting to be closer to God.


Wanted: Great books for teens and kids

Colt and Jessie reading in the closet.

I’m looking for three books to feature this fall in the Simply Faithful book club: a picture book, chapter book and teen book. All of them need to have some sort of spiritual theme and they need to be the kind of book that you make your friends read.

Typically we like to offer an online chat with the authors, so they need to be… ahem… living.

Give it some thought. Talk it over with other book lovers and let me know what you think by Sept. 10.

I’ll announce the books we’ve selected on Oct. 8.

Thanks in advance for all of your help!

Read about our past book club selections:

Benjamin, who memorizes the stories for now, reads to Colt.

Grace and gratitude: Counting ‘One Thousand Gifts’

Photo courtesy of Ann Voskamp

The beauty of purple hyacinths in the snow.

The smell of a granddaughter’s hair after her bath.

All tiny blessings scratched in Lida Merrill’s gratitude journal so she can cradle the moments just a little longer and thank the one whom she believes created it all.

Water droplets off a shale wall.

The stillness of a lake as the morning mist rises and the loons call.

Gifts that once would have been missed are now counted and celebrated in preparation for their Easter observance and in the hope of a life well lived — a life renewed by gratitude and joy.

“The practice of journaling keeps me focused on who I am grateful to and who is the source of what I am grateful for — God,” says Merrill, who along with dozens of other people in the Rochester area, recently read One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.

Voskamp’s story of writing down 1,000 things she was grateful for has earned her a spot onThe New York Times bestsellers list for more than eight months and has inspired countless others to take note of their own gifts and to trust the giver.

In the book, Voskamp references the Greek word eucharisteo, which is the word used to describe what Jesus does when he breaks bread at the Last Supper before his death on a cross. The word means “thanksgiving.”

“But guess what root words are embedded in that word, eucharisteo? Charis — and charis means ‘grace.’ Jesus took the bread and saw it as grace and gave thanks,” Voskamp said in an interview. “And the other word embedded in eucharisteo, is the word chara, meaning ‘joy.’ See it? The triplet, that three-braid cord? Charis. Grace. Eucharisteo. Thanksgiving. Chara. Joy.”

Easter is about joy, about fresh hope and new beginnings, she says. And it all begins with being grateful.

“This tremendous response to the gift of Easter, what can it be but thanksgiving?”

In all things, give thanks

For years, Merrill took note of the kind things that other people did. She filled notebook after notebook in her Rochester home with thanks for the neighbor who shoveled the driveway and the daughter who folded the laundry without being asked. But now, since reading the book, that is changing, said Merrill, assistant pastor at Zion United Methodist Church in West Walworth and director of spiritual life at Heritage Christian Services.

“Now I am noticing what God does in my life; I am noticing the beauty he gives to me.”

It’s a refrain heard time and time again at local book discussion groups where strangers became quick friends as they dug into Voskamp’s poetic writing and questions, her struggles with anxiety and the death of her younger sister.

Laura Bates of Penfield, has been making it a point to write at least three things a day she is thankful for – most often on the “One Thousand Gifts” free app that she uses on her phone.

“I have multiple myeloma (treatable but not curable cancer) and I am finding ways to be thankful for the good this has brought into my life,” said Bates, who attended a book group led by Merrill. She’s thankful for “my closer relationship with God, my appreciation for my family and friends, the fact that I was diagnosed early and the wonderful advances in treatment for this disease over the last several years. Seeing the good in everything also releases you from anger and bitterness.”

For some, the book discussion group became a gift as well.

“People felt safe to share their stories,” said Joan Weetman of Brighton. “Discussions launched by literature can be very rich and personal.”

“My life will be different,” said Char Ipacs of Irondequoit. “I met some wonderful women…  I count each one of these women as one of my 1,000 gifts.”

And while Ipacs expected to learn about gratitude, she was surprised to find how much the book dealt with joy. But the two are inseparable, Voskamp said.

“This book – this really is a dare to fully live – to find joy, right where you are. Because the thing is too often we think joy is ‘out there’ around some elusive next corner. But remember eucharisteo, that Biblical Greek word for thanksgiving? Joy is embedded right in that word. Joy is a function of thanks,” Voskamp said. “If thanks is possible then joy is always possible.”

Thanks in hard times

But giving thanks isn’t always easy, said Benjamin Lipscomb, associate professor of philosophy at Houghton College.

“To be grateful is to acknowledge myself indebted,” he said. “And that is to acknowledge that I’m not self-sufficient, that I’m a receiver and not only a giver.”

Aristotle says that great people, in particular, love to be reminded of favors they’ve given but hate to be reminded of favors they’ve received, Lipscomb said.  Being givers can make us feel strong and superior.  Being receivers, or admitting that we are receivers, destroys illusions of self-sufficiency.

“We’re taught in the Lord’s Prayer to ask even for our food — presumably even if we have a pretty good idea where it’s coming from, and that there will be enough,” he said. “To ask is to put ourselves in the position of receivers, and to prepare to receive in gratitude. Of course, it’s harder to receive things in gratitude that we anticipate.  And harder still to receive things in gratitude that we see as rightfully ours.”

But Jennifer Hopper of Brighton will try, thanks in part to a passage in “One Thousand Gifts” where Voskamp describes keeping hands open to receiving God’s grace.

In all of the book’s pages, “The idea of a closed hand pointing to self and shutting out God is what I will remember most,” Hopper said.

And that hand must remain open, even in the toughest of times, said Merrill.

“Just within the past few weeks of Lent there have been fires, murders of innocents, run away children and drunk driving accidents,” she said. “In the midst of these overwhelming tragedies God is present.”

While God doesn’t orchestrate these events, he is present even when people make decisions that hurt each other, Merrill said. So, she can be grateful that he brings comfort, peace and wisdom, grateful that she can pray for grieving families and know that God is there with them in their suffering.

“I cannot change what I see, but I can change the way I see it,” she said.

That’s how gratitude worked in Voskamp’s heart, too.

“Counting gifts powerfully resurrected me, rose me to the possibility of beauty in places I wasn’t even looking. Awakened me to grace and loveliness in places and moments I was just speeding through, in this relentless hurry,” she said. “Counting gifts slowed me down and resurrected me to really, fully living – attentive and mindful to all the ways God loves me. It was like a budding, an unfurling.

“And once you’ve experienced fully living? You never want to go back.”


A gracious Q&A with Ann Voskamp

For those who missed the chance to chat with Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts, I’ve copied (and slightly adapted) the conversation we had on the Simply Faithful Facebook page and provided it for you here. Ann is truly a gift. May you enjoy getting to know her better and may you cherish her wisdom…

  • Simply Faithful Welcome Ann! We are so excited that you are here with us. If it’s OK, we’ll let you say a few words and then we’ll dive in to the questions.

Ann Voskamp Thank you for grace and the warm welcome!

  • Linda Gordon How did you come to know the many references you used in your book? I was totally amazed at how many different sources you knew and quoted.

Ann Voskamp Ahh… the wonder of listening to all the authors and words that have come before! I read a lot… and I think when you begin to answer God’s call — He also providentially has you cross paths with all the words and thoughts you need for the work?

And I remember writing that bibliography — many hours!

Linda Gordon so did you find the quotes as you were writing the book or were there ones you knew and wanted to be sure to include?

Ann Voskamp Yes, Linda — some I found as I read, during the writing process — only God moments. And others had been tucked in a file — as they resonated with the life God was leading me into…. Good questions!

Amy Kushnir Ann – I just stumbled upon this thread riding home from spring break in Texas – that answer about how God has you cross paths with all the work and thoughts you need for the work – profound! Just hit me like a ton of bricks! thank you!

Ann Voskamp Hi Tanya! Warm wave! Yes, the style …

The book is written in its own idiosyncratic language—prose meeting poetry, a strange kind of language.

Throughout Scripture, when a person came into the presence of God, the only language they had to stammer out anything was a different language than their vernacular. The only way to communicate their encounter with God was often through lyrical language.

I didn’t think a book written in that “prosetical” God-encounter language would ever find a real home out in the world.

But God had other plans —

And maybe that is exactly what we’re all hungry for—a powerful, personal encounter with God in a language all of its own?

Simply Faithful How did your editors respond? Were they supportive?

Tanya Shaw Herrold I agree. That connection to our perfect Maker is needed among us today just as in earlier times!

Ann Voskamp Well, Zondervan and Waterbrook both bid for the book, based on the first three chapters, so they knew what the style and voice was at the outset. Zondervan wanted something fresh and “outside of the box” — and were very encouraging to do exactly what God called. They told me to write just vertically, for an audience of One. And I did.

  •  Ann Beaudoin Meyer Hi Ann. I can imagine that sharing your personal life experiences through this book was a challenge. Even greater difficulty must be speaking to large crowds and the medias about such a personal, intimate topic. How do you think you have grown as your book continues to impact so many people?

Ann Voskamp Ah, Ann… such a thoughtful question. I think the Lord has asked me to live the truth/message of the book again now, in deeper ways. Can I trust Him? Is all grace? Will I turn blessings into burdens?

I think the journey has kept me very small and quiet and hushed under His wing. He’s used it to draw me closer to Him — relying only on Him.

When I am weak — He is strong.

Simply Faithful I loved your blog post about wearing rainbow socks and standing on his promises. I may borrow that idea!

Ann Voskamp Highly recommended, Marketta.

Ann Beaudoin Meyer I think that is the key, really appreciating those blessings. We turn them into burdens all too often!

  • Linda Gordon How long ago did you write the book? How did you meet your farmer?

Ann Voskamp Linda, it took me about 13 months to write the book? And I met the Farmer in his mama’s Good News Bible Club!

Linda Gordon That is good news! Was it love at first sight or a work in progress?

Ann Voskamp Ah, we were young… 14. We had our first date at 16. And were married when I was 20. Grace upon grace… Christ braiding us together in Him.

  •  Simply Faithful How did you get involved with Compassion International and what draws you to that organization?

Ann Voskamp We’ve always been child sponsors, since we were married…. and had several children sponsored through Compassion for many years. I became an advocate for Compassion about 3 years ago? And then Compassion invited me to live blog a trip to Guatemala in Sept. 2009 and Ecuador November, 2011, and see firsthand their work. That sealed it! My heart is forever with His children in need! The proceeds from One Thousand Gifts now has returned to the Guatemala City Dump to build an educational center — thanks be to God alone.

Ann Beaudoin Meyer Do you have plans to return to Guatemala?

Simply Faithful Lida Merrill will want to hear more about that! She has done a lot of missionary work in Guatemala with people who have disabilities.

Courtney Joseph Oh I love this!

  •  Lida Merrill Hi Ann, Thank you for your time this evening. Have your older children read your book?

Ann Voskamp Good evening, Lida…. My oldest, yes, he has — he’s nearly 17.

Lida Merrill What impression did it have on him?

Simply Faithful Is he the one who threw toast?

Ann Voskamp Before the manuscript was submitted, the children whose stories were told, graciously gave their permission, so he had read some of the chapters before. And Caleb was very generously positive. He came to me last week and said I really need to begin another book… Humbling grace.

Ann Voskamp Ah yes — the toast scene. Yes.

Linda Gordon How did keeping a gratitude journal work for him?

Ann Voskamp We have a family gratitude journal that together we work on and we keep sharing each day at the table our thanks — it’s become part of who we are… our new default!

Ann Voskamp Warm wave, Lucinda!

I’m not sure I even now think of it in terms of a gift for words?

I think I just wait over a keyboard and He gives the gift?

Lucinda Mellinger Anderson Your descriptions paint the picture so well i feel like I’m right there with you!

Ann Voskamp Thank you for grace, Lucinda… So kind.

  •  Lida Merrill Are you planning a return trip to Guatemala?

Ann Voskamp Yes! Us as a whole family! We will all return to Guatemala, Lord willing, next January? To celebrate what God has done with the Educational Center!

Ann Beaudoin Meyer How exciting! What part of Guatemala?

Ann Voskamp ‎(The above link is about Guatemala and how it came to be that One Thousand Gifts is going back there, to BE the gift! I am blessed, I can bless — this is happiness!

Ann Voskamp We will return, Lord willing, to Guatemala City….

Ann Beaudoin Meyer thanks for the link.

Lida Merrill Yes, thank you.

Ann Voskamp I preach out loud to myself.  I count blessings out loud. I memorize Scripture and meditate on Truth. We read Scripture together after every meal, 3 times a day.Here is a bit of where we are memorizing — wonderful resource!

Simply Faithful Who selects the scriptures? I love all of your ideas but I know they take preparation, too…

Ann Voskamp Last year, our little country chapel, our faith community were memorizing Colossians together — so we invited blog readers to join us.

Ann Voskamp This year, our faith community is memorizing Sermon on the Mount together — so we made up the resources to share online also. Our son, Joshua, (14) makes up all the downloadable resources from the blog… the monthly Joy Dare, the free printables, the Sermon on the Mount booklet… We love working together! A wonderful way to bond!

Simply Faithful He does fantastic work. They are all gorgeous. A true gift! (Will you thank him for us?)

Ann Voskamp I will thank him for you all. Imagine a 14 year old smiling shyly.

Courtney Joseph I love how your son is able to serve along side of you!

  •  Cathy Spellman Roberts Do you use journaling as a technique as you teach your kids in other areas as well?

Ann Voskamp Yes! Just today I handed out new journals. One of the boys (9) wrote a new title on his journal: “My Life.” Perfect!

  • Cathy Spellman Roberts How do you continually try to keep the negative thoughts out. I know I try to start my day when I’m driving by concentrating on my gifts and listening to what God has in store for me for the day, and I try in the middle of the day at work or with my kids to clear the clutter, but I have a hard time keeping it out.

Ann Voskamp I understand, Cathy… You are not alone. I am with you. Singing hymns for me helps. As does quietly preaching Scripture back to myself — a way to take captive every thought.

Ann Voskamp

Cathy Spellman Roberts Thanks. Music is very healing — and soothing — indeed.

  • Ann Beaudoin Meyer I appreciated your honesty in the book, as well as your blog, about your struggles with parenting. I know I have this vision to be the “perfect” mom. After I yell at one of my kids it hits me in the gut. Good reminder to have a little grace with ourselves!

Simply Faithful I like that you sometimes have dirty dishes in your sink.

Ann Voskamp I do! And dirty laundry in front of the washing machine.  And some parenting days leave me in tears and hanging my head in deep grief over my own sinfulness. My mama said that grace is like a boomerang — if you offer grace to a boomerang to others — you receive the grace. You give yourself the grace on the bad days — knowing Christ’s love covers our sins. Right there with you, beautiful women….

Linda Gordon The part about the glass jar and cutting was so hard. Were you suicidal or trying to cut out the bad parts of your life?

Lida Merrill Your line about “hurry empties souls” struck a deep cord with me in regards to parenting. I think the hurrying I did when my children were little emptied their souls. Thank you God for always refilling them, but it is something I am very aware of with my grandchildren.

Ann Voskamp Beautiful, Lida — I preach it to myself out loud often “There are no emergencies. God is in control… no emergencies. Abandon the fears and abide in the Father.”

Ann Voskamp Yes, Linda, so hard. No, not suicidal… just looking in all the wrong places to relieve pain… escape from my own skin? Hard to think I was there once — but I really, really was. Only God.

  •  Lucinda Mellinger Anderson Ann, Thanks for your idea of singing hymns,etc as I struggle writing.. any suggestions on how to journal?

Ann Voskamp Well — I leave a gratitude journal out permanently on my counter. That helps. And I have journals all through the house  … for specific helps, if you search the journal category at the blog, I wrote a multi-week series a few years ago on how to journal in various, creative ways and readers sent in their ideas and photos of their journals and it was very inspiring!

Ann Voskamp If you scroll back through these, there are so many ideas from so many wonderful women!

Lucinda Mellinger Anderson Thanks, I’ll check it out.

  • Lucinda Mellinger Anderson Ann, We are visiting our grandchildren,5 of them in Chicago and the job of getting ready for bed with a special movie after causes me to be grateful for all the noise, fun and hugs we get all to infrequent!! Thanks for sharing.

Ann Voskamp I am smiling, Lucinda! How wonderful! Much joy in Him to you all so beautifully there in Chicago! Blessed evening, Lucinda! It was a privilege…

  •  Simply Faithful Ann, we are so thankful for your time and for your many gifts.

Ann Voskamp Truly, it’s been a humbling grace. Thank you for yours.

Thank you for looking for Christ in the pages.

God go with you…

Eucharisteo, friends!

Ann Voskamp You’ve all radiated and exuded His joy tonight. Thank you!

Simply Faithful Blessings, Ann!

Lida Merrill Thank you for blessing us with your words.

Cathy Spellman Roberts Thank you Ann for your kind words and your time.

Ann Beaudoin Meyer Thank you for your time. I am sure that God will continue to bless use and use your words for the rest of us.

Courtney Joseph Oh bummer I’m late! So glad it’s all saved here to read!

A chance to learn more about Ann Voskamp

Join me at 7:30 p.m. EST March 16 for a live chat with Ann Voskamp on the Simply Faithful page on Facebook. She has graciously agreed to answer questions from readers and share more about her life of faith. I know you’ll enjoy your time with her.

For 30 weeks Ann Voskamp’s book has earned a place on the New York Times bestseller list – and her neighbors don’t have a clue. People at her church found out only because the pastor shared his congratulations the first week.

And now the mail lady knows because her niece told her about a book she was reading called One Thousand Gifts. The mail lady happened to recognize the name of the author as the woman on her route who rarely leaves her farm in southwestern Ontario. The woman whose life is intentionally the same as it has always been, except for the occasional interview with a reporter and a mention on national TV by Kathie Lee Gifford, who tells the “Today” audience that the book is life changing.

“I never thought anyone would read it,” said Voskamp, adding that she and her husband hoped her story of writing down 1,000 things she was grateful for would at least sell enough copies to earn the advance from the publisher. It did. Before the book was even released.

Now 337,000 copies are in print, and it recently won an Award of Merit from Christianity Today. A free One Thousand Gifts app helps people track their gifts on their mobile devices, and Voskamp’s blog – – is no longer a private way for the shy woman to process her thoughts and find quiet time with God. She suddenly has an audience.

Most of that audience adores Voskamp, her wisdom and her poetic writing. And they appreciate the glimpses into her life: her struggles with depression and anxiety after the accidental death of her sister; her joy of chasing a harvest moon; her learning to take the hands of God and to trust.

“In some ways, writing is my personal handicap” because I need it to process my experiences, said Voskamp. “Some people can live through experiences once and learn from them. I have to live them twice in order to unpack and unfold the lessons.”

That’s why the mother of six continues to write what she is thankful for, to slow down, to see God’s gifts. “Counting gifts makes me realize who I can count on.”

It also reminds her of lessons she learns and then forgets – something she calls soul amnesia. “My default is not Pollyanna,” Voskamp said. “My default is perfectionism. I see all the mistakes, all the holes.” But gratitude, grace and joy point her to a different way of life, one that is content and in communion with God. “I often think God needs my hands to work but what he needs is for my knees to bend in prayer.”

So, she practices. She finds time to write on the fringes of the day. She prays at set times and between gathering the eggs from the hen house and homeschooling the kids, between the 45-minute drive to the library and writing assignments.

“When you establish time for prayer, you establish who is the priority,” said Voskamp, who attends a non-denominational church and travels for Compassion International, where she contributes to a blog for the ministry that helps children living in poverty.

On one of those trips, she met a pastor who brought clean drinking water to children living at a dump in Guatemala City, and he had dreams of building a recreation and educational center with computer labs, an English academy and a music studio. That pastor can now break ground on the project, thanks to royalties from One Thousand Gifts.

One Thousand Gifts, a book about thanksgiving now becomes a story of thanks-living,” Voskamp writes in her blog.

And there it is. The woman who gets anxious about travel and about being in the spotlight, the woman who never mentions her success to her neighbors, is quietly changing the world. One gift at a time.

Make room for God’s gifts

Some books beg to be discussed — and that’s the case with One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Right now all of Rochester has been invited to read the book and local discussion groups are under way. But if you can’t make it to one of the groups, or if you live out of town, consider downloading the free study guide that’s offered by the publisher. You can find it here:

In the meantime, enjoy what the leader of my book group shared this morning:

For years she has kept a gratitude journal. When she recently flipped through those pages she noticed that she wrote down when her kids picked up their toys without being asked or when someone said a kind word, but she didn’t take as much notice of the gifts that seem to come directly from God. Now that she has read One Thousand Gifts, that’s all changing…

What are you learning?

One Thousand Gifts book discussion starts Tuesday

For those of you who are reading One Thousand Gifts, at least three book discussion groups are in the works. Two are at Alpha & Omega Parable Christian Store in Penfield. Both meet on Tuesdays for five weeks starting Feb. 28. You can sign up for either the 7 a.m. or the 7 p.m. group. The third group will meet at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays at Alpha & Omega’s Greece location. It also starts Feb. 28 and runs for five weeks. (I’ll be stopping by the Greece discussion group on March 13, and I hope to be a regular at the 7 a.m. group in Penfield so I can eavesdrop.) Also, remember that the author, Ann Voskamp, will be chatting live with readers starting at 7:30 p.m. March 16. Just log on to the Simply Faithful page on Facebook to be part of the discussion.