I have long looked to Frederick Buechner, who turns 92 next month, as a mentor.  I included him in Soul Survivor as one of the key people who helped form my faith.

For those of us who attempt writing, Buechner shows by example how to communicate faith most effectively.  I have many shelves loaded with books written by Christians.  Most of them, I regret to say, would hold little appeal to anyone not already committed to the same faith.  Christians stumble across God everywhere: in nature, in the Bible, in daily acts of providence.  But the secular mind sees no such evidence, and wonders how is it even possible to find God in the maze of competing claims.  Unless we truly understand that viewpoint, and speak in terms a faithless person can understand, our words will have the quaint and useless ring of a foreign language.

I learned from Buechner the advantage of saying too little rather than too much. 

As he wrote in The Eyes of the Heart, “I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking.  For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more or less don’t give religion the time of day.”

This meditation for Father’s Day illustrates Buechner’s oblique style.  What begins as a homespun reflection on fatherhood ends with a theological punch. 

WHEN A CHILD IS BORN, a father is born. A mother is born too, of course, but at least for her it’s a gradual process. Body and soul, she has nine months to get used to what’s happening. She becomes what’s happening. But for even the best-prepared father, it happens all at once. On the other side of the plate-glass window, a nurse is holding up something roughly the size of a loaf of bread for him to see for the first time. Even if he should decide to abandon it forever ten minutes later, the memory will nag him to the grave. He has seen the creation of the world. It has his mark upon it. He has its mark upon him. Both marks are, for better or worse, indelible.

All sons, like all daughters, are prodigals if they’re smart. Assuming the old man doesn’t run out on them first, they will run out on him if they are to survive, and if he’s smart he won’t put up too much of a fuss. A wise father sees all this coming, and maybe that’s why he keeps his distance from the start. He must survive too. Whether they ever find their way home again, none can say for sure, but it’s the risk he must take if they’re ever to find their way at all. In the meantime, the world tends to have a soft spot in its heart for lost children. Lost fathers have to fend for themselves.

Even as the father lays down the law, he knows that someday his children will break it as they need to break it if ever they’re to find something better than law to replace it. Until and unless that happens, there’s no telling the scrapes they will get into trying to lose him and find themselves.

Terrible blunders will be made—disappointments and failures, hurts and losses of every kind. And they’ll keep making them even after they’ve found themselves too, of course, because growing up is a process that goes on and on. And every hard knock they ever get knocks the father even harder still, if that’s possible, and if and when they finally come through more or less in one piece at the end, there’s maybe no rejoicing greater than his in all creation.

It has become so commonplace to speak of God as “our Father” that we forget what an extraordinary metaphor it once was.

~  ~  ~

Frederick Buechner, “Father,” in Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), p. 47-48.  (Used with permission)


Subscribe to Philip Yancey’s blog here:



Share this

7 responses to “A Father Is Born”

  1. I am not an avid reader, I’m sure that is a discomforting opening statement. I do however read non fiction Christian writers that show little pride or ego but rather clear and accurate personal experiences of faith and true followers of Jesus, you Philip are, in my estimation, one of those with character and integrity while addressing everyday spiritual growth matters. The Father is Born is very every-day for any of us. I am fortunate to have 3 children who are mature and honorable not especially deep thinkers regarding God or spiritual matters. I, on the other hand, am finding the personal relationship with God’s gift of His Holy Spirit to be the center of my thoughts and everyday companion. I Like Margaret’s comments about how God feels when we ignore Him or dishonor Him. It has to be much like the New Father you wrote about. To read the words of God in Jeremiah or any of the minor prophets, it leaves no guess work to see how God can be saddened and even angered to a point of wrath that I can hardly get through without crying out for those who have been the recipients of His emotions. I don’t fear what I can avoid and my life and thought process brings me to a thankful mindset. Abba Father said we are friends and I think I will try to make the best of that position. I love Him too much to do otherwise.

  2. carrol grady says:

    _Soul Survivor_ is one of my favorites of your books. If I were to compose such a list of spiritual advisors, you would be on it!

  3. David Such says:

    Buechner writes with supreme craft, and I can tell from your writing that he has indeed influenced you. Thank you for this well-written encouragement, especially knowing that all of us dads are also sons.

  4. Margaret says:

    “And every hard knock they ever get knocks the father even harder still, if that’s possible, and if and when they come through more or less in one piece at the end, there’s maybe no rejoicing greater than his in all creation.” So true! And certainly nothing like being parents helps us have a taste of what it has been like for God the Father. Beginning with the children of Israel when He provided miraculously for them, delivered them from enemies and pled with them to simply obey His laws and He would bless them even more, only to have them use their freedom to disobey and turn to stupid idols again and again and again – right on through the ages to us – what hard knocks His children have given Him! And so He gives the “privilege” to some of us, mothers as well as fathers, with the children He gave us to love and teach about Him, to get just a taste of His heartache and longing for us. Our hearts cry out with what Paul said, “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you!” Oh, the joy and pain of being a lovesick father, or mother!
    We pray sincerely that we may know Christ more…yes, certainly, “the power of His resurrection, but do we really want to know the fellowship of His sufferings?” I say yes, but with both dread and hope for what may yet be ahead in our journey until we finally get to the greatest joy set before us – eternity with Him.

  5. Dean says:

    Hi Philip. I’m on the verge of tears reading this. Thanks for being a voice, and for helping me find other voices, that do not clang and oppress. Grace and the quiet power of a loving god touches the things you write about. 2Because of a very rough ride I’m apart from my children today, who I love dearly. Im so thankful they still love me and I live with hope that a father God like the one you write about exists. You’ve become one of the only voices I’ll listen to these days from the church. If love like the one you and Frederick write about is out there, it is the most beautiful thing imaginable

  6. Martin Duerr says:

    Dear Philip Yancey, this seems to be a great opportunity to thank YOU – at last- for quoting Buechner in your books. I first read “Von Gott enttäuscht” (Disappointment with God) in the early nineties because I was drawn to the title, trying to live as a Christian among others who never seemed to have doubts like I did. Your books helped me a lot through difficult times. Many of the people you quoted were familiar to me, but I had never before heard of Fred Buechner. It took some time until I was able to get books written by him (that was before the Internet), but eventually I even met him several times in my hometown Basel, Switzerland. But this is a story for another day. Today I just want to thank you for your writing and your refreshing look on the world and on theology. Something which is more important than ever in these times. Please do continue to broaden our horizon and our hearts. Best regards, Martin

  7. Bradley says:

    I woke today from a dream where I was very sad and very angry. I was asking this question in the dream, “why are you so mean?”. The alarm had awakened me just after I’d asked that question to someone whom I’d just given $1,000,000. too. I was alone in my bed; my wife was away working in another town as a paramedic (she does this every 4-5 days on a work rotation); our 3 kids are hundreds of kilometers away living their lives (one of them and his wife has just evolved into satanism). My own father was a mean and angry man, especially when it came to me. He died without us reconciling, (although there was a couple of clues left behind he wanted to happen). I feel very alone and sad.
    I will re-read your posting today and I will go out to the church 75 kilometers away and look to encourage someone.
    Thanks for your post, me thinks there is a clue in there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *