“Drawing on nothing fancier than the poetry of his own life, let him use words and images that help make the surface of our lives transparent to the truth that lies deep within them, which is the wordless truth of who we are and who God is and the Gospel of our meeting.”
From, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner
When, as a seminary student, I read these words of instruction (or invitation) for preachers from Frederick Buechner, who died this past week at the age of 96, I knew immediately what my life’s work would be.
In the days since his passing so many ministers and readers and other “part time Christians” (as Buechner called himself), have offered similar stories and quotes that touched them at just the right place, just when they needed to be touched.
Quotes we’ve held onto and that in many ways have held us through the years.
Quotes we’ve written in the inside covers of journals and hung on the walls of nurseries.
Quotes we’ve shared in sermons and bedside prayers. Quotes we’ve offered to couples on their wedding day and families grieving the impossible.
With beauty and humor and disarming humility, Buechner gave words to the struggle and joy and joyful struggle of modern faith. He was not heady, but he was an artist. His subject matter was not abstract concepts, but the mystery of human interaction and the wonder of natural beauty.
“At its heart,” he once wrote, “theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Tillich, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own language, are all telling us the stories of their lives.”
I think he would also say that all autobiography can be theology, too. That to the extent that you see God at work in your life and in the world and speak of it, you are a theologian. And that it is these theologians, the theologians who find themselves not in the pulpits but in the pews more Sundays than not, who are the true theologians of the church. The ones who give voice to mystery, “drawing nothing fancier than the poetry of our own lives.”
Buechner, more than most, showed us what is possible when we do.
“You wake up out of the huge crevasses of the night and your dreaming. You get out of bed, wash and dress, eat breakfast, say goodbye and go away never maybe to return for all you know, to work, talk, lust, pray, dawdle and do, and at the end of the day, if your luck holds, you come home again, home again. Then night again. Bed. The little death of sleep, sleep of death. Morning, afternoon, evening—the hours of the day, of any day, of your day and my day. The alphabet of grace. If there is a God who speaks anywhere, surely he speaks here: through waking up and working, through going away and coming back again, through people you read and books you meet, through falling asleep in the dark.”
From, The Alphabet of Grace, by Frederick Buechner