By Dan Clendenin
From Our Archives
Debie Thomas, What It Will Cost You (2019); Dan Clendenin, Pay Up (2016); Bill McKibben, The Care of Creation: Choose Life for You and Your Children (2010).
“Search me, O God, and know my heart!”
In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner called “the great Psalm 139” for this week “the secret prayer of us all.” It’s about “hiding and baring our secrets,” said Buechner. The psalm describes our deepest longings for that paradoxical combination of human confession and divine protection that comes from telling God our secrets — I am nakedly revealed before the infinite God, and lovingly sheltered by his intimate love.
Buechner died on August 15 at his home in Vermont. He was 96. In many ways Psalm 139 is the perfect coda to his life and work. His prodigious legacy of thirty-nine books, translated into twenty-seven languages, was really an extended exploration of the depths of the soul. In his op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks described Buechner as “a master of uncovering his inner depths.”
Buechner inhabited two worlds, although in ways that he never envisioned. He was a noted public intellectual and an ordained Presbyterian pastor. After graduating from Princeton, his first novel A Long Day’s Dying (1950) was published to critical acclaim and commercial success when he was twenty-three, and catapulted him into the New York literary world. He was close friends with the poet James Merrill and the novelist John Irving. His novel Lion Country (1971) was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Godric (1980) a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Buechner wanted to write for these “cultured despisers of religion” (Schleiermacher), but he admitted that he failed in that effort. He concluded that he was just too Christian for that secular crowd. Instead, after his second novel fizzled, and after a powerful conversion under the preaching of George Buttrick at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, he entered Union Theological Seminary in 1954, where he studied with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.
Buechner never pastored a church but he gained an unexpected audience — Christians who sought a vibrant and intellectually honest faith that rejected the certitude of pious platitudes for the mystery of holy ambiguity. It’s a fitting irony that when Princeton showed no interest in his literary estate, the evangelical Wheaton College, which he had never heard of, eagerly accepted them.
When Buechner gave the Noble Lectures at Harvard in the winter of 1969, he articulated what became the hallmark of his life work — the conviction that if God speaks to us at all, it is in the everyday events of an ordinary life. The lectures became the book The Alphabet of Grace, in which he “set out to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.” For Buechner, the “humdrum events of our lives,” as he called them, are an alphabet through which God spells out his words and meaning to us.
In a much-quoted passage from his book Now and Then, he articulated how both his fiction and his four memoirs had the same goal:
“By examining as closely and as candidly as I could the life that had come to seem to me in many ways a kind of trap or dead-end street, I discovered that it really wasn’t that at all. I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life as the one I was living on Rupert Mountain opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife good-bye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly. In writing those lectures and the book they later turned into, it came to seem to me that 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 that 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. What I started trying to do as a writer and as a preacher was more and more to draw on my on experience not just as a source of plot, character, illustration, but as a source of truth.”
Through what he called “conscious remembering,” for Buechner theology became a form of autobiography, and writing a way of self-discovery. In his own life that meant telling his own family secrets about the suicides of his father and his uncle, and his daughter’s deep struggles with anorexia, and yet nonetheless experiencing God’s grace.
Listen to your life. Pay attention. Be still and know that He is God. Before Him, all hearts are open, all desires known, and from Him no secrets are hidden. As Buechner put it in The Sacred Journey, “He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.”
NOTE: For an obituary of Frederick Buechner in the New York Times, click here. And for an excellent if slightly outdated review of his work see Philip Yancey, “Frederick Buechner, The Reverend of Oz” (1997).
Psalm 139 (NIV)
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts,a]” style=”box-sizing: border-box; font-size: 13.5px; line-height: 0; position: relative; vertical-align: baseline; top: -0.5em;”>[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand —
when I awake, I am still with you.
19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org
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