I was with him just once. It was more than a half century ago. But I will never forget it. Frederick Buechner died on Monday at the age of 96. The author, lecturer, theologian, Presbyterian minister was—even in my twenties—already an icon for me. His whimsical way of storytelling, his unique and humanizing insights into biblical characters, his adding wit and whimsy to age-old truths already had a special place in my lexicon even before I was ordained. So, when I learned that he would be doing an informal reading of his latest book in the parlor of my seminary President’s home, I jumped at the chance to attend.
Truly, it was like a scene out of Norman Rockwell—long haired seminarians literally scattered on the floor listening to the quirky theologian whose irreverent take on the biblical narrative was a favorite among the students (sadly, all male at the time) made the evening seem like a scene in a movie about the latest scandal in a British boys school. We were mesmerized. It was magical.
But, it was Buechner’s words from Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC that profoundly impacted me to the point where they formed the core for my entire vocational career (notice I use “vocation”—which is what one says about oneself—as opposed to “profession” which is how others see you).
Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is this combination of profound joy accompanying a profound purpose that has molded all I have striven to be about since—in the arts, in the church, in the realm of social justice or international relations. This intersection of joyful abandon (shaded with wonder) while addressing a great need in the world is a sacred calling (no matter how one manifests it in one’s own life) so fulfilling that I can think of no better way to phrase it. Thank you, Frederick Buechner. Your words have shaped my life’s direction then and continue to do so until this day.
I have used this phrase in countless sermons, presentations—in both religious and secular settings—and one-on-one counseling sessions. But beyond this single phrase. Buechner’s wit and whimsy often provided a moment of levity (tempered by wisdom) in my feeble attempts to impart wisdom and compassion in a hurting world.
Philip Yancy writing in Christianity Today back in 1997 said this: “For him, faith was a pilgrimage undertaken voluntarily as an adult, a journey fraught with risk. Buechner’s chronicles of that journey have, almost uniquely among modern writings, managed to attract readers from two polarized worlds, the Eastern elite and conservative evangelicals…This straddling feat has cost him and is, in fact, the central ambiguity of his career. ‘I am too religious for the secular reader and too secular for the religious reader,’ Buechner often laments.” Yancy then goes on to quote from Buechner himself:
If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: 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.
And what would Buechner say about today’s headlines, on a day when Liz Cheney, “Darth Vader’s daughter,” had become democracy’s darling by defying Donald Trump? No doubt, as a strong proponent of holy irony, he’d be chuckling at the divine sense of humor and point to biblical figures from Cyrus to Saul who were wholly unlikely heroes of the faith. Buechner, scarcely able to hide the twinkle in his eye, would call us all to be attentive to her—not for the positions she has taken in the past, but how God can redeem anyone and change their role in unexpected ways. The Bible is filled with them; why can’t someone with a flawed past become a beacon of integrity for our day as well?