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The Consolation of Doubt: An Address to the Buechner Institute

RR Note: It feels like every corner of the Rabbit Room is shaped in some way by the meaningful work of Frederick Buechner. As we grieve his bittersweet passing at the age of 96, we wanted to repost an address given by Andrew Peterson to the Buechner Institute from 2016 that pays tribute to his eternal impact.

(This was the address I delivered to the Buechner Institute at King College last year. Frederick Buechner’s 90th birthday was just over a month ago, so I post it here and invite you all to respond with your own reminiscences of the ways his work has affected you. For me, it was the comfort of discovering that I wasn’t alone in the most private and painful corners of my life in Christ. Happy birthday, Fred.)

All I know to do is to tell you a story.

Once upon a time I lived in a world of dirt roads and diamondbacks. Alligators haunted the lakes, four wheelers and hunters haunted the woods, and as Flannery O’Connor famously said, Christ haunted the South. He was everywhere. He was in the Bible verse printed on the front page of the church bulletin, he was in the oddly hyphenated words in the hymnbook, he showed up on the church marquee, he was prayed to before the football games and before meals, he was on bumper stickers next to confederate flags, his name lifted jubilantly from the tongues of worshipers during four hour Sunday meetings on one side of the tracks, and on the other the name of Jesus launched like a rocket from my father’s mouth as he paced behind the podium where the white folks sat dutifully and muttered an occasional “Amen.”

Picture, if you will, a skinny kid with a mullet, slouching on the back pew and struggling to stay awake. Picture him scribbling dragons in the margins of the bulletin or writing notes to his brother, constantly aware of his preacher father’s roving eye. Picture the kid’s Levi’s, his Converse high tops, his Michael Keaton-era Batman shirt. That kid is interested in three things: girls, rock and roll, and girls. He is looking for love in all the wrong places. He stays up way too late listening to Pink Floyd records or driving around the dirt roads of the Wildlife Management Area or reading Stephen King novels with a flashlight.

That kid, I can tell you, is rotten with longing to be anywhere other than where he is, anyone other than who he is, and he’s willing to do almost anything to feel anything at all. He reads creepy stories not just because he likes to feel afraid, but because he’s up for feeling anything as long as it’s something other than the dull boredom of his adolescence. He listens to an array of music because sometimes music seems to clean the mud from the windshield of his heart, and so he learns to play piano and guitar in an attempt not just to impress the girls and friends and parents, to prove to them and to himself that he exists and is capable of more than being a knuckleheaded fool, but he learns to play because music makes him feel something.

He’s discontent with merely listening to songs. No, alone in his bedroom at night he begins to suspect that the chords and rhythms and lyrics and melodies are a secret code, the key to the combination lock that keeps the door shut on what’s really real and holy and true. So he learns the songs, breaks the code, flings open the door, and—as crazy as it sounds—sometimes it works. Sometimes he actually feels something like a flash of warm light on his face and in his heart and for a few minutes he’s a little less lost.

That same kid, of course, has to go to church every single Sunday, or else. He goes to Sunday School, followed by “big church,” followed by a potluck dinner, followed by youth meeting, followed by the evening service. That kid remembers being baptized when he was ten, confessed before his little congregation that he believed a homeless Jewish rabbi from Nazareth was the same God who made the galaxies, though of course that baptism happened before the kid discovered Bon Jovi and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

But it still happened. It’s an undeniable, unalterable part of the story.

And in the story—my story—I’m stuck in a church parsonage in the Deep South, besieged by that holy haunt named Jesus, and no matter how hard I try to ignore him by sniffing like a hound from novels to guitar riffs to girlfriends, I cannot escape the fact that this Jesus cannot be escaped.

Frederick Buechner encourages us to listen to our lives, to pay attention to them as the fathomless mysteries that they are, if I remember the quote right.

(Side note: I didn’t have to look that up. If I wanted to I could rattle off from memory four or five sentences our friend Frederick composed, each of which I memorized just like I memorized those Zeppelin songs, hoping that if I internalized the thing it might unlock something in my heart. I’ve lost count of the ways Buechner’s writing—his sentences, even—have done that very thing.)

Anyway, Buechner says that if I pay attention to the story I hear myself telling about myself again and again, I might just learn something about my family or the truth or about the way the great love of God has been working itself out in my life.

So when I pay attention, what do I notice? What keeps coming up? Upon reflection I realize that in nearly every conversation I show all my cards. I blurt out that I’m a preacher’s kid, and not just that, but a preacher’s kid from the South. I’m doing it right now, in fact. I’m proud of it, in the way someone is proud to have survived a hurricane—a beautiful hurricane.

The story of my life is as much a part of me as my fingerprint or my DNA. Your story is yours and no one else’s. No one before you can lay claim to the million-million changes and choices and perspectives and revelations you own. For example, I was speaking to my counselor about a particularly dark season in my childhood, and I made a comment about how neither my brother nor my sisters seem to have this same baggage about those dark years. He said that if he spoke to my siblings about our common childhoods every one of us would describe a completely different family.

Again, like your DNA, your story is yours, and no other’s. But your story is an even greater mystery because it’s still being shaped, just as my understanding of it is constantly being shaped. It’s a portrait that’s always in flux—not altering, necessarily, but being drawn into continually sharper focus. With each step forward into time, each sentence deeper into the book, we’re able to see the past from a different angle, however slight. And so, as Buechner has shown us, it doesn’t hurt to keep looking.

Actually, that’s not true. Sometimes it does hurt to keep looking. But maybe that’s just so something can heal. I wrote a whole album about it, so please visit the merch table after the show. Right now I want to tell you what I’m learning today. As in, what have I learned by listening to my life today, today as I write this—right now, as I read you what I’ve written?

I have three confessions to make.

The first is this: I have never seriously doubted that God was real. Not really. I doubted that I would go to heaven. I doubted that I had a brain in my head. I doubted that I’d ever amount to anything, or that I’d graduate high school, or that I’d see the Rocky Mountains, but I never really doubted that someone had made this crazy world, and I always thought of that someone as God. The Bible, many verses of which I had memorized since I was little, was too wonderfully strange, too authoritative and ancient and seemingly alive to be dismissed, and so I never really doubted that it meant something, whatever that thing might be.

I offer this next part bashfully.

I was a nerdy, starry-eyed romantic and I still am. Late at night when I knew my dad was asleep by the sound of his window-rattling snore, I used to sneak out of the parsonage and into the hollow darkness of the church fellowship hall, then up the creepy back stairs behind the baptistery, past the dark second-story Sunday School classrooms, then out the back fire escape where I could shimmy up a drain pipe, edge across a high window ledge, and jump over to the roof of the building. I’d lay on the north slope of the roof with my Sony Walkman and gaze at the stars. There I talked unabashedly to God while I listened to George Winston solo piano pieces. Understand, this was no pious act—I was a sinner through and through. I didn’t want to obey him, or my parents, or my teachers, but neither did I want to be abandoned by him—or any of them.

One night at a youth group event at someone’s house in the country, my girlfriend and I were laying on a trampoline and holding hands while we watched the stars. (I told you I was a starry-eyed romantic.) I was consumed with the same passions every high school kid is consumed with when it comes to girlfriends, completely selfish and unconcerned with what Jesus might want me to do or to be. She went inside for pretzels or to watch the end of The Goonies or whatever, and I stayed behind for a little while. I lay there on the trampoline in the humid Florida night, looking up at the spray of stars just like I did from the church roof. Realizing even then how cliché and silly it was, I said aloud, “God, if you’re really there, will you give me a sign?”

I know, right?

Well, God is no cynic. He’s untroubled by tropes and clichés—they had to come from somewhere, right?—because right after I prayed that prayer, a dazzling meteor hissed across the dome of stars.

The only thing more amazing than the fact of what had happened was how quickly my goosebumps faded and I explained it away as mere coincidence. But, just as Christ haunts the South, moments like that have always haunted me. I’m not ashamed to tell you that, whatever the truth of it is, I sincerely want it to be that the rock that God sent hurtling through the dark of space however many thousands or millions of years ago had my name on it just as surely as God has graven my name on his hand. It certainly makes for a good story.

So that’s confession one: I have always suspected that there’s someone behind the curtain of this stage.

I was a young man losing arguments, and it was Scripture that was defeating me. Andrew Peterson

Now, confession two.

Somehow that smart-alecky preacher’s kid made his way at last out of Florida to Nashville with a wife, a handful of songs, and a mountain of audacity. And that’s when the real doubts slithered in. Those doubts, however, weren’t about whether God was real, or even whether Jesus was. I have had too many luminous moments of what C. S. Lewis called Joy. Sehnsucht, to use the German word for “inconsolable longing,” was what Lewis felt, and as he listened to his life he saw those moments as almost painful stabs of joy, and they were breadcrumbs on the road to his faith. I’ve had a number of breadcrumbs myself, as I’m sure you do too, whatever you may believe.

These new doubts were about doctrine and orthodoxy and what my parents had taught me about God. You see, I found myself on tour buses with lots of other Christians who believed things that would have curled my mother’s toes. I won’t get into the doctrinal issues here, but it more or less boiled down to the fact that I had grown up thinking that our church was right and your church was wrong and yes you might end up in heaven but you can’t be too careful so why don’t you come to church with me sometime and we’ll get you all straightened out?

But now I was a young man losing arguments, and it was Scripture that was defeating me. (As it turns out, every denomination just underlines different verses.) My idea of who God was was shifting in deeply uncomfortable ways.

Doubt—real doubt—crept in. I lost sleep. I emailed Bible college professors and asked them how to win arguments. It wasn’t that I was after the truth, you see—I was after victory. I wanted to win, and I didn’t. I was learning how little I really knew, and I was learning it the hard way. One particularly bad night on tour, I crawled into my bunk and cried in the dark. It wasn’t, “Are you there, God?” it was “Who are you, anyway?” Now there was no comet zooming across the sky like E. T.’s spaceship. There was no goosebumpy thrill at the sight of a nice sunset. It was as if I had asked the question “Who are you?” and God said, “I could tell you, but let’s face it. It’ll be easier just to show you.” And then he ruined my life as I knew it.

Picture that kid again. Picture him touring around the country, trying to raise a family, trying (and failing) to be a good husband, trying to make a bunch of label executives happy, not to mention trying to make listeners happy, trying to make his parents proud—and all of these things are just another case of the same disease that kid had in high school, the one where he was trying to prove to himself and to everyone else that he existed, only now he was playing with the big guns of marriage and children and career. Something happened which caused a massive, bleeding rift in a close friendship, and that kid was heartbroken and angry and confused.

“Who are you?” I had asked. The answer, I decided, was, “I am the Great Destroyer.” That was how it felt. I did my share of weeping in closets, sitting listlessly in church, sometimes quite literally shaking my fist at the heavens as I continued to not doubt God’s existence but to doubt his goodness. Every day I woke up doubting God’s goodness. Every night I lay awake doubting God’s goodness, doubting his intentions for me.

So let me finish by telling a quick story about God the Great Destroyer, as I thought of him during this dark season. Part one involves a monk. Part two involves a guy named Frederick Buechner.

Part one. In 2002 a friend saw that I was in dire need of help and offered me his weekend slot at the Abbey of Gethsemani. You may remember it as the Trappist monastery in Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived and wrote and is buried. I had never been to an actual monastery before, and I spent my three days fasting and praying, reading my Bible and journaling. I barely left my cell except for vespers. My main goal was to prove to God that I deserved an answer for my suffering. I demanded audience with the king. Again and again I asked him why my heart felt abused, betrayed, angry, bitter, hopeless, lost, numb—again and again the heavens were silent. Finally, on the last morning there, I visited the statues.

I wandered through the frozen hills of Kentucky for what felt like miles, following trail signs to the statues, whatever they were. My breath fogged the air. The woods waited in the deep silence of winter. The trail led up a hill to a sculpture of three men huddled together in sleep. They were covered with leaves and it took me a moment to realize that it was Peter, James, and John, asleep in the garden on the night the Lord was taken.

“Ah,” I thought. “Of course. This is the Abbey of Gethsemani. If I follow this trail around the bend I’m going to see Jesus praying.” I climbed the hill without expecting much.

What I encountered was an icon of the Lord’s suffering like I had never seen before. The artist depicted not a pious, romanticized Jesus, but a Jesus whose soul was deeply troubled to the point of death. His back was arched. He looked like he had staggered and fallen to his knees. His hands covered his upturned face and his elbows were splayed out like wings. The way I remember it is this: the statue looked exactly the way my heart felt. Alone. Confused. Hammered with grief. Face turned towards the heavens not in a posture of doubt but of desperation. The statue was not just a mirror of my suffering—it was a window into God’s. I understood in a way that I never had before the profound comfort of the Incarnation. Jesus, the man of sorrows, hurts with us.

I was comforted. I wasn’t healed. The pain wasn’t taken away, nor could I have explained what had happened, but as a wise friend once told me, “His presence is to be esteemed more than his provision.” God is with us, and his name is Jesus.

At the time I happened to be reading what I think is C. S. Lewis’s finest work of literature, Till We Have Faces. In it, the main character has suffered greatly and has also demanded an answer from the Gods. Towards the end of the book she finally has her audience with them and lodges her complaint. She rants. She stomps her foot. She rages against those she holds responsible for her suffering. When she’s finished throwing her fit she waits for some reply. But the Gods are silent. In the end she understands that the Gods give no answer because they themselves are the answer. God’s answer to me that day at the Abbey of Gethsemani was Jesus himself—his suffering, his sorrow, and his compassion—literally his “suffering with.”

Part two. Not long after this epiphany I read my first book by Frederick Buechner. It was called The Eyes of the Heart. I had never experienced this kind of writing before. He could string a sentence together in a way that was poetic and dizzying and profoundly comforting. Then I read The Sacred Journey. Then it was Son of Laughter, then Telling Secrets, The Hungering Dark, The Magnificent Defeat and so on. I haven’t binged like that before or since, with the possible exception of Breaking Bad.

Buechner’s way of writing was attractive to me because he so freely admitted what he didn’t know, even as he beautifully proclaimed the love of Jesus. It was, he assured me, all right to aim those questions at the Lord. I once heard Michael Card say that that in all of Scripture God never tells us, “How dare you speak to me that way.” It’s a conversation he welcomes. Jacob wrestled the Lord. Jeremiah turns his sorrow toward God in lament after lament. David and the psalmists accuse God of abandonment. It is within the afterstorm of that sort of painful bold-faced honesty that we sometimes discover what we really think, who we really are, but were never able to admit to ourselves. Just like gratitude tends to aim itself at God, anger and weeping and doubt all follow suit.

In the final analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. Frederick Buechner

But in his book The Sacred Sorrow, a wonderful study of lament, Card describes what he calls “the vav imperative.” Vav is a Hebrew word that means “and yet.” Card says that all but one of the laments in scripture have a vav moment, when after all the anger is spewed, all the accusations are launched, all the sorrow is wailed, the writer says, “vav.” “And yet.” And yet, I will praise you. And yet, your love endures forever. And yet. And yet. Oh, God, we say with all the saints, “I don’t believe in you. And yet, I do.”

Before Buechner I had no context in which to admit to myself, let alone to anyone else, that this God, this basket in whom I have deposited every last one of my eggs, was a mystery as much as he was a revelation. Because of Buechner’s frank and persistent admission that he isn’t quite sure about this whole Jesus thing 100% of the time—and lest you get defensive on his behalf, why don’t we all just admit here that it’s just as true of us?—I found myself opening up to a new and deeper consolation than that of surety—the consolation of doubt.

The consolation that comes when one traveler says to the other, “I’ve been here before, and I still don’t know where I’m going. It’s a mystery, but at least we’re in this thing together.” And wherever two or more are gathered in his name, even if they’re lost and angry and doubtful and confused, Jesus is in their midst. Maybe especially so.

So I confess, I still don’t really doubt that there’s some bright and holy life that made us all and makes the lilies burst out of the snow. I confess that I still get lost along the way, and when I do I still wonder if he loves me. My last confession is this: there is no story I would rather be true than the Christian story. I may be a whiskery forty-year-old with a burgeoning gut, but that skinny little Florida kid is still in here, still watching the sky, still arguing with himself about who God really is and what he’s up to, and still seized, as they used to say, by the power of a great affection—the affection of a God who surrounds you from birth with whispers of another world, who flings meteors across the northern hemisphere, whose light ambushes us in songs and stories, who consoles us with the doubts of the saints just as much as their faith, who guides us gently into the frozen Kentucky woods to remind us that he clothed himself in our sorrow, laid down his life, and then shattered the chains of death.

That’s the story he’s telling, with his life, with your life, and with mine.

I can’t overstate what a profound shift occurred in me because of the convergence of three things: my dark night of the soul, my encounter with the suffering Christ at the monastery, and the writings of Frederick Buechner, who tells us again and again to pay attention to the fathomless mystery of our lives. Pay attention. “In the final analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

(I didn’t have to look that one up, either.)

Someone smart once said, “If you want someone to know the truth, tell them. If you want them to love the truth, tell them a story.” Maybe God wants you to love the truth, and so he’s telling a story with your life. You’re sitting in the middle of a scene this very second, in a story God is telling. “Are you there?” we ask. “Who are you, anyway? Do you care about me?”

He gives no answer because he himself is the answer.

He could explain it all, but maybe it would be better just to show us.

“Behold,” he says in Revelation, “I am making everything new.”


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