I grew up seeing Frederick Buechner’s books on my dad’s bookshelves, but I didn’t crack one open until my senior year of college when I read Telling the Truth. I’ll admit he didn’t win me over immediately.
A couple of years later, something in me had changed, even if I couldn’t yet put my finger on what that change had entailed. I’d recently returned from a three-month stint in Cambodia, where I had volunteered as a photojournalist. And though I didn’t know it at the time, I was about to start my first real job as a caseworker with Cuban refugees. I was at a crossroads.
During college I had discovered a number of things about myself, including these two: I really liked to read and I really liked to write. And during that liminal span of time in late 2006 and early 2007, as a college graduate without a clear plan for the future, I did a lot of soul-searching. I frequented Prince Street Café, where I’d arrive each day after lunch and stay until close to dinner, reading books, journaling, chatting with other patrons, and yes, drinking perilous amounts of coffee.
It was during that time that I gave Buechner another shot. It began with Wishful Thinking in early January, followed immediately by The Alphabet of Grace. And just like that, I was hooked. I went on to read ten of his books that year, and have been reading and re-reading his work ever since.
In Buechner I had found someone who wrote with a kind of simple elegance about life’s joys and sorrows. He wasn’t afraid of mystery. And while he ventured deep into the darkness, there was always at least a glimmer of hope.
Buechner stirred me, an aspiring writer at the time, to write honestly about what I was seeing, what I was feeling, what seemed to be happening in and around me. He taught me to pay attention to particularities without missing the bigger picture. He showed me how to write with compassion, with empathy.
He taught me to open a vein, to write in blood: “Write about what truly matters to you,” he says, “not just things to catch the eye of the world but things to touch the quick of the world the way they have touched you to the quick, which is why you are writing about them. Write not just with wit and eloquence and style and relevance but with passion.”
And then there are his aphorisms, his proverbs – those unforgettable nuggets of guidance and wisdom. Like this: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” Or this: “Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage.” Or, perhaps most of all, this: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I’ve been thinking about all of this since reading Russell Moore’s appreciation of Buechner in the October issue of Christianity Today. Moore, a well-known conservative evangelical, doesn’t fit the profile of the type of person who normally sings the praises of a more liberal mainliner like Buechner. But Moore defies convention here, and it’s to his credit that he does so. If only we were all this charitable with those who see some important things differently than we do.
“Buechner does not always say what I want him to say,” Moore writes, “but I never wonder if he’s telling me anything less than what he believes to be the truth. In an era of kinetic marketing and spin – as much within the church as anywhere else – that alone is remarkable.”
I don’t always agree with Buechner either. And while I’ll never be half the writer Buechner was and is – he’s 91 – I’ll always owe him a debt I cannot repay.