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Holy Gossip

Listening to Buechner


Statistically speaking Frederick Buechner will get home before me.  After all, he is over 30 years older than me.  But it doesn't really matter.  What matters for me is keeping home in my sights --- both the one from which I come and the one to which I go.  Buechner --- the novelist, memoirist, pastor, teacher, and theologian --- has for many years helped me do that. He knows from where he came and is 99% sure where he is going, and that's good enough for me.

If you don't know Frederick Buechner, he's the wizard behind the flim-flam-hukster-come-man-of-God Leo Bebb, a man who had so large a personality that it sprawled across four large novels earning the title of The Book of Bebb.  Buechner is the boy in The Wizard's Tide, a thinly-veiled autobiography of a young child wrestling with his father's death by suicide. He's the animator of Godric, the lost yet saved Irish monk.  He's the one who lets us in on his own life, telling his story in some of the most honest and searching memoir ever written.

I would be flattering myself to say that my writing has been deeply influenced by Buechner's style, and yet I have that hope.  His deep belief in providence, for example, leads him to look for the story in his own life and how his story fits into the larger tale that God is telling. I feel as if I'm only beginning to trace the hand of God in my life, how the inexplicable or difficult becomes, on latter reflection, a part of a plot that, while still veiled, hints of deeper meaning. Biographer Dale Brown notes how deeply Buechner was impacted by his seminary professor, Paul Tillich, who Brown says "argued that God may be found in the stories of our lives as in the stories of Scripture," and so Buechner mines his past, looking back even as he looks forward.  But he says it better than me:

What quickens my pulse now is the stretch ahead rather than the one behind, and it is mainly for some clue as to where I am going that I search through where I have been, for some hint of who I am becoming or failing to become that I delve into what I used to be.  I listen back to a time when nothing was farther from my thoughts than God for an echo of the gutturals and sibilants and vowellessness by which I believe that even then God was addressing me out of my life as he addresses us all.

Listening back is like entering a museum full of once known artifacts from your life, collected and arranged by a curator who is keenly aware of their significance and interrelatedness, only to find that the descriptive exhibit placards, tantalizing though they may be, are only comprehensible when the curator comes along.  Buechner makes me look back so I can look forward.  He tells me to trust the curator and listen to my life.  And then, he says to write it down.  Tell the story, if only to yourself.

Another influence to which I can inspire is his honesty.  Even though he believes in One who providentially orders his life for his good, he is frank about the persistence of doubt.  Scripture may counsel us to "trust in the Lord with all your heart" and yet even the Psalmist himself, a "man after God's own heart," sometimes wonders aloud when God will show up.  If he doubts, he doubts aloud; if he worries, he worries aloud.  I can see myself faintly in his worry about withdrawal:

I fend off the world, I avoid getting involved with other people's needs, so that I can get ahead in the world myself.  But at this deeper level, much deeper than conscience, the truth of it is that I need the world.  I need the very ones I keep at a distance.  I need to love and be loved by the very ones from whom I hide myself behind this face.  I need them not so that I can ease my conscience but so that I can be myself.

He tells me what he worries about, what preoccupies him, and what he regrets, so I always have a sense of a man who trusts God and testifies to His presence in his life, who never pretends that all is well or that he never questions.  In that he leads me to faith, not away from faith.

I owe the man a great debt, and yet he would not recognize it.  He would say, as he has, as so many spiritual "giants" have, that he did little that he set out to do, that he "could have been so much braver and kinder and more unselfish," to use his words, that in the end he pictures himself "standing before Saint Peter empty-handed except for the books," wondering "Did they make the world any better for having been written?"  Well did they?

Sure they did, and sure he did.