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Monthly Archives: June 2010

Long Road to Adulthood Is Growing Even Longer –

Long Road to Adulthood Is Growing Even Longer –


Something Better Than Revival | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Something Better Than Revival | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

‘Something Better Than Revival’
Buenos Aires pastors believe their city of 13 million should have only one church.

Facing its final sunday as a church, a small Pentecostal congregation e-mailed Norberto Saracco on a Wednesday in 2007 asking for prayer. They would lose their Buenos Aires property unless the church paid an impossible US$25,000—nearly a year’s worth of offerings—to resolve a long-standing property lawsuit.

Saracco, co-leader of the Council of Pastors in Argentina’s capital, sent up a prayer—and sent out an e-mail saying, “We cannot afford for $25,000 to let a church close in Buenos Aires.” Two days later, pastors from an array of denominations had donated the money.

“When we say there is only one church in Buenos Aires, these are the consequences,” explains Saracco. “If we want a strong church in Buenos Aires, every local church has to be strong.”

This is just one of the fruits of perhaps the most remarkable experiment in citywide church unity today.

A Simple Idea

Argentina’s unity movement is based on a simple biblical concept.

“Each time the New Testament speaks of the church in a city such as Ephesus, it is always singular, never plural,” says Carlos Mraida, pastor of Del Centro First Baptist Church. “Yet when the New Testament speaks of leadership in a city, it is always plural. The church is singular, but leadership is plural.”

“When we go to the U.S., we cannot understand the division of the church,” says Saracco, pastor of Good News Church. “You can have one pastor on one [street] corner and another on another corner, and they don’t know each other. Here we are friends.”

More than friendship is at stake. Mraida estimates that while 90 percent of Buenos Aires churches have grown during his 24 years as a pastor, the city outside the church walls is significantly worse off by almost every spiritual and secular measure.

“So it seems that the church grew, but the kingdom of God has not been established,” says Mraida. “Jesus said the only requirement for us to see revival is that we be one, so that the world may believe [John 17:20-23]. The missionary paradigm of each one doing [his] own thing did not work. We have to go back to a biblical paradigm.”

Porteños—as city residents are known—initially tried to start a unity movement after Billy Graham’s 1962 crusade in the capital, and again after Luis Palau’s 1977 crusade, but both attempts fizzled. Churches were never hostile or competitive, said Juan Pablo Bongarrá, Brethren pastor of Church of the Open Door; they just focused on individual projects.

A new spirit of unity arose in the early 1980s, when hundreds of Argentine cities formed pastors councils thanks to the crusades of Carlos Annacondia. The Pentecostal businessman-turned-preacher required the formation of a council before he would visit a city. The decade closed with two national retreats attended by 1,200 pastors.

The Buenos Aires council was founded in 1982 by five pastors: Bongarrá, Saracco, Mraida, charismatic pastor Jorge Himitián, and Baptist pastor Pablo Deiros. Their starting point was creating friendships between pastors, said Saracco, as it’s easier to unite people than denominations.

Next came reconciliation over past wrongs. The political tumult during the nation’s Dirty War of the 1970s and ’80s created a deep divide between mainline churches, which defended human rights, and evangelical churches, which remained silent, says Saracco. At a downtown summit in 1999, the council asked the two sides to forgive one another in front of the 250,000 gathered.

Over time, pastors wanted a formalized structure and created rotating elected offices of president, vice president, and other traditional positions. But functioning as a typical institution did not work well, says Bongarrá, and the council lost momentum. So in 2006 the council invited the founders (minus Deiros, who had left for Fuller Theological Seminary) to come back and revitalize the council. The four agreed—on one condition.

“We changed the mindset and said, ‘Let’s not work like an institution; let’s work like a church and focus on spiritual gifts,’ ” says Bongarrá. “Which pastors are evangelists? Teachers? Prophets? Apostles?” Today more than 180 pastors representing almost 150 of the city’s 350 churches participate in the council.

The unity movement soon shifted from fellowship between pastors to churches helping churches. When an Anglican church was forced to end its Sunday school program in 2008 for lack of teachers, prompting an exodus of families, Saracco’s Pentecostal church sent four volunteers to run the program during 2009. When a suburban pastor faced losing his Christian school in a property lawsuit in 2008, the council paid his tax debt and teachers’ salaries until the school got back on its feet.

For the past four years, Mraida has invited pastors from different denominations to serve Communion at his Baptist congregation’s monthly Communion service. When Mraida’s church was building a new sanctuary, pastor Omar Cabrera’s nondenominational Vision of the Future Church 10 blocks away put up the 70,000 pesos for the cement for the building’s second story.

“A lot of pastors told me, ‘Hey, he’s only 10 blocks away,’ ” says Cabrera. ” ‘Why are you helping to build his church?’ And I said, ‘Come on, we are all on the same team.’ “

In June 2008, the council organized 40 days of prayer, culminating in a three-night outdoor vigil in front of the nation’s Congress. A second 40 days of prayer was observed in 2009, leading to this year’s 50-day campaign from Easter to Pentecost.

Evangelizing the City

Then, in November 2009, the unity movement made the significant shift from churches helping churches to churches evangelizing the city together. “Over the years we established relationships,” says Mraida, “but we were not able to reach the level of mission.”

Pastors incarnated the priesthood of all believers by seeking people to assume “spiritual responsibility” for each of the 12,000 blocks in the city center of 3 million residents. Volunteers pray for their block and pass out Bibles and fliers. Today the council has 7,000 blocks covered by volunteers from 100 local churches. Pastors are confident they will find volunteers for the remaining 5,000 blocks by year’s end.

The council also launched a five-year ad campaign based on the Didache, an ancient treatise on Christian living, condensed into 40 propositions in contemporary language. Every two weeks, the city is saturated with a new message promoting Christian values. The message is distributed by newspapers, television, radio, billboards, taxis, and fliers, all with the catchphrase: “The Argentina that God wants … with Jesus Christ it is possible.”

Many churches reinforce the ads by pegging their sermons to each week’s theme. Congregations have been so enthusiastic that offerings to the council—normally less than 2,000 pesos per month—to cover publicity costs have totaled an astounding 750,000 pesos (US$196,000) in five months.

The latest example of citywide evangelism was the February 2010 sending of missionaries to North Africa as representatives of the entire church in Buenos Aires. Argentine churches have been actively sending missionaries overseas since the 1987 COMIBAM (Ibero-American Mission Cooperation) conference in São Paulo sparked the Latin American missions movement. But this joint sending (the Baptist family is supported by 20 churches) breaks new ground. “This idea has tremendous potential for mission, a model to make it possible for the economical realities in Latin America,” says David Ruiz, former international president of COMIBAM.

‘Jesus said the only requirement for us to see revival is that we be one, so that the world may believe. We have to go back to a biblical paradigm.’˜Baptist pastor Carlos Mraida

The success in Buenos Aires comes at a time when traditional unity groups in Latin America—such as the conservative CONELA (Latin American Evangelical Fellowship) and the mainline CLAI (Latin American Council of Churches)—are dying out or losing relevance, says Ruiz, now associate director of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission. “Most of the evangelical alliances are facing an identity crisis,” he says. “The council in Buenos Aires is a very unique body that is bringing an alternative for unity for the church in Latin America.”

“The kind of unity structure that Saracco and Bongarrá represent is new. They actually do things together,” said René Padilla, a leading Latin American theologian and president emeritus of the Buenos Aires-based Kairos Foundation. He noted that the council is very active but has limited influence outside the heart of the city, and big divides remain between mainline and conservative groups. “There are encouraging signs of people relating across denominations,” says Padilla. “But there is still a long way to go.”

Beyond Buenos Aires

Examples of unity are not confined to Buenos Aires. Pastors in Neuquén established a Christian HMO that provides medical services at low fees; other city councils have jointly purchased property in order to establish Christian radio stations. Yet Buenos Aires has been so successful that ACIERA, Argentina’s evangelical alliance, summoned all the other councils in April to the city’s Baptist seminary so pastors could learn from their Porteño colleagues.

Churches do not have to abandon their distinctives in order to participate. Pastors agree on core theological elements—”the Trinity, Jesus’ death on the cross, his second coming—basically the gospel of Billy Graham and the Lausanne Convention,” says Bongarrá—and agree to disagree on the rest. They continue to diverge on divorce, eternal salvation security, second baptism of the Holy Spirit, and worship, for example.

“These debates may be important in my congregation, but they are not important to work together and preach the gospel to the city,” says Bongarrá. “We accept the differences as a richness. It would be very boring if all the churches were the same. Imagine if God made just one flower; that would be boring.”

Instead, churches are trading strengths. “Today the mainline churches are helping the evangelical churches do social work, and the evangelical churches are helping the mainline churches do evangelism work,” says Bongarrá. Christians now enjoy greater leverage in the public square because they can present a united front when confronting the government, most recently in November over the issue of gay marriage.

Bongarrá and Saracco say the process for choosing initiatives is simple: The council meets for a monthly meal, one in the morning and one in the evening to accommodate bi-vocational pastors. After eating and socializing, they present and discuss ideas, all of which receive a final group vote. Then they search for pastors who have the spiritual gifts to implement the projects.

The loose structure is deemed key to success. Another is having something to do. “For many years we’d meet as a council but didn’t have a common project,” says Bongarrá. “Now more and more pastors are joining us because it’s good to pray together and have a good time, but people are happier to have something to do.”

“Most important is the mindset to have unity be a continuous process, not an event,” says Mraida. “Unity of the city is a process.”

Visitors to Argentina have long talked about the evangelical revival they observe. Bongarrá counters: “We have had growth in the church, but not revival. Revival changes the structure of society. Now we have something better than revival: unity. Unity has opened the opportunity for true revival.”

How far can Buenos Aires pastors go with their effort to become one? “Our vision is that one day we will have no separation between denominations, and we work in this direction,” says Saracco, citing John 17. “But we are aware of our differences today, and we know we will not see this during our lifetime.

“Yet our vision and our task is one of faith. Maybe it will take 100 years, 200 years, 300 years—we don’t know. But Abraham was the father of the faith because he believed, not because he saw.”

Jeremy Weber is CT’s news editor.

The End of Men – Magazine – The Atlantic

The End of Men – Magazine – The Atlantic.

The End of Men

Earlier this year, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in U.S. history. Most managers are now women too. And for every two men who get a college degree this year, three women will do the same. For years, women’s progress has been cast as a struggle for equality. But what if equality isn’t the end point? What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women? A report on the unprecedented role reversal now under way— and its vast cultural consequences



IN THE 1970s the biologist Ronald Ericsson came up with a way to separate sperm carrying the male-producing Y chromosome from those carrying the X. He sent the two kinds of sperm swimming down a glass tube through ever-thicker albumin barriers. The sperm with the X chromosome had a larger head and a longer tail, and so, he figured, they would get bogged down in the viscous liquid. The sperm with the Y chromosome were leaner and faster and could swim down to the bottom of the tube more efficiently. Ericsson had grown up on a ranch in South Dakota, where he’d developed an Old West, cowboy swagger. The process, he said, was like “cutting out cattle at the gate.” The cattle left flailing behind the gate were of course the X’s, which seemed to please him. He would sometimes demonstrate the process using cartilage from a bull’s penis as a pointer.

In the late 1970s, Ericsson leased the method to clinics around the U.S., calling it the first scientifically proven method for choosing the sex of a child. Instead of a lab coat, he wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, and doled out his version of cowboy poetry. (People magazine once suggested a TV miniseries based on his life called Cowboy in the Lab.) The right prescription for life, he would say, was “breakfast at five-thirty, on the saddle by six, no room for Mr. Limp Wrist.” In 1979, he loaned out his ranch as the backdrop for the iconic “Marlboro Country” ads because he believed in the campaign’s central image—“a guy riding on his horse along the river, no bureaucrats, no lawyers,” he recalled when I spoke to him this spring. “He’s the boss.” (The photographers took some 6,500 pictures, a pictorial record of the frontier that Ericsson still takes great pride in.)

VIDEO: In this family feud, Hanna Rosin and her daughter, Noa, debate the superiority of women with Rosin’s son, Jacob, and husband, Slate editor David Plotz

Feminists of the era did not take kindly to Ericsson and his Marlboro Man veneer. To them, the lab cowboy and his sperminator portended a dystopia of mass-produced boys. “You have to be concerned about the future of all women,” Roberta Steinbacher, a nun-turned-social-psychologist, said in a 1984 People profile of Ericsson. “There’s no question that there exists a universal preference for sons.” Steinbacher went on to complain about women becoming locked in as “second-class citizens” while men continued to dominate positions of control and influence. “I think women have to ask themselves, ‘Where does this stop?’” she said. “A lot of us wouldn’t be here right now if these practices had been in effect years ago.”

Ericsson, now 74, laughed when I read him these quotes from his old antagonist. Seldom has it been so easy to prove a dire prediction wrong. In the ’90s, when Ericsson looked into the numbers for the two dozen or so clinics that use his process, he discovered, to his surprise, that couples were requesting more girls than boys, a gap that has persisted, even though Ericsson advertises the method as more effective for producing boys. In some clinics, Ericsson has said, the ratio is now as high as 2 to 1. Polling data on American sex preference is sparse, and does not show a clear preference for girls. But the picture from the doctor’s office unambiguously does. A newer method for sperm selection, called MicroSort, is currently completing Food and Drug Administration clinical trials. The girl requests for that method run at about 75 percent.

Even more unsettling for Ericsson, it has become clear that in choosing the sex of the next generation, he is no longer the boss. “It’s the women who are driving all the decisions,” he says—a change the MicroSort spokespeople I met with also mentioned. At first, Ericsson says, women who called his clinics would apologize and shyly explain that they already had two boys. “Now they just call and [say] outright, ‘I want a girl.’ These mothers look at their lives and think their daughters will have a bright future their mother and grandmother didn’t have, brighter than their sons, even, so why wouldn’t you choose a girl?”

Why wouldn’t you choose a girl? That such a statement should be so casually uttered by an old cowboy like Ericsson—or by anyone, for that matter—is monumental. For nearly as long as civilization has existed, patriarchy—enforced through the rights of the firstborn son—has been the organizing principle, with few exceptions. Men in ancient Greece tied off their left testicle in an effort to produce male heirs; women have killed themselves (or been killed) for failing to bear sons. In her iconic 1949 book, TheSecond Sex, the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir suggested that women so detested their own “feminine condition” that they regarded their newborn daughters with irritation and disgust. Now the centuries-old preference for sons is eroding—or even reversing. “Women of our generation want daughters precisely because we like who we are,” breezes one woman in Cookie magazine. Even Ericsson, the stubborn old goat, can sigh and mark the passing of an era. “Did male dominance exist? Of course it existed. But it seems to be gone now. And the era of the firstborn son is totally gone.”

Ericsson’s extended family is as good an illustration of the rapidly shifting landscape as any other. His 26-year-old granddaughter—“tall, slender, brighter than hell, with a take-no-prisoners personality”—is a biochemist and works on genetic sequencing. His niece studied civil engineering at the University of Southern California. His grandsons, he says, are bright and handsome, but in school “their eyes glaze over. I have to tell ’em: ‘Just don’t screw up and crash your pickup truck and get some girl pregnant and ruin your life.’” Recently Ericsson joked with the old boys at his elementary-school reunion that he was going to have a sex-change operation. “Women live longer than men. They do better in this economy. More of ’em graduate from college. They go into space and do everything men do, and sometimes they do it a whole lot better. I mean, hell, get out of the way—these females are going to leave us males in the dust.”

Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed. Cultural and economic changes always reinforce each other. And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children, worldwide. Over several centuries, South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labor force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. The traditional order began to crumble soon after. In 1990, the country’s laws were revised so that women could keep custody of their children after a divorce and inherit property. In 2005, the court ruled that women could register children under their own names. As recently as 1985, about half of all women in a national survey said they “must have a son.” That percentage fell slowly until 1991 and then plummeted to just over 15 percent by 2003. Male preference in South Korea “is over,” says Monica Das Gupta, a demographer and Asia expert at the World Bank. “It happened so fast. It’s hard to believe it, but it is.” The same shift is now beginning in other rapidly industrializing countries such as India and China.

Up to a point, the reasons behind this shift are obvious. As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest. And because geopolitics and global culture are, ultimately, Darwinian, other societies either follow suit or end up marginalized. In 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development devised the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which measures the economic and political power of women in 162 countries. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success. Aid agencies have started to recognize this relationship and have pushed to institute political quotas in about 100 countries, essentially forcing women into power in an effort to improve those countries’ fortunes. In some war-torn states, women are stepping in as a sort of maternal rescue team. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, portrayed her country as a sick child in need of her care during her campaign five years ago. Postgenocide Rwanda elected to heal itself by becoming the first country with a majority of women in parliament.

In feminist circles, these social, political, and economic changes are always cast as a slow, arduous form of catch-up in a continuing struggle for female equality. But in the U.S., the world’s most advanced economy, something much more remarkable seems to be happening. American parents are beginning to choose to have girls over boys. As they imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl that they see in their mind’s eye.

What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men? For a long time, evolutionary psychologists have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past: men are faster and stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources, and that shows up now as a drive to win on Wall Street; women are programmed to find good providers and to care for their offspring, and that is manifested in more- nurturing and more-flexible behavior, ordaining them to domesticity. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order. But what if men and women were fulfilling not biological imperatives but social roles, based on what was more efficient throughout a long era of human history? What if that era has now come to an end? More to the point, what if the economics of the new era are better suited to women?

Once you open your eyes to this possibility, the evidence is all around you. It can be found, most immediately, in the wreckage of the Great Recession, in which three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of these jobs will come back, but the overall pattern of dislocation is neither temporary nor random. The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer.

Earlier this year, for the first time in American history, the balance of the workforce tipped toward women, who now hold a majority of the nation’s jobs. The working class, which has long defined our notions of masculinity, is slowly turning into a matriarchy, with men increasingly absent from the home and women making all the decisions. Women dominate today’s colleges and professional schools—for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women. Indeed, the U.S. economy is in some ways becoming a kind of traveling sisterhood: upper-class women leave home and enter the workforce, creating domestic jobs for other women to fill.

The postindustrial economy is indifferent to men’s size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true. Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men to meet the demands of new global call centers. Women own more than 40 percent of private businesses in China, where a red Ferrari is the new status symbol for female entrepreneurs. Last year, Iceland elected Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly lesbian head of state, who campaigned explicitly against the male elite she claimed had destroyed the nation’s banking system, and who vowed to end the “age of testosterone.”

Yes, the U.S. still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained—at least in part—by discrimination. Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment. Dozens of college women I interviewed for this story assumed that they very well might be the ones working while their husbands stayed at home, either looking for work or minding the children. Guys, one senior remarked to me, “are the new ball and chain.” It may be happening slowly and unevenly, but it’s unmistakably happening: in the long view, the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.

In his final book, The Bachelors’ Ball, published in 2007, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu describes the changing gender dynamics of Béarn, the region in southwestern France where he grew up. The eldest sons once held the privileges of patrimonial loyalty and filial inheritance in Béarn. But over the decades, changing economic forces turned those privileges into curses. Although the land no longer produced the impressive income it once had, the men felt obligated to tend it. Meanwhile, modern women shunned farm life, lured away by jobs and adventure in the city. They occasionally returned for the traditional balls, but the men who awaited them had lost their prestige and become unmarriageable. This is the image that keeps recurring to me, one that Bourdieu describes in his book: at the bachelors’ ball, the men, self-conscious about their diminished status, stand stiffly, their hands by their sides, as the women twirl away.

The role reversal that’s under way between American men and women shows up most obviously and painfully in the working class. In recent years, male support groups have sprung up throughout the Rust Belt and in other places where the postindustrial economy has turned traditional family roles upside down. Some groups help men cope with unemployment, and others help them reconnect with their alienated families. Mustafaa El-Scari, a teacher and social worker, leads some of these groups in Kansas City. El-Scari has studied the sociology of men and boys set adrift, and he considers it his special gift to get them to open up and reflect on their new condition. The day I visited one of his classes, earlier this year, he was facing a particularly resistant crowd.

None of the 30 or so men sitting in a classroom at a downtown Kansas City school have come for voluntary adult enrichment. Having failed to pay their child support, they were given the choice by a judge to go to jail or attend a weekly class on fathering, which to them seemed the better deal. This week’s lesson, from a workbook called Quenching the Father Thirst, was supposed to involve writing a letter to a hypothetical estranged 14-year-old daughter named Crystal, whose father left her when she was a baby. But El-Scari has his own idea about how to get through to this barely awake, skeptical crew, and letters to Crystal have nothing to do with it.

Like them, he explains, he grew up watching Bill Cosby living behind his metaphorical “white picket fence”—one man, one woman, and a bunch of happy kids. “Well, that check bounced a long time ago,” he says. “Let’s see,” he continues, reading from a worksheet. What are the four kinds of paternal authority? Moral, emotional, social, and physical. “But you ain’t none of those in that house. All you are is a paycheck, and now you ain’t even that. And if you try to exercise your authority, she’ll call 911. How does that make you feel? You’re supposed to be the authority, and she says, ‘Get out of the house, bitch.’ She’s calling you ‘bitch’!”

The men are black and white, their ages ranging from about 20 to 40. A couple look like they might have spent a night or two on the streets, but the rest look like they work, or used to. Now they have put down their sodas, and El-Scari has their attention, so he gets a little more philosophical. “Who’s doing what?” he asks them. “What is our role? Everyone’s telling us we’re supposed to be the head of a nuclear family, so you feel like you got robbed. It’s toxic, and poisonous, and it’s setting us up for failure.” He writes on the board: $85,000. “This is her salary.” Then: $12,000. “This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?” A murmur rises. “That’s right. She’s the man.”

Judging by the men I spoke with afterward, El-Scari seemed to have pegged his audience perfectly. Darren Henderson was making $33 an hour laying sheet metal, until the real-estate crisis hit and he lost his job. Then he lost his duplex—“there’s my little piece of the American dream”—then his car. And then he fell behind on his child-support payments. “They make it like I’m just sitting around,” he said, “but I’m not.” As proof of his efforts, he took out a new commercial driver’s permit and a bartending license, and then threw them down on the ground like jokers, for all the use they’d been. His daughter’s mother had a $50,000-a-year job and was getting her master’s degree in social work. He’d just signed up for food stamps, which is just about the only social-welfare program a man can easily access. Recently she’d seen him waiting at the bus stop. “Looked me in the eye,” he recalled, “and just drove on by.”

The men in that room, almost without exception, were casualties of the end of the manufacturing era. Most of them had continued to work with their hands even as demand for manual labor was declining. Since 2000, manufacturing has lost almost 6 million jobs, more than a third of its total workforce, and has taken in few young workers. The housing bubble masked this new reality for a while, creating work in construction and related industries. Many of the men I spoke with had worked as electricians or builders; one had been a successful real-estate agent. Now those jobs are gone too. Henderson spent his days shuttling between unemployment offices and job interviews, wondering what his daughter might be doing at any given moment. In 1950, roughly one in 20 men of prime working age, like Henderson, was not working; today that ratio is about one in five, the highest ever recorded.

Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation. Many of the new jobs, says Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “replace the things that women used to do in the home for free.” None is especially high-paying. But the steady accumulation of these jobs adds up to an economy that, for the working class, has become more amenable to women than to men.

The list of growing jobs is heavy on nurturing professions, in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes and habits. Theoretically, there is no reason men should not be qualified. But they have proved remarkably unable to adapt. Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature—first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home. Many professions that started out as the province of men are now filled mostly with women—secretary and teacher come to mind. Yet I’m not aware of any that have gone the opposite way. Nursing schools have tried hard to recruit men in the past few years, with minimal success. Teaching schools, eager to recruit male role models, are having a similarly hard time. The range of acceptable masculine roles has changed comparatively little, and has perhaps even narrowed as men have shied away from some careers women have entered. As Jessica Grose wrote in Slate, men seem “fixed in cultural aspic.” And with each passing day, they lag further behind.

As we recover from the Great Recession, some traditionally male jobs will return—men are almost always harder-hit than women in economic downturns because construction and manufacturing are more cyclical than service industries—but that won’t change the long-term trend. When we look back on this period, argues Jamie Ladge, a business professor at Northeastern University, we will see it as a “turning point for women in the workforce.”

The economic and cultural power shift from men to women would be hugely significant even if it never extended beyond working-class America. But women are also starting to dominate middle management, and a surprising number of professional careers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. They make up 54 percent of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast. A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood. Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background, and even in those areas, women have made strong gains since the 1970s.

Office work has been steadily adapting to women—and in turn being reshaped by them—for 30 years or more. Joel Garreau picks up on this phenomenon in his 1991 book, Edge City, which explores the rise of suburbs that are home to giant swaths of office space along with the usual houses and malls. Companies began moving out of the city in search not only of lower rent but also of the “best educated, most conscientious, most stable workers.” They found their brightest prospects among “underemployed females living in middle-class communities on the fringe of the old urban areas.” As Garreau chronicles the rise of suburban office parks, he places special emphasis on 1978, the peak year for women entering the workforce. When brawn was off the list of job requirements, women often measured up better than men. They were smart, dutiful, and, as long as employers could make the jobs more convenient for them, more reliable. The 1999 movie Office Space was maybe the first to capture how alien and dispiriting the office park can be for men. Disgusted by their jobs and their boss, Peter and his two friends embezzle money and start sleeping through their alarm clocks. At the movie’s end, a male co-worker burns down the office park, and Peter abandons desk work for a job in construction.

Near the top of the jobs pyramid, of course, the upward march of women stalls. Prominent female CEOs, past and present, are so rare that they count as minor celebrities, and most of us can tick off their names just from occasionally reading the business pages: Meg Whitman at eBay, Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard, Anne Mulcahy and Ursula Burns at Xerox, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo; the accomplishment is considered so extraordinary that Whitman and Fiorina are using it as the basis for political campaigns. Only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and the number has never risen much above that.

But even the way this issue is now framed reveals that men’s hold on power in elite circles may be loosening. In business circles, the lack of women at the top is described as a “brain drain” and a crisis of “talent retention.” And while female CEOs may be rare in America’s largest companies, they are highly prized: last year, they outearned their male counterparts by 43 percent, on average, and received bigger raises.

Even around the delicate question of working mothers, the terms of the conversation are shifting. Last year, in a story about breast-feeding, I complained about how the early years of child rearing keep women out of power positions. But the term mommy track is slowly morphing into the gender-neutral flex time, reflecting changes in the workforce. For recent college graduates of both sexes, flexible arrangements are at the top of the list of workplace demands, according to a study published last year in the Harvard Business Review. And companies eager to attract and retain talented workers and managers are responding. The consulting firm Deloitte, for instance, started what’s now considered the model program, called Mass Career Customization, which allows employees to adjust their hours depending on their life stage. The program, Deloitte’s Web site explains, solves “a complex issue—one that can no longer be classified as a woman’s issue.”

“Women are knocking on the door of leadership at the very moment when their talents are especially well matched with the requirements of the day,” writes David Gergen in the introduction to Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership. What are these talents? Once it was thought that leaders should be aggressive and competitive, and that men are naturally more of both. But psychological research has complicated this picture. In lab studies that simulate negotiations, men and women are just about equally assertive and competitive, with slight variations. Men tend to assert themselves in a controlling manner, while women tend to take into account the rights of others, but both styles are equally effective, write the psychologists Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, in their 2007 book,Through the Labyrinth.

Over the years, researchers have sometimes exaggerated these differences and described the particular talents of women in crude gender stereotypes: women as more empathetic, as better consensus-seekers and better lateral thinkers; women as bringing a superior moral sensibility to bear on a cutthroat business world. In the ’90s, this field of feminist business theory seemed to be forcing the point. But after the latest financial crisis, these ideas have more resonance. Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and levelheaded.

We don’t yet know with certainty whether testosterone strongly influences business decision-making. But the perception of the ideal business leader is starting to shift. The old model of command and control, with one leader holding all the decision-making power, is considered hidebound. The new model is sometimes called “post-heroic,” or “transformational” in the words of the historian and leadership expert James MacGregor Burns. The aim is to behave like a good coach, and channel your charisma to motivate others to be hardworking and creative. The model is not explicitly defined as feminist, but it echoes literature about male-female differences. A program at Columbia Business School, for example, teaches sensitive leadership and social intelligence, including better reading of facial expressions and body language. “We never explicitly say, ‘Develop your feminine side,’ but it’s clear that’s what we’re advocating,” says Jamie Ladge.

A 2008 study attempted to quantify the effect of this more-feminine management style. Researchers at Columbia Business School and the University of Maryland analyzed data on the top 1,500 U.S. companies from 1992 to 2006 to determine the relationship between firm performance and female participation in senior management. Firms that had women in top positions performed better, and this was especially true if the firm pursued what the researchers called an “innovation intensive strategy,” in which, they argued, “creativity and collaboration may be especially important”—an apt description of the future economy.

It could be that women boost corporate performance, or it could be that better-performing firms have the luxury of recruiting and keeping high-potential women. But the association is clear: innovative, successful firms are the ones that promote women. The same Columbia-Maryland study ranked America’s industries by the proportion of firms that employed female executives, and the bottom of the list reads like the ghosts of the economy past: shipbuilding, real estate, coal, steelworks, machinery.

The End of Men


IF YOU REALLY want to see where the world is headed, of course, looking at the current workforce can get you only so far. To see the future—of the workforce, the economy, and the culture—you need to spend some time at America’s colleges and professional schools, where a quiet revolution is under way. More than ever, college is the gateway to economic success, a necessary precondition for moving into the upper-middle class—and increasingly even the middle class. It’s this broad, striving middle class that defines our society. And demographically, we can see with absolute clarity that in the coming decades the middle class will be dominated by women.

We’ve all heard about the collegiate gender gap. But the implications of that gap have not yet been fully digested. Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma. “One would think that if men were acting in a rational way, they would be getting the education they need to get along out there,” says Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “But they are just failing to adapt.”

This spring, I visited a few schools around Kansas City to get a feel for the gender dynamics of higher education. I started at the downtown campus of Metropolitan Community College. Metropolitan is the kind of place where people go to learn practical job skills and keep current with the changing economy, and as in most community colleges these days, men were conspicuously absent. One afternoon, in the basement cafeteria of a nearly windowless brick building, several women were trying to keep their eyes on their biology textbook and ignore the text messages from their babysitters. Another crew was outside the ladies’ room, braiding each other’s hair. One woman, still in her medical-assistant scrubs, looked like she was about to fall asleep in the elevator between the first and fourth floors.

When Bernard Franklin took over as campus president in 2005, he looked around and told his staff early on that their new priority was to “recruit more boys.” He set up mentoring programs and men-only study groups and student associations. He made a special effort to bond with male students, who liked to call him “Suit.” “It upset some of my feminists,” he recalls. Yet, a few years later, the tidal wave of women continues to wash through the school—they now make up about 70 percent of its students. They come to train to be nurses and teachers—African American women, usually a few years older than traditional college students, and lately, working-class white women from the suburbs seeking a cheap way to earn a credential. As for the men? Well, little has changed. “I recall one guy who was really smart,” one of the school’s counselors told me. “But he was reading at a sixth-grade level and felt embarrassed in front of the women. He had to hide his books from his friends, who would tease him when he studied. Then came the excuses. ‘It’s spring, gotta play ball.’ ‘It’s winter, too cold.’ He didn’t make it.”

It makes some economic sense that women attend community colleges—and in fact, all colleges—in greater numbers than men. Women ages 25 to 34 with only a high-school diploma currently have a median income of $25,474, while men in the same position earn $32,469. But it makes sense only up to a point. The well-paid lifetime union job has been disappearing for at least 30 years. Kansas City, for example, has shifted from steel manufacturing to pharmaceuticals and information technologies. “The economy isn’t as friendly to men as it once was,” says Jacqueline King, of the American Council on Education. “You would think men and women would go to these colleges at the same rate.” But they don’t.

In 2005, King’s group conducted a survey of lower-income adults in college. Men, it turned out, had a harder time committing to school, even when they desperately needed to retool. They tended to start out behind academically, and many felt intimidated by the schoolwork. They reported feeling isolated and were much worse at seeking out fellow students, study groups, or counselors to help them adjust. Mothers going back to school described themselves as good role models for their children. Fathers worried that they were abrogating their responsibilities as breadwinner.

The student gender gap started to feel like a crisis to some people in higher-education circles in the mid-2000s, when it began showing up not just in community and liberal-arts colleges but in the flagship public universities—the UCs and the SUNYs and the UNCs. Like many of those schools, the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a full research university with more than 13,000 students, is now tipping toward 60 percent women, a level many admissions officers worry could permanently shift the atmosphere and reputation of a school. In February, I visited with Ashley Burress, UMKC’s student-body president. (The other three student-government officers this school year were also women.) Burress, a cute, short, African American 24-year-old grad student who is getting a doctor-of-pharmacy degree, had many of the same complaints I heard from other young women. Guys high-five each other when they get a C, while girls beat themselves up over a B-minus. Guys play video games in each other’s rooms, while girls crowd the study hall. Girls get their degrees with no drama, while guys seem always in danger of drifting away. “In 2012, I will be Dr. Burress,” she said. “Will I have to deal with guys who don’t even have a bachelor’s degree? I would like to date, but I’m putting myself in a really small pool.”

UMKC is a working- and middle-class school—the kind of place where traditional sex roles might not be anathema. Yet as I talked to students this spring, I realized how much the basic expectations for men and women had shifted. Many of the women’s mothers had established their careers later in life, sometimes after a divorce, and they had urged their daughters to get to their own careers more quickly. They would be a campus of Tracy Flicks, except that they seemed neither especially brittle nor secretly falling apart.

Victoria, Michelle, and Erin are sorority sisters. Victoria’s mom is a part-time bartender at a hotel. Victoria is a biology major and wants to be a surgeon; soon she’ll apply to a bunch of medical schools. She doesn’t want kids for a while, because she knows she’ll “be at the hospital, like, 100 hours a week,” and when she does have kids, well, she’ll “be the hotshot surgeon, and he”—a nameless he—“will be at home playing with the kiddies.”

Michelle, a self-described “perfectionist,” also has her life mapped out. She’s a psychology major and wants to be a family therapist. After college, she will apply to grad school and look for internships. She is well aware of the career-counseling resources on campus. And her fiancé?

MICHELLE: He’s changed majors, like, 16 times. Last week he wanted to be a dentist. This week it’s environmental science.

ERIN: Did he switch again this week? When you guys have kids, he’ll definitely stay home. Seriously, what does he want to do?

MICHELLE: It depends on the day of the week. Remember last year? It was bio. It really is a joke. But it’s not. It’s funny, but it’s not.

Among traditional college students from the highest-income families, the gender gap pretty much disappears. But the story is not so simple. Wealthier students tend to go to elite private schools, and elite private schools live by their own rules. Quietly, they’ve been opening up a new frontier in affirmative action, with boys playing the role of the underprivileged applicants needing an extra boost. In 2003, a study by the economists Sandy Baum and Eban Goodstein found that among selective liberal-arts schools, being male raises the chance of college acceptance by 6.5 to 9 percentage points. Now the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has voted to investigate what some academics have described as the “open secret” that private schools “are discriminating in admissions in order to maintain what they regard as an appropriate gender balance.”

Jennifer Delahunty, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College, in Ohio, let this secret out in a 2006 New York Times op-ed. Gender balance, she wrote back then, is the elephant in the room. And today, she told me, the problem hasn’t gone away. A typical female applicant, she said, manages the process herself—lines up the interviews, sets up a campus visit, requests a visit with faculty members. But the college has seen more than one male applicant “sit back on the couch, sometimes with their eyes closed, while their mom tells them where to go and what to do. Sometimes we say, ‘What a nice essay his mom wrote,’” she said, in that funny-but-not vein.

To avoid crossing the dreaded 60 percent threshold, admissions officers have created a language to explain away the boys’ deficits: “Brain hasn’t kicked in yet.” “Slow to cook.” “Hasn’t quite peaked.” “Holistic picture.” At times Delahunty has become so worried about “overeducated females” and “undereducated males” that she jokes she is getting conspiratorial. She once called her sister, a pediatrician, to vet her latest theory: “Maybe these boys are genetically like canaries in a coal mine, absorbing so many toxins and bad things in the environment that their DNA is shifting. Maybe they’re like those frogs—they’re more vulnerable or something, so they’ve gotten deformed.”

Clearly, some percentage of boys are just temperamentally unsuited to college, at least at age 18 or 20, but without it, they have a harder time finding their place these days. “Forty years ago, 30 years ago, if you were one of the fairly constant fraction of boys who wasn’t ready to learn in high school, there were ways for you to enter the mainstream economy,” says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton. “When you woke up, there were jobs. There were good industrial jobs, so you could have a good industrial, blue-collar career. Now those jobs are gone.”

Since the 1980s, as women have flooded colleges, male enrollment has grown far more slowly. And the disparities start before college. Throughout the ’90s, various authors and researchers agonized over why boys seemed to be failing at every level of education, from elementary school on up, and identified various culprits: a misguided feminism that treated normal boys as incipient harassers (Christina Hoff Sommers); different brain chemistry (Michael Gurian); a demanding, verbally focused curriculum that ignored boys’ interests (Richard Whitmire). But again, it’s not all that clear that boys have become more dysfunctional—or have changed in any way. What’s clear is that schools, like the economy, now value the self-control, focus, and verbal aptitude that seem to come more easily to young girls.

Researchers have suggested any number of solutions. A movement is growing for more all-boys schools and classes, and for respecting the individual learning styles of boys. Some people think that boys should be able to walk around in class, or take more time on tests, or have tests and books that cater to their interests. In their desperation to reach out to boys, some colleges have formed football teams and started engineering programs. Most of these special accommodations sound very much like the kind of affirmative action proposed for women over the years—which in itself is an alarming flip.

Whether boys have changed or not, we are well past the time to start trying some experiments. It is fabulous to see girls and young women poised for success in the coming years. But allowing generations of boys to grow up feeling rootless and obsolete is not a recipe for a peaceful future. Men have few natural support groups and little access to social welfare; the men’s-rights groups that do exist in the U.S. are taking on an angry, antiwoman edge. Marriages fall apart or never happen at all, and children are raised with no fathers. Far from being celebrated, women’s rising power is perceived as a threat.

WHAT WOULD A SOCIETY in which women are on top look like? We already have an inkling. This is the first time that the cohort of Americans ages 30 to 44 has more college-educated women than college-educated men, and the effects are upsetting the traditional Cleaver-family dynamics. In 1970, women contributed 2 to 6 percent of the family income. Now the typical working wife brings home 42.2 percent, and four in 10 mothers—many of them single mothers—are the primary breadwinners in their families. The whole question of whether mothers should work is moot, argues Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, “because they just do. This idealized family—he works, she stays home—hardly exists anymore.”

The terms of marriage have changed radically since 1970. Typically, women’s income has been the main factor in determining whether a family moves up the class ladder or stays stagnant. And increasing numbers of women—unable to find men with a similar income and education—are forgoing marriage altogether. In 1970, 84 percent of women ages 30 to 44 were married; now 60 percent are. In 2007, among American women without a high-school diploma, 43 percent were married. And yet, for all the hand-wringing over the lonely spinster, the real loser in society—the only one to have made just slight financial gains since the 1970s—is the single man, whether poor or rich, college-educated or not. Hens rejoice; it’s the bachelor party that’s over.

The sociologist Kathryn Edin spent five years talking with low-income mothers in the inner suburbs of Philadelphia. Many of these neighborhoods, she found, had turned into matriarchies, with women making all the decisions and dictating what the men should and should not do. “I think something feminists have missed,” Edin told me, “is how much power women have” when they’re not bound by marriage. The women, she explained, “make every important decision”—whether to have a baby, how to raise it, where to live. “It’s definitely ‘my way or the highway,’” she said. “Thirty years ago, cultural norms were such that the fathers might have said, ‘Great, catch me if you can.’ Now they are desperate to father, but they are pessimistic about whether they can meet her expectations.” The women don’t want them as husbands, and they have no steady income to provide. So what do they have?

“Nothing,” Edin says. “They have nothing. The men were just annihilated in the recession of the ’90s, and things never got better. Now it’s just awful.”

The situation today is not, as Edin likes to say, a “feminist nirvana.” The phenomenon of children being born to unmarried parents “has spread to barrios and trailer parks and rural areas and small towns,” Edin says, and it is creeping up the class ladder. After staying steady for a while, the portion of American children born to unmarried parents jumped to 40 percent in the past few years. Many of their mothers are struggling financially; the most successful are working and going to school and hustling to feed the children, and then falling asleep in the elevator of the community college.

Still, they are in charge. “The family changes over the past four decades have been bad for men and bad for kids, but it’s not clear they are bad for women,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, the head of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project.

Over the years, researchers have proposed different theories to explain the erosion of marriage in the lower classes: the rise of welfare, or the disappearance of work and thus of marriageable men. But Edin thinks the most compelling theory is that marriage has disappeared because women are setting the terms—and setting them too high for the men around them to reach. “I want that white-picket-fence dream,” one woman told Edin, and the men she knew just didn’t measure up, so she had become her own one-woman mother/father/nurturer/provider. The whole country’s future could look much as the present does for many lower-class African Americans: the mothers pull themselves up, but the men don’t follow. First-generation college-educated white women may join their black counterparts in a new kind of middle class, where marriage is increasingly rare.

As the traditional order has been upended, signs of the profound disruption have popped up in odd places. Japan is in a national panic over the rise of the “herbivores,” the cohort of young men who are rejecting the hard-drinking salaryman life of their fathers and are instead gardening, organizing dessert parties, acting cartoonishly feminine, and declining to have sex. The generational young-women counterparts are known in Japan as the “carnivores,” or sometimes the “hunters.”

American pop culture keeps producing endless variations on the omega male, who ranks even below the beta in the wolf pack. This often-unemployed, romantically challenged loser can show up as a perpetual adolescent (in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up or The 40-Year-Old Virgin), or a charmless misanthrope (in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg), or a happy couch potato (in a Bud Light commercial). He can be sweet, bitter, nostalgic, or cynical, but he cannot figure out how to be a man. “We call each other ‘man,’” says Ben Stiller’s character in Greenberg, “but it’s a joke. It’s like imitating other people.” The American male novelist, meanwhile, has lost his mojo and entirely given up on sex as a way for his characters to assert macho dominance, Katie Roiphe explains in her essay “The Naked and the Conflicted.” Instead, she writes, “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.”

At the same time, a new kind of alpha female has appeared, stirring up anxiety and, occasionally, fear. The cougar trope started out as a joke about desperate older women. Now it’s gone mainstream, even in Hollywood, home to the 50-something producer with a starlet on his arm. Susan Sarandon and Demi Moore have boy toys, and Aaron Johnson, the 19-year-old star of Kick-Ass, is a proud boy toy for a woman 24 years his senior. The New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently wrote that the cougar phenomenon is beginning to look like it’s not about desperate women at all but about “desperate young American men who are latching on to an older woman who’s a good earner.” Up in the Air, a movie set against the backdrop of recession-era layoffs, hammers home its point about the shattered ego of the American man. A character played by George Clooney is called too old to be attractive by his younger female colleague and is later rejected by an older woman whom he falls in love with after she sleeps with him—and who turns out to be married. George Clooney! If the sexiest man alive can get twice rejected (and sexually played) in a movie, what hope is there for anyone else? The message to American men is summarized by the title of a recent offering from the romantic-comedy mill: She’s Out of My League.

In fact, the more women dominate, the more they behave, fittingly, like the dominant sex. Rates of violence committed by middle-aged women have skyrocketed since the 1980s, and no one knows why. High-profile female killers have been showing up regularly in the news: Amy Bishop, the homicidal Alabama professor; Jihad Jane and her sidekick, Jihad Jamie; the latest generation of Black Widows, responsible for suicide bombings in Russia. In Roman Polanski’sThe Ghost Writer, the traditional political wife is rewritten as a cold-blooded killer at the heart of an evil conspiracy. In her recent video Telephone, Lady Gaga, with her infallible radar for the cultural edge, rewrites Thelma and Louise as a story not about elusive female empowerment but about sheer, ruthless power. Instead of killing themselves, she and her girlfriend (played by Beyoncé) kill a bad boyfriend and random others in a homicidal spree and then escape in their yellow pickup truck, Gaga bragging, “We did it, Honey B.”

The Marlboro Man, meanwhile, master of wild beast and wild country, seems too far-fetched and preposterous even for advertising. His modern equivalents are the stunted men in the Dodge Charger ad that ran during this year’s Super Bowl in February. Of all the days in the year, one might think, Super Bowl Sunday should be the one most dedicated to the cinematic celebration of macho. The men in Super Bowl ads should be throwing balls and racing motorcycles and doing whatever it is men imagine they could do all day if only women were not around to restrain them.

Instead, four men stare into the camera, unsmiling, not moving except for tiny blinks and sways. They look like they’ve been tranquilized, like they can barely hold themselves up against the breeze. Their lips do not move, but a voice-over explains their predicament—how they’ve been beaten silent by the demands of tedious employers and enviro-fascists and women. Especially women. “I will put the seat down, I will separate the recycling, I will carry your lip balm.” This last one—lip balm—is expressed with the mildest spit of emotion, the only hint of the suppressed rage against the dominatrix. Then the commercial abruptly cuts to the fantasy, a Dodge Charger vrooming toward the camera punctuated by bold all caps: MAN’S LAST STAND. But the motto is unconvincing. After that display of muteness and passivity, you can only imagine a woman—one with shiny lips—steering the beast.

fred buechner- Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS

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Frederick Buechner
May 5, 2006    Episode no. 936

Read Bob Abernethy’s April 5, 2006 interview with writer and preacher Frederick Buechner:

Q: You have a new book of some of your sermons over the last 50 years [SECRETS IN THE DARK: A LIFE IN SERMONS, HarperSanFrancisco]. What do you see as the most important theme, the most important thread running through everything?

A: In various places, explicitly, I think the phrase “listen to your life.” Pay attention to what happens to you. Pay attention to who you see. Pay attention to what you say, what they say. Pay attention to what the day feels like. Observe. That wonderful phrase “religious observances” means, among other things, just what it says. Observe religiously. Observe deeply. Don’t just get through your life, as all of us are inclined to do, on automatic pilot, not much noticing anything.

Q: And then what comes from that?

A: Who knows? Who knows? That’s the mystery of it. Maybe nothing much, but maybe the secret of all secrets you need to hear may come through some event — something happens or fails to happen.

Q: Has that proved productive for you as you’ve lived?

A: Well, it’s really been my life. I’ve been a listener in that sense. I’ve written, in addition to sermons, a lot of fiction. I’ve written a lot of autobiography, which also involved listening. I’m trying to listen to my past, listen to what’s most deeply going on inside myself, my creative set of fictional characters, a fictional world — to listen to that world, to search. It’s not as if I knew answers which I am going to set down in the form of a novel or a memoir or a sermon. It’s, rather, I’m going to search myself for what I might have to say in this area.

Q: What have you heard as you’ve listened to your own life?

A: Who knows? I mean, you hear as many things as you would imagine. I hear voices of people I loved once. I hear moments that took place. I hear silences.

Q: I was thinking about patterns and a sense of what’s most important.

A: No words come easily to my lips. I think ultimately — what I like to think is that I’m in some sense hearing the mystery itself, what William James called “the More” with a capital M. Hearing not in words, not even in images, maybe, but hearing a sense of, maybe, feeling, being in touch with something vastly beyond my own power to express or to seize.

Q: If you could preach to everyone in the country right now, what would you say?

A: I think I might be inclined to say what I’ve just said to you: don’t let your life just go in one eye and out the other.

Q: I’m thinking about these particular times in this country. What is it that you think we most need to hear?

A: I don’t know that it makes any difference whether it’s at this time or a hundred years before or a hundred years later. I think always it’s a matter of simply listen[ing] to what is going on around you and in your own experience. Try to understand what’s happening, or if not to understand it, at least to appreciate the reality of it. Get a feeling for it, to see where it’s trying perhaps to lead you or what it’s trying to lead you away from.

Q: How do you keep your faith in spite of so much suffering in the world?

A: Well, it is in spite of it. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You can’t somehow theologize it away, as people have tried to do. I think of Christian Science disposing of the problem of evil by saying it’s just an error of mortal mind. Nor can I imagine myself saying with the Buddhists that it’s just the result of bad things we’ve done in the past for which we now have to pay a price. None of those things works for me. I think you simply have to say this is in spite of faith. This is the shadow side. [There is] that great remark of [Paul] Tillich: “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is an element of faith.” You can’t believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God and look at the horrors that are going on in the world — and never more so, as far as I’m concerned, than right now in this world and in this country — without saying, “How can I hold these two things together?” I have no formula for doing that. But my answer to myself is, don’t give up hope. Don’t give up hope. God is in all those things. The holier, “the More,” transcends all of the wretchedness that goes on in the world.

Q: There’s a lovely phrase you have used someplace comparing death next to life. What is it?

A: It’s from a novel I wrote called GODRIC, told in the voice of an 11th-century English monk and mystic named Godric — at the end of his days, in words he speaks that I in a sense put into his mouth, but in another sense heard from his mouth (some mysterious thing in the process of creating a character). He said as an old, old man who had lost almost everything, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was set next to life would scarcely fill a cup.” If I do say so, marvelous words, not because I invented them. This is an answer I wanted to give the world — but because in searching whatever dimension of myself I was searching at that moment in writing the book, they are the words that came out of the depths of me. And who knows? I may even get sort of spooky about it. Who knows? Maybe Godric himself was involved in it. I hang on to those words: “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was set next to life would scarcely fill a cup.” I love that. I’m so glad you reminded me of that.

The other day, the way people [do] who are approaching their 80th birthday, I was thinking about all the last business — funerals and where do you want to be buried — and I thought if anything were to be inscribed on my tombstone, I said let it be that. “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found.” Very important words.

Q: You have described yourself as a skeptical old believer and a believing old skeptic. What makes you the believer? What makes you the skeptic? And how do you keep the two going at the same time?

A: What makes me a believer is that from time to time, going back almost as far as my memory will go back, there have been glimpses I’ve had. Sometimes literally a glimpse which made me suspect the presence of something extraordinary and beyond the realm of the immediate. That’s what I think a lot of what my writing has been, my preaching has been — trying to listen to that voice again, to see those moments again. I wrote a book called THE SACRED JOURNEY, the title meaning each one of us could describe his or her life as a sacred journey. You are journeying from the beginning to the end, and what makes it sacred is that in the process of this journey you encounter the holy in various forms which, unless you have your eyes open, you might not even notice. They are so subtle and so elusive. That is what I spent my life trying to track. I remember as a little boy in Bermuda at the age of 11 or so, not long after my father’s death, walking up a long hill. Bermuda as it was in those days [was] just paradise. No cars, no combustion engines. Horses and carriages and bicycles. I was walking up the hill, and coming down the hill towards me was an Anglican priest in gaiters, all in black like something out of Laurence Sterne, a flat, low-crowned hat. I have remembered that all these years, with no verbal message attached to it. But just why has that stuck with me forever? And I could name you other moments like that.

Q: And the skepticism?

A: I think that just comes from having a mind. I mean, if with part of yourself you believe in this reality that you [feel] you have in these various subtle and elusive ways encountered, which is, above all things, loving, healing, creative. Because you read the newspapers and listen to the radio and watch what goes on next door or upstairs — there’s a lot of horror in the world. Sadness and brokenness and disappointment. So how do you put these two things together? You cannot help, if you are honest with yourself, say[ing], “Well, maybe this whole holy business is just a lot of hogwash. How do I know I’m not just trying to keep my spirits up? How do I know I’m not just inventing it for my own comfort?” But I have never come out on that side. I’ve never given up this conviction, faith, profound sense that all ultimately is well. Beneath the worst the world can do, there is always the glimmer of the best.

Q: What do you say to people who can’t come out that way?

A: You might be right. You might be right. Maybe I’m kidding myself. But don’t write it off too easily. Don’t write off the possibility of the holy too easily. Keep looking. Keep listening. Don’t just decide. It’s very easy in a way, horrible in some ways, but simply to give up the whole thing, to say, “Well, the hell with it, as far as I’m concerned life is pointless and [so] live the fullest, most successfully self-fulfilling life you can and let the rest go hang” — I’ve never reached that point in my life.

Q: As you look around, do you see a struggle between skepticism and belief, and how do you think it is going?

A: To me, that’s not the big divide. I don’t want to get political, but we have a president who says he follows the philosophy of Jesus. In that sense, he is a believer. But that does not put him in the same camp I am in, because the Jesus I follow is the peacemaker, is one who says forgive your enemies, who worries about the poor, who worries about the poorest of the poor instead of the richest of the rich. The difference to me is not between the believers on one hand and the nonbelievers on the other hand. It’s between people who carry in their hearts some sense of what the word “God,” at least to me, means, which is a loving, creating, everlastingly renewing presence deeply concerned with the well-being of the earth and all its creatures. You can do that whether you believe anything about anything. Marcus Borg makes the point that the word “believe” comes from the same root as the German “beliebten.” To believe is to “belove.” To believe is not intellectual assent: “Yes, I believe in Jesus. I will sign my name to the Nicene Creed. I believe it all” — which you could do, [but] it would have no effect on who you were or what you did. It is, rather, to give your heart. To believe in God is to give your heart to God. To believe in Christ is to give your heart to Christ, which means not to affirm things about Christ, but it’s like what you mean when you say, “I believe in my friend.” I mean, I believed he was going to Princeton as I did or was born in 1926 as I was. I believe in him in the sense that I trust him. I affirm him. I need him.

Q: One of the realities in this country, increasingly, is the prevalence of many different religions side by side. What do you make of that? Is that a problem, do you think, for some Christians?

A: It isn’t a problem to me. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one cometh to the Father but by me,” which, in one sense, seems to be exclusive: unless you’re a Christian, you’re not on the inside. You’re on the outside. But Jesus doesn’t say, “The religion founded in my name is the way, the truth, and the life, [and] what people say about me is the way.” “Our way of worship, the Christian structure, is not the way,” [he would say,] “I am. I am. If you want to know what life is all about, what it’s supposed to be, where it’s supposed to go, where it’s supposed to derive its strength from, don’t look at anything people say about me. Don’t look at the faith that’s been created. Look at my life, which is a life ultimately of sacrificial love.”

Q: What happens when you say that to a Jew or a Muslim or anyone who is not a Christian?

A: I suspect many of them would probably agree. You don’t have to mention Christ to them at all. I don’t think Christ would give a hoot whether you mentioned Christ to them or not. What matters — I’m speaking arrogantly and absurdly — to him is, are you living the kind of life that I embodied? Whether you believe in Christ or don’t, who cares?

Q: Some people say they have to choose which religion is true, or which religion is the truest.

A: What would “true” mean in that sentence? I’m not even sure. Which religion seems to speak most eloquently, most vividly, in images most meaningfully about what I take to be the heart of reality, which is ultimately — I have to use the word — love? That is the one that is for me the closest to being “true.” It is true to what I think the reality of things is.

Q: It seems there is a battle going on and perhaps worsening between extremists within Islam and also extremists here.

A: Oh, no question. No question, and not just terrorists in Islam, but terrorists here. Who is more terrifying as a nation at this moment than this nation — the strongest, most aggressive, most out to show the world the right way? The phrase that’s used again and again is, “Our war is a war against evil, against terror.” [Those are] almost meaningless words.

Q: Evangelicals are convinced they are commissioned by Christ to preach the gospel to all the world. Some feel they need to do what they can to convert others. Where do you come out on the question of evangelizing?

A: Paul Tillich, who was one of my teachers at Union Seminary in his golden years, in the ’50s, has a wonderful sermon called “The New Being.” He says, don’t let’s compare your religion and my religion, my way of understanding and your way of understanding. There is a reality alive in the world which I will call “the new being” which is marked by reconciliation and reunion and ultimately resurrection, where people come together and love, and wonderful things happen. That’s the only thing that matters. I don’t care what your religion is. I’m not going to try to convert you to my Judaism or my Islam. I’m just saying: This has happened. This is available. In some measure, I participate in this new kind of being. It has changed everything for me, and may it also, by the grace of God, change everything for you in whatever way you can find your way to it, without having to sign some religious party line.

Q: Should Christians who feel a duty, a call to evangelize, give it up in the name of respect for another person’s religion?

A: I don’t know. I’d have to hear the person who was doing the evangelizing, so it’s hard to answer that. If part of the message of this evangelist is to say all other religions are wrong, I’d say that is so wrong. I’d say, “Give it up. You are not working towards reunion, reconciliation, and resurrection. You are working towards divisiveness and war and horror. Give it up. You are barking up the wrong tree.”

Q: What do you make of people who say, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious”?

A: I’m never quite sure what “spiritual” means. I think what they mean is maybe something along the lines [of]: I’m not religious in the sense that I do not subscribe to any particular set of religious dogma. I don’t go to church. I don’t read the Bible. But I believe that the word “Spirit” with a capital S points to an ultimate reality which I give my heart to, marked by all the things that Paul says are the gifts of the Spirit — love and compassion and all that kind of thing. In that sense I understand the difference, and I can appreciate somebody who says, “I am spiritual and not religious.” I had a mother-in-law whom I loved who was a terrific Republican. And she always said of Eisenhower (whom I came to admire in many ways, but he seemed a sort of do-nothing president to me), “He’s so spiritual.” And I said, “What do you mean, he’s so spiritual?” She said, “He has such a wonderful smile, like God.” In that sense of spiritual and not religious — well, maybe so.

Q: Do you think people who want to find “the More” you spoke about need to do that within traditional religion?

A: Often within a particular tradition there’s some way of talking about holy things and evoking them through sermons. Maybe this could be very helpful, as becoming a Christian was terribly helpful to me. I can’t imagine finding my way without it. I think it can be very crucially important to ally yourself with some religion.

Q: How do you account for the decline over the last generation or two in the numbers of mainline Protestants?

A: I don’t go to church all that regularly, and one reason I don’t is very often when I go I am bored out of my wits. I find myself being addressed by preachers who, I assume, were led by some initial passion for Christ, for the truth, for God, for “the More.” That’s what got them there. But that has gotten buried under all the debris of having to run a church, of concerns. It comes through to me as something that simply has no living conviction to it anymore. They are not telling me anything I haven’t heard before. They’re not moving my heart. They’re not touching me. And I think, what am I doing here? It’s all so verbal in the Protestant church. You’ve heard these words a million times before. Maybe people are leaving the church because they find the church has nothing that they’re looking for. There is that wonderful passage in a book by Karl Barth called THE WORD OF GOD AND THE WORD OF MAN. As a preacher Barth said, “When I look out at the congregation, I realize they are here with one question: Is it true? Can it be true that there is a God who is loving and wise and powerful? Answer that question.

That’s the one thing they want to know.” Barth says that’s the one question to which most clergy do not address themselves. If they are not answering the one question — I mean, [there are] good words and encouragement to be charitable. You can’t write that off. Of course, that’s important. But I don’t think that’s what the heart of it is all about.

Q: When you preach, how do you answer that question — is it true?

A: First of all, I try not to just take it for granted that everybody in the church has already said, “Oh, yes, of course it’s true. That’s why we’re here.” I think even in the most churchly, the most convinced Christian or whatever, there is beneath the level of that the question is it really true, is it really true? Every congregation I address I always try in some way or another to answer the question, maybe not directly, but to answer in the sense of saying, “Yes, I think it is true and this is why.” Maybe not putting it in quite such clear structural terms, but describing something in my own life which left me — often the sign of it is tears in your eyes. When something happens, or you see something, [or] somebody says something and tears come to your eyes, it means you’re in touch with something profoundly important, profoundly human, profoundly holy. That’s what I try to do in my preaching, I think — to expose them to that.

Q: Sometimes, at the level of popular culture, it seems there’s not much religion anywhere. Yet people still say overwhelmingly they believe in God.

A: I think a lot of people who say, “I believe in God” — and I’m one of them — that belief doesn’t go down deep enough to change the way they conduct their lives most of the time. I believe with the best of who I am in God, but I sometimes think if anybody would watch me and [they] didn’t believe a damn thing, they would have a very hard time deciding which of us is which. It’s an unprofitable question. I wouldn’t know how to answer it to begin with, nor am I quite sure what evidence you could educe to support either view. We live in a very rural part of the world. We don’t see all that many people. We’re not part of any church in any ordinary sense. In New England, especially, [faith] is like sex. It’s very personal. You don’t bring it out and talk about it. I think most people, if I asked, would say, “Yes, of course I believe.” But I think for a great many of them it doesn’t really make much difference in terms of either what they do with their lives or with their own inner well-being. They believe because so did grandfather, and that’s the same church they’ve been going to all these years. I don’t know. I’m just guessing.

Q: Evangelical Christians have become more and more prominent, more and more public, more and more powerful.

A: H. L. Mencken said nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people. It’s a wickedly cynical thing to say, but I think that’s true. A lot of the televangelists that I hear — as far as I’m concerned, it’s just a lot of chatter. I mean, it’s nothing to me. It’s vulgar. It has nothing to do with any faith that I have anything to do with. And if their numbers are growing, I don’t know what that signifies except that maybe Mencken was right. People will buy snake oil from anybody who seems to be selling it in a persuasive way.

Q: Do you think what is preached typically in a white Protestant evangelical church is snake oil?

A: You’re asking the wrong man. I don’t go to churches enough to know that. I just know every once in a while, by mistake I might add, I get a religious thing on the radio or on television, and I’m so appalled that I turn it off.

Q: A lot of mainline people say these folks don’t speak for them, but I don’t hear mainline people saying what’s most important to them.

A: I don’t either. I don’t hear it in church because I don’t go to church that often. And I don’t hear it in New England because people in New England don’t talk that way.

Q: Is preaching the only thing that keeps you from going to church?

A: That stops me in my tracks. It’s certainly a good deal of it. I am such a person of words. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to get it right, say it right, say it eloquently, say it truthfully, say it honestly, that when I hear it said in ways that none of those adverbs would describe I find myself so repelled that it almost shuts my mind off. It gives birth to the worst of me. I keep thinking how much better I could do it, and what a terrible thing to go to church and come away thinking, “God, I wish I’d gotten up there. I could have really told the way it is.” So the preaching is part of the reason I don’t go to church. Plus, I don’t know, it was never part of my tradition. For some people, going to church is going home. In a very profound sense, I would say the same thing. Home is where Christ is. But that building on the corner with that particular preacher and that choir — I’ve rarely had a church that felt — well, I have had moments, by good fortune, of feeling that it is home. But it’s basically not what gets me back to church. What gets me back to church, I think, is thinking maybe this time that question “Is it true?” will be answered, not just in terms of somebody saying, “Yes, it’s true,” but something will happen in a sermon or maybe shuffling up to the Eucharist, or in the old lady who’s sitting beside me with a Bible — maybe something will happen which will show me that it’s true. So I go back thinking, maybe this time I’ll be lucky.

Q: Some people say we create our own meaning in our lives. Others say there is such a thing as “the meaning of life.” Is there anything there you could talk about?

A: There was an Indian holy man who had the answer to that question. But to get to him was a long voyage up into the Himalayas — snow and ice and sherpas and days of hardship. Finally [the pilgrim] came up to the rock where the holy man sat, and the snow and the ice were coming down, and he said to him, “What is the meaning of life?” And the holy man said, “One size does not fit all.” There is the meaning of life.

Q: What are your everyday spiritual practices?

A: Nothing in the sense of some ordered prayer life. My prayer is spasmodic, occasional, desperate. It has a great deal to do with my children’s physical well-being — that when they’re traveling in the air the plane not crash, things like that. I pray for people I love when they are sick. I pray that way. Ad hoc prayers. Prayers out of, very often, not the most religious part of me, but the most anxious part of me, the most desperately loving, fearing part of me. But at another level, I[‘ve] spent my whole life writing one thing or another, and I think that is a kind of praying in the sense that, both in writing and in praying, what I’m really doing is listening, listening to the deepest level of myself for what of truth, for what of hope, for what of beauty, for what of meaning may be there. In that sense, I like to think, despite this ragged, inadequate, ludicrous nonprayer life that I am a — I’m a hopeless pray-er. I think somewhere in there I spend a great deal of time at it.

Q: What do you say to people who don’t believe much in prayer?

A: I say, “You may be right, but don’t knock it until you’re tried it. Don’t say, ‘I think it’s worthless; therefore I’m not going to spend any time looking into myself the way one who prays does.'” Maybe that’s an even worse mistake than praying might be.

Q: What do you think about the ability of prayer to heal?

A: I was deeply influenced by an Episcopal laywoman named Agnes Sanford, who in her day was quite famous as a faith healer, which is a term I’ve always distrusted, because it conjures up charlatanry. She was not a charlatan. She was the real thing, and she had had remarkable healings. She would gather ministers together — I was one of them. She said her idea of church was Jesus standing with his arms tied behind him unable to give anybody anything, because nobody dared ask him for anything, especially the minister, for fear that if the minister prayed for the healing of old Mrs. Smith who is dying of lung cancer in the hospital and she wasn’t healed, what would that do to his faith, and what will that do to the faith of the congregation? So the prayer is not prayed. [Agnes Sanford] said forget all that. Pray anyway. Pray anyway. Who knows what God can do through your prayer? That made a tremendous impression on me. So I continue. She said anybody who prays — there will be a little voice inside saying, “Oh, come on, who are you kidding?” She said that little voice inside is the product of generations of skepticism, of materialism, of not paying attention to that kind of reality. Ignore it. Just keep doing it. Just keep on praying “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Wonderful insight.

Q: You wrote a famous line about one’s own deep gladness and the world’s deep need. What is your advice to a young person trying to find out what to do in life, trying to figure out a vocation?

A: I never got my own quotation quite straight. There was a little piece I once read on vocation or all these “voices” — “vocare,” to call, “vocation,” calling you to be this or to be that. Which one do you answer? I said the vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet. When you are doing what you are happiest doing, it must also be something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done. In other words, if what makes you happy is going out and living it up and spending all your money on wine, women, and song, the world doesn’t need that. But on the other hand, if you give your life to good works — you go and work in a leper colony and it doesn’t make you happy — the chances are you’re not doing it very well. Those for whom you were doing it will recognize that this is not an act of love. It’s a good work and they are the object of it. Just the other day somebody my age in some sort of a crisis said, “I don’t feel I’m being what I ought to be.” And I said, “What makes you happiest? That’s the clue.” I struck him dumb. He said, “I never thought that. What makes me happy?” I think he was thinking, what makes me useful? What makes me religious? No, no, no. What makes you, in the deepest sense of the word, happy? That’s what you should be doing, if the other part is also met — if it is something the world needs.

Q: What is that for you? Preaching or writing?

A: Well, writing. I don’t make a distinction really. Preaching and writing — it’s the same. Whether I’m writing to speak or writing to be read in a book, it’s the same thing. Yes, it’s what makes me happiest. One can only hope that the world needs me to do it. I’ve never been a great best-seller, so it’s not as if millions of people have taken heart from what I’ve written. But I get enough letters, after all these books I’ve written over all these years, from people saying, in one sense or another, “You saved my life” that I have to take them seriously, always with tremendous embarrassment. I don’t know how to save my own life, so anything they’ve found in what I’ve written that saved theirs — I can’t take responsibility for it. But something that’s touched me, and through me them, has saved their life. That’s something I love more than anything else to do. I mean, the world needs people who save lives.

Q: What does it feel like when you’re preaching, when you’ve written something and you like it, you like the way you put it down, and you hope it’s something people need? What does that feel like?

A: Oh, it’s a wonderful feeling, marvelous feeling on those occasions when I’m saying it right. And you can tell, even though the congregation by the rules of the game never says anything, but you can get a sense that they’re truly listening or that they’re truly not listening. That’s the other side. It doesn’t always work by any manner or means. Some of my great moments have been in church where I started out as a preacher, the most regular preacher you have. It was at a boy’s prep school, Exeter, where a great many of the congregation were adolescents who were rebelling against everything — this is the ’60s — against the war, against the government, against the school, against their parents. They were in school against their own better judgment. They didn’t believe in a damn thing, and all the people they hated said it was good for you. They came in, you know, just making a show — not all of them, but many — of not paying attention. Once in a while you could tell, in spite of themselves they were paying attention. I thought, how wonderful. At least for a few moments they are listening to a proclamation of greater or less value — that something they had never thought of as important was important. And maybe, you know, what that little seed might produce.

Q: When a young pastor asks you for advice about how to preach, what do you tell them?

A: I say learn how to speak in your own true voice, which is so hard for preachers and for writers generally. When you are starting out as a writer or as a preacher, you’re trying to sound like writers you admire, to speak in a way that you think is going to gain you adherents so that where it will make people prick up their ears. The important thing is to speak in your own voice. And then also to speak out of your own experience. If you are going to proclaim the Christian faith, speak about those dimensions of it which you[‘ve] had some experience with. If you talk about sin, you don’t have to use the first person singular, but speak out of that part of yourself which knows what it means to become estranged from people you love. Speak in your own voice about things that you in your own life have in one way or another experienced. I’ve given a three- or four-day seminar, and I said this, and a young woman who was a lawyer said, “You mean you’re telling preachers to be a credible witness.” I said yes. Be credible. Speak in a way that people listening to you can believe might even be true. And the way to test that, I always say to preachers, is try reading your manuscript to somebody who knows you very well and say, “Is this me, my own voice?” And if they say, “That’s as phony as a three-dollar bill,” that’s not who you are. Speak in your own voice and speak about things that you have in some sense witnessed, not just things you read about or have been taught about in seminary. To talk about the resurrection, think about those moments where in some way you have been resurrected. You don’t need to put it in the first person, but speak out of the kind of passion that is given rise by your simply thinking about those moments in your life.

Q: George Buttrick was an important mentor for you.

A: Yes. Years ago, before I had any notion that I was going to be a minister, I went to a church where this great preacher named George Buttrick was preaching. And he said when Jesus was offered a crown by Satan, who said at the time of the temptation that all the kings of the earth will be yours if you’ll only kneel down and worship me, Jesus turned the crown down. This is just about the time that Queen Elizabeth II had been crowned at Westminster Abbey. Buttrick said, “Unlike Elizabeth, Jesus said no.” But, he said, despite that, Jesus is crowned again and again in the hearts of people who believe in him, “belove” in him, amidst confession and tears, predictable things, but then “and great laughter.” And that phrase “great laughter” was my Damascus road for reasons I to this day can’t altogether understand. I think part of the laughter is the laughter of incredulity. Can it be true? Can it be true? Can it be true what they say? That there really is a God and that he was in Jesus and he loves us and forgives us and will make all things right again? That he really made the world, he loves the world, he will save the world in the long run? Can that be true? I can only laugh. Or maybe the laughter is divine relief: “Oh my God. After everything, it’s true. I can only laugh. I can weep at the absurdity and beauty of its truth.” I don’t know. [Those are] just two possibilities.

Q: Where do you think you found it in yourself to speak the language of faith?

A: I ask myself that question. How did somebody who grew up in a family to whom religion was nothing — they weren’t against it, they weren’t for it. This was in the Roaring ’20s. People weren’t thinking religiously, at least not that particular world I grew up in. How did I ever find my way into this world, where I was asking these questions and trying to speaking this language? As I began to think about it, to look back over my life, beginning with the very beginnings of it. I found all these little signs along the way. Hints, whispers, a smell in the air. The priest I talked about in Bermuda walking up the hill. I remember once when I was teaching at Lawrenceville, the school I went to, the fellow who preached that morning asked me to lunch. I thought, why is he asking me to lunch? I don’t know him. He has no interest in me particularly. I don’t to this day know really why he did. But at some point rather casually he said, “I just had a rather successful book published.” He said, “Have you ever thought of putting your gift for words to work for Jesus?” And I was quite embarrassed by the question. The name Jesus was a little bit embarrassing, especially to people who aren’t religious. But I remembered that all the way — [he] just planted a seed. So how did I get to where I could — despite being in a world where people don’t talk about religion because it’s too private – [I] think these little bits of things along the way pushed me more and more in the direction … I began at least talking to myself about it. And then because I’m a verbal person, a writing person, I started [thinking], this is so important to me. This is what I want to write about, put into words.

Close Window – Frederick Buechner – “What It Means to Grow Up” – Frederick Buechner – “What It Means to Grow Up”.

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Frederick Buechner
“What It Means to Grow Up”
Program #2901
First air date September 29, 1985

Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister, was born in New York City and studied at Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary. He recently was Chaplain at Phillips Exeter which he left to engage in full-time writing. He is teaching this fall at Wheaton College. Dr. Buechner was named by the New York Times as the leading Christian writer of today. He has written more than ten novels and ten nonfiction books of essays and biography. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted above.]


“What It Means to Grow Up”

Rich man
Poor man
Beggar man
Chief — or Indian Chief (if you happen to be feeling a little more exotic than usual that day).

That was how the rhyme went in my time anyway, and you used it when you were counting the cherry pits on your plate or the petals on a daisy, or counting the buttons on your shirt or your blouse. When you ended up counting was, of course, what you ended up being — rich, poor, standing on a street corner with a tin cup in your hand, or maybe a career in organized crime — who knows? What in the world, what in heaven’s name, were you going to be when you grew up?

It wasn’t just another question — it was the great question. And everything I want to say to you this evening is based on the assumption that it still is. Whether we remember to ask it or not, I strongly suspect that it may be the great question always — what are you going to be? — what am I going to be?

I’ll be sixty years old (heaven help me) on my next birthday, and I’ve been more or less in the same line of work for a long time and I contemplate no immediate change, but I think of it still as a question that is wide open — at least, I hope it’s wide open for me: for God’s sake, what do you suppose we’re going to be, you and I, when we grow up?

Something in us rears back in indignation a little bit I think that at 20, or 30, or 40, or 50, or 70, or 80, or 110, whatever we are, surely we’ve got our growing up behind us. We have come many a long mile and thought many a long thought. We have taken on serious responsibilities and made mature decisions — hoped they were mature anyway — weathered many a crisis of one kind or another. Surely the question is rather — what are we now? how well are we doing at it, if not doctors, and lawyers, and merchants, and chiefs? We are whatever we are: businessmen, businesswomen, computer analysts (whatever they are), school teachers, artists, ecologists, ministers even — we don’t have to count cherry pits to find out what we’re going to end up being because for better or worse the die has already been cast. Now we simply get on with the game. That’s what life, after all, is all about.

What then? Then maybe we have to listen, listen back farther even than the rhymes of childhood, thousands of years farther back than that. A thick cloud gathers on the mountain, as the book Exodus describes it. There are flickers of lightning, jagged and dangerous. A clap of thunder shakes the earth, sets the leaves of the trees trembling — sets even you and me trembling a little bit if we have our wits about us. Suddenly the great shofar sounds, the ram’s horn, the long drawn pulsing note louder than thunder, more dangerous than lightning, and out of the darkness, out of the mystery, out of some cavernous part of who we are, a voice calls, “Now, therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all peoples.” My s’gullah, the Hebrew word is — “My precious ones, my darlings, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Then thousands of years later, but still thousands of years ago, there was another voice to listen to, the voice of an old man dictating a letter. There is reason to believe that he may actually have been the one who up to all but the end of his life, Jesus had for his best friend, Peter himself, old Peter. “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and slander,” he says. “Like newborn babes long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation for you have tasted of the kindness of the Lord.”

And then he echoes the great cry out of the thunder clouds that Moses heard, with a cry of his own, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation — God’s own people,” he says. “That you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

So what are we going to be when we grow up? Not what are we going to do, what profession are we going to follow or keep on following, what niche are we going to choose for ourselves, but what are we going to be inside ourselves and among ourselves?

That’s the question I think that God answers with Torah at Sinai. That’s the question that the old saint answers or tries to answer in his letter from Rome. Holy! That’s what we’re going to be if God gets his way with us. It’s wildly unreasonable. It’s going to make a shambles of all our reasonable ambitions to be this or to be that. It’s not really a human possibility at all because holiness is Godness, and only God makes holiness possible.

But being holy is what growing up in the full sense means, Peter suggests. No matter how old we are, how much we’ve achieved, or dream of achieving, we’re not truly grown up until this extraordinary thing happens. Holiness is what is to happen. “Out of darkness, we are called into his marvelous light,” Peter writes. Peter knew more about darkness than most of us, if you stop to think of it, and had looked into the very face of light himself.

And we’re called to have faces like the face Peter looked into — to be filled with light so that we can be bearers of light. I’ve seen a few such faces in my day, and I suspect you also have. Are we going to be rich, poor, beggars, thieves? In the case of most of us, it’s a little bit of each. Who knows? In the long run, who even cares? Only one thing is really worth caring about and it is this: “Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Well, Israel, as I am sure you know, was never much good at it, God knows. If anybody knows, God knows about Israel. It’s what the Old Testament is mostly about. Israel didn’t want to be a holy nation. Israel wanted to be a nation like all the other nations — a nation like Egypt, like Syria. She wanted clout. She wanted security. She wanted a place in the sun. It was her own way she wanted — not God’s way. And when the prophets, those wild men, got after her for it, she got rid of the prophets. And when God’s demands seemed too exorbitant, God’s promises too remote, she took up with all the other gods — who still get our votes, and our money, and our nine-to-five energies because they couldn’t care less, those other gods, whether we are holy or not, and promise absolutely everything we really want and absolutely nothing we really need.

And, of course, we can’t very well blame Israel because we are Israel.

Who wants to be holy? The very word has fallen into disrepute. “Holier than thou”, “Holy Joe”, “Holy Mess”. And “saint” comes to mean “Plaster saint” — somebody of such stifling moral perfection that if we happen to cross the path of such a person, we run screaming in the other direction. We are such children, you and I, the way we do such terrible things with such wonderful words. We are such babes in the woods, the way we keep getting so lost in the woods.

And yet, we have our moments. Every once in a while I think we actually long to be what out of darkness and mystery we are called to be. We hunger for holiness even so, even if we never use the word. There come moments, I think, even in the midst of all our cynicism, worldliness, and childishness — maybe especially then. And there’s something about the saints of the earth that bowls us over a little bit. I mean real saints. I mean saints as men and women who are made not out of plaster, and platitude, and moral perfection, but out of human flesh in all its richness and quirkiness, for the simple reason that there is nothing else around except human flesh to make saints out of. I mean saints as human beings who have their rough edges and their blind spots like everybody else. It was lives so transparent, something so extraordinary, that every once in a while it stops even you and me dead in our tracks.

I remember going to see the movie “Ghandhi” when it first came out. We were the usual kind of noisy, restless Saturday night crowd as we sat there waiting for the lights to dim, with our popcorn and soda pop. Girl friends and boy friends — their legs draped over the backs of the empty seats. But by the time the movie came to a close with the flames of Ghandhi’s funeral pyre filling the entire screen, there wasn’t a sound or a movement in that whole enormous theater.

We filed out of there, teenagers and senior citizens, blacks and whites, swingers and squares, in as deep and telling a silence as I’ve ever been part of or has ever been part of me.

Peter in his letter wrote, “You have tasted of the kindness of the Lord.” And we tasted it in some fashion in that theater.

The life of that little bandy-legged, bespectacled man with his spinning wheel and his bare feet, and whatever he had in the way of selfless passion for peace and passionate opposition to every form of violence, we, all of us, tasted something that at least for a few moments that Saturday night made every other kind of life seem empty. Something that at least for the moment I think every last one of us longed for in a way that in a far country, you long for home.

“A holy nation” — can a nation be holy? It’s hard to imagine it. Some part of a nation, maybe some element of a nation, some remnant or root, a shoot coming forth “from the stump of Jesse” as Isaiah put it, “that with righteousness shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

The 18th century men and women who founded this nation, dreamed just such a high and holy dream for us too, and gave their first settlements over here — in my part of the country, to the east of here, names to match their high and holy dreams. NEW HAVEN “new hope” they called those old towns. Names that almost bring tears to your eyes if you listen to what they are saying or once said. PROVIDENCE, CONCORD, SALEM (which is “Shalom” — the peace of God). Dreams like that die hard. Please God there is still some echo of them in the air around us. But the way things have turned out, the meek of the earth are scared stiff of the power we have as a nation to blow the earth to smithereens a hundred times over, and at our failure year after year to work out with our enemies a way of limiting that ghastly power. The nation that once dreamed of being a “new hope” a NEW HAVEN for the world has become instead one of the two great bullies of the world, who blunder and bluster their way to God knows what.

And maybe that’s the way it inevitably is of all nations — they’re so huge and complex. By definition as nations, they’re so exclusively concerned with their own self interests, conceived in the narrowest terms, that they have no eye for holiness of all things, no ear to hear the great command to be saints, no heart to break. Nations should think of what the world could be, the friends we could be to each other as nations, the common problems we could help each other solve, all the human anguish we might join together to heal.

You and I are the eyes, and you and I are the ears and you and I are the heart. It’s to us that the old saint’s letter is addressed: “So put away all guile, and insincerity, envy, and all slander,” he says. No shofar sounds or has to sound. It is as quiet as the scratching of a pen, as familiar as the sight of our own faces in the mirror. We’ve always known what was wrong with us, the malice in us even at our most civilized, the way we focus on the worst in the people we know and then rejoice when disasters overtake them which we believe they so richly deserve. Our insincerity, our phoniness, the masks we do our real business behind. The envy. The way other people’s luck can sting like wasps. And all slander. All the ways we have of putting each other down, of making such caricatures of each other that we treat each other like caricatures even when we love each other.

All the infantile nonsense and nastiness “Put it away,” Peter says. Before nations can be holy, you and I must be holy. “Grow up to salvation.” For Christ’s sake, grow up.

Grow up? People at my stage of the game, 60 come July? For us, isn’t it a bit too late? Young people — for you, isn’t it a bit too early? I don’t think so. It’s never too late, never too early, to grow up, to be holy. We have already tasted it. “Tasted the kindness of the Lord,” Peter says. That’s such a haunting thought, I think. I think you can see it in our eyes sometimes that we have tasted this holiness. Just the way you can see something more than animal in an animal’s eyes, I think you can sometimes see something more than human in human eyes, even your eyes and my eyes. I think we belong to holiness even when we can’t believe it exists anywhere, let alone in us.

That’s why everybody left that crowded shopping mall’s movie theater in such unearthly silence, I think. That’s why it’s hard not to be haunted by that famous photograph (which I hope you have seen) of the only things Ghandi owned at his death: his glasses, his watch, his sandals, a bowl and spoon, a book of songs. What does any of us own to match such riches as that?

Children that we are, even you and I, who have given up so little, know in our hearts not only that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is also more fun. The kind of holy fun that wells up like tears in the eyes of saints, the kind of blessed fun in which we lost ourselves and at the same time begin to find ourselves to grow up into the selves we were created to become.

When the American novelist, Henry James, was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, he said something that the boy never forgot. Of all the things he might have said, what the old novelist did say was this, “There are three things that are important in human life — the first, is to be kind; the second, is to be kind; the third, is to be kind.”

Be kind, because though kindness isn’t the same thing as holiness, kindness is next to holiness. It is the door that holiness often enters the world through, enters us through. Not just gently kind, but sometimes fiercely kind. Be kind enough to yourselves, not just to play it safe with your life for your own sakes, but to spend at least part of your lives like drunken sailors, for God’s sake, if you believe in God — or, for the world’s sake, if you believe in the world. And that’s to come alive truly. Be kind enough to others, to listen beneath the words they speak for that usually unspoken hunger for holiness that I think is part of all of us, because by listening to it and cherishing it, maybe we can help bring it to birth, both in mammon and ourselves.

Be kind to this nation of ours by remembering that NEW HAVEN “new hope”, SALEM “shalom” are the names not just of our oldest towns, but of our holiest dreams which most of the time are threatened by the madness of no enemy without as dangerously as they are threatened by our own madness.

“You have tasted of the kindness of the Lord,” Peter wrote in his letter and ultimately that, of course, is the kindness, the holiness, the sainthood, and sanity we are all of us called to, so that we may grow up to salvation at last.

We are strangers to each other, you and I. Who knows how many miles apart as I stand at the lectern and you sit there watching your screens, but the sense we have of each other’s humanity even so, the feeling that one way or another we are all of us here — you in your living rooms and me at this lectern to give each other our love and God our love. This kind of moment itself is a door that holiness enters the world through. May it enter you! May it enter me! — to the world’s saving. Amen.


Frederick Buechner – Whistling in the Dark

Frederick Buechner – Whistling in the Dark.

Frederick Buechner
“Whistling in the Dark”

Program #3305
First broadcast October 29, 1989

Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and story teller who has written critically acclaimed novels like Godric, The Final Beast and Brendan, as well as stories and essays. The New York Times has called him the finest Christian writer in America. He has a clear perception of the challenges and contradictions of Christianity and is truly provocative. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted above.]

“Whistling in the Dark”
I have just come back from about a ten-day stint of speaking in the state of Iowa, which was tremendous fun and exhausting. One of the most enjoyable parts of those events is the question and answer period after the readings and lectures are over. I have a chance to step out from behind the written word, listen to what people have to say and respond to them as best you can. I always say, “Anything you ask me, “I’ll try to answer. If I don’t know the answer, I will make it up.”

One question that I’m asked almost every time is, “If I had to sum up in one relatively short space what I have been trying to say all these years as a writer, what would that statement be?” I come prepared with the answer. I think if I had to put it in one sentence I would say that in everything I have written, both fiction and non-fiction, as a preacher or just as a writer, I am trying to say, “Listen to your life; pay attention to what happens to you.” Because it seems to me that if indeed there is a God, which most of the time I believe there is, and if indeed He is concerned with the world, which is what the Christian faith is saying — concerned enough to enter it, to live in it and to work in it and to fail and succeed in it and finally die in it and rise again in it — if he is really involved with the world, then one of the most powerful ways He speaks to us is through what happens to us, which means keep your ears open, keep your eyes open for the often hidden, illusive word of God.

It’s very hard to do that because we get so wrapped up in the business of living. In Vermont where I live, the nearest big town is the town of Rutland which is about a forty-five minute drive from where I live. On the way to Rutland, there is one other tiny little town called Wallingford which you pass through inevitably on that journey. I remember taking that trip once by myself, driving along in a car, and suddenly thinking, “Have I been through Wallingford?” I had no recollection of it and then as I drove on a little bit longer, I saw some landmarks which indicated that, yes, I had been through Wallingford.

I’ve thought since that if somebody had taken a photograph of me at the wheel of that car as I drove through Wallingford, they would have taken the photograph of a person who was not at that moment present in his life. I think that is true of all of us to a degree. We get through life somehow on automatic pilot, on cruise control, not really listening, not really seeing even those who are closest, nearest and dearest to us, but just getting through our lives.

People often ask, “How do you listen to your life? How do you get into the habit of doing it? How do you keep ears cocked and your eye peeled for the presence of God or the presence of anything else?” One thing I have said, which I think is true, is to pay attention to any of those moments in your life when unexpected tears come in your eyes. You never know when that may happen, what may trigger them. Very often I think if you pay attention to those moments, you realize that something deep beneath the surface of who you are, something deep beneath the surface of the world, is trying to speak to you about who you are.

I thought I would read, if I may, a selection from this little ABC that I wrote on the subject of tears. My idea in this book called Whistling in the Dark was to take a series of just ordinary words, a few religious cries, but mainly just plain word words, and to try to listen to them in some of the same ways that I am suggesting one listens to one’s own life to hear what lies beneath the surface of perfectly everyday words standing for perfectly everyday experiences

Here is what I wrote about the word tears: “You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.”

They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are. More often than not, God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and to summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

I think that is true. If I were to give you an example of unexpected tears in my own life and what I think they were saying, I could tell you about how a couple of winters ago I went with my wife and our youngest daughter, who was about 21 or 22, to one of those great aquatic jamborees, Sea World or Marine Land, I think it is called, near Disney World in Orlando, Florida. There was a lot of “Mickey Mouse” about it – thousands of tourists, gag tee shirts and loud speakers broadcasting music, etc. The main show was fantastic. There was this enormous pool full of clear turquoise-colored water and a couple of very beautiful young women and equally beautiful young men in tank suits standing up on the stage, the platform jutting out into the water. Then, all of a sudden the show began. These vast creatures, they call them killer whales, though I have never seen anything that looked less like a killer than those beasts, began to do their thing. They shot around through that water at a thousand miles an hour, leaping out of it with the sun glistening on their scales and their fins cutting through the surface of the water. The young people were somehow part of it with them — this great dance of creatures, human creatures, sunlight and crystal water. Suddenly, I found myself, of all things, with tears in my eyes. I thought, “Good God, I know I’m neurotic but I didn’t think I was that neurotic. What a shame sitting at this thing with tears in my eyes.”

When it was over, as a way of comforting myself, I said to my wife and my daughter that I had had tears in my eyes. To my extraordinary comfort and great astonishment, they said they also had had tears in their eyes.

And I wondered why. I think I know why. I think what happened was that we were remembering Eden. This marvelous dance of humans and beasts and joy and freedom – and God was certainly present there – this great peaceable kingdom – this greenness and gladness and freedom from so many things that plague us. It is where we all started from, I think, in some fashion, some odd way. It is where, by God’s good grace, we are all headed. Just this glimpse of it was more poignant than grief and something I’ve always remembered. That is an example of what I mean by listening to your life. It would be an example of the best advice I can give you. If anyone wants to start listening in a new way, keep track of those moments when something brings those tears to your eyes.

To give you another kind of example of the same thing, I want to read you another entry in this book, taking another word just as humdrum as the word tears. I should say that it is very often humdrum moments that turn out to be the most eloquent moments. Perhaps because they catch you off guard. You are not all keyed up to understand some particular big thing, but you open to whatever happens.

My wife and, in this case, all three of our children took a trip once to the west coast. One of the things that my wife especially wanted to see, because she is very much into that kind of natural beauty, was the giant Redwood Forest. As far as I was concerned, I was bored stiff with the idea. Who wants to go see another tree? But off we went, the four of us and some friends into the giant redwoods in Northern California. I want to read you this little entry. The entry on the word awe.

“I remember seeing a forest of giant redwoods for the first time. There were some small children nearby, giggling and chattering and pushing each other around. Nobody had to tell them to quiet down as we entered.

They quieted down all by themselves. Everybody did. You couldn’t hear a sound of any kind. It was like caning into a vast, empty room.

”Two or three hundred feet high the redwoods stood. You had to crane your neck back as far as it would go to see the leaves at the top. They made their own twilight out of the bright California day. There was a stillness and stateliness about them that seemed to become part of you as you stood there stunned by the sight of them. They had been growing in that place for going on two thousand years. With infinite care they were growing even now. You could feel them doing it. They made you realize that all your life you had been mistaken. Oaks and ashes, maples and chestnuts and elm you had seen for as long as you could remember, but never until this moment had you so much as dreamed what a tree really was.

“‘Behold the man,’ Pilate said when he led Jesus out where everybody could see Him. He can’t have been much to look at after what they I d done to Him by them, but my guess is that, even so, there suddenly fell over that mob a silence as awed as ours in the forest when for the first time in their lives they found themselves looking at a Human Being.”

You have to be quiet to hear. Those great trees almost enforce you to be quiet. Anything you would say in their presence becomes the chatter of a cricket. How hard it is to be quiet, especially verbal people like me, to stop not only the outward talking but also the internal talking. We are always in some sort of endless, haggard dialogue with ourselves. This makes me think of the greatest class I ever taught – a class at a boys prep school in New Hampshire. It was a late afternoon class and I remember driving to it from the beach, where I had been to whiff the sea air for a minute. As I drove towards town, to the west, away from the ocean, I noticed that the sun was just beginning to show signs of setting, sort of lemony color in the sky. Then I went up to the classroom. There were the fifteen or so boys gathered around the table waiting for whatever was going to happen. We waited and I could see yellow beginning to deepen a little bit — the sun sinking a little bit. Then the bell rang and, normally speaking, I would have gotten up and started off with the lesson for the day. With this marvelously happy impulse never thought out, instead of starting out the class, I flipped the light switch off, which meant that we were suddenly sitting in deep dusk with the sun setting through the window. The room faced west.

It was a magnificent sunset. I can still gee it. It was very orange, sort of a pumpkin-colored sunset, with the branches of the trees and corners of the buildings black as soot against it. It turned from orange to crimson. We sat there in absolute silence. That is the curious thing. You would have thought that in a room full of fifteen boys, somebody would have horse laughed or poked the other in the ribs or giggled or something like that but not at all. We sat there for as long as it took the sun to set without a word, without any sound at all, until finally the sun did set and we were sitting there in darkness.

I’ve thought since about what made that such a marvelous class and the sunset was almost the least of it. I am not saying something sentimental about sunsets. The sunset was marvelous. A lot of it was the silence, which we usually find so awkward. We’re embarrassed; we’re afraid of silence because we use words so often not to reveal who we are but to conceal who we are. We hide behind our chatter. In silence a kind of sense of being stripped naked. Perhaps because we couldn’t see our faces, perhaps because it was a kind of silence, we were all contributing to in a way. It was not an awkward silence. It was a sort of blessed silence. Silence was part of it; a sense of each other’s presence was part of it; we were all there together, all participating in this silence. There was a wonderful sense that nothing had to be done about it. No test was going to be given; no questions were going to be asked; nothing like that. Just to be there and see what there was to be seen, made it a deeply moving thing. The sense also that we were seeing not just the sun set gorgeously, but we were seeing a day of our lives come to an end without sadness, with a kind of lovely gentleness, made it special. We only have so many days and here was one of them. It was beautifully ending.

It got dark. The sunset was over and I thought to myself, “This is a religion class and I’m a religious teacher. Perhaps I should make some edifying remark about the sunset and draw some religious conclusion from it.” By an impulse as happy as the one which led me to turn off the light, I said not a word, thank heavens, except “Go home.” And, home they went. For that reason, it was a very good class. That is another illustration of what I am talking about, the listening to your life.

Since I have this book before me, as a way of beguiling you in the few moments we have left, I thought I would read you another one or two entries. Perhaps one I will read you is Dying. We all think about that from time to time. I don’t mean death; that’s another issue, death, and what may come after it — if anything. I’m thinking of dying, the moment itself of withdrawal from this world and the transition into whatever may lie beyond it. Again, I’m talking here less in theological terms but in terms of an image which is very real to me. And, this is it.

“The airport is crowded noise, frenetic. There are yowling babies, people being paged, the usual ruckus. Outside, a mixture of snow and sleet is coming down. The runways show signs of icing. Flight delays and cancellations are called out over the PA system together with the repeated warning that in view of recent events any luggage left unattended will be immediately impounded. There are more people than usual smoking at the various gates. The air is blue with it. Once aboard you peer through the windows for traces of ice on the wings and search the pancaked faces of the stewardesses for anything like the knot of anxiety you feel in your own stomach as they run through the customary emergency procedures. The great craft lumbers its way to the take-off position, the jets shrill. Picking up speed, you count the seconds till you feel lift-off. More than so many, you’ve heard, means trouble. Once airborne, you can hardly see the wings at all through the grey turbulence scudding by. The steep climb is rough as a Ford pickup. Gradually it starts to even out. The clouds thin a little. Here and there you see tatters of clear air among them. The pilot levels off slightly. Nobody is talking. The calm and quiet of it are almost palpable. Suddenly, in a rush of light, you break out of the weather. Beneath you the clouds are a furrowed pasture. Above, no sky in creation was ever bluer.

“Possibly the last take-off of all is something like that. When the time finally comes, you’re scared stiff to be sure, but maybe by then you’re just as glad to leave the whole show behind and get going. In a matter of moments, everything that seemed to matter stops mattering. The slow climb is all there is. The stillness. The clouds. Then the miracle of flight as from fathom upon fathom down you surface suddenly into open sky. The dazzling sun.”

Interview with Frederick Buechner
Interviewed by David Hardin

David Hardin: Fred, in your wonderful talk you used some definitions from your book, Whistling in the Dark. You have a way of looking at things that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. I would like to explore a little bit of that with you. I would like to start with what you have to say about Alcoholics Anonymous. Tell our audience and me about what you are trying to say there.

Frederick Buechner: I’m not an alcoholic but I have had a lot of alcoholism, one way or the other, in my family, like so many people. Through that I have found myself going with some regularity to meetings of groups like Adult Children of Alcoholics and Al Anon, families of alcoholics. I have been as nourished really by what I have found going on there, as I have been in a spiritual way by anything else I’ve done. For people who don’t know what is going on there, it is very instructive that there is no preaching, nobody lectures anybody else, there is no program as such, there is no building. The AA groups and the related groups usually meet in the basement of a church, or something like that. There is no budget.

Hardin: You are not even allowed to rent a place. They cannot spend money.

Buechner: No hierarchy. Nothing like that. It is simply a group of human beings coming together with the common problem of alcohol, or in this case — my case — alcohol-related problems, saying we simply cannot live full human lives without each other and without — they don’t say God because some of them do not believe in God — what they call our Higher Power, which might be God if you are a believer or might just be the power of the group itself. Miracles happen. I’ve seen them happen. In little ways, I think I have experienced them happen in myself. I just can’t help wondering to what degree this is perhaps what the church originally was, that is to say, if you went back to the earliest days of the Christian community before there were these great buildings and programs and preachers and rummage sales and choirs and all the rest of it, I suspect you would have found something like this. A little group of people coming together wherever they could and simply helping each other and helping each other find a God who would help them became human beings. I think there is good reason for that. Not only is it my feeling, but I have a feeling there is also a good scholarly reason this is true. Another thing that impresses me so much about them is that, if you are an alcoholic or in any of these related groups, if you find yourself having bad times anywhere in the world, all you have to do is look up AA in the phone directory. You will find a stranger, a member of that group, who is not really a stranger, who will come at any hour of day or night to somehow be there for you. The question I have asked myself so often is “If you as a Christian found yourself having hard times in a foreign port or a strange town, (A) Would you think of calling up a church and saying, ‘Come, help me’? and (B) Would the church be prepared in any way to come and do whatever you needed to do?” I am not going to answer that question but I am going to say that if the church would not be there to do such a thing, then you wonder what is so big about the big business of the church.

Hardin: I’ve heard it said that AA is a model of what a great church should be, which is the trusting element and also it is full of people who have finally realized that they cannot run their own lives and that they do need God’s help to get through this journey.

Buechner: The trouble is that the churches have become so big, so organized, so rich and so complicated that I somehow think the best thing that could happen to these huge churches would be for the building to burn down, their money to be lost, their church calendar to blow in the wind like dead leaves and all they have left would be each other and God. I suspect strongly that would be the best thing that could happen.

Hardin: Maybe we would get the kind of community that we’re seeing in AA. You also talk interestingly about a subject which bothers all of us and that is aging. What are you saying to us about aging?

Buechner: What I am saying about aging is nothing very complicated. It’s just that as I grow older – I think you and I are very close to the same age – I become much more aware of myself as a member of a generation. When you are young, you don’t think generationally, particularly. I suppose between your parent’s generation and your generation you see a difference. But as there are fewer of you around when you see somebody your age, you think – they remember Mussolini: they remember the Worlds Fair of 1939; they remember the Depression; they remember Will Rogers; they remember a whole host of things, movies and things that happened which nobody born since then can remember because they weren’t there. You have this marvelous sense of being almost related to them, even if you don’t speak to them. Seeing them go down the street, it is like seeing a friend.

Hardin: I’ve seen it with some of my friends, who are suddenly looking at their roots and their lives and saying, “I want to reconnect. I want some closure with some of the people in my life.”

Buechner: Yes, that’s right. Very much so. I think that somehow if you meet a person from your generation there is a kind of a closure that has a sense of brother meeting sister almost. The tragic thing is that it has taken to the age of 63 to realize this has always been true. Whenever I have met people, they have been just as much brothers and sisters of nine as these people I now see are. But somehow it is only now that there are fewer of us around that I realize it.

Hardin: Maybe it is part of wisdom. Maybe it takes a while to really get hold of that. The world is a very distracting place.

Buechner: I agree with that.

Hardin: The other subject I find interesting is your view on preaching. You talk about algebraic preaching and you talk about tourist preaching. I wonder what you mean.

Buechner: I will tell you exactly what I mean by algebraic preaching. I was awful in algebra but I remember enough of it to remember that if you have x + y = z, there is no way of knowing what that means unless you know what at least one of them means. If x = 6, and you know 6 + something equals something, then at least you have something. If you know two of them, you can get the third. If you don’t know the value of any of those letters, there is no way of solving that equation. A lot of preaching consists of sort of giving the symbolic words, the doctrinal utterances, but not conveying what they really mean. Some basic statement like, “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior and you will be saved from your sins” is meaningless in any real sense unless the preacher says something about what he means by Jesus Christ. What is there about Jesus that makes Him capable of saving? Unless he says something about what sin means, not just in doctrinal ways, but in terms of his own experience of sin. What does it mean to be saved — saved from what? What does it feel like? What does it look like? What does it sound like? In other words, if just the utterances are given, just like the letters in an equation, you might just as well do something else.

Tourist preaching is another version of the same thing. The prototypical American tourist traveling in a land where he does not speak the language feels that if he speaks his own language – English – loudly enough and forcefully enough, “Where is the men’s room?” how can they fail to understand? There is a lot of preaching the same way. If the same old holy words are repeated loudly enough and forcefully enough, everybody is going to understand them. The answer is that you understand them only if you speak them in the language of the people to whom you are speaking. Again and again, I think preachers don’t do that. It’s crazy if they don’t. It is as if they have some pulpit language which they drag out. All they need to do to be eloquent is to speak honestly and as themselves out of their own experience. Everybody will go away the wiser.

Hardin: I think the word preaching almost is a problem. Are we talking to people or are we preaching? Preaching always assumes a hierarchal relationship which I don’t think is always such a good idea.

Buechner: Just think of the word, “Don’t preach to me.” It means I have had enough of your self-righteous platitudes. So much preaching is lousy.

Hardin: We go back to Alcoholics Anonymous and everyone there knows that they are deeply flawed in the same way and that is a great linkage. There is no way to look down on or pedestal someone when you are all dealing with the same problem.

Buechner: I heard the other day about a minister who started his sermon by saying, “I just want to get one thing clear before I start. I’m just as neurotic as everybody else.” There was a tremendous sigh of relief from the congregation because they thought that here was a human being and they could listen and really learn something from him.

Hardin: We have one more area I would like to touch on from Whistling in the Dark and that is the subject of Christmas, which is an interesting area for all of us and gets a lot of our attention at a certain time of the year.

Buechner: Almost, upon us. It seems to me one of the miracles of the Christian faith is that the feast of Christmas survives what we have done to it — all the hoopla, clap-trap, commercialism and all the rest of it that I don’t even need to go into because everybody knows what it is. Yet, somehow it does survive. This extraordinary moment when the whole year slows down and you point to this unimaginable event where God somehow became made flesh. It is so cataclysmic; it is so extraordinary; we try to make it habitable; we try to make it cozy; we make creches and we sing Christmas carols. At best, it can be touching and real. At its worst it can be cheap and banal. What often occurs to me about Christmas is that if it is really true, if the word really became flesh, if the mystery behind all that really took the form of a human life, this vulnerable, tiny human life whose skull you could have crushed with one hand, then there must have been extraordinary anguish and intergalactic struggle to have this extraordinary thing come to pass. It wasn’t an easy thing to happen. There is a kind of terror about Christmas, a kind of holiness and awesomeness about Christmas that we tend to forget. The resurrection and the life came down and tasted the bitterness of death.

Hardin: It is almost as though we say, “I’ve got to get through this. As soon as I’m through it, then I am going to sit back and take in Christ and this wonderful event of God’s gift to us all. But, I’ve got to get everything out of the way and usually that ends at about 6:00 PM on Christmas eve.”

Buechner: Do I have time to tell you a story about Christmas?

Hardin: Sure.

Buechner: One Christmas Eve, exhausted, about to go to bed having put all the presents under the tree, I remembered that our neighbor had asked us to feed his sheep every day he was gone. The snow was falling — this was in Vermont – my brother and I went down the hill to feed the sheep. We went into the barn and we got the bales of hay. We took them out into the sheep shed, cut the string, turned on the forty-watt bulb and began scattering the hay. The sheep came bumbling up, getting close to it. With the smell of the hay, the smell of the sheep and the snow coming down, all of a sudden I realized where I was. I was in the manger and I almost missed it.

Hardin: You were in the right place.

Buechner: I was in this holy place and I might not even have seen it. I happened to see it. It seems to me that in a way, you could say that the world itself is a manger where God is continually being born into our lives, into the things that happen to us. Most of the time, if you are like me, you are looking the other way.

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Calling our Sons into the community of Men « Imago Dei Blog

Calling our Sons into the community of Men « Imago Dei Blog.


By Rick McKinley

We don’t have


By Rick McKinley

We don’t have many clear rights of passage in our culture to help a boy know when he becomes a man. At 12 he can no longer order off the kids menu, at 16 he can drive, at 18 he can vote, at 21 one he can drink and somewhere in his mid thirties, after working for several years we may assume that he feels like a man in the community.
My twins Josh and Kaylee turned 18 recently and I wanted to make sure that my son had a clear call and embrace by the community of men that he has grown up around. My wife and daughter went out to celebrate with women who have loved her over these last 18 years, and we gathered key men that have played significant roles in Josh’s life over the last 18 years.

Our front porch has become a gathering spot for community. Some of the deepest conversations I have had with my son and my friends have taken place on the porch. Sometimes its freezing, other times it’s a warm summer night, but regardless we gather here and share our hearts and stories, experiencing the grace and presence of Christ in our relationship with one another.

We gathered on the porch and each man wrote a letter to Josh, that they shared. Giving him wisdom, affirmation and a warm welcome into the community of men.  It was an amazing time for Him. I could hardly keep it together as they shared their love for my son.

One of the things that Jeanne and I have always prayed for is that our kids would have specific people in their lives that would affirm our love for Jesus and help them on their own journey of faith.  We have asked God to do something bigger in their lives than we could do on our own as parents. He answered those prayers.

The men chipped in a bought him a killer knife that will be the fear of all pieces of wood that he widdles away on. But something much larger happened there. It was not that something magical happened and the confusion, innocence, and youthfulness of being 18 disappeared. What did happen is that a young man was affirmed in his identity as a man, welcomed into the community and called to be all that God is calling him to be as a Son of God.

It’s a remarkable thing to see your 18 year old son “want” to be on the porch with these men on a Friday night, and not be out hanging with his friends. He wanted to be there because something him desires to be what God has made him and this community of friends is the place where he gets to become that.

I know that through all that God has for him in the years to come, this event will be a marker for his journey and these men will be there for him. The gift of relationship with other men is the most powerful thing you can give a guy on his 18th birthday.
To be fair I was flying blind in all of this. I have never been part of something like this and most the guys there hadn’t either. We were not sure if it was going to come off cheesy, or lame or awkward. I didn’t know if he would hate it and want to run for his life.

The risk was so worth it and I hope that perhaps it gives you a bit of courage to call your own sons into the community. I hope that the church would call our young men without Dads onto the porch and let them know that the absence of their physical fathers does not mean the absence of men who care, and it in know way means they are deficient as men.

I read my letter to my son as the last one to go. I was choking out the words through tears of love and joy. I had to pause while I was reading because of the emotions, my friend Luke said, “preach it”. For some reason it struck me, that is what we were doing. Through all the emotions, and our own inexperience in doing this we were proclaiming a great God to my son and calling him to the great adventure of being a man.

Here is the last paragraph of my letter to my son:

Lastly, it’s a joy to give you my blessing. I don’t want you to ever doubt this and I want you to hold it deep inside you. No matter where life takes you or what mistakes you make I want you to always remember this blessing.
Joshua McKinley; you are my beloved Son, and in you I am well pleased!
I love you Josh, Welcome to the party!

Dad many clear rights of passage in our culture to help a boy know when he becomes a man. At 12 he can no longer order off the kids menu, at 16 he can drive, at 18 he can vote, at 21 one he can drink and somewhere in his mid thirties, after working for several years we may assume that he feels like a man in the community.
My twins Josh and Kaylee turned 18 recently and I wanted to make sure that my son had a clear call and embrace by the community of men that he has grown up around. My wife and daughter went out to celebrate with women who have loved her over these last 18 years, and we gathered key men that have played significant roles in Josh’s life over the last 18 years.

Our front porch has become a gathering spot for community. Some of the deepest conversations I have had with my son and my friends have taken place on the porch. Sometimes its freezing, other times it’s a warm summer night, but regardless we gather here and share our hearts and stories, experiencing the grace and presence of Christ in our relationship with one another.

We gathered on the porch and each man wrote a letter to Josh, that they shared. Giving him wisdom, affirmation and a warm welcome into the community of men.  It was an amazing time for Him. I could hardly keep it together as they shared their love for my son.

One of the things that Jeanne and I have always prayed for is that our kids would have specific people in their lives that would affirm our love for Jesus and help them on their own journey of faith.  We have asked God to do something bigger in their lives than we could do on our own as parents. He answered those prayers.

The men chipped in a bought him a killer knife that will be the fear of all pieces of wood that he widdles away on. But something much larger happened there. It was not that something magical happened and the confusion, innocence, and youthfulness of being 18 disappeared. What did happen is that a young man was affirmed in his identity as a man, welcomed into the community and called to be all that God is calling him to be as a Son of God.

It’s a remarkable thing to see your 18 year old son “want” to be on the porch with these men on a Friday night, and not be out hanging with his friends. He wanted to be there because something him desires to be what God has made him and this community of friends is the place where he gets to become that.

I know that through all that God has for him in the years to come, this event will be a marker for his journey and these men will be there for him. The gift of relationship with other men is the most powerful thing you can give a guy on his 18th birthday.
To be fair I was flying blind in all of this. I have never been part of something like this and most the guys there hadn’t either. We were not sure if it was going to come off cheesy, or lame or awkward. I didn’t know if he would hate it and want to run for his life.

The risk was so worth it and I hope that perhaps it gives you a bit of courage to call your own sons into the community. I hope that the church would call our young men without Dads onto the porch and let them know that the absence of their physical fathers does not mean the absence of men who care, and it in know way means they are deficient as men.

I read my letter to my son as the last one to go. I was choking out the words through tears of love and joy. I had to pause while I was reading because of the emotions, my friend Luke said, “preach it”. For some reason it struck me, that is what we were doing. Through all the emotions, and our own inexperience in doing this we were proclaiming a great God to my son and calling him to the great adventure of being a man.

Here is the last paragraph of my letter to my son:

Lastly, it’s a joy to give you my blessing. I don’t want you to ever doubt this and I want you to hold it deep inside you. No matter where life takes you or what mistakes you make I want you to always remember this blessing.
Joshua McKinley; you are my beloved Son, and in you I am well pleased!
I love you Josh, Welcome to the party!

club [end of] comments

thursday- adrienne ‘ no one will be as good as you…’

chantelle g – there’s no one as good as you , you’re always great

anto- what happens if we get someone cranky?

why do you have to leave to be a minister ? why can’t you stay in club forever? someone else can do that…

Seth’s Blog: 16 questions for free agents

Seth’s Blog: Is this noise inside my head bothering you?