Frederick Buechner and the art of preaching.
I’m not sure that even want to parse all my preaching influences to carefully. I’m afraid some Jon Stewart may even be creeping in there these days, for better or for worse.
But in terms of sheer craftsmanship, the stewardship of words, there is no other preacher who has quite the artistry of Frederick Buechner. While sermons don’t always translate well into print, his sermon collections are modern masterpieces. There is a certain kind of symmetry and beauty, a lyrical tightness to them, that I could never capture. There aren’t many wordsmiths like him out there, capable of capturing such mystery with such restraint. I wouldn’t even try. Although I guess in some moments, I wish I could be Buechner with some sawdust on his shoes, Buechner sweating through his tie and sport coat. Perhaps a hybrid between the author and his fictional creation Leo Bebb, who is more of a tent revivalist and a faith healer.
I love Buechner’s fiction and non-fiction alike. But if I could only recommend one of his many books to you, it would decidedly be Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale. It is far and away my favorite book on preaching, with no close second.
Last year, my friend Nathan Rouse surprised me with a trip to the Buechner Institute in TN for a conference. The greater surprise was an unannounced visit by “the Buech” himself (as we affectionately call him), well into his 80′s. We talked to him in approximately the same spirit as two pre-teen girls who bumping into Justin Bieber. And yet the most beautiful gift of them all was a framed picture Nathan got me of our encounter with Buechner along with this beautiful passage on preaching from Telling the Truth. It is one of my great treasures in the world.
How wonderful it is that when I’m working in my office, and anytime I can look over and read these words all over again:
Out of the silence let the only real news come, which is sad news before it is to be glad news and that is fairy tale last of all.
The preacher is not brave enough to be literally silent for long, and since it is his calling to speak the truth with love, even if he were brave enough, he would not be silent for long because we are none of us very good at silence.
It says too much.
So let him use words, but, in addition to using them to explain, expound, exhort, let him use them to evoke, to set us dreaming as well as thinking, to use words at their most prophetic and truthful–the prophets used them to stir in us the memories and longings and intuitions that we starve for without knowing that we starve. Let him use words which do not only try to give answers to the questions that we ask or ought to ask, but which help us to hear the questions we do not have words for asking and hear the silence that those questions rise out of and the silence that is the answer to those questions. Drawing on nothing fancier than the poetry of his own life, let him use words and images that help evoke the surface of our lives transparent to the truth that lies deep within them,
which is the wordless truth of who we are and who God is and the gospel of our meeting.