If we refuse to take the risk of being vulnerable, we are already half-dead.
If someone were to ask me what book, other than the Bible, has most influenced my understanding of life and faith, I would without hesitation answer, “Telling Secrets” by Frederick Buechner. That book, more than any other, has helped me to learn to listen to my own life and the lives of those around me. I learned that the Holy and the Sacred is not to be found primarily in the doctrines and creeds that we have constructed, but in the story that is each of our lives. What I find amazing about “Telling Secrets” is that it is not about the high points and successes of Buechner’s life, it is instead about the difficulties and struggles that he has experienced primarily in his family of origin. It is his effort to deal with them honestly. It is the raw truth of his life.
Buechner’s willingness to share out of the pain he has experienced, helped me to come to terms with some of the difficulties that were part of the family I grew up in. Though it was a family where love and faith were present, it was also a family broken by the excesses of alcohol by my father and the enabling behavior of my mother. In my family, as in Buechner’s, we were encouraged to keep silent about the brokenness that was part of our family. To keep things hidden from others the best that we could. To keep things secret. It has only been in my more recent years that I have come to understand how fully my adult life has been affected by growing up in such an environment. How some of my own behaviors, especially my own sense of perfectionism and my all too present anger, are rooted in things I learned as a child. This is not too blame my parents for my faults. It is to try and understand why I am who I am. If anything, being willing to listen to my own life, has helped to listen to the story that was my parent’s life and a willingness to accept the brokenness that was part of each of them. It has helped me to look upon them with compassion. My father who had his own alcoholic and often absent father that he grew up with. And my mother, who was simply trying to maintain a household the best that she knew how. Listening to my own story and to the story of my parents has connected us through the shared tears that are part of each of our lives.
Listening to stories has been an important part of my work as a pastor as well. Standing with people in the midst of the laughter and the sorrows of their lives has become, for me, a Sacred and Holy place. A place where life’s deepest mysteries of meaning and purpose and hope are experienced. I remember once calling upon parishioners who had just lost their thirty year old son to cancer. It was the time between the death and the funeral. I went to the home, which was full of family, and found a place to lean against a wall and listen. I listened as the family told stories of when the man was a young boy playing sports and how he grew into an awkward but funny teenager. I listened to them as they laughed at some of those teenage antics. I listened to them as they finished telling stories and sat together in silence, the reality of the loss in the room with them. After a few moments had passed, I asked if we could gather in a circle and have a prayer. I do not remember any words I said in that prayer, but I do remember being with that family in that time was as close as I ever was or ever have been to the felt experience of God.
In pastoral ministry, I try to listen carefully to the stories people tell me. I am listening for how the Sacred and the Holy is a part of the flesh and blood world that we exist in. I have no energy to argue with anyone about doctrines and creeds that seek to put into finite terms infinite mysteries. I don’t want to spend my time discussing what is the orthodox belief of the church. History shows us there have been several orthodoxies through the centuries. I don’t want to go to another church growth seminar which tells me what sound-bite to use, what music to sing, and what mass-marketing tool to incorporate into our “evangelism strategy.” What I do have energy for and time to do is to listen to the stories that make us who we are and find in those stories the presence of the One who in the beginning started the larger story that we are all a part of.
I began this year by reading from a Buechner devotional that someone gave me called appropriately, “Listening to Your Life.” These are the words I encountered on January 1 of this New Year:
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 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 the 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.
My encouragement for you this year is to learn to listen to your own story and the story of others. In those stories you experience the great wonder that is life. And if you listen closely enough you might hear the whisper of God.