Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.”

In "The Mainliner Who Made Me More Evangelical" (behind a subscription wall) Russell Moore is reflecting on the importance of  Frederick Buechner as two new books by that author are published. I begin quoting with something Wendell Berry said to Moore:
.... “Isn’t it something, how we get what we need at just the right time?” he said. “The right book comes along at just the right time. The right friend comes along at just the right time. The right conversation comes along at just the right time. It’s grace.”

His words left me bursting with gratitude, but not only—or even primarily—for Berry. As I left his farm, I couldn’t help thinking of two authors who came along right when I needed them: C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner. ....

...[W]hy would I—a conservative evangelical of the Reformed stripe, a Southern Baptist of all things—keep coming back to the writings of this mainline Protestant from Vermont? One reason is that Buechner probably kept me from becoming a liberal Protestant.

As a teenager, I grappled with a call to ministry, but I was reluctant to enter the Bible-Belt ministry of the time, suspicious as it was of the intellect and imagination. ....

Then, meandering through a local library’s used book sale, I found Buechner. The book was his collection of essays, A Room Called Remember. This was someone who didn’t seek to manipulate my emotions or enlist me in a cause. He just told the truth as he saw it. And he clearly loved Jesus. So I voraciously consumed everything he ever wrote—and in the 30 or so years since, I’ve read much of it over and over again. J. Gresham Machen and Carl F.H. Henry taught me that I needn’t put my mind in a blind trust in order to follow Jesus. Buechner taught me the same about my imagination. ....

Buechner’s appeal to story is an apologetic—one as clear and compelling as Lewis’s treatment of the universal moral sense in Mere Christianity. “Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots,” he says.... “After awhile, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after awhile more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.” ....

...Buechner suggests that having a Christian vision of reality means paying attention to the seemingly humdrum, even boring, plotlines of grace in our lives. One’s life is not “just incident following incident without any particular direction or purpose, but things are happening in order to take you somewhere.” Looking back on his own life, Buechner sees “that very often things that seemed at the time to have had very little significance were key points in the plot of my life.” ....

...[T]he main thing Buechner has taught me and re-taught me...is to be a steward of tears. I found my eyes welling up several times over these pages, especially in Buechner’s stories of grappling with guilt, fear, and grief. “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention,” Buechner writes in Beyond Words.... “They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not 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 next.”

But ultimately, Buechner wants us to see through our tears to the joy lying beyond. Again, as the writer of plots, he knows that joy is best glimpsed against a backdrop of conflict. He teaches us to feel what it is to suffer with Christ, but then to be held by him—to know he is there to hold us. “Joy is knowing that this is true from your stomach,” he concludes, referencing Deuteronomy 33:26–27. “Knowing that even though we see only through a glass darkly, even though lots of things happen—wars and peacemaking, hunger and homelessness—joy is knowing, even for a moment, that underneath everything are the everlasting arms.” A few minutes after reading this, I caught myself humming the tune to the old gospel song, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Once again, Buechner drove me further into my evangelical identity, not away from it. ....