I had been out of seminary for not quite a year in February of 1977—not long enough to decide what to do, either with my divinity degree or with the rest of my life. I was typing other people’s letters for a living, helping out with the church youth group on weekends. I was single then, so there were also men (who shall remain forever nameless), but my great love affair in those days was with language: with words, images, metaphors, and meanings. I had so much to say that I thought I could not say in church—fleshy things that were not religiously correct, melancholy things that seemed to betray the good news. So I wrote tortured short stories instead. I wrote poems so bad that they made my teeth ache.
When I received a flyer from Yale Divinity School announcing the Beecher Lectures in Preaching, I thought maybe that was the kick in the pants I needed. I did not know the lecturer, but that hardly mattered. I wanted to hear the clock on the quadrangle strike the hours again, see my old friends, maybe grab a beer at Archie’s bar down on Willow Street. Still, I was paying attention when the dean introduced Frederick Buechner, the Beecher Lecturer for 1977, whose lectures were entitled “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.”
Great title, I thought, as the elegant man stepped into the pulpit. When he opened his mouth, I was struck first by the voice: restrained but insistent, as if he had something important to tell that he would not yell to make heard. Then the sentence structure: odd and looping; beguiling the ear. Before I knew it, he was conjuring up the living presence of Henry Ward Beecher, his predecessor by more than a century, the first Beecher Lecturer in 1872.
Beecher had had a bad night, Buechner told us. With less than an hour to go before his first lecture, the famous preacher still had not decided what to say. Lathering his face to shave, Beecher was struck by sudden inspiration, dropped his razor, and dashed off to find a pencil with the suds still on his chin. When he returned to the mirror to finish shaving, he was so shaky that he nicked himself and drew blood.
“And well the old pulpiteer might have cut himself with his razor,” Buechner said, “because part of the inner world that his lecture came from, among the clouds that it suddenly dawned on him out of, was the deep trouble he was in or the deep trouble that was in him. The gossip about his relationship with the wife of one of his parishioners had left the whispering stage and was beginning to appear more or less directly in print… A public trial for adultery was not far off. It was not just his reputation and career that were in danger but in some measure the church itself—everything he believed in and stood for and had come to Yale to talk about.”
Less than five minutes in, Buechner had already given me blood, a bad night’s sleep, self-doubt, and an illicit affair—Mon Dieu!—the ragged private truths of a well-pressed public preacher. Were we really going to speak of such things in church? I had never heard anyone go so directly to the heart of the matter, nor use language to get there so movingly. As the lecture continued, I was slain in the spirit, though still propped up in my pew. I was known through and through, though my name was never called. Dear Mr. Buechner, you rearranged the air.
Three days later, when you finished your last lecture, I felt as if a major artery in my heart were being clamped off. I could have listened to you forever. But even after you stopped talking, your voice stayed alive in my ear. To this day, you have remained one of my best angels, and not just mine but all of ours, who--week after week—trust that our nicked and ragged selves, however hard we try to press them, will somehow serve to bring God’s truth to life.
From you, I have learned that it is only when I give my full attention to what it means to be human that I am granted a glimpse of what it means to be divine.
From you, I have learned that the only limit to the revelation going on all around me is my willingness to turn aside and look.
From you, I have learned that language itself is revelatory, with power to ignite hearts, move mountains, and save lives.
From you, I have learned that the good news is not the cheerful news but the dismantling news of what it is like both to love and to betray the Holy One who has given me life, only to hear the saving question asked anew, for the umpteenth time, “You, you child of mine, Do you love me?”
Thank you, Frederick Buechner, for the time you have spent looking in the mirror so that we might see ourselves more clearly. Thank you for telling the truth, both about yourself and about the gospel, so that we might tell it too. Thanks even for nicking yourself, so that you could write for us in blood instead of ballpoint pen. We can tell the difference, and we are in your debt.
Barbara Brown Taylor
Washington National Cathedral
April 5, 2006
- from Barbara Brown Taylor, author of An Altar in the World, and many other books