Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Buechner and Me

I was thinking today of the first time I "met" Frederick Buechner. I was in seminary, unhappily married, an emotional wreck--and not suicidal, I do not think, but so deep in a hole that I could not see light.

At our campus bookstore, by Chance, I had picked up The Alphabet of Grace, a book Buechner had published some seven years before, and one night I got in the bathtub--where I do all my most serious reading--and devoured it.

I still have the slim volume on my desk and if you open it you will see two things: massive amounts of red ink with which I underlined almost everything, and little blotches, water stains, but whether of tub water or tears is now a guess. I suspect mostly the latter.

It was as if someone--Buechner himself or Someone--had thrown a rope down into the hole to gather me back up. I was better, though I did not know how or why. I sat down the next morning and wrote him a letter, "Frederick Buechner, c/o Seabury Press," unsure as to whether he would even receive the thing, but needing anyway to tell him what he had done for me, long years after setting his pen to that particular paper, how even through time his words had somehow spoken to me and for me and how much I loved him without even knowing him and how much he had blessed me, without knowing me from Adam's cat.

A few weeks later I received in the mail a letter from Pawlet, VT, addressed in Buechner's almost illegible scrawl, my name written by his hand and inside two pages of blessings and peace. It took me over an hour to decipher and translate--things that good are worth working for--and at the end I felt a glow, as if I had been standing barefoot near a bush that burned and was not consumed. Not to overstate the case, but it may have been the turning point of my life.

After that I began hoping that I, too, could write. I read all Buechner had written and shamelessly imitated him for long years, cribbing his style but never approaching his genius or spirit, nor his insight. I would write to him now and then, he would always respond--not as voluminously as that first time, but always with generosity. I sent him the articles and reviews I wrote of his work for this journal or that, most recently a review of his Secrets in the Dark (, and again he was always most kind. At Grand Rapids a couple of years ago, during the Festival of Faith and Writing, I had the good fortune to introduce him to Barbara Brown Taylor, her to him, and there I stood in the between two legends--glowing again, I am sure.

Since that night in the tub Buechner has been more to me than a writer, more than an hero, more than an occasional correspondent--more like an icon, written large on my mind and soul, a channel of grace. He is indeed larger than life in my life, and I speak his name with only reverent familiarity.

I tell you all this because on yesterday the first copy of my new book arrived at my house: Praying For Dear Life: A Reason to Rise, Strength for the Day, Courage to Face the Night
(NavPress, 2006;, and right there under my name on the front cover is this: "...a treasure from start to finish...Frederick Buechner"

I cannot tell you what that means to me, not just that he seemed to like it (the rest of the blurb is on the back cover) but that HE is there with ME on this book, a book over which I labored so long and as I typed away he was always somewhere in my consciousness as inspiration and example. For twenty-five years now I have wanted to be a "real" writer, with a "real" book to my credit, and if Buechner first awakened in me the notion that I might be a writer, that writing could be a part of my ministry, he is there with me also at the end, to bless with his name and his words my work.

Long ago, before he knew me, he set pen to paper to help me. Not only me, of course, but me among the rest. And now he has done it once again, set his pen to paper, written his name next to mine, to claim me and bless me and send my book, my heart's work, on its way.

Grace upon Grace. The Peace of Christ. Memory and Hope.

Thanks, Fred. For everything.


R.G. said...

Oh my, how beautiful Tom. This brings tears to my eyes.

I.F. said...

Thank you for this posting. Frederick Buechner is a treasure!

Rev. Susan Sparks said...

Tom, thanks so much for your words. Most of all, thank you for your piece in the Christian Century on Holy the Hardee's. I LOVED that article. I am an American Baptist pastor in New York City. However, I basically grew up at the Hardee's in Charlotte, NC... so I get it. Wow, are you freshing to read. My ministry (strange as it may sound) is one of humor. As a minister and a standup comedian, your words resonated hard. Blessings to you and all the healing you bring. Rev. Susan Sparks