In my many years of pastoring and preaching, whenever I’ve experienced difficulty in getting into a passage, searching for the kernel that would get a sermon going or help in wrapping things up, I’ve almost always turned to one person: Frederick Buechner. His thoughtful insights on so many theological and biblical topics have been an important element in the process of my thinking and writing. His work has also been an easy “go to” place when I’ve needed a little encouragement in my own personal practice of the faith. Just a few days ago, Frederick Buechner passed away at his home in Vermont.
I never met him in person. My closest connection was to serve as a student minister at the same church that his daughter served when she was a student at Harvard Divinity School—although I served there several years after she did. I haven’t met her either. Yet, I’ve always felt like Frederick Buechner was something of a friend, someone I could count on, someone who knew just what to say at life’s difficult and weird moments, or at those times when I was just plain stuck and in need of insight and a bit of direction.
The gift that Frederick Buechner gave the world was the gift of wonder, awe, and invitation in and through the Christian faith. When so many Christians yearn for easy answers to life’s heartbreaks and sufferings, and so many Christian leaders and pastors are quick to provide such answers, answers that are so often unsatisfying and flimsy, Buechner resisted the easy answer, choosing instead the path of wonder, contemplation, and the invitation to something deep and powerful, at once fulfilling yet not so easily defined.
One of Buechner’s most powerful moments, for me, is found in his book The Magnificent Defeat in a monologue for the notorious innkeeper from countless Christmas pageants. Although there’s actually no “innkeeper” in scripture, in the story of how Jesus came to be born, the reference to “no room at the inn” has sparked the character of an innkeeper who turned Mary and Joseph away from more comfortable lodgings. In Buechner’s short piece— one that I’ve read every Christmas, privately or in a worship service— the Innkeeper is someone too busy to notice or to realize that something truly and completely amazing is happening so close at hand, simply because he has allowed himself to become too busy:
Do you know what it is like to run an inn—to run a business, a family, to run anything in this world for that matter, even your own life? It is like being lost in a forest of a million trees . . . and each tree is a thing to be done. . . . Until finally we have eyes for nothing else, and whatever we see turns into a thing. The sparrow lying in the dust at your feet—just a thing to be kicked out of the way, not the mystery of death. The calling of children outside your window—just a distraction, an irrelevance, not life, not the wildest miracle of them all. That whispering in the air that comes sudden and soft from nowhere—only the wind, the wind… . . . Later that night, when the baby came, I was not there, . . . I was lost in the forest somewhere, the unenchanted forest of a million trees. . . So when the baby came, I was not around, and I saw none of it. . . . When he came, I missed him.The Magnificent Defeat
Perhaps because I spend much of my life in my own “unenchanted forest,” filling up my days with long to do lists, and especially since the Christmas season is so intensely busy for just about any pastor, I have always felt drawn to Buechner’s insight into this one character who missed the birth of the Savior simply because he was too busy to notice. In what ways have I been too busy to notice God’s presence? When have I missed something amazing just because I’m so focused on trying to whittle down my long to do list?
As the Innkeeper’s monologue demonstrates, Buechner’s approach is not to chastise the Innkeeper, or use him as a way to belittle those who are like him. Instead, Buechner cleverly offers an invitation, an opportunity to take note of whatever unenchanted forest the reader (or listener) is living in and to try to alter that perspective just enough to take a different look around. In the midst of all of the ordinary things in life, it may just be that God is at work.
Frederick Buechner’s words and insights have always been there, like a trusted friend, a reliable confidante. His work has encouraged me, and so many others, to live the life of the Christian faith, with all of its remarkable claims, its hard to fathom mysteries, and its incredibly basic call to love. Rest in peace, dear friend.
When the time finally comes, you’re scared stiff to be sure, but maybe by then you’re just as glad to leave the whole show behind and get going. In a matter of moments, everything that seemed to matter stops mattering. The slow climb is all there is. The stillness. The clouds. Then the miracle of flight as from fathom upon fathom down you surface suddenly into open sky. The dazzling sun.Whistling in the Dark
I don’t remember seeing any notice of Buechner’s death, so am grateful for this reflection. You have shared much of his thinking with us over the time you have been our pastor. I regularly turn to the book of his with which you gifted me, when I feel a need for inspiration or just some thoughts to start my day. Thank you for this tribute to a truly remarkable man.