After I heard the news of the death of Frederick Buechner this week, I walked over to a bookcase in my study that I visit more than any other.
These shelves are filled with what seems too small to say are my “favorite” authors. These are the ones who kept me Christian, who upended the way I think or feel about everything. The Buechner section of that bookcase seems like a disorganized chaos. There’s no coherent genre. Here’s a novel, there’s a Bible study, here’s a dictionary, there’s not just one but several autobiographies.
And there’s no coherent chronology, either. They are stacked not in the order they were written but in the order that I found them. That’s because, when I look at each one, I am retelling myself a story—of when I discovered each one of them, and what it was like to read each for the first time.
When I stand in front of those shelves, I’m doing what Buechner asked us all to do. I am listening to his life, and to my own.
The first book on the shelf is an old copy of A Room Called Remember, a collection of essays that I discovered as a teenager while rifling through the discard table of a public library. When I started reading, what caught my attention was a serious Christian who seemed to see what I could feel but couldn’t really articulate: that life is a mystery, a mystery that’s a plotline, a plotline that connects us with the story of Jesus.
These stories, he wrote, “meet as well as diverge, our stories and his, and even when they diverge, it is his they diverge from, so that by his absence as well as by is presence in our lives, we know who he is and who we are and who we are not.”
A few inches down on that same shelf, I can find his writings on faith and fiction, The Clown and the Belfry, and remember how I never read another parable of Jesus the same way again after I encountered that book. For years, I had heard those stories just like Pauline Epistles. The preacher would break them down for us—point by subpoint by sub-sub-point, telling us the interpretation and application of each part.
But Buechner had more to say. “If we think the purpose of Jesus’ stories is essentially to make a point as extractable as the moral at the end of a fable,” he wrote, “then the inevitable conclusion is that once you get the point, you can throw the story itself away like the rind of an orange, when you have squeezed out the juice.”
That’s not how stories work, Buechner taught us. They’re meant to involve us—not just with our minds but with our affections and emotions and intuitions too. And all that points us to Jesus himself, who is the Truth—“the whole story of him.”
“So in the long run, the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark. The stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way round.”
Thanks to another volume on that shelf—a collection of sermons called The Hungering Dark—I never say “Christ” without the word “Jesus.” That’s because Buechner knew the phrase “Christ saves” wouldn’t make us nearly as uncomfortable as would the words “Jesus saves.”
Those words “have a kind of objective theological ring to them,” he wrote, “whereas ‘Jesus saves’ seems cringingly, painfully personal—somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named whatever your name happens to be.”
First in the pulpit, then in that book, Buechner preached that what we accept or reject is not an abstraction but a person.
A few spaces down on the shelf is The Alphabet of Grace, which even now startles me into paying attention to the miracle of the ordinary:
You get married, a child is born or not born, in the middle of the night there is a knocking at the door, on the way home through the park you see a man feeding pigeons, all the tests come in negative and the doctor gives you back your life again: incident follows incident helter-skelter leading apparently nowhere, but then once in a while there is … the suggestion of plot the suggestion that, however clumsily, your life is trying to tell you something, take you somewhere.
Those words would come to mind when I held my newborn son. They came to mind when I buried my father. They sometimes come to mind when nothing significant seems to be happening at all. And they also emerge in my thoughts alongside words from Now and Then, a book a few spaces down the shelf, reminding me there’s nothing too commonplace for God. He’s present in all of it.
“Listen to your life,” writes Buechner. “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.”
A few notches down the shelf is Whistling in the Dark, in which Buechner wrote that unexpected tears are a sign that “God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.”
Even before I pulled that book off the shelf after hearing news of his death, I thought of those words as I wiped away unexpected tears. How strange, I thought, to feel grief over the death of a man I never met, a man nearly a hundred years old. But then I wondered whether the tears were about something else.
I pulled off the shelf Godric, his novel about a 12th-century English monk, and found one of Buechner’s most famous passages: “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
In the Buechner neighborhood of the bookshelf, there is some open space. I guess subconsciously I hoped that there would be, somehow, one more book to come. Those shelves don’t seem like a body of work. They don’t even seem like part of a library. They seem like a story he was telling me—a story I didn’t want to end.
As I put the books back on the shelf (until the next time I need them), I hold back A Room Called Remember and notice words that I’ve read before but, unlike the others, I don’t remember:
At the age of one hundred, the old man knows what at my age I am only just beginning to see—that if it is by grace we are saved, it is by grace too that we are lost, or lost at least in the sense of losing our selves, our lives, our all.
All’s lost. All’s found. All moments are key moments. Buechner didn’t make it to 100, but he told the story at the heart of the plot behind the plots, where all our stories sit—maybe on a shelf called “Remember.”
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.