Frederick Buechner died last week, but his writing will certainly continue to mentor me. From his reclusive perch on a farm in Rupert, Vermont, he pastored through words on a page. A couple of his books are autobiographical and connect dots between his deep insight and his suffering. You can bury pain, medicate it, or you can let it drive you to the questions under the questions.
We need to pay attention to people who allow struggles to take them down beneath their natural self-pity. Who have tapped into a subterranean source. They get at what’s really going on under the circumstances, coaching other people to rise above theirs. That was Buechner.
Here are a few things I learned from him.
A way with words
Buechner’s most famous quotation is probably this one: “The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Over the past few years I’ve seen this sentiment reworded here and there. But you can’t beat the original. His phrasing suggests a bit of mystery and makes readers ask probing questions of themselves like—
What is deep gladness? Can I name mine? Why would I have a joy that must find an outlet in someone else’s need? How could an unguided hand design hungers that aren’t just about me, myself, and I?
Questions like these emerge from his suggestive, almost nostalgic observations. Buechner understood that people long for evidence of the good, the true, and the beautiful. They look for it in themselves like someone gazing into a foggy mirror. His rich pallet of words bring clarity and color to what we all strain to see there. Like Monet’s haystack paintings, the shimmer and shadow from his pen leave an impression that some great source of light is just out of frame.
Tapping under the surface
“Listen to your life…touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace” (Buechner, Now and Then).
A friend of mine teaches writing. His advice to men composing a Valentine’s Day note is not to channel Elizabeth Barrett Browning in all her brilliant, universal abstraction. (“How do I love thee?/Let me count the ways.”) Instead, he says, just recall one memory and be specific. Buechner is getting at the same thing with this quotation above. He’s driving us to notice, to be mindful of all that is accessible through the senses.
Some of you may object to “mindfulness” since it has a whiff of Buddhism. But think of it as noticing. Think of it as gratitude for the earth charged with the grandeur of God. Creation echos with eternity. To give thanks for the simple essence of a thing is to repeat the sounding joy.
To deal with what is really real
“No matter how fancy and metaphysical a doctrine sounds, it was a human experience first” (Buechner, Wishful Thinking).
Doctrine is a dirty word today. Modern sensibilities cast-off such inherited constraints as if they were ragged hand-me-downs. The spirit of the age is to invent yourself without input or obligation to community. Here’s the contradiction: “I want to construct my own identity and meaning, and then I need everyone else to validate it!” In other words, I want autonomy for me but I still need recognition from you.
Without a hint of finger-wagging, Buechner invites us to open our grip and receive an inheritance. Some truths come only by living them forward and understanding them backwards. Doctrine is an attempt to put these hard-won, treasured insights into words. They are signposts of a hidden design for human flourishing, like the constants in the physical universe that put lift under a wing.
Buechner slips in the backdoor of a reader’s imagination with artful nudges about the good, the true and the beautiful. There, past the pride of human nature, past our defensive self-sufficiency, he helps people feel small in a good way. He invites them to be part of something bigger.
To get started reading Buechner, check out these suggestions in Christianity Today.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.”(Eccl. 3:11)