“Who is your favorite author?” I always love that question. It takes a nanosecond for me to think of Frederick Buechner. Recently, Brian Allain, Founding Director of the Frederick Buechner Center, invited me to share some thoughts about Mr. Buechner and his work. Today Fred Buechner celebrates his 90th birthday. Happy birthday, Mr. Buechner!
BA: As you know, Frederick Buechner will soon be turning 90 years old – is there anything you would like to wish him for this great milestone?
AB: Mr. Buechner, thank you for teaching me and countless others to “listen to life.” We are indebted to you for reminding us to listen to God speaking “through the fathomless quiet of the holy place within us.” Thank you for urging us to touch, taste, smell our way to the holy and hidden heart of life because, as you have written, “in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” Today I celebrate your life! Thank you for being a wise and winsome guide. I wish you a joyful 90th birthday.
BA: Thank you very much. I’m sure Mr. Buechner will greatly appreciate hearing from you. Next can you tell me how you first learned about Mr. Buechner?
AB: I discovered Mr. Buechner’s work fifteen or so years ago when I lived in Boston, and had the great experience of hearing him preach at Trinity Church. Mr. Buechner told the mesmerizing story of a little girl in a Christmas pageant who didn’t like that the bigger kids, jockeying for the front and center position, were blocking her view of Jesus. He described the small girl electrifying the entire church when she cried out in a voice shrill with irritation and frustration and enormous sadness at having her view blocked, “Let Jesus show!”
When life is complicated, and I can’t figure out the right answers, or what I’m supposed to be doing, I think about this story. I can’t say how many times I’ve thrown up my arms to God asking for help to: “Let Jesus show.”
BA: What most attracts you to Mr. Buechner’s writing?
AB: The raw quality of Mr. Buechner’s writing connects with my messy experiences of life. Thankfully he never sugar coats the wrestling it takes as a human to know God. Mr. Buechner writes with irresistible wisdom. Somehow his words pierce the bones to the marrow without it hurting too badly; I’m not sure how he does it, but the reader feels thankful.
BA: How would you say Mr. Buechner’s writing has influenced your career?
AB: When I feel stuck, either in writing or ministry, and pray for answers that are slow to come, Mr. Buechner’s analogy to a “clogged up pipe ” helps me. I go back again and again to his words, “That a little of God’s power may be able to filter through if you can just stay loose enough.” And I laugh over his advise, “If you feel like a fool as you are doing this, don’t let it throw you. You are a fool of course, only not a damned fool for a change.”
Reading and rereading Buechner’s work shows me that God gives in ways we don’t always understand, and it’s o.k.—even normal—to wrestle with doubts.
BA: Which of Mr. Buechner’s books has meant the most to you?
AB: That is a tough question because his writing spans so many genres—fiction, theology, memoir, and poetry. I especially love Son of Laughter, Wishful Thinking, Telling the Truth, Godric, Listening To Your Life, The Storm . . . Must I choose?!
BA: Has Mr. Buechner inspired any of your own writing?
AB: For a preaching class in seminary, Mr. Buechner’s work spurred me to explore narrative theology. That was a big step since my background was in systematic theology. For weeks, I dug into the cultural and historical context of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman by the well. And, for the first time, I invited the Spirit to ignite my imagination as the text connected with my own story. Jesus as the source of living waters jumped to life like I’d never known. I wrote a sermon called Messiah Meets A Woman that I later adapted for a book contribution. That experience has impacted my study of Scripture, experiences of God, and writing to this day.
BA: More broadly speaking, what influence would you say Mr. Buechner has had on the world?
AB: Mr. Buechner’s work has always been ahead of its time. He dared to tell personal stories, relating to theological understanding, long before “theological narrative” became popular. More than the sum of what he’s written, Fred Buechner has faithfully shown us what it means to bear Jesus’ presence, as a human, in a broken world. I’m sure his life will impact future generations.
BA: If you were to sum up Fred, what would you say?
AB: Fred Buechner is wise with unmatched holy imagination and profound devotion to Jesus. He shows us what it means to: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”