Buechner

Another giant falls in the forest.

I’m thinking of Eugene and Frederick, the two of them sitting at the same time in the pews at Madison Ave Presbyterian in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, young and open to the world and wild, not knowing each other but both having their profound encounter with grace via the lyric and power of George Buttrick’s preaching. Who could have known how the words would flow, how they’d evoke such wonder in us, such hope, such yearning for a life faithful and beautiful and good.

I hope they are sharing quite a view and a bourbon together now, if it works that way. And I hope that Eugene and Frederick know how much they’ve meant to us, how many of us felt the dark fall back a little when we encountered something so marvelous and simple as a sentence, a string of hearty words put to true use. Can you really open a whole world or put salve to a deep, ancient wound with only one clear, heart-wrenching line? I hope they know how many of us felt less alone and more emboldened and more alive in God because of how they helped us to see and hear and stand in awe.

Frederick, you told us that beautiful and terrible things would happen — but you also told us, “Don’t be afraid.” We’re trying. We really are.

Always Something Beautiful

Cemetery in Fanore, County Claire, Ireland

Our family is in County Claire, Ireland, walking the Burren Way. On one stretch, we walked 13 miles to the little village by the sea, Fanore, only to discover this is the burial place of one of Miska’s favorite modern poets, John O’Donohue. He left us too soon, in 2008. The cemetery is a small plot tucked into a stark, bare hillside, with an expansive view of the wild Atlantic. John often said that if we’re to endure times of bleakness, it is essential to always keep the image of something beautiful in your soul. His resting place does just this.

I met a young woman who was visiting the grave of a loved one. She was friends with John and shared stories of how he’d light up every room he entered, and how in the lashing rain, she’d take her dog to the beach — and John would be the only other person out reveling in the tempest along with her. John would ask how she was, and she’d reply with a quick brush-off response.

“No,” he’d say (and you have to hear this in the strong Irish lilt this woman and John shared). “How are you really?”

So, I hope you are keeping your heart’s eye on something beautiful. And I hope you have someone near you who every once in a while says, “No, how are you really.”

Thank you, John. You gave us so much.

Southern Portion of the Cliffs of Moher
Cliffs of Moher

Resurrection & Creation

It’s a stroke of genius that this year Earth Day happens the first week of Eastertide. Easter, Resurrection, and a grateful tending to God’s beautiful, stunning, and suffering world are, according to the Scriptures, intimately interwoven. While this day was the brainchild of politicians (a Democrat and a Republican teamed up to make it happen, if you can imagine such a thing), the Church, as Resurrection people, should have thought of it first.

John’s gospel takes great literary pains to set Jesus’ story as the in-breaking of a new creation, a healing of the entire cosmos bloodied and scarred by human rebellion and hubris. And John wants to make certain we know that it was in a garden where Jesus’ dead corpse was buried–and that in this garden those courageous, bewildered women discovered that this corpse was no longer a corpse. It all happened in a garden. Maybe we thought Eden was completely lost, but Eden would be remade again.

And in Mark’s telling of the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to those stunned disciples, still rattled and big-eyed. “Go into all the world,” Jesus said, “and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” The gospel is good news. Good news for you and me, good news for every big wig in a fancy office, for every down-and-outer trying to scrape together a few dollars. Good news for every deluded person thumping their chest at the top of the pile, for every exhausted person suffocating underneath the pile’s crush. But the gospel is also good news for the whole creation. For razed West Virginia mountaintops, for oceans littered with miles of plastic islands, for skies grey with toxins. Paul tells us that creation groans–and we, bound up in creation, grown with her. But Jesus hears our groans. All of them.

My friend and teacher, Vigen Guroian, in his marvelous book Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening, offers stunning sentences: “Every gardener is an imitator of Mary’s Son; every gardener is an apprentice of the good Gardener of creation. Gardening teaches us that we belong to nature and are also responsible for it. Human culture and nature’s destiny are inextricably intertwined.”

May we–with whatever gifts and resources God has given us–be tender, creative, and wise gardeners in our acres of creation. May we be Resurrection people.

I offer this image of the Grand Canyon because it is for me one of those sacred places of creation

Epiphany of Grace

In the story of Jesus as told through the Church Year, we are in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany commenced right after the twelfth day of Christmas, when we gathered with the wide-eyed magi, stunned by the sheer wonder of a child, a miraculous in-breaking of light and love we did not in any way see coming. And we gathered with those beleaguered, hope-weary bodies around the Jordan River, that distraught band of misfits with no expectations whatsoever that on this day, in the middle of nowhere, their God would thunder–and a Son would descend into death’s murky waters and rise again, carrying all of creation with him for the entire, preposterous ride.

Epiphany–that marvelous, terrifying word. It means that God comes precisely where and when we don’t expect it. Epiphany means that God does for us what we could never do for ourselves, no matter our frantic efforts. Epiphany means that even when all seems lost (and these days there’s a whole lot that feels deep-in-the-well lost), God is (despite every fear to the contrary) very, very near.

Epiphany means that light comes, but it breaks in on a timetable we cannot manipulate–and often into the midnight dark, long after we’ve abandoned hope. Epiphany means that we must lose control, that we never really had control, that we truly are at the mercy. Epiphany means that everything really is grace.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you
. {The prophet Isaiah}

Travails

There are many travails to being a fellow with as much handyman sense as a medium-sized brick. Winter simply brings new opportunities to reveal my inadequacies.

One morning a couple days ago, I woke to another majestic quilt of white. We received only a few inches, which means I could easily clear the driveway by hand with my snow pusher (not to be confused with a snow shovel or snow scooper or snow scraper—these are the intricate details one learns with a year under their belt in the Northern tundra). However, since winter has so far merely tipped its hat and winked, it seemed time to fire up the Orange Beast and make sure all was well.

My friends, all was not well.

After reviewing the starting instructions (go easy, I only have 1 season of experience), I meticulously clipped through the regimen: open the fuel line, turn on the choke, insert the ignition key, flip the start switch, pump the primer bulb. Each in precise order, a NASA engineer prepping for launch. Then, moment of truth: I pulled the start rope, expecting that mighty roar, that blast of horsepower, that potent rumble validating my masculinity.

Instead, I only strained my shoulder, pull after clattering pull. This is a new blower, mind you. I’ve used it 6-7 times. I haven’t even bothered to remove the tags. It still gleams. Yet there I was in my garage, eyeing my machine intently, lifting wires, rubbing the top of the engine like it was a bottle holding a genie, doing all the sorts of things one does whenever you’re trying to be useful but have no idea what you’re doing or what you’re even looking for.

Two manuals. Multiple YouTube videos. Scrolling the manufacturer’s website FAQ’s. More YouTube.

After hours of this infuriating madness, the only thing I’d discovered that I hadn’t yet tried was replacing the spark plug. It’s possible that—due to someone who shall not be named maybe over-priming the gas—the plug may have fouled. But true to form for me, one fixit possibility opens 3 new problems. One needs a spark plug wrench (what size?). One apparently needs a spark plug gap gauge. One needs to know how to gap the spark plug and how to replace it.

“This is so simple,” you say. Well, for you, yes, I understand. That’s the point of this sad tale. This is how the shame piles on for guys like me. These are the travails.

I’m happy to report that after a bit more YouTube, visits to two automotive stores, and one wrestling match with a socket set, I did in fact get my spark plug replaced. And I did (cue Handel’s Messiah) hear the Orange Beast roar. I let it purr for 2-3 minutes to clear the lines—but mainly to revel in my triumph. “Who’s King of the garage now?”

But then, rolling my blower away, I saw a large stainless steel nut and washer lying on the ground, exactly where my blower had just been. I’ve combed over every inch of this blasted machine, thumbed through schematics (twice). I have no idea from whence it came, no idea whether it’s an unessential add-on or whether, on some freezing January morning, my blower will wheeze and jolt and crumble.

I keep looking at my blower intently, curiously, lifting wires, as if I have some clue. I do not. And that metal nut and washer lie there. “Rookie,” they say, shaking their head.

We Belong to One Another

On Christmas Eve, I always need to take at least an hour and get out into the holiday energy. It began as a boy when my dad, who commenced his Christmas shopping around 2:00 on the 24th, would take me with him to Cox’s department store and load up gifts for mom. Every year, the bedraggled but somehow still standing folks in the the gift wrapping department knew they could pack up their silver paper and red bows for the season as soon as they finished with my dad and his boxes .

I’ve carried on a version of this tradition, venturing out for a few final stocking stuffers and a couple items we don’t need from the grocery. Some years I cave and buy eggnog that I’ll drink alone. Really, I’m heading out to see the smiles and feel the joy. These gifts are too rare these days. There’s so little we share, so little that feels neighborly, so little that makes me believe maybe we still remember that we belong to one another.

This year on Christmas Eve, I found myself at Aldi where a scruffy, white-bearded man in jeans and a black and grey flannel checked out in front of me. Among his items was a dozen roses. After paying, he pulled out one rose and handed it to the cashier. She blushed, said thank you. On his way out, he handed a rose to every cashier in the row. One fellow leaned against his cart, waiting for a woman swiping her card through the machine. The white bearded florist tapped the fellow on the shoulder. “Give this to her,” he said, pointing to the woman.

The gift-giver rolled his cart out the sliding doors, leaving a trail of red roses and warm hearts.

Some of us remember.

Advent: The Long Dark Night

Photo by Johannes Roth 

It was early December, cold and dark. Elms and maples, bare and silent, stood lonely watch over our neighbor’s home. In each window (10 or 12 at least), a single white Christmas candle lamp burned, a red bow hung from each window sill. No lights strung across the roof. No candy cane paper wrapping the mailbox or lamppost. No blow-up snowman in the yard. Just those single flickering lights, holding out against the darkness, refusing to be devoured by the night. Warm, spare beauty amid so much barrenness, chill, and gloom.

Watching that illumination, I felt such sadness and emptiness–and such beauty and gratitude. All at once. How could these emotions coexist? The interior conflict felt familiar, an old friend I’d never named nor understood. I remembered the December morning when I still lived at home, listening to an old rendition of the Nativity story on my Sears stereo, when my mom found me overcome by tears. I could not tell her whether they were tears of joy or tears of sorrow. Often, they are the same. Often, if we live honestly, one requires the other.

Advent pulls these tensions taught. Advent fixes our fatigued, jaded, sad eyes on hope and joy, but first it requires us to reckon with our longing for what we lack, with our despair over all we’ve lost, with the fear, isolation, and heaviness weighing on the sagging shoulders of this weary world. Advent is where the Christian story begins. And Advent begins in the long, dark night.

“Christian art began in grief,” David Bannon reminds us. The earliest Christian imagery exists in catacombs, stories of cross and resurrection carved into stone and painted on walls–all of it buried in graves alongside the dead. They needed a way to embrace their tears, and a way to remember Jesus’ impossible promise of a brighter day and a new world. We still do.

Christian art…the Christian story…Christian hope–they are all embedded in a world gone mad, in a life that seems abandoned or ruined, in a heart that’s shattered. That’s not where this whole thing ends, mind you. We’re heading toward goodness and wholeness and blinding love. But we begin in the sorrows. There’s no other way.

“The celebration of Advent,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. He is, and always will be now, with us in our sin, in our suffering, and at our death. We are no longer alone. God is with us and we are no longer homeless.”

During these days, we don’t go looking for sadness; we merely enact the courage to acknowledge it wherever it appears. There’s more than enough to mourn, more than enough to rattle the optimistic cheer of even the most stalwart souls. We enter the long, dark night, trusting not our own capacity to rekindle hope or our own ingenuity to overcome our many troubles. We trust the One who has come among us, the One who has become one of us (what wonder). We entrust our hopes and our futures to the One who has taken upon himself all that threatens us, the One who is trustworthy and true.

But First We Die

The truest, deepest, human existence–genuine life in its most vibrant, sensual, sacred reality–begins with death. With baptism. Drowning in those deep waters. And from death’s icy clutches, we rise as one made new by the same Spirit who hovered over the waters of the deep in Genesis, the same Spirit who fills the lungs of every human with holy breath, the same Spirit who tells us over and again (in opposition to every competing voice), that we are beloved.

But first we die.

Like Jesus our True Brother, we drown in God’s love. We yield all we cling to in joyful surrender. We cry uncle. We abandon the silly seductions suggesting that we can hold this runaway train on the tracks with just a little more force, a little more wit, a little more brain power or elbow grease, a little more theology, a little more morality, a little more image-puffing.

Instead, we just die. And then–just at that point when all is lost–God brings us up from the grave, gasping and gulping in great droughts of grace. The dove descends. The Father tells us how crazy he is about us. The world is new. And then, finally, we can be free from all our insanity, our machinations. Finally, we can truly live.

When the Church grasps even a portion of the gospel’s downward and dovelike message — theologically (the humility of God, grace) and ethically (gentleness, nonviolence) — the church will be in a stronger position than she now is under a frequently nationalistic and so inevitably militaristic spirit. Christians are given power by the gift of the Spirit in baptism. But it is a dove power. {Frederick Dale Bruner, 2004}

Sulfur and Fire

Growing up, my mom was always hot, which is a difficulty if you live in Waco, Texas, where it doesn’t feel like proper summer until you can fry eggs sunny side up on the sidewalk. We kept the AC cranking full throttle (with dad marveling at the electric bill, though no big complaint because he liked it as cold as she did). When we were dating and Miska visited, she’d bring winter gear, even in July, to bundle up when indoors. She referred to our house as “the meat locker.”

Despite the arctic frost pouring out our AC vents, mom would mop her forehead and bemoan the heat wave. Miska would be wrapped in a blanket on the couch, a little Arkansas icicle—and mom would be walking through the house, pained, like it was the Sahara Desert under noon’s scorching rays.

Vonda and I really got a laugh, though, when mom would go room to room turning off all the lights. “The lights are radiating heat,” she said, flipping switches as if she were shutting down a nuclear reactor. We’d pass knowing grins and chuckle and just let mom do her thing.

Now we live in Michigan where the summer can roast, but in Texas, we would have called this season Fall. For the past month, our AC was on the fritz, though I’m hesitant to complain due to fear of having my Texan Card revoked. Nevertheless, it was weeks of open windows and refraining from using the oven. It was a struggle. On days when I ran, I took cold showers which helped only a little. Sweat pouring, I’d stand in front of our big floor fan (one worthy of sitting in a mechanic’s bay), begging the heat gods to relinquish me from their furnace.

I found myself going room to room turning off those darn lights, those little incinerators pumping sulfur and fire. I’m sorry I doubted you, mom.

A Vast and Rugged Grace

The Rio Grande. 2021

There are places where you sink into the vastness, where you stand silent under the broadest sky, a world you had not recognized until it threatened to swallow you whole. You hear the stillness, a terrible mercy, a gracious reckoning of all you carried into these rugged vistas.

This stunning, wondrous, brutal land does not need me. It asks me for nothing save my reverence. This is God’s country. And I am free.

Sunset at Big Bend, 2021
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