Spiritual Life

Minister sees divine in everyday struggles

(For the Boston Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Rich Barlow
July 5, 2008

RUPERT, Vt. - Who knows? The words are Frederick Buechner's mantra. Over the course of an hourlong chat with the writer and Presbyterian minister in his kitchen, they recur any number of times in response to questions about his faith and theology. Dogmatic religious believers would dismiss the two words as the warning shot of doubt. But for Buechner, it is precisely our doubts and struggles that mark us as human. And that insight girds his theological twist on Socrates: The unexamined human life is a lost chance to behold the divine.

Or so Buechner has preached in more than 30 books over nearly a half-century, giving him a following among some Christians that you'd never surmise from his unusual pastoral career. At 82, he has never led or even been on staff at a church. He rarely attends services these days, finding much modern sermonizing banal.

"Buechner's poetic sensibility and his novelist's gift for telling stories made him one of the freshest voices in the church," the Rev. Samuel Lloyd said in an e-mail. Dean of Washington National Cathedral and former rector at Boston's Trinity Church, Lloyd presided over a tribute to Buechner at the cathedral two years ago to mark the publication of a collection of Buechner's sermons.

Another admirer, the Rev. Thomas Long of Emory University, recalled one Buechner writing in which he invested a humdrum moment in a minister's life with drama: "The preacher pulls a little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher."

"If God speaks anywhere, presumably he speaks . . . through what happens to you" in everyday life, Buechner said during an interview in his home, a rambling house with a fenced-in field across from a hillside where cows placidly grazed. Outside, the Green Mountains are a hazy specter.

What might you get out of paying attention to your everyday life?

"Who knows?" he said. "Just pay attention to it and then see where it takes you."

This year, the 50th anniversary of Buechner's ordination, finds him lamenting a writer's block that he said has thwarted his book production for several years.

"All of a sudden, the current didn't flow anymore," he said.

He has, however, compiled a collection of short essays and poems, published last month in a skinny volume, "The Yellow Leaves" (Westminster John Knox Press).

Examining his life, he recaps moments with his troubled parents and a tragedy when Buechner was just 10.

"I love [my father]," he writes, "for that early November morning in Essex Fells, N.J., when, before the sun had risen, he walked down two flights of stairs to the garage, turned on the Chevy, and then sat down on the running board with his head in his hands to wait."

Buechner, a self-described optimist who believes things ultimately work out, turns theological when asked if they worked out for his father.

"Who knows about my dad? He killed himself for a number of reasons which make perfect sense to me," Buechner said.

"He had a terrible marriage, he had a drinking problem, he had no job during the Depression. But I don't necessarily believe that after he died that day, that that was the end for him. Who knows what not only ends, but maybe begins?"

Raised without religion, Buechner found his way to God over time. A key moment came in the 1950s during services at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Noting the recent coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the preacher recalled that Jesus had turned down a crown, proffered as temptation by Satan, but that he nonetheless after his death "is crowned in the midst of confession and tears and great laughter."

Something about the line moved Buechner to tears himself, and they washed him, ultimately, into the seminary.

After ordination, he started a religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy. His decade there as a minister of established religion overlapped the anti-establishment 1960s, but it was "a wonderful baptism. Everybody who goes into ministry should face, early in the game, a hostile congregation who don't just accept everything as obviously true because the minister is saying it."

Otherwise, preaching becomes larded with "sentimentality and bombast." He shuns the pews today because most sermonizing - devoid, he complains, of preachers' reflections on their own, real lives - bores him.

His move to Vermont in 1967 to pursue an author's life marked his decision that writing was as appropriate a ministry for a cleric as preaching. "My congregation's invisible, but I get, and still do, a great number of letters . . . from people saying, 'Your books have really changed our lives.' "

His father's suicide was the exception in an otherwise blessed life, and "in an ultimate sense . . . I think that all will be well."

Ask him if he means in this life or another and the answer comes back, inevitable as summer after the long Vermont winter. "Who knows?"

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