Morning Devotional

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Will someone wise up and cast Anthony Hopkins to star in a film about the life of Frederick Buechner, before they both die?

This will be a busy day. As I sit here, I already know that I have at least two days’ worth of work that’s supposed to get done today, and I’m trying to prioritize what will make the cut and what won’t; who I’m going to have to apologize to and how to put it and when I’m going to be able to get to whatever it is done, along with fixing any fallout caused by not getting it done in the first place. There are worship processions and recessions to choreograph, a sermon to write, a proposal for a new video projector installation to review, a poster to get designed and printed for an upcoming spaghetti dinner, and there’s always a committee report or two to knock out as well. Ruth is also in the hospital again and needs a visit, and there are a stack of homework papers from the Confirmation kids to read through. I also have to come up with a make-up assignment for the next Confirmation class, because for the fourth or fifth time, Blake or Meghan or whoever won’t be in class because their U14 Traveling Chess Team has a mandatory practice scheduled for Sunday morning, and if they aren’t at the practice they won’t be able to participate in the upcoming tournament, which is where kids qualify for the state championships, and if they miss that, they probably won’t get a chess scholarship to a really good college and they’ll be stuck attending a second-tier school and their life will basically be ruined. So they have to be at the practice, because it’s really important. And five or six or seven years from now, if I happen to still be here, I’ll listen to Dad, or probably Mom, complaining that their child had just left the church behind when they went off to college. They’ll say they’re upset that the church failed them and their family, and that their kids didn’t learn what the parents considered important in life, and I’ll find some way to be empathetic while simultaneously not pointing out that in fact, that was exactly what they did learn, and perfectly well.

So with all of this and more not just on the plate but dripping over its edges, I sit here and write a blog post. It’s entirely possible, if not probable, that some good soul who won’t get their thing done today will see this, and they’ll ask If you’re so busy, how do you have time to write on your blog; or So do you mean to tell me that writing all that stuff is more important than me and my project? From their standpoint, they’re perfectly logical and reasonable questions, and the perfectly logical and reasonable answers don’t make me look good at all. The reality, though, is that some days I need to do this in order to get as much of the rest done as possible. It’s gratifying to know that there are some people out there who enjoy reading what I write. And it astounds me that, at least according to WordPress, at 3:00am their time there’s someone in Trinidad and Tobago who felt compelled to read one of my sermons. But the truth is that as much as I like sharing my thoughts, I realize that most of it is primarily for my own benefit. It’s the way I clear my head and my thoughts, burping out these words onto the screen to make room in my head and my day for other ones – so I can prioritize things as well as possible, and get as much of the most important things done for the most people, and if I don’t do this I’d upset even more people than I will by taking the time to write. In short, this is my morning devotional.

Compressing time began early this morning, as I multi-tasked during my morning bathroom ritual by simultaneously brushing my teeth and reading another entry out of the book Listening to Your Life – a series of brief excerpts, one for each day of the year, of the writing of Presbyterian minister, seminary professor, and author Frederick Buechner. I’ve been a Buechner fan for years, which as far as I can tell is a club made up of essentially everyone who’s ever actually read him. The following is an excerpt from the book – today’s and yesterday’s offerings, actually, since they’re connected. I think his words here are a pretty good explanation of why I think all the daily juggling and doing and failing and apologizing and empathizing and everything else is worth it all anyway – and why the world is a much better place because Frederick Buechner is part of it.

I hear the creaking of a chair being tipped back on its hind legs. “Sir, this is all fairly effective in a literary sort of way, I suppose, but since you have already put most of it in a novel, I’m afraid it’s a little stale.”

My interlocutor is a student who under various names and in various transparent disguises has attended all the religion classes I have ever taught and listened to all my sermons and read every word I’ve ever written, published and unpublished, including diaries and letters. He is on the thin side, dark, brighter than I am and knows it. He is without either guile or mercy. “You know, you were just getting down to the one thing people might be interested in,” he says, “because it is always interesting to hear why a man believes what he believes. But then instead of giving it to them straight, you started paraphrasing from a work of your own fiction. I’ve heard you do the same sort of thing in sermons. Just as you are about to reach what ought to be the real nub of the matter, you lapse off into something that in the words of one of your early reviewers is either poetry or Williams’ Aqua Velva. I would hesitate to use the phrase “artful dodger” if you hadn’t already used it artfully yourself. Why don’t you really tell them this time? Give it to them straight?”

God. Jesus. The ministry, of all things. Why I believe. He cannot possibly want me to give it straight any more than I want myself to give it straight, get it straight once and for all. For my own sake. I tell him this, and he brushes his hand over his mouth to conceal the glimmer of a smile.

“A question then,” he says. “Have you ever had what you yourself consider a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience?”

There are these things I have already mentioned – the monastery visit, the great laughter sermon, the apple tree branches. They all really happened, I tell him, and I don’t see why just because I’ve used them already in a novel I shouldn’t use them again now. And the dream of writing the name on the bar. I really dreamed it. God knows I know what he means about artful dodging, but what can be straighter than telling the actual experiences themselves? What more can he want?

“I just told you,” he says, “what I want.”

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.

***

Driving home from church one morning full of Christ, I thought, giddy in the head almost and if not speaking in tongues at least singing in tongues some kind of witless, wordless psalm, I turned on the radio for the twelve o’clock news and heard how a four year old had died that morning somewhere. The child had kept his parents awake all night with his crying and carrying on, and the parents to punish him filled the tub with scalding water and put him in. These parents filled the scalding water with their child to punish him and, scalding and scalded, he died crying out in tongues as I heard it reported on the radio on my way back from of all places church and prayed to almighty God to kick to pieces such a world or to kick to pieces Himself and His Son and His Holy Ghost world without end standing there by the side of that screaming tub and doing nothing while with his scrawny little buttocks bare, the hopeless little four-year-old whistle, the child was lowered in his mother’s arms. I am acquainted with the reasons that theologians give and that I have given myself for why God does not, in the name of human freedom must not, by the very nature of things as he has himself established that nature cannot and will not, interfere in these sordid matters, but I prayed nonetheless for his interference.

“You were going to explain why you believe,” the interlocutor says, not unkindly.

I believe without the miracles I have prayed for then; that is what I am explaining. I believe because certain uncertain things have happened, dim half-miracles, sermons and silences and what not. Perhaps it is my believing itself that is the miracle I believe by. Perhaps it is the miracle of my own life: that I, who might so easily not have been, am; who might so easily at any moment, even now, give the whole thing up, nonetheless by God’s grace do not give it up and am not given up by it. There is maybe no such thing, old friend and adversary, as a genuine, self-authenticating experience of anything, let alone God. Maybe at the latter day my redeemer shall stand upon the earth and mine eyes shall behold him and not as a stranger, but in the meantime I behold him on the earth as a name which when I write it wakes me up weeping, as a joke too rich to tell on certain silent faces, occasionally even my own face; as a hand which I am able sometimes to believe that only the thin glove of night I wear keeps me from touching.

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