So, in Buechner's case, please spare me the burden of analysis and permit me the pleasure of observation - the kind of thing you might say to your spouse or best friend when you have a favorite CD playing on a long drive, or are on vacation when the afternoon sky grows angry dark, or are cooling your feet in a creek: Did you catch that line in "Every Grain of Sand"? Whoa-did you see that flash of lightning? Look, there, in that still patch stream from that boulder-see it?
If we were sitting on a park bench together, reading these sermons of Fred Buechner, I'd keep interrupting you with similarly annoying questions. Do you see why, in "The Two Stories," for example, his narrative approach is a far cry from telling little anecdotes to illustrate points? In "The Truth of Stories," did you catch how the story is not like an orange rind, but that it is itself the point, or at least the thing that points beyond itself to something more?
Did you catch how, in the shepherd's monologue in "The Birth," Buechner does a kind of reverse on Sartre's Roquentin in La Nausee? Remember how Sartre's character, sitting on a park bench and staring at a root protruding beneath his feet, saw through existence into the nihil the absence of essence - and the vision made him retch? See how Buechner's shepherd sees into (not through) existence and goes ecstatic by encountering glory? And when Buechner shares one of his own visions of glory - entering New York, in "The Kingdom of God," or at Sea World (of all places) watching killer whales, in "The Great Dance"-didn't you almost feel it too? And did you realize that you had in fact seen it, a thousand times, but only at that moment of reading did you realize you had seen it?
Will you ever be able to read the Noah's ark story the same way again after reading ''A Sprig of Hope"? And did you notice how, against the darkness and stench of that not-really-for-children story, Buechner manages to talk sincerely about peace and love? What could be more cliched than that? Yet he never sounds the slightest bit corny. Why is his modest little title so much bigger and robust than "The Depth of the Flood" or "Noah's Escape from Despair" would have been?
Did you notice the way Buechner guides us beyond the things fundamentalists and liberals always argue about-in "Come and See," for example, or in "The Seeing Heart"? If you're a preacher yourself did you notice that many of the best sermons are the shortest ones, and did you feel embarrassed and stupid for being so long-winded so often, as I did? Have you ever read a better introduction to the Bible than "The Good Book as a Good Book" or a better overview of a book of the Bible than "Paul Sends His Love"?
What? You'd like me to shut up? You'd like me to stop telling you what I noticed and enjoyed in these sermons, so you can embark on your own reading--and notice things for yourself? No worries and no offense taken. I understand exactly how you feel.
A new generation of preachers is coming up, and I can't think of anyone more enjoyable and exemplary for them to read than Buechner. They need to observe his art in creating an old woman with thick glasses, eating popcorn at the movies, or a fat man in a pickup, complete with gun rack and Jesus Loves You sticker (in "The Church"). They need to reflect on how these characters - sketched so minimally - do something that elegant points or abstractions never could have, especially when Buechner brings them back later in the sermon, adding one devastating detail to each. The next generation of preachers will learn something precious from Buechner in this and a dozen other ways, not, we hope, so they can analyze it or talk about it, but so they can actually catch something of his art, his eye, his heart, so they unconsciously, accidentally, might trade in a few of their points and abstractions for a teenage girl with acne, smoking a cigarette, or the young bride in high heels wobbling down the aisle on her father's arm.
This new generation of preachers will have a natural affinity to Buechner because he, unlike a popular painter known as the "painter of light," never paints light without shadows. Buechner's faith carries freight because it has not come easy; it dances and sometimes street-fights with doubt. He calls himself "this skeptical old believer, this believing old skeptic." The young preachers I know are tired to death of easy answers and simple steps and cozy scenes with serene porch lights and perfect picket fences. They don't live in that world. They live in a world of thick glasses, gun racks, acne, and cancer. And so do the people they preach to.
Which is the world Buechner celebrates in his sermons. This world is the very one in which he keeps bumping into the living God, or vice versa. Which is why young preachers need to read these sermons.
In "Faith and Fiction," Buechner describes writing as whistling in the dark. And, no doubt, he'd say preaching is something like that too: maybe in part both are attempts to convince yourself "that dark is not all there is." But surely both are more: disciplines-like Godric's bath in frigid water-to remind yourself that beyond all dark is a shining river of light, and "all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup."
- Brian D. McLaren, author of Naked Spirituality and many other books