Author and minister Frederick Buechner has been an inspiration to me since the first book of his I read, The Alphabet of Grace, a description of one day in his life. His Yale Lyman Beecher Lecture, published as Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, is among the best things ever written on the art of preaching, right up there with Forsyth’s Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind.
His many novels are a treasure with richly developed characters, from the ancient Celtic saint Godric in Godric to the good hearted charleton Leo Bebb in the Book of Bebb triology. Their are no heroes in Buechner, although people sometimes do rise to heroic acts. Godric is a saint who is a sinner, and Bebb a sinner, who may be a saint. Buechner doesn’t explain simul justis et peccator, he describes it with carefully crafted words through character and plot.
Here is an excerpt from a sermon entitled A Room Called Remember from a book of the same name, where he talks of the interplay between memory and hope: ““Remember the wonderful works that he has done,’ goes David’s song—remember what he has done in the lives of each of us, and beyond that remember what he has done in the life of the world; remember what he has done above all in Christ—remember those moments in our own lives when with only the dullest understanding but with the sharpest longing we have glimpsed that Christ’s kind of life is the only life that matters and that all other kinds of life are riddled with death; remember those moments in our lives when Christ came to us in countless disguises through people who one way or another strengthened us, comforted us, healed us, judged us, by the power of Christ within them. All that is the past. All that is what there is to remember. And because that is the past, because we remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he has done, he will continue to do, that what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition . . . The past and the future. Memory and expectation. Remember and hope. Remember and wait. Wait for him whose face we all of us know because somewhere in the past we have faintly seen it, whose life we all of us thirst for because somewhere in the past we have seen it lived, have maybe even had moments of living it ourselves. Remember him who himself remembers us as he promised to remember the thief who died beside him. To have faith is to remember and wait, and to wait in hope is to have what we hope for already begin to come true in us through our hoping. Praise him.” (A Room Called Remember, Harper and Row, 1984)
In my thirty years as a preacher I often had the feeling, when confronted by the fact that even the most committted churchmen in my congregation had scant knowledge of the Bible, that I had just missed some golden age when the pews were chockablock with folks who read their Bible daily. But listen to this from P.T. Forsyth’s Yale Beecher Lectures from 1907, published as Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind:
“The Bible may be his (the preacher’s) text book, but it has ceased to be the text book of his audience. The Bible is not read by the Christian, or even by the churchgoing public, as a means of grace greater even than churchgoing. Our people, as a rule, do not read the Bible, in any sense which makes its language more familiar and dear to them than the language of the novel or the press. And I will go so far as to confess that one of the chief miscalculations I have made in the course of my own ministerial career has been to speak to congregations as if they did know and use the Bible. I was bred where it was well known and loved, and I have spent my ministerial life where it is less so. And it has taken me so long to realize the fact that I still find it difficult to adjust myself to it. I am long accustomed to being called obscure by many whose mental habits and interests are only literary, who have felt but a languid interest in the final questions of the soul as the New Testament stirs them, who treat sin as but lapse, God’s grace as if it were but love, and His love as if it were but paternal kindness.”
Does that strike a chord with any of you preachers?
A lifeline is literally a rope tossed to a drowning person, and figuratively something that provides escape from a dire situation. Sometimes we get thrown theological and intellectual lifelines!
One of the persistent features of my three plus decades in ministry has been my conviction that a pastor must be a theologian, and my own experience as a pastor-theologian has included several salient moments when I was thrown a theological life-line enabling me to carry on my work.
One was certainly in my first parish, where at twenty-six I was called to preach to two small congregations in rural Maine. After using up most of my seminary material in about a month the question loomed, what shall I say now?
To complicate matters, one of my congregations had a committed group of warm-hearted Jesus Freaks (this was 1975) who lamentably knew nothing about Paul Tillich’s “ground of all Being” or “ultimate concern,”and insisted on talking about matters liked being saved and the rapture. I felt like I had been dropped off on the far side of the moon, and often went back to my empty parsonage to pray and wonder if I was really a Christian.
Early lifelines came from books like Helmut Thielicke’s “Waiting Father” and “A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.” The first real rescuing lifeline was Karl Barth. A neighboring young pastor, Charlie Ford (about 25 miles away) had just returned from Bonn after working on a Ph. D. in New Testament. We would meet and read Karl Barth and study Greek.
Here was a towering intellect taking the tradition seriously, and now I finally had a common tongue to speak with my pietist friends of sin and grace, of righteousness and salvation. The first Barth I read was not the massive “Church Dogmatics,” but the short work, “Word of God and Word of Man,” translated and edited by Douglas Horton.
Horton’s preface includes his own lifeline narrative of seeing the little book at the Harvard Divinity School library and reading it in German. Horton found this “strange new world” a powerful alternative to the dry desiccated humanism in which he had been trained.
Another lifeline narrative comes from my friend Browne Barr, who died on February 1 of this year at 91. Browne had been a homiletics teacher at Yale, and for many years in the turbulent 60’s and 70’s he was the pastor of the big UCC church in Berkeley, California, where he was known for his engaging attention to both Word and World.
In the 1981 Pickwick Press reprint of P. T. Forsyth’s 1907 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale, entitled Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, Browne wrote an essay called “The Preacher’s Theologian.”
A generation after Douglas Horton, Browne Barr tells a similar tale. The setting this time is not a divinity school library, but his recently deceased predecessor’s study in the old parsonage where Browne, a young minister, comes across Forsyth’s book on preaching.
It is 1944, and as he puts it, “In Europe the hinge of history had not yet yet shown which way it was going to swing its door.”Reared and trained after the First World War on prohibition, pacifism, and “the integration of personality” he wondered what he would preach on his first Sunday. It was hard to say much about Christian pacifism when most of the men were at war. “The integration of personality? It was also hard to say much about that to a congregation absorbed with news of the nightly bombing of London and weary with their work on airplane propellors and parachute cloth. They really appeared fairly well integrated.”
Browne Barr’s lifeline was P. T. Forsyth, 33 years dead, but whose words on preaching still carried the ring of truth. And over the decades how many of us have had this same lifeline thrown to us, so that at difficult times in our ministry we were put in touch with the living Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy God he called Father?