Stop, Look, and Listen: a book review

A brand new Frederick Buechner book that isn’t just a hodgepodge of previously published materials? Yes please. The Remarkable Ordinary was born from material of Buechner’s, unearthed from a 1987 Norton lecture, and 1990 lecture from Laity Lodge, edited by John Sloan. Here, Buechner reflects on the sacredness of ordinary life, calling us to stop, look and listen to life. While this book was not prepared for publication by Buechner himself, these are very much his words and sensibility.

9780310351900-1488705378The chapters are arranged in three sections. In part one, Buechner invites us to “stop, look and listen for God.” In chapter 1, the title chapter—The Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner invites us to see the sacred within our ordinary life. Travelling through the arts, Buechner stopswith the haiku of Matsuo Basho, listens to time with music and sees through the lens of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield (Catcher & the Rye) and Franny and Zooey. In chapter 2, Buechner turns to sacred writ, exploring how the Bible calls us to pay attention, to see God and our neighbor through the attentive eyes of  love:

Jesus says the greatest commandment is loving God and loving our neighbors. I don’t know what it means to love God—really, I’m all that good at it—but one of the things it means is, just as in the case of loving anybody else, you stop and watch and wait. Listen for God, stop and watch and wait for him. To love God means to pay attention, be mindful, be open to the possibility that God is with you in ways that, unless you have your eyes open, you may never glimpse. He speaks words that, unless you have ears open, you may never hear. Draw near to him as best you can. (36-37).

And later:

To love your neighbor is to see your neighbor. To see somebody, really see somebody the way Rembrandt saw the old lady, not just the face that comes to you the way dry leaves blow at you down the path like other dry leaves, but in a way that you realize the face is something the likes of which you have never seen before and will never see again. To love somebody we must see the person’s face, and once in a while we do. Usually its because something jolts us into seeing it. (39)

In Part 2, Buechner describes how to listen to God through the stories we tell. In chapter 3, he describes an Episcopalian conference on “story” he didn’t want to speak at, but agreed anyway to come and share his story. His co-speaker was Maya Angelou. While the details of their personal narratives are different, when Angelou got up to speak, she said, “I have the same story to tell as Fredrick Buechner”(53).  Buechner reflects:

And I think what she meant is that at a certain level we do, all of us,  with all our differences, we do have the same story. When it comes to the business of how you become a human being, how do you manage to believe, how do you have faith in a world that gives 14,000 reasons every week not to believe, how do you survive—especially surviving our own childhoods as Maya survived hers and we’ve all survived ours—at that level we all have the same story, and therefore anyone’s story can illuminate our own. (53).

And this gives us the justification for each us to tell our own story and to find ourselves in the stories of others. In chapter four, The Subterranean Grace of God or Why Stories Matter, he reflects further on the meaning in our story:

I think that a part of what to tell one’s own story in the religious sense means is to affirm that there is a plot to one’s life. It’s not just incident following incident without any particular direction or purpose, but things are happening in order to take you somewhere. Just the way a story begins and has a middle and an end. Things are somehow wrapped up at the end, and everything in some fashion can be seen to have led to this inevitable conclusion and to have had its own place, however circumstantial and odd and out-of-the-way some of those things that happened may have been. They had their purpose in the overall shape and texture and reality of one’s story. (59-60)

The “subterranean Grace of God” that shows up in our lives are exemplified as we spy the whiskey priest in Graham Green’s The Power and the Glory, or in Buechner’s own Leo Bebb novels (62, 64-67).

In Part 3, Buechner reflects deeper on his own story, traversing familiar ground to those familiar with his autobiographical works, his father’s suicide and learning to face the pain, vocation and the journey toward wholeness, the presence of peace, and hope.

What makes Buechner such a good writer, is how honestly he is able to cross-examine his own spiritual experience, without resorting to trite platitudes and Christian cliché. His call to us to attend to the remarkable ordinary, rests on the conviction that God and his subterranean grace haunt our lives—the mundane, the significant, the quotidian and the grotesque—and we will see and hear a Presence it if only we can stop, wait and listen. Art and literature, and telling one’s story help us to pause and take notice. “So, art is saying Stop. It helps us to stop by putting a frame around something and makes us see it in a way we would never have seen it under the normal circumstances of living, as so much of us do, on sort of automatic pilot, going through the world without really seeing much of anything” (23). This is what Buecher’s novels and memoirs accomplish. They frame reality, so if for a moment, we can see.

Having read a good number of them, I wouldn’t say this is my favorite of Buechner’s books. But it very good and had all the elements and insight I’ve come to appreciate from the nonagenarian Presbyterian. It is a short book and well worth your time. I give it four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of material connection:  I received a copy of this book from HandleBar Media in exchange for my honest review.

Prayer for Ordinary Time (second week after Pentecost)

We worship and we wonder. . .

 

We worship and we wonder

why the God of love would

deem to pour His mercy on us.

We recount our weeks and recoil

at how often our pettiness,

unlove, and immorality

have revealed themselves.

We know we do not deserve such love.

 

We worship and we wonder

how an hour a week makes

much difference in our lives.

We stand and strain to sing songs too high for us,

we listen as the sermons too long for us,

We keep the feast  with bread and wine (juice)

far too little for us.

 

We worship and we wonder

and wonders of wonders it is enough.

God’s mercy comes for us anew

and we are changed (if not instantly

incrementally).

We eat and, wonder of wonders,

we are filled.

 

 

 

 

Prayer for Transfiguration Sunday

On the last Sunday before Lent the church celebrates the Transfiguration of Jesus. He and three disciples walked up a mountain and at the peak Jesus’ appearance changed and the disciples saw him speaking with Elijah and Moses. When Peter suggests building tents for each of them, a dense cloud descended and they heard a voice, “This is my Beloved Son, listen to Him!” In this event, the disciples saw Jesus in His glory. After this, Jesus journeyed to His cross.

Jesus the road ahead is hard–

You will be beaten and stretched out

on a cross,

your body broken

for us.

We will scatter

as sheep without a shepherd.

But today we gaze at your Glory

and wonder.

You frighten us.

And yet as we catch a glimpse of who You are

May that vision

sustain us in the day of darkness.

 

Father teach us to do as you command

and listen to your beloved Son. Help us to trust.

Help us to see.

Help us to follow

with eyes wide open

 

Amen

 

 

Here is a link to a sermon I preached on the Transfiguration last year.

Prayer for the 4th Week After Epiphany (Ordinary Time) AKA Super Bowl Sunday

Two competing liturgies are being enacted today. One involves athleticism, salty snacks, cheap beer and GoDaddy.com commercials. The other invites church members to God’s presence to worship him and to participate in the life of the Triune God. Alas I will participate in neither. My retail job means that this Sunday  I need to abandon all hope of watching the game or in joining God’s people for worship (I was asked to play and sing on my church’s worship team this week). Nevertheless I offer up this prayer, mindful of the tension of today.

Jesus today your people gather

to read and to pray and to praise.

They will hear your gospel read and

how you scandalized your people by

proclaiming that outsiders

have a place in the

heart of God.

They scoffed and picked up stones.

You were a prophet without honor.

Father, today people gather, not to read and pray

but to praise and celebrate victories

and to glut themselves on potato chips and

beer.

You are no stranger to feasting and fun

and the games men play.

Lord be with your people today

may they be filled with more joy

than chicken

wings

and may your name be glorified

beyond

superbowl rings and

funny commercials.

In the midst of our distraction,

we long for You more than

anything.

We thank you that we don’t have to watch the Patriots and

pray for your justice.

Go Baltimore.

Amen.

Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem

War torn, broken, divided.

Your holy city is

not a city of peace

but strife,

division,

and deep wounds.

 

Rockets fly overhead

inaugurating a new round

of hostility.

Lord we pray for your peace to descend–

not the piecemeal peace

of  unhappy truces.

But your Shalom—

wholeness, restoration and fullness of life.

May all who love you prosper.

May all in the walls of Jerusalem know peace and security.

For the sake of friends and relatives, we speak peace

For all who seek the God of Abraham we cry peace.

Prayers in Ordinary Time (week 15 after Pentecost)

I was privilaged this morning to attend the baptism of two women in our congregation and offer up this prayer of thanksgiving in response to baptism (theirs and my own). Baptism is sometimes called the rite of Christian Initiation and it celebrates the entry into new life in Christ (and death to our old way of life).  Sometimes we associate ‘new life’ with Easter, but this is an ‘ordinary time’ theme as we learn to walk in newness of life in all our life. 

Giver of Life!

To You we offer Thanks and Praise.

You knew us, before You fashioned us and You loved us anyway–

and lovingly You made us.

Thank You that in the waters of our Baptism we celebrate

    our renewal, our remaking, our entry into new life.

May we continue to remember our baptism,

living lives of praise knowing:

      All that was Death within us has died,
    And we are raised to New Life in You.

Glory to You Lord Christ,glory to You!

Amen.

Prayers for Ordinary Time: 14th Week After Pentecost

The following prayer is based on my reading of James 1:17-27. This is a lectionary text from the book of James, a book with a lot of practical advice about how we as Christians should live. The Christian life is all gift, but as we learn to walk with Jesus, we also submit ourselves to his way and he transforms us. This portion of scripture challenges us to take care with our words, our anger, our actions, and challenges to live holy lives characterized by justice and love for the vulnerable. Lord help us!

Giver of every perfect gift and originator of every generous act,
Father of Lights we give you thanks and praise!

Take us and shape us into your image:

    Where we are angry and domineering, turn us into gentle listeners.

      We know our anger does not reflect Your righteousness, like Your love does
      Cleanse us from our wickedness, our perversions and unholy desires,

        That we may, in humility receive your soul-saving-Word.

      Transform us into doers–who makes Your ways known in all we do.
      Let us not just be a ‘hearers’ who ‘hear’ but then forget

        who we are and who You are making us to be.

    May we watch our tongues so that ‘our religion’ means something!
    And May others know we are Yours because we care for the vulnerable in our midst–the widows and orphans–
    those in our neighborhoods and communities who do not have a network of care to uphold them.

    Keep us from corruption and let us walk in Your truth.

    With your Mercy and in Your Strength,

    Amen.