This is how Frederick Buechner begins his book Speak What We Feel:
It is Red Smith who is reported to have said that it’s really very easy to be a writer — all you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. (Speak What We Feel [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001], ix.)
I believe Buechner because I see his blood, his life, in all the books he has written. He passed away on 15 August 2022 at the age of 96 (Christianity Today). I am sad that I can no longer wait for his next book. I guess it won’t be too long before I meet him face to face and we can talk about books and about life.
My first encounter with Buechner was with his book Telling the Truth. I had taken all the requisite courses in hermeneutics and homiletics in seminary. But I was gripped by this book that reminded me that both preacher and congregation are human and flawed, and that grace is needed for both. Here he writes about the famous preacher, Henry Ward Beecher:
Henry Ward Beecher cut himself with his razor and wrote out notes for that first Beecher Lecture in blood because, whatever else he was or aspired to be or was famous for being, he was a man of flesh and blood . . . (Telling the Truth [New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977], 2.)
I wish more preachers and leaders would remember this. I try not to forget. I guess if I do forget God will allow me to cut myself again.
The most important lesson I learnt from Buechner is to look for God in the ordinary, in the mundane details of life. He writes:
There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that 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. (Now & Then [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1983], 87.)
Because of Buechner I now take two books seriously as being foundational for life. First, the Bible where God speaks to us authoritatively. Second, the book of my life where I now hunt for clues as to His presence and for lessons in the “commonplace” and the ordinary. My eyes are not just looking for Him when He shows up dramatically but also in the ordinary where most of life is. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us, if we have the eyes to see, every common bush is afire with God. This is a key lesson both for my life and my writing and preaching. This is especially so as I seek to mentor others because much of mentoring is helping others see the hand of God in their lives.
Life springs forth from the Cross, so we are not surprised that our most precious lessons spring forth from our deepest wounds. Buechner had a very deep wound, the suicide of his father when he was ten.
One November morning in 1936 when I was ten years old, my father got up early, put on a pair of gray slacks and a maroon sweater, opened the door to look in briefly on my younger brother and me, who were playing a game in our room. And then went down into the garage where he turned on the engine of the family Chevy and sat down on the running board to wait for the exhaust to kill him. (Telling Secrets, [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991], 7.)
This was a grievous wound for Buechner. We know this because he refers to this often in his autobiographical works. And maybe here is a lesson too that it is in our darkest moments that the light shines clearest.
Marjorie Casebier McCoy had this to say about Buechner’s writing:
His writing has a compelling quality for me and many others because it emerges from those times in his life that have forced him to pay attention. Before we know it we find ourselves paying attention first to him and then to our own experience. He speaks from the depths of his life to the depth of ours. (Frederick Buechner [New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1988], 1.)
We are grateful.
I am grateful.