November 7, 2022 Editor

Remembering Frederick Buechner, 1926-2022


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WN: Decades ago, I encountered the writings of Frederick Buechner. I never tired of them! They are/were invariably challenging/encouraging/delightful/life-changing . . .

The tribute highlighted below captures some of that well.


His calling came in 1952, when he heard the preacher George Buttrick proclaim that Christ is crowned “amidst confession and tears and great laughter.”

Many readers will immediately associate the name Frederick Buechner with a passage from Wishful Thinking that they know by heart: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It’s a rich sentence, full of possibility, and has been foundational for many of us in helping students through vocational discernment. But Buechner said a great deal more about vocation, whether in essays or fiction or memoir, and I’d like to explore his wider vision briefly as we mourn his death on August 15, 2022, at the age of 96.

I met Buechner only once, and briefly at that, but like so many of his readers, I had a sense of knowing him personally. The title of his third memoir, Telling Secrets, partially explains this; he told us a great deal about himself. Buechner’s secrets are not salacious or titillating, so we should perhaps read telling as an adjective to understand what he’s up to. Buechner believed, as he says in The Sacred Journey, that “the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.” The secrets here are not skeletons hidden in the closet but rather the beats of a heart opened to his friends.

When we turn to his memoirs, we find nothing like this way of calculating a call. After a peripatetic childhood torn by the suicide of his father, Buechner embarked on an educational and career path without much explicit measurement of gladness or hunger. His calling came in 1952, when he heard the preacher George Buttrick proclaim that Christ is crowned “amidst confession and tears and great laughter.” The phrase “great laughter,” which was not in Buttrick’s manuscript, constituted something of a vocation, and it led him to surprising places.

Naturally reserved, Fred nevertheless opened himself in such moments so that the “crazy, holy grace” named in his writing became incarnate. I suspect that he saw these exchanges as part of his vocation—unexpected and ill-fitting and filled with grace.

In fact, surprise sums up much of the nature of calling in the memoirs. After the surprising success of his first novel and the lackluster reception of the second, Buechner surprised everyone by enrolling in seminary. Even Buttrick questioned this, as it seemed so absurd: “it would be a shame to lose a good novelist for a mediocre preacher.” Buechner says that he was “richly embarrassed” that some thought this a “noble, selfless thing.”  The surprising, the absurd, the uncomfortable: here were the places to which Buechner was called, not primarily because of a burning concern for the world’s deep hunger nor even for his own deep gladness, but because of crazy, holy grace.

Openness to surprise means finding crazy, holy grace, and when we listen to our lives, we can see how our vocation unfolds. This may not be easy to communicate to students struggling with career options, but perhaps it is exactly what they need to hear. Pay attention. Listen. Be honest. Be open. You may not comprehend either the world’s hunger or your own gladness, but, absurd as it may seem, you might be a means of grace right where you are.

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.