Remembering Frederick Buechner

Many authors have influenced my spiritual formation over the past thirty years.  But the one I have loved and appreciated the most is Frederick Buechner. Buechner died on August 15, and I am heartbroken. As a writer, I have thrilled to the beauty and originality of his writing. As a seeker, I have been blessed by his wisdom and daring. As someone who is filled with wonder at the depth of God’s grace, I have been moved by his constant growth in the understanding of that grace.  As a person nearing 80 years of age, I have begun to understand the depth of his thinking. I mourn his death, but I am comforted by the fact that his life-giving writing remains.

Below is the notice of his death sent by his son-in-law.

It is with great sadness—but greater appreciation for his long and exceptionally well-lived and listened-to life—that I write to share the news of the passing of my father-in-law, Reverend Frederick Buechner. He died peacefully in Rupert, Vt. on August 15, 2022, at the age of 96.

Frederick was a life giver to countless many around the world. He told the stories of us all: through overwhelming love, unbearable pain, great laughter, artistry, humility, and awe. His wonder at the miracle of grace around him never left him, and his writing, preaching, and presence will be with us forever

Throughout his life, Frederick enjoyed the support of an uncommonly devoted readership. His readership nourished him and helped inspire him to write nearly 40 books now read in over two dozen languages world-wide.  On his family’s behalf, I wish to extend our most heartfelt gratitude.

The following quote from Buechner hangs on my “office” wall.  It seems appropriate to share it on the day we learn of his death.

          By Letting Go

“We find by losing. We hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old. This seems to be close to the heart of that mystery. I know more know than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting-go of all but I begin to know that I do not need to know and that I do not need to be afraid of not knowing. God knows. That is all that matters.

Out of Nothing he creates Something. Out of the End he creates the Beginning. Out of selfness we grow, by his grace, toward selflessness, and out of that final selflessness which is the loss of self altogether, “eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man” what new marvels he will bring to pass next.  All’s lost. All’s found. And if such words sound childish, so be it.  Out of each old self that dies some precious essence is preserved for the new self that is born; and within the child-self that is part of us all, there is perhaps nothing more precious than the fathomless capacity to trust” (A Room to Remember).


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From My Reading – August

“The Bible is usually very universal and makes you want to see something—some image to imagine it by. ‘The light shines in the darkness,’ John says, and maybe you see an agonizing burst of light with the darkness folding back like petals, like hands. But the imagery of John is based rather on sound than on sight. It is a Word you hear breaking through the unimaginable silence—a creating word, a word that calls forth, a word that♦ stirs life and is life because it is God’s word, John says, and has God in it as your words have you in them, have in them your breath and spirit and tell of who you are. Light and dark, the visual, occur in space, but sound, this Word spoken, occurs in time and starts time going. “Let there be” the Word comes, and then there is, Creation is. Something is where before there was nothing and the morning stars sing together and all the Sons of God shout for joy because sequence has begun, time has begun, a story has begun” (Frederich Buechner).

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“It is not happiness that makes us grateful.  It is gratefulness that makes us happy” (Br. David Steindal-Rast).

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“The trouble with much of civic religion and cultural Christianity is the lack of religious experience. People who haven’t had a loving or intimate experience with God tend to get extremely rigid, dogmatic, and controlling about religion. They think that if they pray the right words, read the Bible daily, and go to church often enough, it will happen. But God loves us before we do the rituals. God doesn’t need them, but we need them to tenderly express our childlike devotion and desire—and to get in touch with that desire. The great commandment is not “thou shalt be right.” The great commandment is to “be in love” (Abraham Joshua Heschel).

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“Living in community means living in such a way that others can access me and influence my life. It means that I can get “out of myself” and serve the lives of others. Community is a world where kinship with each other is possible. By community I don’t mean primarily a special kind of structure, but a network of relationships. Sadly, on the whole, we live in a society that’s built on competition, not on community and cooperation” (Richard Rohr).

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“Clouds come floating into my life from other days no longer to shed rain or usher storm but to give colour to my sunset sky” (Rabindranath Tagore).

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“Heart communication happens when we slow down, when we quiet down, look, and listen. Stop to take a breath. Become fully present with the person we’re with. Listen with all of our being. At this point, communication can occur without words. Being present is a gift that fills our hearts and spirits. We are in communion” (Kay Lindahl).

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From My Reading – July

“Healthy religion is always humble about its own holiness and knowledge. It knows that it does not know. The true biblical notion of faith, which balances knowing with not knowing, is rather rare today, especially among many religious folks who think faith is being certain all the time—when the truth is the exact opposite. Anybody who really knows also knows that they don’t know at all” (Richard Rohr).

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“Beloved community is formed  not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world” (Bell Hooks).

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“Any paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon” (Ikkyu,  Zen Monk , poet, 1394-1481).

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“It is central in the biblical tradition that God’s love for his people should not be forgotten. It should remain with us in the present. When everything is dark, when we are surrounded by despairing voices, when we do not see any exits, then we can find salvation in a remembered love, a love that is not simply a wistful recollection of a bygone past, but a living force that sustains us in the present. Through memory, love transcends the limits of time and offers hope at any moment of our lives” (Henri Nouwen).

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“To work in the world lovingly means that we are defining what we will be for, rather than reacting to what we are against” (Christina Baldwin).

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“Our refusal to let oth­ers sup­port us when we are in need is poten­tial­ly depriv­ing them of the bless­ing as they give to some­one they care about. Self-suf­fi­cien­cy often has more to do with pride than strength. Strength is being open to the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of let­ting oth­ers care for us. Jesus was­n’t afraid to ask for and receive help (Matthew 26:38)” (Nathan Foster).

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“As Christians we’re not sufficiently truthful with one another, and we fail to acknowledge how some forms of Christianity are idolatrous. When Christianity is identified with American interests or a political party, it needs to be called out for what it is. We’re afraid to do that because we think being a Christian is better than not being one. But bad Christianity is very bad, and we need to be more upfront about that” (Stanley Hauerwas).

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The Muddiness of our Lives

“Even when we are in the thick muddiness of our pain, despair, and tenderness, we can grow through it as long as we are alive and present enough to bear witness ” (Alex Elle).

“Sometimes what people see as darkness is actually where you find the voice of God and the voice of truth” (Joy Oldadkun).

Regular readers of this blog will remember that I am in the midst of a struggle with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that defeats the body’s attempt to fight infection.  Currently I am in remission for the second time since 2014.  The first time I discontinued treatment and lived a fairly normal life. This summer, my doctor’s revelation that I may be in remission was followed by a warning: you still need chemo, at least monthly. Also he reminds me, the current chemo “cocktail” will stop being effective and we will have to find a different treatment to try from among several that are available.  I ask him if there is a treatment that doesn’t include Revlimid (which put me into several months of mental confusion and dizziness)? He says that he doesn’t think so, but will start doing the research. I tell him that if Revlimid is part of the cocktail, I will refuse treatment. He says he understands and agrees.

So . . . now I live in “muddiness” and “darkness.”  Each month I wait for the explanation of my two blood tests to find out if the “numbers” show that this treatment will have to be stopped or that it has stopped being effective.

It took me few  weeks to emotionally absorb the meaning of this information.  On the one hand, there is still hope.  On the other, death could be imminent.  So . . .  how should I then live? (to quote the title of a book by Francis Shaeffer, written and read long ago.) Several hours of exploring through contemplation and reading have led me to settle into some answers.

First, I will follow the plan that the doctor and I easily agreed on:  continue with whatever chemo is available as long as it works, unless it contains Revlimid. Stop treatment if Revlimid is part of it.

Second, I will continue to live life as I have for the last several months, as independently as possible, but requesting help as needed – which will likely be more and more often. Asking for help has always been a sticking point because I was raised to be the helper.  I’m working hard at recognizing that my self worth does not depend on my ability and choice to give – which I have done all my life.  I am  in a place where I require help and I’m learning to be okay with that and willing to rejoice in the help I am given rather than wallow in  the fact that I’m not the giver.  I have also been told so many times recently that I AM still a giver even as I become weaker and more needy.   I am still growing even in the “thick muddiness of pain, despair, and tenderness.”

Third, I will relish the friendships I have – and be open to more.  Since I am apt burrow into my ever more introverted nature, this means I need to make conscious choices to share rather than to withdraw.  This means pulling my soul out of dark aloneness and relishing the time that friends and family offer. It means I will share what I can, listen to what is offered, and “rejoice and be glad in it.”

Fourth, I will “find the voice of God and the voice of truth” in the darkness.  Daily I am learning to relinquish control and just live in calmness and acceptance. “Whatever happens happens” is rather trite, but it is the truth.  For me it means taking my hands off the wheel and letting God be the driver.  “Letting go” has been the path of my spiritual formation for the past twenty plus years and I am so glad I have so much practice!  Calmness has not often been a trait of my emotional character.  But more and more I can just rest in the peace of floating down the river instead of trying to control the current.

Finally, I will continue, as Alex Elle says in the quote at the top of this blog, to be alive and present enough to understand my body and my emotions and, just as importantly, to be spiritually alive as long as I can so I can bear witness to the process of living and dying in the hands of God.

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The World Needs our Help

Nearly 60 years ago, I received a letter from my twin cousins who were attending college in  Florida.  They were very involved with sit-ins in restaurants and “five and dime” stores to encourage management to allow black people to visit their establishments. Jim and Dan were asking for financial support so they could continue their social justice work without having to have part-time jobs. I was fascinated by their dedication and impressed with their bravery (they were injured and jailed for their efforts), but I was also in college and unemployed. I sent them what I could.  (I found out decades later that I was the only family member who gave them financial support.) Their efforts fired up my life-long interest in social justice and activism.

Recently I went through the many requests for funding that fill my mail box, trying to decide what I could afford to give.  Reading the detailed stories of the work of all these organizations broke my heart.  I can’t give them much money, but I can share some of the work they are doing with you:

Southern Poverty Law Center – defended the voting rights of people with disabilities,  made a case for restoring the Voting Rights Act, distributed more than $11,000,000 through their Vote Your Voice programs to 55 different grass roots organizations, provided a data base on hate and extremism consulted by 4.5 million people, tracked 1,221 hate and extremist groups across the country, freed over 20,00 people from immigrant detention Centers, prompted Department of Justice investigations into the Georgia Department of Corrections’ treatment of LGBTQ people – and much more.

Doctors without Borders provides medical care to refugees and displaced people all over the world. 48 million people are internally displaced or forced to move within their home country. 30.3 million people are refugees forced to flee their home country. 41 million people are seeking asylum and waiting for a decision on their refugee status.  In 2017, Myanmar security forces launched a campaign of violence targeting the Rohingya ethnic minority group. Roughly 700,00 people fled across the border into Bangladesh where they settled in already overcrowded refugee camps. Doctors without Borders manages ten facilities in the Cox’s Bazar camp, providing specialized healthcare to tens of thousands of refugees each month as well as improving sanitation by building sustainable latrines and wells where residents can access clean waters.

According to the Carter Center, just 15 human cases of Guinea worm disease were reported in 2021, the lowest number ever recorded. When the Carter Center started leading the global eradication campaign there in 1986, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases in 21 countries. In addition nations on opposite sides of Africa have reported milestones in the fight against river blindness. Transmission has been eliminated in several states and regions.

Feeding America maintains a network of more than 200 food banks, 21 statewide food bank associations, and over 60,000 partner agencies. They have provided 6.6 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need last year.

USA for UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) provides services to refugees and displaced people fleeing desperate, life-threatening circumstances in Ukraine.

World Central Kitchen – fed an island after Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico. They fed tens of millions struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. They put boots on the ground when a blast devastated Beirut, bushfires ripped through Australia, and a volcano transformed a Spanish island. They were under a bridge with thousands of asylum seekers in Texas, in a demolished Kentucky town after brutal tornadoes, on the Louisiana coast when yet another enormous hurricane made landfall. They are now in Ukraine feeding hundreds of refugees.

These are a few of the organizations that I try to help.  They  need the support and prayers of all of us to continue the work they are doing around the world.  Let me know what groups you support. Let’s spread the word!

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From My Reading – June

“The only people who grow in truth are those who are humble and honest. This is traditional Christian doctrine and is, in effect, the maxim of Alcoholics Anonymous. Without those two qualities—humility and honesty—we just don’t grow. If we try to use religion to aggrandize the self, we will end up just the opposite: proud and dishonest. Humility and honesty are really the same thing. A humble person is simply someone who is naturally honest about their own truth. You and I came along a few years ago; we’re going to be gone in a few more years. The only honest response to such a mystery is humility” (Richard Rohr).

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“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can” (John Wesley).

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“Where is this risen Christ? Everywhere and all around us—in you, your neighbor, the dogwood tree outside, the budding grape vine, the ants popping up through the cracks. The whole world is filled with God, who is shining through even the darkest places of our lives. To “go to church” is to awaken to this divine presence in our midst and respond in love with a yes: Your life, O God, is my life and the life of the planet. . . .” (Illia Deo).

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“Any paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon” (Ikkyu,  Zen Monk , poet, 1394-1481).

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“It is central in the biblical tradition that God’s love for his people should not be forgotten. It should remain with us in the present. When everything is dark, when we are surrounded by despairing voices, when we do not see any exits, then we can find salvation in a remembered love, a love that is not simply a wistful recollection of a bygone past, but a living force that sustains us in the present. Through memory, love transcends the limits of time and offers hope at any moment of our lives” (Henri Nouwen).

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“To work in the world lovingly means that we are defining what we will be for, rather than reacting to what we are against” (Christina Baldwin).

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” Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel” (Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents). 

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“Something precious is lost if we rush headlong into the details of life without pausing for a moment to pay homage to the mystery of life and the gift of another day” (Kent Nerburn)

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Remembering My Father

This post from the livingasapprentices archives is re-posted in honor of Memorial Day.

Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God” (Hebrews 12: 28 in The Message).

Memorial DayMy father left the church he was pastoring and volunteered to serve as a chaplain during World War II.  He left behind a wife and three-month old daughter – me.  After three years as a medic’s assistant, he was faced with the challenge of his lifetime:  stay with the wounded men he was treating and face certain capture or retreat with the rest of his unit.  He chose to stay. He was captured and eventually liberated. However, he was killed by friendly fire while walking from the POW camp to freedom.

A few years ago, as I prepared to share this story at a Memorial Day worship service, I felt the familiar tug between pride and anger. Here was a man of integrity and valor!  But didn’t he know that when he stayed with his men he left me behind?  And then the truth of this verse hit me. My father believed in the “unshakable kingdom.” He knew that no matter what happened to him he would be safe.  He also knew that I lived in that kingdom as well.  No matter what happened to him, I would be safe.

We all live in a world where fear and the unknown can shake our faith and destroy our dreams. But God is in control of God’s kingdom. And what is to be our response to the wonder of that kingdom?  Gratitude and a life “brimming with worship.”


This post is a devotional I wrote for the July, August, September, 2013 issue  of Words of Hope, a devotional booklet published Grand Rapids, MI. Reprinted permission. See more of  my father’s story in an earlier post, “Communion in the Corral.”

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Making a Difference

Last night, after trying to absorb a day filled with the news of a mass shooting attack on an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas,  I happened on an article in the Autumn, 2021 issue of Plough Quarterly which focuses on the topic “Beyond Borders.”

The article, Three Kants and a Thousand Skills, by Simeon Wiehler, Dean of the School of Social, Political and Administrative Sciences at the University of Rwanda, centers on his experiences in Rwanda after growing up in the Bruderhof communities in Pennsylvania and England. I highly recommend that  you read the entire piece, but I want to focus on an extended quote in which the author questions our response to the horrors of the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis.

“Dare we peer into  the abyss [of genocide in Rwanda – or gun violence in America] without also confronting the same propensity of our own hearts, the inclination towards evil, where we have marginalized, belittled, undervalued, or hurt others whose lives are equally precious in God’s eyes?

Truly opposing genocide or colonialism, racism or discrimination does not start from moral superiority but through deep humility that sees fallen humanity with all its failings, and recognizes that human fallenness in our own hearts as well. Only then can we ask ourselves if we are the systemic change that this world needs.”

The author then provides a series of questions which I am listing separately below. I encourage each of us to use these questions of examen (I have changed the author’s “we” to “I”) regularly to motivate us to make a difference in this horrific world.

1. “Do I embody a shared willingness to contribute to the common good to achieve what the individual alone cannot?”

2. “Am I a  truth-seeker? Telling the deep truth about ourselves, about our comfortable myths and imagined realities can be uncomfortable, but with truth-seeking, good cannot grow and evil clings on, like mold, in the cracks.”

3. “Have I looked at the world around me and imagined what  might be better and then said so?”

4. “Do the small acts of my daily life help build stronger relationships, better neighborhoods?”

5. “Do my actions strengthen justice and enhance what is good in our communities?”

6. “Do I pursue peace and oppose hate even in the small things knowing that small plus small can get pretty big?”

7. “Will I be able to say when life nears its end, that I planted my feet determinedly on the side of good, that I struggled for what was right, that I joined with similarly-minded people and tried to build a better society?”

As I get ready to publish this blog, the news about gun violence in the U.S. and the arguments about the need to control the numbers (it is reported that there are 120 guns for every 100 persons in the US) and the ownership and the use of guns rages. I feel even more strongly the need for every Christ-follower to think carefully about his or her own responsibility in this issue.

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