Sunday September 4, 2022
Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18
“Search me, O God, and know my heart!” we hear from our Psalm this morning. In these beautiful words are a prayer for connection and deep intimacy with our Creator, a yearning to be known wholly for who we are and to have no secrets we must hide. The Psalmist echoes some of the themes we have explored in recent months from Celtic Spirituality in that God is in each moment of our messy, complicated and beautiful lives. In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner called “the great Psalm 139″ ….”the secret prayer of us all.” It’s about “hiding and baring our secrets,” said Buechner. The psalm describes our deepest longings… of human confession and divine protection that comes from telling God our secrets. It is a prayer that we may be fully who we before the infinite God, and lovingly sheltered by God’s intimate love. This Psalm is also a statement of faith, the faith that we each have been lovingly, uniquely created to be in relationship with our Creator and therefore, we have been known and loved always. Let us pray, Loving God, you have known us for all time; you know our comings and goings, our joys and fears, be with us here this day and remind us of who You are and how you have created us for relationship with You and those who travel this path with us in life. We Praise you because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful.” Amen.
The beloved writer Frederick Buechner died on August 15 at his home in Vermont. He was 96. Loved by many over the years and especially popular among Christian thinkers and others on the spiritual quest, he sought through his writing to consider important and vital questions of spirituality, life and faith, and in so doing, he enabled many to consider new ways of considering these as well. As Dan Clendenin writes, “In many ways Psalm 139 is the perfect coda to his life and work. His legacy of thirty-nine books, translated into twenty-seven languages, was really an extended exploration of the depths of the soul. In his op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks described Buechner as “a master of uncovering his inner depths.”
If you have never heard of him or perhaps only recognize him through a favorite quote or two, I’d like to share a little background on his life. Buechner was both a well-regarded public intellectual and an ordained Presbyterian pastor.
His early years were marked by the tragic death of his father, after which his mother never spoke of this with her sons. He attended Princeton and following graduation saw his first novel A Long Day’s Dying (1950) published to critical acclaim as well as commercial success when he was twenty-three. This opened doors for him to the New York literary world. He was close friends with many writers of his day, including the novelist John Irving. Two of his novels would be finalists for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. At the beginning of his career, he thought he might write for those who were the “cultured despisers of religion” (Schleiermacher), but he admitted that he failed in that effort. He decided that he was just too Christian to appeal to the secular reader. Instead, after his second novel and what he describes as a conversion experience while attending church, he entered Union Theological Seminary in 1954, where he studied with Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.
Buechner never served as Pastor of a church; however, he found an unexpected and open audience, as one writer wrote — “Christians who sought a vibrant and intellectually honest faith that rejected the certitude of pious platitudes for the mystery of holy ambiguity.” The titles of his books speak to the mission he set for himself: “The Sacred Journey,” “The Longing for Home,” “Telling Secrets,” “The Eyes of the Heart.” As David Brooks wrote in his recent tribute to him in the NYT in August, “Buechner’s books tell stories, let you experience another person’s experience, let you get involved with the deep parts of one person’s life to see where it rhymes with and differs from your own. He modeled how a person can experience life more fully, which is a process of scraping off some of the ways adulthood teaches us to see. As Philip Yancey wrote, Buechner “tries to reawaken the child in people: the one who naïvely trusts, who will at least go and look for the magic place, who is not ashamed of not knowing the answers because he is not expected to know the answers.” His faith was personal, unpretentious and accessible. He once wrote,“Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward.” It is sensing a presence, not buying an argument.
In a lecture he delivered at Harvard in 1969,” he articulated what became the hallmark of his life work — the conviction that if God speaks to us at all, it is in the everyday events of an ordinary life. The lectures became the book The Alphabet of Grace, in which he “set out to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.” For Buechner, the “humdrum events of our lives,” as he called them, are an alphabet through which God spells out words and meaning to us.”
In an often quoted passage from his book Now and Then, he explained how both his fiction and his memoirs had the same goal:
“By examining as closely and as candidly as I could the life that had come to seem to me in many ways a kind of trap or dead-end street, I discovered that it really wasn’t that at all. I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life … opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife good-bye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly. In writing those lectures and the book they later turned into, it came to seem to me that if I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. What I started trying to do as a writer and as a preacher was more and more to draw on my on experience not just as a source of plot, character, illustration, but as a source of truth.”
Through what he called “conscious remembering,” for Buechner theology became a form of autobiography, and writing a way of self-discovery. In his own life that meant telling his own family secrets about the suicides of his father and his uncle, and his daughter’s deep struggles with anorexia, and yet nonetheless experiencing God’s grace.
And so this morning, I invite you to Listen to your life. Earlier in the summer, I invited you to find a sacred spot be still and listen to God’s voice calling to you. As Buechner put it in The Sacred Journey, “He says he is with us on our journeys. He says he has been with us since each of our journeys began. Listen for him. Listen to the sweet and bitter airs of your present and your past for the sound of him.” This assurance should bring us deep consolation and great hope. Emmanuel, our God is with us. I will close with a favorite quote of mine from Buechner… and of many, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Listen to Your Life By Dan Clendenin, August 2022.
The Man Who Found His Inner Depths, Aug. 18, 2022, David Brooks, NYT
Psalm 139 (NIV)
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.