Spiritual Mentors: Frederick Buechner

This week, I am profiling people who have had the most influence on my Christian spiritual life. Today’s profile is of a writer who changed the way I view God and grace.

Frederick Buechner

His Influence: Have you ever had a moment in your life of simple awareness and peace that you didn’t exactly know where it came from? You are just going about your business, in your normal everyday routine, and something catches your eye or a realization of gratitude and thankfulness  comes to mind. Maybe, these moments come from a look on another person’s face, or from a word that seems to jump off a page at you, or there is a particular aspect of nature that you never really paid attention to in the past. Frederick Buechner calls these moments, acts of grace, and has spent his life searching for these moments, celebrating these moments, and encouraging his readers to “listen to their lives” for drops of grace that can be traced back to God himself.

By the time he was 25 years old, Buechner had already written a best selling novel but when his second novel bombed and his New York City existence was marked with increasing writer’s block, he was left mostly frustrated and depressed. Out of curiosity and some driving force, Buechner began attending church at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, which was led by the famed preacher George Buttrick. During one sermon, Buechner was so moved he began to sob and knew his life no longer belonged to him but was now in the hands of a God who he had barely paid attention to in the past. Buechner would go on to become an ordained Presbyterian minister but he never held a church position because he would continue writing. His books were not written for the Christian sub-culture, with its often bad taste and melodramatic narratives. They were written for anyone who had struggled with doubt and who had ever been overwhelmed by a world that didn’t always make sense.

Because Buechner came to faith so unexpectedly, his writings have been absent of church speak and clichés. The characters in his fiction always have a heavy dose of sin even though they are capable of such life and holiness. In other words, Buechner is describing the life we live – full of God one moment but trending towards failure the next. Yet, God is always present, always a mystery in the most wonderful and beautiful way possible. Buechner’s God is not just one to follow and praise but one to fall in love with.

What I have learned from Buechner. On the surface, just reading Buechner books put me in a good mood in the same way that a certain song might put me in a good mood. No other author has that kind of influence on me. But deeper than this, Buechner description of God and his love for Jesus absolutely inspires me. If I have ever written anything of quality it has usually been after reading Buechner’s prose. I have walked out of a room after reading Buechner and my world has changed. He has encouraged me to” listen to my life and see if for the fathomless mystery that it is”. He has reminded me that all moments are key moments and that all of life is grace.  The very image of the sky seems different now that I am viewing it through Buechner’s lenses. Buechner celebrates life and more importantly the giver of life.

What Frederick Buechner can teach you: “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Buechner recommendations: If you want to experience Frederick Buechner for yourself, check out these recommendations.

The Sacred Journey/ Now and Then/ Telling Secrets – These are Buechner’s memoirs and the best way to understand who he is and why he writes the way he does.

Brendan – Historical fiction about a seafaring saint doesn’t sound that exciting but this is a joy to read.

Peculiar Treasures – A kind of Biblical Who’s Who done in complete Buechner style.

Christian Lifehacker 101: Spiritual Disciplines Are Not Just For Super Christians

Let’s look at two more terms that are often misunderstood – Spiritual Disciplines and the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual Disciplines – If you don’t have a grasp of the concept of Grace then Spiritual Disciplines will seem like a set of legalistic requirements that if you are not practicing indicate your poor faith and lack of devotion. We often feel frustrated because we don’t pray and read our Bibles enough and to have another list of spiritual activities to do just makes this idea of spiritual growth seem more daunting.

In a previous post, we learned that grace is God’s action in our lives to accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own. Spiritual Disciplines are the best way that I know of to increase God’s action in our lives. For example, by spending more time in silence I give God more room to speak to me and draw closer to me. By fasting, I learn that God has provisions for me that go much farther than the material. By worshiping, I focus my mind on “things above and not on earthly things”. Everyone of these examples creates an avenue for God to work in my life. If I was not intentionally practicing these things then I am reducing God’s place in my life to afterthoughts and pushing him to the periphery of my life.

If you are still put off by the term discipline, then replace it with the word training. No person has ever completed a marathon without some kind of training. It is the same in your Christian life. You will not grow closer to God or become more like Christ by wishing it to happen; you have to train your spirit (non-physical side) so that real change can occur.

Holy Spirit – After reading the above definition you probably have started to wonder where the Holy Spirit fits into all of this.  Though Spiritual Disciplines are an important ingredient in change, they have no power without the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been given to us for one purpose and that is to make us disciples of Jesus. James Bryan Smith says that, “everything that happens to us in our Christian life is the work of the Holy Spirit.” When you become frustrated with your Christian life, it is the Holy Spirit that nudges you toward a new set of priorities. When you read scripture, it is the Holy Spirit that draws your attention to a certain passage that speaks to a specific need in your life. If you have gotten anything out of these blog postings it is due, not to me, but to the Holy Spirit moving in your heart and mind to be inspired by what is written here.

One of the last things that Jesus tells his disciples is that, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). This is the role of the Holy Spirit  in our Spiritual Formation – to be an unseen teacher constantly reminding us of what Jesus did and said.

Christian Life Hacker 101: What You Need To Know About Grace and Discipleship

Today, I continue explaining the terms that get used the most on this blog.

Discipleship –  This is one of my favorite words in the Christian lexicon. It makes it sound like those of us who live 2,000 years after Christ can still join him just like Peter, James, John and all the rest did. I also love this word because of the definition that Dallas Willard uses. Discipleship is the act of “learning to live one’s life as Jesus would if he were they.” Let that stir in your head for a moment. This definition is much more than “What would Jesus do?” but “Who would Jesus be if he were in my family, in my job, and handling my problems?” This is the ideal we seek as we draw closer and closer to Jesus in order to learn from him.

Grace – Another term that Dallas Willard helped me understand. According to Willard, grace is more than the common definition of “unmerited favor”. Grace is “God’s action in our lives to accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own.” Of course, this is “unmerited favor” but a simple look through scripture shows us that the word grace is used  differently than what we normally expect.

“Grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” 2 Peter 3:17.

In John 1: 14, we are told that Jesus “came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

These are just two examples that show how limited our definition of grace has become. We do not grow in “unmerited favor” or forgiveness but we can grow in God’s action (grace) in our lives. One last quote from Willard. “It is not the sinner who burns a lot of grace but the saint. A saint burns grace (God’s action) like a 747 burns fuel on takeoff.”

Next time, we will look at the terms spiritual disciplines and Holy Spirit.