Frederick Buechner’s gift

In his column in this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks reflects on the life of Frederick Buechner, the much beloved writer who died this week. Buechner was an ordained minister and you could almost tell that from the push and pull in his writing. He couldn’t leave faith commitment alone, but he also couldn’t say what it was. In all fairness, he didn’t really try to. He told stories.

Brooks recalls, as many memorialists will this week, Buechner’s description of his conversion. He was attending, “a church service in New York where the pastor was talking about how Jesus is crowned ‘amid confession, tears and great laughter.’ At the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.”

It seems completely appropriate to me that is was a verbal expression that tripped the switch for Buechner. There was a lot of other stuff going on in his life, of course, but had George Buttrick, the preacher that morning, chosen another way of saying that, the switch would not have been tripped. Maybe somewhere else at some other time, but not there and then.

That seems just right to me. I had that experience reading Buechner. Here is a passage from Lion Country to which I responded as Buechner did: “tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.”

The main character in Lion Country, Antonio Parr, is having an LSD-fueled vision. In it, the roast pig they had had for dinner is chasing him across a dry and barren land. He isn’t fast, but he won’t stop. Finally Tono stops running and the dead pig trots up to him and drops a silver dollar out of its mouth into his hand. Then this happens.

“On the dollar there was something written, and—how do I say it? What was written on it wasn’t Antonio Parr or Tono or Bopper or Sir or any of the other names I’ve been called by various people at various times in my life, and yet it was my name. It was a name so secret that I wouldn’t tell it even if I remembered it, and I don’t remember it. But if anybody were ever to show up and call me by it, I’d recognize it in a second, and the chances are that if the person who called me by it gave me the signal, I’d follow him to the ends of the earth.”


I got as far as “if anybody were…to call me by it…I’d follow him to the ends of the earth.” Then I just put the book down and sat there and sobbed. Buechner wrote a lot of competent prose and he told some good stories, but if he had written nothing but that paragraph, he would occupy an honored niche in my private hall of fame.


Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 (12b) “Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.” That’s really it, isn’t it? To be fully known. Paul places it here in the context of the last days, or, as he puts it, “then.” It is that moment that Buechner captures with the notion that he has a secret name. It is secret even from him. He doesn’t know what it is. But if he hears it, nothing else will matter at all.


Buechner’s way of casting the story of “the name” is powerful. And for me, it is primary. I mean that I know where he got the idea. He got it the same place I got it. Look at this from Revelation 2:17.


“Let anyone who can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: to those who prove victorious I will give some hidden manna and a white stone, with a new name written on it, known only to the person who receives it.”


A new name. That means a new identity. A name known only to the person who receives it. If you were given a new name—your true name—wouldn’t you follow the one who spoke it to the ends of the earth?


But when I say Buechner’s language is powerful, I mean that for me, I now read about the white stone with Tono’s experience in mind. That’s how vivid it is for me. And that is Frederick Buechner’s gift to me. And to a lot of other people.


The man had a gift and it required words.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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4 Responses to Frederick Buechner’s gift

  1. mbraverman48 says:

    Thank you, I was moved by this story as well and resonate strongly. I’ve read some Buechner and never came across it. Am a devotee of his, for sure. Been reading your blog for just a few months now and this is the first time I’ve seen you come near a Bible passage or a preacher, glad your dilettantism extends to that! see markbraverman.org

    • hessd says:

      I’m glad we share an appreciation of Buechner, Mark. I am surprised that I have not posted any biblical or theological posts for awhile. I write more about those things than anything else in several other settings. I’ll pay more attention to what finds its way into the blog. Thanks for noticing.

      • mbraverman48 says:

        Thanks for this response and I was pleased to see your posting today! Brilliant and so helpful that you talk about communication as so central to the goings on in the New Testament. And I’m not thinking about Jesus and his establishment interlocutors so much as how much that plays in his exchanges with the disciples. There are so many but the ones that shout out to me happened after Easter — Luke 24, the road to Emmaus, where they just don’t get it, and that’s the point, and it’s not so much about cognition but perception, viz the Greek (thanks so much for going there) in John 3 where the word often translated as “knowing” is literally “perceived.” But the kicker instance for me is Acts 1 where they ask, “is it the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus punts, of course, and they get the answer on Pentecost and it’s so big, we are still getting the answer to all the assumptions and catastrophic blindness contained in that question. The exchange with Nicodemus is up there with that one, and it all fits. If we get John 3 (and we keep at it, don’t we), then we get Acts 1. And the fate of the earth sort of depends on that, don’t it.

  2. Dawne Barnes says:

    I have no idea what it is precisely that makes Beuchner’s writing so impactful, so piercing, but it certainly had a similar effect on me. You don’t see it coming and then it’s under your skin…the truth of it is IN you. So much gratitude for his life…

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