In our recent trip to Vancouver, I made a number of new friends. One was a young woman from Sitiawan, Perak. She told me she had been reading my weekly column for more than 15 years and had been helped by them. I was pleasantly surprised. I have been writing a weekly column (well most weeks) and sending it out via the Internet for about 20 years now. I don’t get feedback as much as I would like and I know that writing about 50 pieces a year means that they would be of uneven quality. Still, my weekly column is my offering to the Lord, in the hope that it will help some folks make more sense of their life.
Those who read my writing and who also read widely can probably guess as to the writers who have influenced how I write. It wouldn’t take too much of an exercise in source criticism to know that one of them is Frederick Buechner (pronounced “Beekner”). You can learn more about him on his website. I particularly appreciate his understanding of the two key stories of life.
But there are two stories that make any difference — God’s story and the human story. We are all living out different versions of those two stories with an infinite number of variations. God’s story … is simple — God made the world and loved the world, the world got lost, and God has spent the rest of human history trying somehow to bring the world back to himself. (Frederick Buechner, The Remarkable Ordinary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017], 61.)
Then there is the human story:
[W]e are all born in the same way, we all have to somehow survive our childhoods — the bad parts of them, the confusing and painful parts of them — we all have to find a self to be, we all grow old and grow sick and finally die. This is the human story. And in the process of living out that story, God’s story intersects with ours. He appears in our stories. (The Remarkable Ordinary, 61)
Buechner goes on to explain why he writes about himself. He is “telling as much of (his) story as seemed relevant to the way in which those two stories, God’s story and man’s story, intermesh” (The Remarkable Ordinary, 61), and in many ways that is the motivation behind my own autobiographical pieces.
There are two other ways I consciously or unconsciously try to emulate Buechner. First is the call to pay attention to our lives, to see how the Lord has appeared in them.
One of the clearest messages Buechner has woven into his many books is to pay attention — to your life, to the people with whom you are closest, to the things that happen to you. This, according to Buechner, is the best, and most authentic, way to experience yourself and God.
There are therefore two books we must study. First, we need to study the Bible. This is the special and authoritative means by which God speaks to us. The next book we need to pay attention to is the story of our lives. We must be “life CSIs” sifting through the details of our lives for the evidence of where God has shown up and what He is trying to tell us. I would also suggest that the exercise of examining our own lives is very much helped when we do it with a spiritual director or friend.
I also try to emulate Buechner in his commitment to write as honestly as possible.
As a writer also of stories besides my own, I tried to do just that, to present the stories of human beings as honestly as I can … (The Remarkable Ordinary, 61).
Authenticity is a buzzword these days, and periodically people say that about my teaching and writing. But anyone who has tried to do authenticity will know how difficult that is — how much do we really know of ourselves and of others and how much of what we share is filtered through our ego? Writers like Buechner inspire me not to give up on honest communication as he inspires me in so many other things in life.
Buechner is 91. I am not sure how many more books we can expect from him. In one of his latest books he writes:
I’m better than I used to be, but far from well. The journey continues; I do what I can. The great problem is to try to live in the present, not the past, not the future, but in the now. (The Remarkable Ordinary, 105).
More wisdom that I will seek to follow.