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