Thus begins my new reading challenge for 2018: Year of Reading Buechner, in which I read one book per month of American author Frederick Buechner.
For my first book in this series I decided to start with Buechner’s newest, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (Zondervan, 2017). I started here because, unlike some of Buechner’s other works, it was relatively easy to find. I also wanted something that was new, not just a rehash of some of his other works, but something that would nevertheless give me an introduction to some of his ideas and themes.
This book succeeded in those goals, for the most part. It was a good introduction to Buechner’s work, but I wouldn’t say it is completely new material. It is based on a series of unpublished lectures given in 1987 and 1990, and in those lectures he tells some of the same familiar stories about his childhood, people he’s met, etc. that I have heard other places. And because it’s based on a series of lectures, the style is perhaps less formal than it would be if he had published these as essays. Or maybe not. Perhaps this is the way he writes, too. I’ve only read snippets of his non-fiction amd just one novel, so I don’t have a huge base of comparison.
At any rate, setting those minor caveats aside, I did enjoy this book. The casual style is very easy to read, but that’s not to say that the thoughts expressed are simple ones. In many ways Buechner reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who can take very complicated subjects, especially in the realm of theology, and make them easy to understand. In Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner’s theme is that God speaks through our ordinary lives, through the people we meet and the events of our day, and it is up to us to take the time to pay attention, to stop, look and listen, as the tag line of the book says.
The book is divided up into three sections: Part 1: Stop, Look, and Listen for God, Part 2: Listening for God in the Stories We Tell, and Part 3: Telling the Truth.
In the first section Buechner talks about how art, whether it is a painting, or a story, or music, can be valuable to us because it forces us out of our own thoughts and into a place where we are forced to notice something completely different. Literature, he says, forces us to stop.
Stop thinking. Stop expecting. Stop living in the past. Stop living in the future. Stop doing anything and just pay attention to this. To this boy and this black man floating down the Mississippi River on a raft, this old king going crazy on a heath because two of his three daughters have done terrible things to him, pay attention to this young woman named Anna Karenina who is about to drop in front of a train because her love has failed her. Literature, before it is saying anything else, is saying, Be mindful.
In the same way, an visual artist is saying Look.
Look at each other’s faces the way Rembrandt looked at the old woman’s face. Or look at your own face, maybe that’s the hardest of all, in the mirror the way that Rembrandt looked at the old woman’s face, which is to say look at it not just for the wrinkles and the sunken upper lip and the white fluff, but look for what lies within the face, for the life that makes the face the way it is.
And music, of course, invites us to Listen. Interestingly, Buechner postulates that the medium of music is time, in that one note follows another the way one moment follows another moment.
…I think that what the musician is trying to do is to say, Listen to time, pay attention to time, pay attention to the sounds and the silences of time. Experience the richness of time.
…It is also saying, Listen to the sounds, listen to the music of your own life.
This book is full of little moments like that, sentences that invite you to Stop, Look, and Listen. Woven throughout the book is the encouragement to take that idea one step further and specifically to stop, look, and listen to God in your life. Buechner has spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about this idea, and you can tell. This concept soaks through his words, the notion that God is always speaking to us, and that we need to train ourselves to pay attention.
So much of life is showing up and paying attention, and that is doubly true of the life of faith. The beautiful story of Elijah in the Old Testament (1 Kings 19:9-14) shows us that often God often speaks to us not just through the fire, wind, or earthquakes in our lives, not just through the dramatic moments, but with a still, small voice, in the quiet moments when we may not be expecting to hear Him.
Last week I posted on the blog about how the Celtic Christians see the world, as one in which God speaks to us through everything so in that sense, everything means something. But to pay attention in this way is hard. We get used to looking ahead to our next thing, and forget to pay attention to the present. Or we are consumed with guilt or worry from past actions, and are blind to the present moment of grace being offered to us.
All of this reminds me from this wonderful scene from the film, Bruce Almighty, starring Jim Carrey:
Too often we are so caught up in our own troubles, or we fail to acknowledge that God might be speaking to us in a way we don’t recognize, so we miss what He is clearly saying.
This book was a good reminder to slow down and pay attention. A good way to begin a new year!