An Experienced Thought

Frederick Buechner is a renowned author, a retired Presbyterian minister, and a rather reclusive man. He’s not a social critic, nor an activist. He’s a student of human nature, of human hopes and aspirations. What Buechner has learned to tune in to -- it seems to me -- is not the daily buzz of events and happenings (go here, go there, do this and that), but simply how grace is present in ordinary everyday human life. And when we learn to see grace we learn our graced identity. Buechner grew up without church or religious experience. But he discovered his own graced identity one Sunday morning listening to a preacher’s thoughts.

Buechner’s early life was marked by tragedy as both his father and uncle took their own lives. Buechner wondered if life was just too sad, too hard. He was by his own admission “a bookish, rain-loving, inward-looking child”, so he became a writer, and a promising one at that. But then life hit a very flat patch in his mid-twenties. Buechner became depressed, unable to write anything.

He was very attracted to the impressive building near his New York apartment, the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, home of the famous preacher George Buttrick. Buechner began to visit that church regularly because Buttrick would touch his heart and mind in a way he couldn’t explain. And then came that one transformative moment when the world opened up to him in a completely new way.

It was 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth 2’s coronation. On that particular Sunday, Buttrick was contrasting the coronation of Elizabeth with the coronation of Jesus in the human heart. Buttrick said that when someone believed in Jesus, embraced him with their whole heart, it was a coronation. Buechner, feeling alone and sad listened intently. That coronation would happen, said Buttrick, with “confession and tears” but also, he said, with “great laughter”. And with that phrase “great laughter”, Buechner said his world changed:

... at the phrase great laughter, for reasons I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face... [Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace; cited in Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor]

What Buttrick shared was a thought, even a valuable thought. But what is fascinating to me is how that thought took wings into Buechner’s heart and became a transformative moment for him. Somehow he experienced what he heard.

He was, to borrow the words of CS Lewis, “surprised by joy”, experientially changed by Buttrick’s picture of the new reality we are born into through Christ. The moment stayed with him for a long time, shaping his identity, changing his destiny. Buechner recounts:

To say that I was born again, to use that traditional phrase, is to say too much because I remained in most ways as self-centered and squeamish after the fact as before, and God knows remain so still. And in another way to say that I was born again is to say too little because there have been more than a few such moments since, times when from beyond time something too precious to tell has glinted in the dusk... [Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey]

In subsequent years Buechner often reflected on that moment when the preacher’s words were carried into his heart by the Holy Spirit. Philip Yancey, in his book Soul Survivor, talks about the distinctive Buechner legacy:

Many modern writers have plumbed the despair in a world where God seems largely absent, but very few have tried to plumb the reality of what God’s presence might mean. Buechner has never forgotten that Christ was crowned in a spirit of laughter. [Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor]

As we complete our thoughts this Sunday on graced identity, my prayer for you is that you would somehow experience what we are trying to put into words. May the truth of your graced identity be carried into your heart by the wings of God’s Spirit, and may you know who you are, and whose you are, “with confession and tears and great laughter”.

Bob Osborne