bits and pieces of clouds, ether, maybe even ideas
Frederick Buechner – Whistling in the Dark
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”
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.”
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?
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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