Thirty years ago when I had finished my time in seminary and was waiting for a place of ministry to open up, I had some time on my hands. At the suggestion of a friend I began to read some of the writings of Frederick Buechner while I waited. On of the first books I read was about preaching and entitled, “Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale” (by these he was referring to literary genres). It made a lasting impression on me that has never faded.
The idea expressed in that book is that proclaiming the gospel can be thought of “as a telling of the truth about the way things are” not a scientific or historical telling of truth, which are different in kind and have their own importance, but rather the truth about the human experience of loss and pain, grace and faith, joy and hope.
The first chapter is an essay about silence as a setting for the sermon. To be in silence before life in all its wonder, but also in its down-to-earth muck and muddiness is a part of the truth about things. The next three chapters are about the tears, the laughter, and the extraordinariness of life. To be truthful is to be honest about about pain and suffering, about mortality and human limitations, about sin, the way people sometimes make things worse almost in spite of themselves.
He then goes on to suggest that to tell the truth one must also set forth the wonderful side of life. To tell, for instance, about the joy of walking down a maple-tree lined street in the fall, standing on the ocean’s shore watching the waves come in, or finding Saturn in the view of a telescope and seeing its rings, is also to tell truth. I am sure everyone has heard some version of Murphy’s Law, that if anything can go wrong, sooner or later it will. The world is full of evidence in its favor. It turns out, however, that Murphy’s Law is only a variation of a broader reality, that, if anything can happen, sooner or later it will, which means that good things happen inevitably too and sometimes things go right. Part of truth-telling is setting forth the beautiful, wondrous side of life, even if we haven’t given its occurrences a name.
Beyond that, to tell of life’s qualities that rise above the “tragedy and comedy” of things; that redemption happens, reconciliation happens, resurrection happens, and they are a part of the truth just as much as anything scientific or historical. The premise is that taken together, these three are the truth.
At the time, this frame around the gospel, which is a “big picture” approach, also helped to bring the Bible to life for me, with its rise and fall of civilizations, its judgments and affirmations, its crucifixion and resurrection. This framework has been on my mind all these years of preaching sermons. As much as anyone else, I must acknowledge that I owe a debt. I have discovered that most people to whom I have recommended reading Buechner’s writings do not share my enthusiasm. Some find him too literary for a preacher or theologian. But from time to time, I run in to some who do, and there is a kind of camaraderie between us.
It is true that he could write a sentence so beautiful that it could bring tears to the eyes even if it didn’t say anything. Thankfully, he found in the gospel something to say. Frederick Buechner died last Tuesday. He was 96 years old. It is not so much that he will be missed, we still have his books, but it does seem appropriate to acknowledge his influence and mark his passing.
Dr. Mark Allison is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Delaware.