Frederick Buechner

American Christian writer

Carl Frederick Buechner (July 11, 1926August 15, 2022) was an American writer, novelist, poet, autobiographer, essayist, preacher, and theologian. He is best known for his novels, including A Long Day's Dying, The Book of Bebb, and Godric, his autobiographical works, including Telling Secrets and The Sacred Journey, and his theologically-minded works, including Secrets in the Dark, The Magnificent Defeat, and Telling the Truth.

The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger coincide.



The Magnificent Defeat (1966)

  • Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.
  • 'Lord, I believe; help my unbelief' is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.
  • If we are to believe he is really alive with all that that implies, then we have to believe without proof. And of course that is the only way it could be. If it could be somehow proved, then we would have no choice but to believe. We would lose our freedom not to believe. And in the very moment that we lost that freedom, we would cease to be human beings. Our love of God would have been forced upon us, and love that is forced is of course not love at all. Love must be freely given. Love must live in the freedom not to love; it must take risks. Love must be prepared to suffer even as Jesus on the Cross suffered, and part of that suffering is doubt.
  • And now brothers, I will ask you a terrible question, and God knows I ask it also of myself. Is the truth beyond all truths, beyond the stars, just this: that to live without him is the real death, that to die with him the only life?
  • If you have never known the power of God's love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it - I mean really asked, expecting an answer.

The Alphabet of Grace (1970)

  • With words as valueless as poker chips, we play games whose object it is to keep us from seeing each other’s cards.
  • Life is grace. Sleep is forgiveness. The night absolves. Darkness wipes the slate clean, not spotless to be sure, but clean enough for another day's chalking.
  • Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.

Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (1973)

  • The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger coincide.
    • Wishful Thinking, p. 95
  • If you don't have doubts you're either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.
  • Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
  • To confess your sins to God is not to tell God anything God doesn't already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.

Telling the Truth (1977)

  • If the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.
  • There is a fragrance in the air, a certain passage of a song, an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, the sound of somebody's voice in the hall that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?
  • God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.
  • [W]e are none of us very good at silence. It says too much.
  • Sin and grace, absence and presence, tragedy and comedy, they divide the world between them and where they meet head on, the Gospel happens.

Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith (1979)

  • Grace is something you can never get but only be given.
  • Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.
  • What's lost is nothing to what's found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.
  • Nothing human's not a broth of false and true.
  • It’s less the words they say than those they leave unsaid that split old friends apart.
  • He also said we should carve in the year and place where I was born, but I said no. As a man dies many times before he's dead, so does he wend from birth to birth until, by grace, he comes alive at last.
  • O thou who art the sparrow's friend," he said, "have mercy on this world that knows not even when it sins. O holy dove, descend and roost on Godric here so that a heart may hatch in him at last. Amen.
  • So ever and again young Godric’s dreams well up to flood old Godric’s prayers, or prayers and dreams reach God in such a snarl he has to comb the tangle out, and who knows which he counts more dear.
  • When friends speak overmuch of times gone by, often it's because they sense their present time is turning them from friends to strangers. Long before the moment came to say goodbye, I think, we said goodbye in other words and ways and silences. Then when the moment came for it at last, we didn't say it as should be said by friends. So now at last, dear Mouse, with many, many years between: goodbye.
  • How Adewen stuffed her braid in her mouth at that! Or she'd cover her mirth with her hands and shake till you'd think that the fit was upon her. She did the same too when she wept so you'd never be sure which she hid with her hands, her tears or her cackling. I think there were times she herself didn't know, nor does anyone know at times. Laugh till you weep. Weep till there's nothing left but to laugh at your weeping. In the end it's all one.

The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1982)

  • You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own.

Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (1983)

  • Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery 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.
  • This side of Nirvana, there is no such escape for any of us as far as I know.
  • It is within the bonds of marriage that I, for one, found a greater freedom to be and to become and to share myself than I can imagine ever having found in any other kind of relationship.
  • The past is the place we view the present from as much as the other way around.
  • I wanted to learn about Christ – about the Old Testament, which had been his Bible, and the New Testament, which was the Bible about him; about the history of the church, which had been founded on the faith that through him God had not only revealed his innermost nature and his purpose for the world, but had released into the world a fierce power to draw people into that nature and adapt them to that purpose... No intellectual pursuit had ever aroused in me such intense curiosity, and much more than my intellect was involved, much more than my curiosity aroused. In the unfamiliar setting of a Presbyterian church, of all places, I had been moved to astonished tears which came from so deep inside me that to this day I have never fathomed them, I wanted to learn more about the source of those tears and the object of that astonishment.
  • Our house is on the eastern slope of Rupert Mountain, just off a country road, still unpaved then, and five miles from the nearest town...Even at the most unpromising times of year – in mudtime, on bleak, snowless winter days – it is in so many unexpected ways beautiful that even after all this time I have never quite gotten used to it. I have seen other places equally beautiful in my time, but never, anywhere, have I seen one more so.

Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary (1988)

  • From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.

Telling Secrets (1991)

  • We are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and I believe that to love ourselves means to extend to those various selves that we have been along the way the same degree of compassion and concern that we would extend to anyone else.
  • The original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out all the other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.
  • Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . .
  • Maybe the most sacred function of memory is just that: to render the distinction between past, present, and future ultimately meaningless; to enable us at some level of our being to inhabit that same eternity which it is said that God himself inhabits.

Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (1992)

  • Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.
  • Religion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can be only hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it.
  • If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully — the life you save may be your own — and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, Get and Jesus says, Give. In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion.

Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (2006)

  • Pay attention. As a summation of all that I have had to say as a writer, I would settle for that. And as a talisman or motto for that journey in search of a homeland, which is what faith is, I would settle for that too.
  • Part of the inner world of everyone is this sense of emptiness, unease, incompleteness, and I believe that this in itself is a word from God, that this is the sound that God’s voice makes in a world that has explained him away. In such a world, I suspect that maybe God speaks to us most clearly through his silence, his absence, so that we know him best through our missing him.
  • Words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed.

Quotes about Buechner

  • Buechner's theological efforts are never systematic treatises but instead short, highly literary productions in most of which he draws explicit links with fiction-writing generally and his own fiction in particular... Buechner's 1969 Noble Lectures at Harvard, published in 1970 as The Alphabet of Grace, comprise a slender volume which is one of his most important and revealing works. Here the intimate relationship Buechner sees among fiction, theology, and autobiography is first made clear and fully embodied; and the book itself is a thoroughly lyrical piece.
    • James Woelfel, "Frederick Buechner: The Novelist as Theologian" in Theology Today, Vol. 40 (Oct. 3, 1983)
  • He is so recognizable, as a wise uncle, who does not talk down to you, who does not make you feel clueless for not understanding the great themes of our lives, but who gently, in language that is both gorgeous and plain, throws on the lights for you, accompanies you on your own journey.
    • Anne Lamott, in her introduction to Buechner 101: Essays and Sermons by Frederick Buechner, p. 5
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