At the CCL Northeast Regional Conference luncheon held at Regis College in Weston, Mass. on October 27, 2007, Roger Lundin delivered the following tribute to Frederick Buechner.
Near the close of The Sacred Journey, the remarkable first volume of his memoirs, Frederick Buechner describes what some would call his conversion and what he terms the doing of “whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then.” It happened one day, when he was listening to a sermon by George Buttrick at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Jesus Christ, Buttrick said, refused the crown Satan offered in the wilderness, but he is nevertheless again and again crowned king in the heart of those who believe in him. And that coronation takes place “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.” “It was the phrase great laughter that did it,” Buechner reports. “It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.”
As we honor Frederick Buechner with the Lifetime Achievement award of the Conference on Christianity and Literature, we are profoundly grateful that he came upon this open door and that he stepped through it to become one or our most accomplished contemporary writers and a most compelling witness to the beauty and mystery of Jesus Christ.
The volumes of Frederick Buechner’s memoirs — The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, Telling Secrets, and The Eyes of the Heart — tell the story of the difficult years that led up to that day of great laughter and of the extraordinarily fruitful decades that came after it. They speak of his enchanted and afflicted childhood, marked by the loss of his father, which in an instant carried ten-year-old Fred from the world of “once-below-a-time” into that of “once-upon-a-time.” Those works also tell of his education at the Lawrenceville School and at Princeton, of his decision to become a full-time writer and of his discovery, in his words, of “the possibility … of a life in Christ, with Christ, and on some fine day conceivably, even a life for Christ.” The memoirs document his theological training at Union Seminary and speak of his discovery of another love: “I fell in love. I got married. Beyond that I will only say, with John Donne, that ‘all measure, and all language, I should passe,/ Should I tell what a miracle she was.” From New York, the newly-ordained Presybterian minister and his wife Judy moved to Exeter, New Hampshire, where he taught and preached for a decade and where they welcomed three daughters into the world. Then it was on to rural Vermont, where Fred and Judy live to this day, and where he has written almost all of the books for which we honor him today.
Ah, those books! There have been over thirty of them, they span more than half a century, and their range is nothing short of astonishing. There are novels, beginning with A Long-Day’s Dying in 1950 and including the National Book Award nominee Lion Country, which is the first of Leo Bebb’s four rollicking volumes, as well as the brilliant Godric, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. There have been several editions of sermons, including the recent Secrets in the Dark. He has also published a four-volume memoir and a series of fascinating books that take different forms yet the share the common goal, in his words, of reaching those who “more or less don’t give religion the time of day.”
As he has pursued this goal for more than five decades, Frederick Buechner has situated himself clearly in the tradition of the nineteenth-century’s greatest theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who gave speeches and delivered sermons to those whom he called religion’s “cultured despisers.” Like Schleiermacher, Buechner possesses a keen ear for the speech of those who seem beyond the reach of the Christian faith. He has followed his German predecessor in seeking, in his words, to bear witness to “the great hope” that “I have seen with the eyes of my heart.” In pursuing this apologetic course, Buechner explains that he has written “obliquely” and “ambiguously” about what he has seen, so as to avoid “losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking.”
At the same time, while Frederick Buechner’s apologetic writings show him to have the ear of Friedrich Schleiermacher, his novels speak boldly in the voice of Karl Barth, Schleiermacher’s only peer among the Protestant theologians of the past two centuries. “For the most part,” Buechner says, “it is in only in my novels that I have allowed myself to speak unreservedly of what with the eyes of my heart I have seen.” From the ruins of postwar Europe, Barth wrote that the miracle of the gospel is that “we are not left alone in this frightful world. Into this alien land God has come to us.” And God does indeed come to Frederick Buechner’s characters in many alien ways: Godric spies the face of Christ in a tree’s leaves and sees them as lips soundlessly calling his name; Antonio Parr envisions Christ as “the Lone Ranger thundering on Silver across the lonely sage”; and the scrawny Brendan sees angels spread across the heavens and hears in their singing the mercy of God – these characters, Buechner concludes, “are all of them telling my story,” and they are living out their faith with a “kind of holy recklessness” to which all of us might aspire, however far short of the mark we may fall.
How great is the laughter and how unspeakable are the sorrows that accompany these pilgrims every step of the way! Those sorrows run deep in the vein of life for Frederick Buechner and his fictional friends, but in the end, they are not as deep as the laughter nor as tenacious as the love it reminds us of. Here again, Karl Barth comes to mind. “Inevitably the man honored by God finds himself extremely odd as the object of that esteem,” Barth notes in the Church Dogmatics. Did not Sarah and Abraham laugh, he asks, when they received the promise of Isaac’s birth? “And was their laughter merely unspiritual laughter? [After all], is not the contrast between humans and the honor done them by God too great for us to take ourselves ceremoniously, and not laugh at ourselves” as the bearers and possessors of this honor?
For his having taught us so brilliantly to laugh at ourselves and at the holy recklessness of our faith and our folly and for his having done so in an achingly beautiful prose that often reads more like poetry, we honor Frederick Buechner with this award. We thank him for all that he has done in the past and all that he will no doubt continue to do to assure us of that “truth beyond all understanding and surpassing all other wonders that in the long run nothing, not even the world, not even ourselves, can separate us forever from that last and deepest love that glimmers in our dusk like a pearl, like a face.”