Ann Voskamp: Celebrating a birthday with thankfulness

Ron Garan

 (Ron Garan)

The boys gift the tennis court with a whole bunch of tennis balls (“Don’t you think some kids are gonna be surprised, Mom?”). And I slip into the back door of the library, leave a few of my favorite books at the desk; then the whole lot of us circle over to the grocery store on Mitchell Street, put away grocery carts, grab a few bags of groceries, and drop them off at the food bank. Stick quarters into bubble gum machines at Walmart. Scope out the grocery store to buy a cart of groceries for someone. Tuck parking fees into envelopes, and slide them under windshield wipers for those in the hospital parking lot.

The Farmer winks at me and laughs, stuffing  envelopes. “You know what? We’ve got time for this.”

I nod, wink back. Time is made for dying in a thousand ways, so why be afraid of dying when a kind of dying could come all the time? Live every day like you’re terminal. Because you are. Live every day like your soul’s eternal. Because it is.

And, obviously, we can’t pay the cosmos back. So maybe we forget about paying it forward? We can only give it forward. Give It Forward Today. Be the GIFT.  Give  Him.  Maybe  the only abundant way forward is always to give forward.

I don’t even know who has the audacious idea to go up to the dollar store and leave dollars up and down every aisle, but our kids watch unsuspecting kids wander in. Smiles break up every aisle. And maybe a bit of the world’s brokenness breaks by this good brokenness.

This boy in a ball cap stops at the counter and picks up a lollipop we’ve taped a note to: “Here’s a dollar. Pick any color. We’re Giving It Forward Today. #BeTheGift.” His face explodes in this smile, and bits of joy lodge in the brokenness of me and I feel a bit remade.

Smiling at anyone is to awe at the face of God. And “the beauty of the world is Christ’s tender smile coming to us through matter.”7 There’s a clerk grinning at the till. The guy stocking shelves is chuckling. There are people Giving It Forward Today, and don’t think that every gift of grace, every act of kindness, isn’t a quake in a heart that moves another heart to give, that moves another heart to give, that grows into an avalanche of grace. Don’t say this isn’t what a brokenhearted world desper- ately needs, don’t say it isn’t how to change a broken world. What if the truth really is that every tremor of kindness here erupts in a miracle elsewhere in the world?

I can feel it like the slightest sense of a suturing along raw and ragged scar lines. Maybe our suffering and brokenness begin a kind of healing when we enter into the suffering and brokenness of the world, right through the brokenness and givenness of Christ.

And  these  acts  of  kindness,  gifts  of  grace,  they  start  a  cascade of  grace  to  fill a multitude of  canyons  in  a hurting world. Maybe there’s no such thing as a small act of giving. Every small gift of grace creates a love quake that has no logical end. It will go to the ends of the earth and change the world and then it will break through time and run on into eternity.

I would read later that those who perform five acts of giving over six weeks are happier than those who don’t, that when you give, you get reduced stress hormone levels, lowered blood pressure, and increased endorphins, and that acts of kindness reduce anxiety and strengthen the immune system. Five ran- dom acts of kindness in a week can increase happiness for up to three months later.8 “He gives by cartloads to those who give by bushels,” writes Spurgeon,9 and I’d think of that tin bucket with its 25,550 kernels of wheat. Maybe if all you have to give are handfuls, He might make a broken heart full?

But really—what if I were just trying to self-medicate anxiety? What if this were just a way for me to outrun the demons taunting me about my uselessness? Yet the happiness of givenness is a balm that works its healing even days and weeks later, and givenness does not define or prove our value, but lets us feel the defining value of love. Givenness changes our body because we become part of His Body. And we are even fed communion through our own brokenness. Maybe even in any of our misguided motives of givenness, even then, we are guided back to communion to reap the benefits of love.

A  little  girl  stands  there  grinning  with  her  lollipop,  and I wink and grin back and I don’t know if they call this the ministry of smiling or the ministry of presence, or falling in love with God in a thousand ordinary faces. But our Hope-girl leans into me, smiling at the sucker-licking girl, and whispers, “Don’t you think giving is the greatest?” She’s smiling like her heart might burst. “Look at her! I mean—giving is the most beautiful  of  all.”

Love gives, and huge acts to try to make someone happy don’t make anyone as hugely happy as simply doing small acts to make someone feel loved.

It’s strange how that is: everybody wants to change the world, but nobody wants to do the small thing that makes just one person feel loved.

Giving is how we pass the holiest sacraments. It’s the given bread and wine—love—that speaks to what heals the world’s wounds. He who was the smallest, most fragile Gift broke into time to save the world. Why hadn’t I come to it long before I had to blow out this many candles? When I abandon self into givenness, the feelings of  abandonment  give  way  to  abandon- ing myself to God and finding full communion.

Koinonia is always the miracle.

You know how you may have words for something, but you don’t yet know the meaning of those words until you incarnate them? Some words only gain meaning when they have skin on. I knew those words to be truth. But I didn’t yet understand what those words meant lived in my skin.

What’s more, honestly, this birthday  spent  gift-blitzing the whole town seemed ridiculously small and insignificant. Beginnings always are, I suppose. First steps always seem like not enough, but they are the bravest and they start the journey to where you’re meant to go. It takes great trust to believe in the smallness of beginnings.

I reach over and find Hope’s hand.

“A good day, Mama, a good birthday day.” She swings my hand high like those kids at the park. Her smile feels like grace. “Nah.” The Farmer grins, Shalom swinging from his arm.

“A great day. The best day.”

“The kids at the park, at the dollar store, the family in the diner,” Shalom singsongs the day back to us, all our boys ahead of us walking back to  the  van.  “That  old  man  behind  us  at the coffee shop, those mamas with the babies in the strollers, the family at the grocery store we surprised by buying every- thing in their cart, and Mr. Bender at the nursing home and all his songs.”

We lost the day in love. You can be glued to a screen or glued to your schedule or glued to your stuff—and maybe that’s just a bit of lost living. You can be a slave to getting ahead, a slave to the clock, a slave to convenience, a slave to some ill- advised American dream—and maybe that’s a lot of lost living. Maybe even in a bit of brokenness, grace moves in you to get up and give to people you love and people you’re learning to love, to go to the park and laugh with your kids or any kids, to give an elderly woman a hand and a listening ear and the gift of presence—that’s large living.

The greatest living always happens through the givenness.

When the whole crazy tribe of us GIFTers are nearly back to where we parked, Hope leans in, lays her head on my shoulder. We walk the last little bit like this, she and I. Wisps of her hair in the wind brush my cheek. The membrane between the sacred and the everyday breaks, and all is sacred in the givenness—the givenness of God through everything, the surrender of every- thing to Him. There is still light in the universe and wind in the world that moves in this given rhythm. There is still time to be given.

When what blows from the east sings through the wheat, it can sound like an answer to prayer. There’s a way to break brokenness. And what if you let it fully come . . . let it come?

Ann Voskamp's the wife of one fine, down-to-earth farmer; a book-reading mama to a posse of seven; and the author of the New York Times bestsellers "The Greatest Gift" and "Unwrapping the Greatest Gift," and the sixty-week New York Times bestseller "One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are," which has sold more than one million copies and has been translated into more than eighteen languages. Her latest book "The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life" (Zondervan). Voskamp has been named by Christianity Today as one of fifty women most shaping culture and the church today. Follow her on Twitter @AnnVoskamp.