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.

To Steward Our Pain: a book review

Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite authors. He is a writer of enigmatic fiction with strange and conflicted characters (e.g. the holy and profane Godric, an unsaintly, Saint Brendan, and the unlikable religious charlatan Lou Bebb), as well as sermons and theological musings, and poignant memoirs which wrestle with darkness, grace and calling.

A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memor9780310349761-1488760618is vintage Buechner. Quite literally, in fact. Most of this book is culled from the Buechner canon with selections from The Sacred Journey, The Clown in the Belfry, Beyond Words, A Room Called Remember, Secrets in the Dark, Telling Secrets. However, the opening chapter, “The Gates of Pain,” is an unpublished lecture he gave, describing ways we can best steward our pain.

I typically am not fond of books of ‘selections,’ as they wrest passages from their context, catalog, and put them on display, like the bones of an ancient man in a museum. It is so much better to experience a book (and the person!) with its joints and sinews, muscle and skin, passion and intellect, embodied the way its Author intended. That being said, the themes of pain, loss and memory haunt Buechner’s works and these selections are well chosen. The lion’s share comes from just two works, with large swaths from The Eyes of the Heart and Beyond Words and supplemented by the Sacred Journey and the other books.

The book is broken into two principal parts. Part 1 describes pain (chapters 1 and 2) and part 2, memory (chapters 3-6).  A third section of the book posts shorter reflections on secrets, grace, depression, death and the ways God speaks.

Buechner begins the “The Gates of Pain” by describing an episode related to his father’s alcoholism during his childhood. Someone had told him after hearing the story in a talk he gave, “You have been a good steward of your pain” (16). The essay weaves our universal experience of pain, with the parable of the talents inviting each of us to trade life, what we’ve been given—joy and sorrow—with those around us, inviting us to likewise steward our pain. “What does it mean to trade? I think it means to give what you have in reutrn for what you need. You give of yourself, and in return you receive something from other selves to whom you give”(26-27).

Buechner tells of an out-of-town friend who showed up unannounced to sit with him as he was consumed by his daughter’s struggle with anorexia (27-28). He challenges each us to learn to not only share uncontainable joys but to open up the door into our pain, share our struggle and allow God’s miraculous healing to enter our lives (28).  Jesus doesn’t come to us in his own flesh but through the guise of the other, so, Buechner contends, trading pain, allows us to experience His healing presence. “Joy is the end of it. Through the gates of pain we enter into joy” (32).

The second chapter is the passage in The Sacred Journey that describes Buechner’s father’s suicide and its aftermath.

It is probably fitting that as I read part 2 on memory, I was remembering passages and people I had read before. Buechner remembers pain, loss, relationships with friends and family and the way his father haunts his life. He describes the interplay between hope and remembrance, between hope and expectation.

To remember my life is to remember the countless times I might have given up, gone under, when humanly speaking I might have gotten lost beyond the power of any to find me. But I didn’t. I have not given up. And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you have also not given up. You also are survivors and are here. And what does that tell us, our surviving? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at lest to this day. Foolish as we are, a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not on the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads us forward, that is bearable. Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond power to love has kept our hearts alive. (61-62).


One of the gifts that Buechner has given his readers and the church, is a reflective understanding of how pain shapes our journey. But not just pain. There are also the feeble ways God’s grace breaks into our lives, bringing hope, healing, and wholeness. As fantastical though it seems.

The world we are living in is filled with walking wounded. Broken relationships, news cycles dominated by natural disasters, racial violence, sexual harassment, and assault. Even so, come Lord Jesus.  In the meantime, we need friends to come and share the journey with us and so mediate Christ’s presence to us. Buechner testifies to the power of sharing our pain with others and has shown us how to trade pain in his prose.

This is a good book. Even if you have most of it in other forms on your shelf, as I do, “The Gates of Pain” is worth reading and reflecting upon. I give this four stars. -★★★★

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

Vocation, the Chrysalis and Labors of Love

As I sit sipping my second cup of french press coffee I have some time to reflect on my life and the shape it has taken. Last year’s Labor day was not a day off for me, but one among many as I was unable to get a job. Today, I am home from work and have enjoyed the lazy morning. Later I will climb down the embankment in our backyard to see if I can forage enough blackberries for blackberry jam. But for the moment I sit enjoying my coffee in the midst of the chaos that three active children create.

This is not how I imagined life. I graduated seminary a couple of years ago and envisioned that when my wife finished up her degree we would step into pastoral ministry somewhere, in some context, hopefully urban. Frederick Buechner has written somewhere, “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I feel most alive doing ministry: preaching, visitation, praying with and for people, communicating the gospel. And I see the need to pastor, to shepherd God’s people into deeper relationship with God and care for one another and their communities. But then I couldn’t find a job as a pastor and while I have had opportunity to preach occasionally, my present occupation does not even allow me to even worship regularly at my church. I work at a hardware store in a small town on the verge of Canada in Northwest Washington. I am not doing with my life what I feel I was made to do.

This doesn’t mean I hate my job. Stocking shelves is physical work and certainly feels cathartic. It feels good to do something productive with my time. I also like helping people find what they need. I guide customers to the mystical land of nuts and bolts and other odd fasteners, scan the shelves quickly and then dig my hand into a drawer and pull out a jam nut or a cap screw and say, “Here, this should do it.” Of course I feel far less confident when people ask me questions about their plumbing or why their jerry-rigged solutions to what-have-you don’t work. But I like being invited to brainstorm creative solutions for people.

A friend asked me recently how it feels living where I am and doing what I am doing. I had a one word answer: stuck. This is an in-between-time and as an old prof of mine put it, “I feel muddled in the middle.” I am a caterpillar who has spun a chrysalis (called Blaine, WA) and I wait, unable to move and immersed in utter darkness (the sun is shining but this is the NW, the darkness cometh). I wait and wonder, when will I emerge? What will I become? Or will I ever become?

I admit, some of my stuckness is my fear and inaction. I have applied to churches, been weighed and found wanting (I didn’t get the job). I know if I am to move on from here, it requires risk and my life has become too safe. I likely will find a place where I can do what I was made for, but the road to get there will mean more rejection, more failure, more occasions for self-doubt. But I am feeling a little thin-skinned and fragile at the moment. this is part of life in a chrysalis.

So I wait and enjoy the time I have, watching my children grow and take on new challenges (my oldest daughter starts Kindergarten this week!!! OMG!!!). I savor the sweetness of late summer blackberries and the yield from my garden plot. I struggle to love my wife as we both wait and long for the what next. In the chrysalis we grow, learning patience, humbleness and how to be gentle with ourselves. One day we will soar. Until then we labor quietly here with love.