“Again and again Christ is present not where, as priests, you would be apt to look for him but precisely where you wouldn’t have thought to look for him in a thousand years.”
The celebrated writer, preacher and theologian Frederick Buechner (pronounced “Beek-ner”) has entered eternal life at the age of 96.
His gifts cannot be overstated. From RNS:
Frederick Buechner was asked on numerous occasions how he would sum up everything he had preached and written in both his fiction and nonfiction.
The answer, he said, was simply this: “Listen to your life.”
That theme was constant across more than six decades in his career as a “writer’s writer” and “minister’s minister” — an ordained evangelist in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who inspired Christians across conservative and progressive divides with his books and sermons.
Buechner died peacefully in his sleep on Monday (Aug. 15) at age 96, according to his family…
… Over the course of his life, Buechner wrote nearly 40 books across a number of genres: fiction, autobiography, theology, essays and sermons.
Among his novels, “Lion Country” was a finalist for the 1972 National Book Award and “Godric” a finalist for the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His short story “The Tiger,” published in The New Yorker, took third prize in the O. Henry Awards in 1955.
Listening to one’s life became a theme in his work, because, he said in a 1989 appearance on the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, if there was a God and if God were as concerned with the world and involved in it as Christianity says, then surely one of the most powerful ways God speaks to people is in what happens to them.
That’s something bestselling memoirist Anne Lamott, a progressive Christian who wrote the introduction to the 2016 book “Buechner 101,” has said she took away from Buechner’s writing.
It gave Lamott the confidence, after paying attention to her own life, “to share that with my readers and to trust that that is ultimately all we have to share with one another — is our truth in our very own voice,” she said in a YouTube video posted by the Frederick Buechner Center to mark Buechner’s 90th birthday.
Buechner once gave a remarkable commencement address at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia — speaking to men and women about to embark on a life of ministry and service — and it still strikes a powerful chord.
As ministers, preachers, prophets, pastors, teachers, administrators and who knows what-all else of churches, you will be leaving this lovely place for places as lovely or lovelier yet or not lovely at all where you will take your turn at doing essentially what I am here to do now, which is one way or another to be, however inadequately, a servant of Christ. I wouldn’t have dreamed of packing my bag and driving a thousand miles except for Christ. I wouldn’t have the brass to stand here before you now if the only words I had to speak were the ones I had cooked up for the occasion. I am here, Heaven help me, because I believe that from time to time we are given something of Christ’s word to speak if we can only get it out through the clutter and cleverness of our own speaking. And I believe that in the last analysis, whatever other reasons you have for being here yourselves, Christ is at the bottom of why you are here too. We are all here because of him. This is his day as much as, if not more than, it is ours. If it weren’t for him, we would be somewhere else.
Our business is to be the hands and feet and mouths of one who has no other hands or feet or mouth except our own. It gives you pause. Our business is to work for Christ as surely as men and women in other trades work for presidents of banks or managers of stores or principals of high schools. Whatever salaries you draw, whatever fringe benefits you receive, your recompense will be ultimately from Christ, and a strange and unforeseeable and wondrous recompense I suspect it will be, and with many a string attached to it too. Whatever real success you have will be measured finally in terms of how well you please not anyone else in all this world — including your presbyteries, your bishops, your congregations — but only Christ, and I suspect that the successes that please him best are very often the ones that we don’t even notice. Christ is the one who will be hurt, finally, by your failures. If you are to be healed, comforted, sustained during the dark times that will come to you as surely as they have come to everyone else who has ever gone into this strange trade, Christ will be the one to sustain you because there is no one else in all this world with love enough and power enough to do so. It is worth thinking about…
… You will be ordained, many of you, or have been already, and if again your experience is anything like mine, you will find, or have found, that something more even than an outlandish new title and an outlandish new set of responsibilities is conferred in that outlandish ceremony. Without wanting to sound unduly fanciful, I think it is fair to say that an extraordinary new adventure begins with ordination, a new stretch of the road, that is unlike any other that you have either experienced or imagined. Your life is no longer your own in the same sense. You are not any more virtuous than you ever were — certainly no new sanctity or wisdom or power suddenly descends — but you are nonetheless “on call” in a new way. You start moving through the world as the declared representative of what people variously see as either the world’s oldest and most persistent and superannuated superstition, or the world’s wildest and most improbable dream, or the holy, living truth itself. In unexpected ways and at unexpected times people of all sorts, believers and unbelievers alike, make their way to you looking for something that often they themselves can’t name any more than you can well name it to them. Often their lives touch yours at the moments when they are most vulnerable, when some great grief or gladness or perplexity has swept away all the usual barriers we erect between each other so that you see them for a little as who they really are, and you yourself are stripped naked by their nakedness.
Strange things happen. Again and again Christ is present not where, as priests, you would be apt to look for him but precisely where you wouldn’t have thought to look for him in a thousand years. The great preacher, the sunset, the Mozart Requiem can leave you cold, but the child in the doorway, the rain on the roof, the half-remembered dream, can speak of him and for him with an eloquence that turns your knees to water. The decisions you think are most important turn out not to matter so much after all, but whether or not you mail the letter, the way you say goodbye or decide not to say it, the afternoon you cancel everything and drive out to the beach to watch the tide come in — these are apt to be the moments when souls are won or lost, including quite possibly your own.
Read more. Savor it.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him…