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Frederick Buechner, God’s Handkerchief (Part 1)

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”

When I learned of Frederick Buechner’s passing, it rolled through me like a subterranean tidal wave. And it’s no wonder! Nobody, other than my parents, has shaped my life—heart, mind, and spirit—more than Frederick Buechner through his writing.

I knew I wanted to say something about what Buechner’s work has meant to me, but I’ve been daunted by the prospect of distilling the depth of this man’s influence on me into a readable post. It’s taken me a minute to gather my thoughts and I’ve accepted that whatever I write will be both too long and not long enough. I decided to break it up into two posts, starting with how I first encountered his work and then another about some of the big ideas he introduced me to that continue to shape me.

I’ll begin with the beginning.

In my favorite of his books, Telling Secrets, Buechner wrote of two rooms in the White Tower of London. The first is the beautiful, bare, open, and expansive Chapel of St. John which he describes, saying, “you cannot enter it without being struck by the feeling of purity and peace it gives. If there is any such thing in the world, it is a holy place.” The second room is just below the first: a tiny dungeon known as “The Little Ease”—a claustrophobic space four feet by four feet designed to prevent any wretched soul who had the misfortune of being imprisoned there from being able to either stand or lie down in its cramped, dark, airless confines.

To Buechner, each of us is the White Tower and the two rooms represent our spiritual condition. Are we living from the quieted, open, silvery light-graced stillness of the White Chapel? Or have we stowed ourselves away in The Little Ease of our own fear, striving, and shame?

Where I came from, the church perfected cancel culture long before it was a hashtag. Jason Gray

I didn’t realize it, but I was suffocating in my own “Little Ease” when I first discovered Buechner’s work. I was a young believer, about six years into my life as a Christian, and was working as a youth pastor. I found myself disillusioned by a church culture that pushed rigid piety that divided the world up into neat categories of spiritual/sacred and unspiritual/secular. Anything in the latter categories was strictly condemned, and that list was long.

Faith, as far as I could tell, was defined as something like the mental discipline of being certain of things unseen but hoped for. This kind of faith was the highest ideal, and the certainty aspect of it was the highest part of this highest ideal.

Now, I was young, and so… maybe I projected some of my own overwrought idealism onto the whole affair. Or maybe not. Who can say? But the message I absorbed was that doubt was the cardinal weakness, which made my church a dangerous place to bring my questions, of which I had a list that was also long and getting longer by the day. If I dared to voice them, it either elicited concerned looks or was met with answers that felt hollow, shrill—all treble and no bass—and that was designed for ending conversation rather than going deeper into it.

I know they meant well, and that this was their best attempt at pursuing holiness, but all this posturing fostered a culture where what you actually thought had to take a back seat to what you should think. Among other things, this made it difficult to have a sense of connection with the real people in the pews beside me, separated by our façade of “shoulds” and “should nots.” I felt increasingly isolated in a room full of people who called me their brother. It all felt a bit unhuman. Ironically, it didn’t feel holy, either.

But where else could I go? I’d experienced something undeniably real in Jesus, and the church was where I was supposed to get to know him better. So all I knew to do was keep my loaded question to myself and try my best to be who I thought I “should” be. Over time this cut me off from my sense of connection with God as well as from my own heart. It also made me afraid. If my brothers and sisters knew the thoughts running laps around my brain, I’d likely be excommunicated from the family. Where I came from, the church perfected cancel culture long before it was a hashtag.

Buechner’s voice was soothing and troubling at the same time. I remember feeling like the sentences were long and meandering in a way that made me slow down to keep up. Jason Gray

That’s who I was when I walked into my local Christian bookstore one day, the internal dissonance driving me to the verge of chucking the whole religious endeavor. And then like a man stumbling upon a treasure buried in a field I found it: a slim little book on the shelf with the imposing title, “Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.” I wasn’t looking for it, I don’t know why it caught my eye, I don’t know why my little conservative bookstore stocked it considering the limited shelf space that was typically reserved for titles by the superstar pastors du jour, but there it was and there I was, and without knowing anything particular about it other than feeling drawn to it, I bought my first book by Frederick Buechner. I didn’t know at the time that what I thought was a mere book was actually a key to my jail cell.

It felt like I picked it up on a whim but looking back I can’t help but see it as divine intervention. It was a cloth-bound hardcover with unevenly cut pages filled with a kind of writing I’d never experienced before. Buechner’s voice was soothing and troubling at the same time. I remember feeling like the sentences were long and meandering in a way that made me slow down to keep up. It felt intensely personal, like I was eavesdropping on someone’s innermost thoughts, and the way he spoke about his faith was frank and unadorned but also saturated with mystery and beauty.

I’ve discovered a pattern over the years that whenever I can no longer make sense of my faith, God brings along someone—a mentor, a friend, more often than not an author—who, just in the nick of time, articulates belief in a way that makes it believable for me again. C.S. Lewis, Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, N.T. Wright—each of these and others have been voices that helped me hear the voice of God. But Frederick Buechner was the first and has been the most constant.

From the start, I experienced Buechner as a pilgrim so confident that the one who began a good work in him would be faithful to finish it that he wasn’t afraid to be curious—pushing out beyond the safety of well-trod conventions to explore the outer edges of truth and find the true shape of it.

Buechner’s faith was colorful and rich with darkness and light, belief and doubt, childlike wonder, and raw, earthy humanity. It wasn’t polite. It wasn’t safe. It was beautiful. It was ugly. He quoted Shakespeare as much as he quoted the Bible. He heeded the words of Edgar from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “…speak the truth, not what we ought to say…” It all felt real. It felt human. And for those reasons it felt holy. “Oh,” I thought to myself. “I didn’t know faith could be this.” The words he wrote became a trail of crumbs that not only led me back to the heart of God, but also back to my own heart. And just like that, the door to my Little Ease flung open, and I stepped out.

It was the “speaking the truth, not what we ought to say…” quality of his writing that was most liberating. To speak of the light without the darkness is only half the truth at best or a full-on lie at worst. “If there’s no room for doubt there’s no room for me,” he wrote, naming the conditions of my Little Ease.

The holiness of Buechner’s saints—Godric, Brendan, Bebb, even Jacob—emanates not from anything particularly virtuous about who they are but is rather a symptom of God’s delight in the essential belovedness he bestowed on them. Jason Gray

Like the best comedians who say what we’re all thinking but are too afraid to say ourselves, Buechner never side-stepped controversial topics but instead wrote about them in a way that added nuance and complexity. Like Jesus himself whose best lines often began with, “you’ve heard it said this or that…” before dropping some new paradigm on us with, “but have you considered this?”, Buechner’s writing often addressed sensitive truths by introducing some left of center insight that reframed the whole conversation, reminding us that truth is not a commodity for us to use as we please but is larger and more mysterious than any of us can bear on most days.

Pastor Tim Keller speaks of reading so much of C.S. Lewis’s work that he came to have the mind of Lewis in him. After nearly 30 years of reading every book, hunting down articles and interviews, scouring the internet for video clips, and finally driving halfway across America to hear him speak, I can say that in a sense I have the mind of Buechner in me—and what a mind! It has been a deep well I draw from daily to slake my thirsty spirit with a grace, wonder, and a truthfulness that is both tender and relentless.

“’Y’know, when I’ve discovered someone new, I tend to become that person. I want to soak myself in their stuff to such an extent that I have to be them.’ So when he first found Dylan, he said, he would dress like Dylan and only play his kind of music, till he kind of understood how it worked. And that’s exactly how I feel about it as well… I did that, too. I lived the life, whatever it was… It was a process of becoming, of transforming into the thing you admire and want to be. To find out ‘what makes it tick.’ Then, hopefully, you’ve absorbed that knowledge…”

It was something like that for me. I ruminated on Buechner’s writing until in time I even got pretty good at generating Buechneresque observations of my own improvisationally. I became a bit of an evangelist, trying to get everyone I knew to read his work. I still remember what Sara Groves said when she returned my copy of The Son Of Laughter, Buechner’s novelization of the Jacob narrative—“It was brilliant. It reminds me how much we’ve domesticated these characters. The way he writes them… they’re so crotchy sweaty.” Ha!

Her observation is true, there is an almost grotesque quality to the humanity of the saints Buechner wrote about. But it’s exactly their “crotchy-sweatiness” that shows forth the source of their saintliness more clearly. The holiness of Buechner’s saints—Godric, Brendan, Bebb, even Jacob—emanates not from anything particularly virtuous about who they are but is rather a symptom of God’s delight in the essential belovedness he bestowed on them.

And through Buechner’s eyes you can’t help but see why God loves such characters, or even fall in love with them yourself when you read their stories: Jacob the recalcitrant hustler, Bebb the sincere charlatan, Brendan the navigator driven to the edge of the world to fill the father shaped hole in his heart—all of them holy scoundrels and fools and blessedly unaware of it.

On the topic of saints, Buechner wrote:

In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, “I am foremost among sinners” ( l Timothy 1:15), and Jesus himself prayed God to forgive him his trespasses, and when the rich young man addressed him as “good Teacher,” answered, “No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18).In other words, the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not now,” that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there’s nobody God can’t use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.The Holy Spirit has been called “the Lord, the giver of life” and, drawing their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with them is to become more alive. (Buechner, Beyond Words, 2004)

By that definition, Frederick Buechner was a saint, and my time spent with him has made me more alive. More than that, it’s literally saved my life.

Prone to melancholy, I’ve regularly wrestled with my own depression over the years. There have been times when the circumstances of my life were painful and hopeless enough that I considered tapping out early. But then I’d remember Buechner.

When you look at his work as a whole, what emerges is the sense that in one way or another all of Buechner’s writing is circling the impact site of a single moment in his life: his father’s suicide when he was 10 years old. His father is the ghost haunting every book he wrote, the wound that never quite healed.

Just as I carried other pieces of Buechner’s mind in me, I carried that wound vicariously in my own heart. In moments when I was overwhelmed by my own pain, the wound would act up like an arthritic joint on a rainy day, making itself known as a question rising up out of my compassion for the little boy that Buechner was: “I’ve seen what this decision does to the heart of a son. How could I do that to my own children?” This question kept me alive on more than one dark night of the soul.

About depression, Buechner wrote:

One of the most precious of the Psalms seems to be one of the least known as well as one of the shortest. It is Psalm 131. “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,” is the way it begins, “my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.”To be in a state of depression is like that. It is to be unable to occupy yourself with anything much except your state of depression. Even the most marvelous thing is like music to the deaf. Even the greatest thing is like a shower of stars to the blind. You do not raise either your heart or your eyes to the heights, because to do so only reminds you that you are yourself in the depths. Even if, like the Psalmist, you are inclined to cry out “O Lord,” it is a cry like Jonah’s from the belly of a whale.“But I have calmed and quieted my soul,” he continues then, and you can’t help thinking that, although maybe that’s better than nothing, it’s not much better. Depression is itself a kind of calm, as in becalmed, and a kind of quiet, as in a quiet despair.Only then do you discover that he is speaking of something entirely different. He says it twice to make sure everybody understands. “Like a child quieted at its mother’s breast,” he says, and then again “like a child that is quieted is my soul.” A kind of blessed languor that comes with being filled and somehow also fulfilled; the sense that no dark time that has ever been and no dark time that will ever be can touch this true and only time; shalom—something like that is the calm and quiet he has found. And the Lord in whom he has found it is the Lady Mother of us all. It is from her breast that he has drunk it to his soul’s quieting.Finally he tells us that hope is what his mouth is milky with, hope, which is to the hopelessness of depression what love is to the lovesick and lovelorn. “O Israel, hope in the Lord,” he says, “from this time forth and for evermore.” Hope like Israel. Hope for deliverance the way Israel hoped and you are already half delivered. Hope beyond hope, and like Israel in Egypt, in Babylon, in Dachauyou hope also beyond the bounds of your own captivity, which is what depression is.Hope in the Father who is the Mother, the Lady who is the Lord. Do not raise your eyes too high, but lower them to that holy place within you where you are fed and quieted, to that innermost manger where you are yourself the Child.” (Buechner, Beyond Words, 2004)

Though Buechner wrote with a great transparency about suffering, his work was also steeped in deep joy. Even the story of his conversion is punctuated by laughter. After wandering into a church service presided over by George Buttrick,

…with his head bobbing up and down so that his glasses glittered, he said in his odd, sandy voice…that the coronation of Jesus took place among confession and tears and then, as God was and is my witness, great laughter, he said. Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.” (Buechner, The Sacred Journey, 1982)

Perhaps this is why Buechner wrote these beautiful words elsewhere:

The worst isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well. (Buechner, The Final Beast, 1965)

About Joy, Buechner wrote:

We tend to think that religion is sitting stiff and antiseptic and a little bored and that joy is laughter and freedom and reaching out our arms to embrace the whole wide and preposterous earth which is so beautiful that sometimes it nearly breaks our hearts. We need to be reminded that at its heart Christianity is joy and that laughter and freedom and the reaching out of arms are the essence of it. We… are made for joy and anyone who is truly joyous has a right to say that he is doing God’s will on this earth. Where you have known joy, you have known him. (Buechner, The Hungering Dark, 1968)

In his book, The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen described a spiritual leader as one who ventures into the dark first in order to show others the way through. I suppose you could say the same about the one who ventures into the light (which is just as perilous as the dark and maybe more so. Go ask Abraham, or Paul, or even Jesus.)

In this way, Buechner has been one of the great spiritual leaders in my life. His unflinching way of looking into the dark is what made the light he testified to believable. When I read his words it registers on some deep level that I’m conversing with a man who’d made a pact with God (and whoever else might be listening in) to speak the truth as fully as he understood it regardless of whatever else he ought to say, solemnly swearing to tell that truth with a hand held over a heart broken by the joy at least as much as by the sorrow of life.

Because of this, since I opened that first book, I’ve been able to trust him as a messenger of God to lead me, with each sentence he wrote, further and further away from my Little Ease and deeper into the open spaces of Love in my own inner Chapel of St. George where I’m able to commune with God no less than with my own heart.


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