Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Why I Read Frederick Buechner by Stephen Lamb

When it came time to critique the piece I was workshopping at a writing class I took part in the end of last summer, Lauren Winner, the esteemed leader of our class, offered as one of her critiques that she thought I quoted Frederick Buechner too many times. When I attempted to explain that my quotations of Buechner were there because reading his books had helped me arrive at where I stand today, but that I was sure later drafts of the piece would rely less on Buechner’s words as I found my own, Lauren interrupted me, saying, “then write that. Write about how reading Buechner helped you become who you are today. That I would be interested in reading.”

So here it is: my attempt to explain something of what the writings of Frederick Buechner have meant to me. I have said elsewhere, and readily repeat it here, that I count myself among those are are still able to call themselves Christian, at least in part, because of the work of Buechner. When the voices of my fundamentalist religious upbringing threaten to drown out everything else, I have only to read something from Buechner to remember, once again, that maybe, just maybe, there is something to this whole thing.

I first heard about Frederick Buechner through the singer and author Michael Card, a few years before I started working for him as part of his road crew. Back in ’94, he recorded an album, Poiema, that he said in the liner notes was “inspired by the writings of Frederick Buechner, the C.S. Lewis of our time.” I bought Buechner’s first memoir, The Sacred Journey, not long after I discovered Poiema, along with a collection of his work organized for daily reading (Listening to Your Life), but aside from skimming the latter every now and then, they both sat untouched on my bookshelf for several years, through finishing high school and three and a half years working at a fundamentalist radio station, through a fifteen-month adventure at a Bible school in Argentina, and through a two-year stint working for a Pentecostal TV network. It wasn’t until a year or two after I moved to Nashville, Music City, U.S.A., that I finally picked up The Sacred Journey one cold evening, read it slowly over the next couple of weeks, and then quickly moved on to his next two memoirs, Telling Secrets and Now and Then, devouring both of them over the course of one week, feeling very much like a parched man stumbling onto an oasis. I like to think they were there waiting for me for the time when I needed them most.

Buechner has only released one book since that time - The Yellow Leaves, which I reviewed for the Rabbit Room - but every time I come across one of his books in a used bookstore that I don’t yet have, I immediately buy it to add it to my collection, knowing that at some point down the road, it will be there when I need it. I find a certain comfort in that.

Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale is the last book of his that I finished, and I was reading it one Sunday morning a couple weeks ago, a day that happened to mark the one-year anniversary of when I stopped going to church - a story too long to retell here except to repeat one of Buechner’s quotes that I’ve used countless times in the last year, that “the sermons that have the biggest impact on us are those that we preach to ourselves in between the lines of whatever is being said from the pulpit,” and what I was hearing “between the lines,” informed by twenty-eight years of being in church every Sunday - and more - was drowning out the possibility of hearing life-giving words in that context. So on that recent Sunday morn, here are the words I read when I picked up Telling the Truth, words found in the last chapter:

“[In the fairy-tale world] Joy happens, to use Tolkien’s word, and the fairy tale where it happens is not a world where everything is sweetness and light. It is not Disney Land where everything is kept spotless and all the garbage is trundled away through underground passages beneath the sunny streets. On the contrary, the world where this Joy happens is as full of darkness as our own world, and that is why when it happens it is as poignant as grief and can bring tears to our eyes...

If you still have something more than just eyes to see with, the world can give you these glimpses as well as fairy tales can - the smell of rain, the dazzle of sun on white clapboard with the shadows of ferns and wash on the line, the wildness of a winter storm when in the house the flame of a candle doesn’t even flicker...

The joy beyond the walls of the world more poignant than grief. Even in church you catch glimpses of it sometimes though church is apt to be the last place because you are looking too hard for it there. It is not apt to be so much in the sermon that you find it or the prayers or the liturgy but often in something quite incidental like the evening the choral society does the Mozart Requiem, and there is your friend Dr. X, who you know thinks the whole business of religion is for the birds, singing the Kyrie like a bird himself - Lord, have mercy, have mercy - as he stands there among the baritones in his wilted shirt and skimpy tux; and his workaday basset-hound face is so alive with if not the God he wouldn’t be caught dead believing in then at least with his twin brother that for a moment nothing in the whole world matters less than what he believes or doesn’t believe - Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison - and as at snow, dreams, certain memories, at fairy tales, the heart leaps, the eyes fill.”

There it is. That’s why I read Buechner, the reminder of the holy lurking under the commonplace, the reminder of what we maybe desire most - Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison - always present in our actions. If those words mean nothing to you now, if they don’t move you in some way, I ask you, please, remember his name, and if, somewhere down the road you’re struggling to believe in anything, much less the fantastical claims of Christianity, pick up one of his books. I recommend Telling Secrets or the collection of his sermons, Secrets in the Dark. For those of you already reading him, or those who’ve always meant to pick up something by him, treasure his work. Remember these words that he says sum up everything he’s tried to say, repeat them to your family, to your neighbor. And, most importantly, don’t stop repeating these words to yourself, maybe the person who needs to be reminded most of all: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: 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.”

Stephen Lamb blogs at Rebelling Against Indifference, The Rabbit Room, and Jesus Needs New PR. You can also follow him on twitter.

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