I wish I’d discovered him sooner in my faith journey, but maybe I wasn’t ready before. Frederick Buechner (pronounced “Beekner”) is one of those authors who says what you think your heart would say if it could speak its deepest truth. And maybe it takes several decades of life—of God’s mysterious working in us—before those truths begin to crystalize and we can recognize them.
I’ve been reading Buechner’s collection of sermons and prayers called The Hungering Dark (Harper & Row, 1969) and his larger collection, Secrets In the Dark: A Life in Sermons (HarperCollins, 2006). I have to stop reading after every chapter just to ponder the gems of truth just exposed, and my copies of both books are already full of underlined passages, scribbled stars, and exclamation points in the margins!
The ache of hope that persists through every season of absurd darkness—the ache that won’t let me fall away, in spite of anger, hurt, or doubt—that ache finds itself named in these pages in a way more honest and true than anything I’ve read in years. Somehow Buechner is able with words to show us as if through a magnifying glass, and in slow-motion, the almost imperceptible ways in which God works deeply beneath the surface of our broken lives. He tunes our ears to the frequency of God’s still, small voice, and reminds us to wonder at it—reminds us that it is almost too beautiful to bear.
Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister who has written eleven novels, one of which (Godric) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. He has written numerous nonfiction works as well, and his writing has won awards and been praised by a broad spectrum of literary critics. Perhaps many of you have read his works, but if you haven’t and we were face-to-face, I’d be pushing this book at you in near-desperation, saying, You HAVE to read this, sister. And now I have to read everything he’s ever written.
Buechner’s message “A Sprig of Hope” (published in both collections) makes use of imagination in the story of Noah and the ark in a way that I think would have made Jesus, another Master Story-teller, smile. He describes the moment when the waters are unleashed from above and below, pulling us into the scene:
“The waters came scudding in over forest and field, sliding in across kitchen floors and down cellar stairs, rising high above television aerials and the steeples of churches, and death was everywhere as death is always everywhere, men trapped alone as they are always trapped, always alone, in office or locker room, bedroom or bar, men grasping out for something solid and sure to keep themselves from drowning, brother fighting brother for the few remaining pieces of dry ground. Maybe the chaos was no greater than it has ever been. Only wetter.”
By the time we reach the moment of Noah holding out his hand for the dove to land on it, we are caught up in the paradox of the beauty and fragility of faith, of hope, against the chaos and pain of this world. Listen:
“The dove stands there with her delicate, scarlet feet on the calluses of [Noah’s] upturned palm. His cheek just touches her breast so that he can feel the tiny panic of her heart. His eyes are closed, the lashes watery wet. Only what he weeps with now, the old clown, is no longer anguish but wild and irrepressible hope. That is not the end of the story in Genesis, but maybe that is the end of it for most of us—just a little sprig of hope held up against the end of the world.”
For those of us whose identity is deeply shaped not only by Christ, but also by our time spent serving Him abroad, Buechner’s words comfort, reminding us we are truly all sojourners, meant for something and some place else. We are always en route, always voyaging.
“So into [Christ’s] gracious and puzzling hands we must commend ourselves through all the days of our voyaging wherever it takes us, and at the end of all our voyages. We must build our arks with love and ride out the storm with courage and know that the little sprig of green in the dove’s mouth betokens a reality beyond the storm more precious than the likes of us can imagine.”
Sisters, what sprig of hope is God placing in your hand, even as the waters still seem to be covering your earth as far as you can see?