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.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Thoughts taken from an email to a friend...

Frederick Buechner says that "nothing human is ever uncomplicated." I do so agree, and therefore am loathe to speak further about the situation in the Middle East. I will defer, instead, to David Grossman.

On Bill Moyers "Faith and Reason," David Grossman--an Israeli novelist who has done a recent work on Samson, wherein he compares Samson with Israel itself, suggests (as I heard it) that Israel is in danger of becoming what it has long fought and tried to protect itself against. If you go to Moyers' Faith and Reason website, and click on David Grossman, you can listen to/see the entire interview.

Relatedly, I am wondering is if, in today's political climate, it is possible to be critical of Israel, it's policies and its warring, without being labeled an anti-Semite. So many people are so quick to play the racism card. And WHY is Mel Gibson's DUI, and his drunken chatter, more interesting than the rest of the world's news--at least according to CNN's website banner.

Relatedly, is it possible to criticize our own government, its policies and its warrings, without being labeled with some culture-wars adjective? As William Sloane Coffin said, "A patriot, always; a nationalist, never." Where are the voices from the middle? Drowned out by the ones coming from either side, as always.

Joining some of my friends, I do wish Jesus would come back...NOW! But I am persuaded that that much of many people's hope in that theological perspective is misplaced. A new book on the millenarian theologies of which the Left Behind series (preeminently) as well as Jack Van Impe and Hal Lindsay and the rest are a part suggests that that particular view of God's action in the world is exactly backwards, that "God's purpose is not to remove Christians from the world in order to destroy it, but that like Christ they are to enter the world to redeem it" (Barbara Rossing. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Boulder: Westview, 2004. ISBN: 0-8133-9156-3). God always sends his people into the struggle for justice, rather than exempting them--Jesus' Incarnation is the ultimate proof. I suspect that my desire for escape from the fray is just that...and while I feel it more most every day I confess it is mostly based in fear for myself and, especially, my kids.

I hope you, dear reader, have seen Second Hand Lions. I saw it again the other night, having forgotten how wonderful it is, and especially Robert Duvall's line about the most important things in life having to do with matters that cannot conclusively be proved right or wrong. GREAT movie.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Lament for Lebanon

Pray for the children of Abraham.

I, as you, have watched in horror this week as pictures emerged from the latest fighting in Lebanon. The heirs of Abraham are once again at war. The sons of Ishmael (the Muslims) and the sons of Isaac (the Jews), each with their own logic and fierce rhetoric, are hard at work trying to destroy the other. Would to God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, yes, and the God of Ishmael, too (see Genesis 21:12-21)—that it were not so.

I am no student of modern geopolitics. When it comes to “the ways of the world,” I guess I am about as naïve as they come. But I am a student of scripture and I know a least a little concerning the ways and purposes of God—and I am persuaded that no matter how often or passionately these or any of the worlds’ various combatants invoke the blessing or “will of God,” God neither intends nor honors the killing of children. Of that, at least, I am sure. And if the killing of any one nation’s children is a horror never to be forgotten, we must remember with anguish and repentance the deaths of all children.

I keep wishing that the heirs of Abraham would be quick to follow his example. Do you remember that time when Abraham (or Abram as he was called then) and his nephew lot were coming up from Egypt into the Negeb (to the south of Judah). Both men were rich, having herds and servants and much gold. It soon became apparent that they were richer than the land—that is, the land was not able to support the both of them. And there were others peoples in the area as well, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. All told, there were too many sheep and not enough grass, too many mouths and not enough water. And so it was that there was “strife” between the servants of Abram and the servants of Lot (not to mention the Canaanites and Perizzites).

Abram, bless his heart, surveyed the situation and uttered immortal words: “Let there be no strife between you and me, between your headsmen and my herdsmen: for we are kin.” To Abram, family and peace were more to be fought for than any land, even if that meant surrender, and so he said to his nephew, “Take what you want and I will make do with the rest.” That is just the way it happened: Lot, his family and servants, journeyed to the fertile area near the Jordan River, in the precincts of Sodom, while Abram took the dryer and more inhospitable land called Canaan.

Abram ceded land for the sake of peace. It may be an oversimplified and naïve hope that his heirs on both sides of the family tree might find a way to do the same. But as I look at the pictures of the dead—children, women, old men—I have wondered this: what price “security”? Tell me: who made “survival” the greatest good? And I have wondered why none of the children of Abram are willing to invoke the old man now and say, “Let there be no strife between us, for we are kin.”

Why we are so quick to forget how Jesus—another child of Abraham so that we who follow him are likewise—said that his disciples are those who love their enemies, who willingly lay down their lives for others? But how very different that looks from so many of the pictures we’ve seen.