Buechner and the Stewardship of Pain

When I was in my middle twenties, I happened across a writer. I’m not sure where I bought that copy of The Magnificent Defeat, but the language I encountered in those pages moved me, spoke to me, describing my own experience of life and God in ways that I could not. It’s impact was profound. I bought more books by this guy, and for several years kept returning over and over to essays that suggested my conservative, Texas-church approach to God-finding might not be the deepest or truest.

When Frederick Buechner suggested that wine might be the better symbol for the blood of Christ (as opposed to small thimbles of grape juice), I knew immediately what he meant and knew with my heart it was true. When he wrote of his father’s suicide, and what it cost him as a writer to tell the truth of that story, I knew that writing (and living) was going to be hard, because my family was like his: secrets were not to be told and past wounds were not be lived through but buried. Buechner first suggested to me that not all followers of the Christ were like Texas fundamentalists, and that there were far more mysteries in the inspired ramblings of the biblical writers than was suggested by the assured tones of the weekly sermons dished from the raised platforms of Southern Churches of Christ.

But alas, I left Buechner. I’m not sure when I stopped reading him, but it was in my thirties. I kept reading folks like him, though. I moved on to Thomas Merton and Walter Brueggemann, and discovered (oh, what joy!) Barbara Brown Taylor, theological friends to Buechner, and I often stood in bookstores contemplating Buechner’s latest titles.

And when it came to writing, when I sat down to write Leaving Ruin, I asked myself–and I let the idea sort of guide me (poorly enough, I know)–“how would Buechner write about West Texas?”

Well, last Christmas, Anjie bought me a book. Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by you-know-who. It’s been sitting on the shelf, but finally, finally, I took it down and began to read. As you would expect, it’s like coming into the home of an old friend. I recognize this cadence, this manner of ambling up to truth and wrestling it with eloquence to make you cry as you hear Christ calling out to you through this man. Perhaps I shouldn’t speak in that tense–it’s me He’s calling out to, I suppose. You have your own writers that Christ uses to call to you, no doubt.

This morning’s reading was on the stewardship of pain. That pain must be lived through, and Buechner’s idea of the parable of the talents is that it’s about the totality of what we’ve been given. And that part of the “talent-ness” of our lives is not only the blessings but the curses, the pain we’ve received at the hands of whoever’s doing the dishing in our lives. We all have it, says Buechner, and the process of adolescence is a process of learning to live through, and with, pain, and that in burying it, we yield to it’s death-making process, and that in hauling it out into the marketplace of other lives, lives that suffer pain that is different in both quality and degree, some less, some more, the exchange of secrets and stories and tears and furies is the very stuff of multiplied living. Life grows from this stuff, and there is no way around it.

Buechner makes me wonder what kind of steward I’ve been. I haul my pain out sometimes, sometimes I trade it with friends over coffee or slip it into my plays and books, but I’m like everyone else, afraid of tears, afraid of humiliation, afraid of being thought poorly of, afraid of rejection. Buechner reminded me of the end of the story of the talents, though, where the burying of what we’ve been given leads us to cast ourselves inevitably into a place of darkness and pain.  I’ve skirted the edges of that place far too often.  I’d just as soon stand the heat of the square and the risk of loss as sit in the dark with a pile of “what ifs.”

So I’m digging my pain out again today–along with the absolute joys–and hauling it all into the marketplace to trade.

See you in the square…

3 Comments

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  1. I decided to comment because your post today struck me in a couple of ways. As I may have mentioned to you, I am rereading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” a book that blew my mind when I first read it. This time I’m blogging about it and it is forcing me to really confront my reactions in a new way and from a new place (it has been more than 10 years since the first reading). Your comments on the reading you did today gave me a new perspective on the chapter I read yesterday. I chapter 13 of “Zen…” Pirsig relates a past event where he wrote a lecture he entitled the “Church of Reason”. For Pirsig, reason was the hallowed ground that he had to tread no matter what the circumstance. In my reflections, I realized that my equivalent is something I named my “Belief House”. It is the place that I have to go to know why I do anything that I do. Until I read your post today, I don’t think that I had contemplated the role of pain in helping to shape my Belief House. The image is still under construction in my mind, but I thank you for giving me another tool to use in my shaping.

  2. If you’re going to add to my reading list, must you add five or six books at one time? This is a wonderful post, and it lead me to some authors I must now get to know, or know better.

  3. I found your blog while doing some searching for folks who have read and enjoy Fred Buechner, and I really enjoyed this particular post. Buechner has been one of my favorites for a while, and I can very much appreciate everything you said here. If you’re interested, the Washington National Cathedral archives videos on its website of all their major speakers; the site includes wonderful tributes to Buechner (where he reads from “Secrets in the Dark” and answers questions) and an appearance by Barbara Brown Taylor (another of my favorites; “Leaving Church” is one of my favorites). If you’re interested, you can watch these by clicking at http://www.cathedral.org/cathedral/video/spring06.shtml; BBT’s video is the first to come up, and Buechner’s can be found by scrolling down the list a bit. You may also find some others that you really enjoy.

    If you don’t mind, I’m going to link your blog to mine for future visits; I’ve really enjoyed looking around today!

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