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A Tribute to Frederick Buechner (1926-2022)

About a month ago, I was scrolling through the headlines of the New York Times, and there it was. The article headline I had half-expected to see for the last two or three years slid slowly off the screen and settled into my heart. Frederick Buechner died, at 96, on August 15, 2022. An odd mix of grief and joy filled me, the same emotion I’ve commonly felt over years of reading this master’s work. Over the past three decades, more than a few times, his written words have felt like he dipped into the vast puddle of my unconscious and spread my own jumbled half-dreams and musings into an expression of something tangible, understandable, and beautiful. When C.S. Lewis reflects that “we read to know that we are not alone…”, it is Frederick Buechner who comes to mind for me, every time.

Buechner was an American novelist, essayist, and Presbyterian minister who served as chaplain for 9 years at Philips Exeter School. He lived in Vermont. He published 39 books, novels, fiction and non-fiction, sermons, and reflections on life. He shared a birth year and a death year with the Queen. One of his friends and editors, George Connor, said in 1992, “If there is a writer with a more felicitous style now working in the English language, I do not know who it is.”

I urge you, to read this guy, and read him slowly. Here is someone who saw God in everything, who always trusted that hidden behind the veil of our shallow awareness, fire and beauty and wonder and joy are waiting to touch us, heal us, beckon us to keep moving. He was willing to own his doubts because he saw them not as evidence of a lack of faith, but as essential to keep faith moving and alive. If you have even a jaded curiosity about what, if anything, lies beyond or within, any musings about spirit, then Buechner’s reflections may offer a flame to beckon you further.

You know how there are some people whom you’d like to befriend, but you know that it just isn’t possible in this life? Buechner is someone I will become friends with on the other side. I have met two people like me that wished they also had known Buechner as a friend. One of them sent a letter to Frederick to ask if he might consider writing an endorsement quote for a book he was publishing. It was a long shot, but rather than silence, he received a hand-written letter from “Fred” thanking him for the request, and even though the request was denied, his letter was certainly a more valuable gift. The other was a young college student who was merely helping set up the seating area for a talk Buechner was about to deliver at her institution. She was as anonymous as anyone, yet Buechner stopped, greeted her with kindness, asked her a few questions, and she was seen.

If we were to see one another day in and day out in ways that look behind the surface presentation, the image management, the facades; see ourselves and one another truly and accurately, as beautiful, unique, and beloved—even in our limitedness. This world would be a better place. It still can be, one day at a time. Please open your eyes to those around you. Greet them with kindness and see them.

Here are a few choice morsels from one of Frederick Buechner’s books, (1973) Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC:

Doubt: Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Anger: Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in so many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Confession: To confess your sins to God is not to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.”

Joel Durkovic is the Director of Arbour Counselling Centre, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist, and Registered Supervisor. He brings compassion and expertise to his work with individuals and couples. Read more about Joel here.


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