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A Feature Review of
The Broken Way: A Daring Path Into the Abundant Life
Hardback: Zondervan, 2016
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Reviewed by Zena Neds-Fox
I took Ann Voskamp’s new book down to the water. It was a perfect morning. A fish actually jumped in the lake and geese flew overhead in a September blue sky. I came anticipating the beauty I knew Ann’s words would hold. A beautiful place for a beautiful book. But the truth is that Ann Voskamp’s greatest power has always been to knock the wind out of her readers. To take them out at the knees. The Broken Way is no exception. We come to her wanting comfort and she’s glad to give it – at a price.
Right away we are taken to a hidden memory of a hidden girl in a hidden place. Ann has revealed her practice of cutting herself as a teenager, but here the ideas of cutting and scars become a metaphor throughout the story. She draws a cross on her wrist one day after church and that idea of putting our brokenness right up against God’s brokenness is what The Broken Way is all about.
We start with broken glass jars, broken on purpose, meant to cut open tender skin on the teenage arms of a hurting child. Ann’s story has always been messy and she’s been trying to find a fix for that for as long as she can remember. The Broken Way is a book about giving up on finding a fix. She’s run out of hope that there’s a way to make things line up and make sense.
A devoted Jesus follower, Ann is wading into waters that she can’t quite swim because she has a strong hunch Jesus is out there waiting in the deep. Her culture shaping best seller One Thousand Gifts gave us the remedy for most anything that ills us. Gratitude. Thanksgiving. Eucharisteo. But what’s next when you still have a broken beating heart in your chest? Or when the hearts closest to you are hemorrhaging even with thanks on their lips?
If eucharisteo had been the first dare, the first journey of discovery into a life of letting God love me and counting all those ways, could this be a dare for the next leg of the journey, the way leading higher up and deeper in, daring me to let all the not-enough there in my open hands – let it be broken into more than enough? A dare to let all my brokenness — be made into abundance. Break and give away. The broken way.
I imagine that Ann Voskamp had some pretty big demons come knocking on the door of her farm house after every Christian woman had a copy of One Thousand Gifts on their shelf. Christian stardom is a strange beast and I’d be willing to bet that when Ann began typing out her thin lines on a black screen all those years back, she never imagined all that has come about. Ann’s faithful readers have watcher her blog go from a darkened confessional complete with music to a multimedia destination site. It’s hard to find the Ann we all came to know and love there under the trappings sometimes.
Her blog has become something of a daily cheerleader for the women who come looking for a bit of hope to survive another day. Once in a while we get a glimpse of Ann, her family and how her faith is being worked out, but it would be untrue to say that her blog hasn’t radically changed over the years. In The Broken Way, it’s plain to see that her truest self has been saved for the book.
In the veiled, poetic prose she’s known for we find that Ann is still a wife and mother first. We see her battling through raising teenagers and working out her faith in front of her kitchen sink. The book restores a bit of humanity to this writer we’ve grown to care for and trust. Its good to see. Now that Ann moves in the circles of the Christian elite its hard not to wonder if she still gets dirt under her nails out there in the Amish hills of Canada. Well, apparently, she does.
I’m sure navigating that aspect of her success has been a real part of life — but here we find her grounded enough to know that the main thing is still the main thing. She’s asking the same questions – How do we follow Jesus in these days, with these kids and with these blessings? The answer she’s found these days is telling the truth about how broken she is with the hope that God takes our weaknesses and uses it for good.
I’ve wanted to take the gold medal at living well and loving large and being enough to be wanted. Instead, I’ve been the person who escapes behind bathroom doors, the person who turns on the water so no one can hear the howl, the person who fights what is and struggles to surrender, who completely ups and forgets how to break into givenness…I am not someone who once walked nice and neat on this narrow way, and then suddenly didn’t. I’m not someone who just tripped and stumbled a bit, but then pulled herself back up on the narrow path. I’m the person who’s always been shattered on the inside, knowing brokenness deep in the marrow and the ache of me, the one who has wasted days, years, despairing and replaying the past, who’s let lies live loud in my head, held grudges, and grown bitter, who’s cut myself down, literally and known depression, suicidal and self-sabotaging self-destruction, and been convinced she would so keenly feel like a broken failure in the end that she’d wish she had never been born.
That passage is so naked. I felt like Ann grabbed me by the collar and wanted to let me know that she’s not playing around. That’s because Jesus wasn’t and isn’t and she wants to find out what life with him, to be like him in his death – truly means. What she finds is that it means a miracle. Ann and her daughter hold a jar of wheat kernels and imagine each one is a stand in for the days of their lives. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Ann wonders if “maybe temporary time is made for dying to self – so your eternal self can really live.” Its this seizing the day by dying to self that Ann nods to when she says the broken way is a daring path into the abundant life. There you find your brokenness made useful, your time multiplied, your joy complete.
Ann is telling us that along our fault lines we’ll find the places of brokenness that when offered to a broken world around us, somehow, healing will come. And not a superficial healing, but the deep Shalom wholeness and peace that is God’s redemptive intention for truly loving humanity. It’s a vulnerable call and she pairs every joy with sorrow. I’m reminded of when in the book of Ezra when they are laying the foundation for the new temple. The people are filled with joy and are shouting and celebrating. But there are those there that remember the first temple and they are weeping. “So that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:13)
Near the end of the book Ann relays a conversation where someone she’s considered a good friend admits that they weren’t sure if Ann was actually a real friend at all. And at times as one of her readers, I’ve worried that Ann Voskamp carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, especially after her success. But it’s okay, Jesus can handle it. The truth is we can work hard to be the savior, we can help until late in the night, we can give money and even get a six DVD set and workbook with our next book deal, but if you don’t reveal your weaknesses, your need, your broken places, then no one else ever feels loved. I think Ann has succeeded in being a friend and loving her readers well once again.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com