Frederick Buechner Turns 95: Happy Birthday, Fred!

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, turned 95 on July 11. If you don’t know his writing, you’re missing one of the great Christian minds, hearts, and pens of our time.

Both a novelist and a minister, Buechner has written both fiction and nonfiction. Among the standout nonfiction titles are Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation; The Alphabet of Grace; and Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. Buechner’s remarkable novels include Godric; Brendan; Son of Laughter; and The Book of Bebb. And somewhere in between fiction and nonfiction lies my favorite Buechner book of all: The Wizard’s Tide. 

Just to give a taste, here’s an excerpt from Frederick Buechner’s memoir Now and Then: 

The events of our lives—even, and perhaps especially, the most everyday events—are the alphabet through which God, of His grace, spells out His words, His meaning, to us…. By examining as closely and 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 eyes peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited life as the one I was living 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…. If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I have tried 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.

Now here’s a passage from Telling the Truth:

In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with chin in hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee …. The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. 

Finally, here’s the beginning of Buechner’s novel On the Road with the Archangel, a fictional retelling of the curious apocryphal book of Tobit:

I am Raphael, one of the seven archangels who pass in and out of the presence of the Holy One, blessed be he. I bring him the prayers of all who pray and of those who don’t even know that they’re praying. 

Some prayers I hold out as far from me as my arm will reach, the way a woman holds a dead mouse by the tail when she removes it from the kitchen. Some, like flowers, are almost too beauatiful to touch, and others so aflame that I’d be afraid of their setting me on fire if I weren’t already more like fire than I am like anything else. There are prayers of such power that you might almost say they carry me rather than the other way round—the way a bird with outstretched wings is carried higher and higher on the back of the wind. Some prayers are very boring, and some so apologetic and shamefaced and halfhearted that they all but melt away in my grasp like sad little flakes of snow. 

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