We listen to the evening news with its usual recital of shabbiness and horror, and God, if we believe in him at all, seems remote and powerless, a child's dream. But there are other times--often the most unexpected, unlikely times--when strong as life itself comes the sense that there is a holiness deeper than shabbiness and horror and at the very heart of darkness a light unutterable. Is it only the unpredictable fluctuations of the human spirit that we have to thank? We must each of us answer for ourselves, remember for ourselves, preach to ourselves our own sermons. But "Remember the wonderful works," sings King David, because if we remember deeply and truly, he says, we will know whom to thank, and in that room of thanksgiving and remembering there is peace.
There are people who say we should read the Bible as literature. The advice has a pleasantly modern and reasonable ring to it. We are all attracted. Read the Bible for the story it tells. Read the King James Version especially for the power of its prose and the splendor of its poetry. Read it for the history it contains and for its insights into ancient ways. Don't worry about whatever it's supposed to mean to religious faith. Don't bother about the hocus-pocus. Read it like any other book.
The trouble is it's not like any other book. To read the Bible as literature is like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or The Brothers Karamazov for its punctuation.
Like The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, or Proust, the Bible hangs heavy on many a conscience. One ought to have read it if not for religious reasons, then simply because it has left so deep a mark on Western civilization. One usually hasn't. Some parts of Genesis maybe, a handful of Psalms, a sampling or two from the Gospels. And that's about it.
There are good reasons for not reading it. Its format is almost supernaturally forbidding: the binding rusty black like an old tuxedo, the double columns of a timetable, the print of a phone book, cluttered margins, and a text so overloaded with guides to pronunciation (""Je'-sus came from Naz'-a-reth of Gal'-i-lee and was baptized of John in Jor'-dan"") and so befouled with inexplicable italics (""No'-ah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark"") that reading it is like listening to somebody with a bad stutter. More often than not the poetry is printed as prose, and poetry and prose alike are chopped up into entirely arbitrary chapters and verses, so that one of the major poems in the Old Testament, for instance, begins toward the end of Isaiah 52 with (in some versions) nothing to suggest that Isaiah 53 is a continuation of it or that it is a poem at all.
There are other reasons for not reading the Bible. It not only looks awfully dull, but some of it is. The prophets are wildly repetitious and almost never know when to stop. There are all the begats. There are passages that even Moses must have nodded over, like the six long chapters in Exodus (25-30) that describe the tabernacle and its workings all the way from the length, breadth, and composition of the curtains down to the color and cut of the priest's ephod and a recipe for anointing oil. There are the lists of kings, dietary laws, tribes, and tribal territories. There is the book of Leviticus and most of the book of Numbers. There are places where the parallelism of Hebrew poetry (""Pour out thy indignation upon them / and let thy burning anger overtake them. / May their camp be a desolation, / let no one dwell in their tents"") becomes irresistibly soporific. There is the sense you have that you know what the Bible is going to say before it says it. There are all those familiar quotations. There is the phrase ""the Good Book."" Give me a bad book any day.
There are still more reasons. The barbarities, for instance. The often fanatical nationalism. The passages where the God of Israel is depicted as interested in other nations only to the degree that he can use them to whip Israel into line. God hardening Pharaoh's heart and then clobbering him for hard-heartedness. The self-righteousness and self-pity of many of the Psalms, plus their frequent vindictiveness. The way the sublime and the unspeakable are always jostling each other. Psalm 137, for example, which starts out ""By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept"" and ends ""Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"" Or Noah, the one man left worth saving, God's blue-eyed old sailorman, getting drunk in port and passing out in a tent where his son Ham beholds his shame. Or the book of Deuteronomy, where there are laws thousands of years ahead of their time, like the one that says a newly married man is exempt from military service for a year so ""he can be happy with the wife whom he has taken,"" side by side with laws that would make Genghis Khan blush, like the one that says Israel is to destroy conquered peoples utterly, making no covenants with them and showing no mercy. Or even Jesus of Nazareth, the same Jesus who in one place uses a Samaritan of all peoplea member of a hated tribe as the example of a man who truly loves his neighbor, and in another place is quoted as telling a Canaanite woman who came to him for help that it was not fair for him to throw the children's food to the dogs.
In short, one way to describe the Bible, written by many different people over a period of three thousand years and more, would be to say that it is a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books, which are often tedious, barbaric, obscure, and teem with contradictions and inconsistencies. It is a swarming compost of a book, an Irish stew of poetry and propaganda, law and legalism, myth and murk, history and hysteria. Over the centuries it has become hopelessly associated with tub-thumping evangelism and dreary piety, with superannuated superstition and blue-nosed moralizing, with ecclesiastical authoritarianism and crippling literalism. Let them who try to start out at Genesis and work their way conscientiously to Revelation beware.
And yet just because it is a book about both the sublime and the unspeakable, it is a book also about life the way it really is. It is a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing and unbelieving, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair. In other words, it is a book about us.
And it is also a book about God. If it is not about the God we believe in, then it is about the God we do not believe in. One way or another, the story we find in the Bible is our own story.
But we find something else in it too. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth says that reading the Bible is like looking out of the window and seeing everybody on the street shading their eyes with their hands and gazing up into the sky toward something hidden from us by the roof. They are pointing up. They are speaking strange words. They are very excited. Something is happening that we can't see happening. Or something is about to happen. Something beyond our comprehension has caught them up and is seeking to lead them on ""from land to land for strange, intense, uncertain, and yet mysteriously well-planned service.""
To read the Bible is to try to read the expression on their faces. To listen to the words of the Bible is to try to catch the sound of the queer, dangerous, and compelling word they seem to hear.
Abraham and Sarah with tears of incredulous laughter running down their ancient cheeks when God tells them that he is going to keep his promise and give them the son they have always wanted. King David, all but naked as the day he was born, dancing for joy in front of the ark. Paul struck dumb on the road to Damascus. Jesus of Nazareth stretched out between two crooks, with dried Roman spit on his face. They are all of them looking up. And listening.
How do twenty-first-century men and women, with all their hang-ups, try to see what they were looking at and hear what it was they heard? What follows are some practical suggestions on how to read the Bible without tears. Or maybe with them.
1. Don't start at the beginning and try to plow your way straight through to the end. At least not without help. If you do, you're almost sure to bog down somewhere around the twenty-fifth chapter of Exodus. Concentrate on the high points at first. There is much to reward you in the valleys too, but at the outset keep to the upper elevations. There are quite a few. There is the vivid eyewitness account of the reign of King David, for instance (2 Samuel through 1 Kings 1-2), especially the remarkable chapters that deal with his last years, when the crimes and blunders of his youth have begun to catch up with him. Or the Joseph stories (Genesis 39-50). Or the book of Job. Or the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Or the seventh chapter of Paul's Letter to the Romans, which states as lucidly as it has ever been stated the basic moral dilemma of humankind, and then leads into the eighth chapter, which contains the classic expression of Christianity's basic hope.
2. The air in such upper altitudes is apt to be clearer and brighter than elsewhere; but if you nevertheless find yourself getting lost along the way, try a good Bible commentary that gives the date and historical background of each book, explains the special circumstances it was written to meet, and verse by verse tries to illumine the meaning of the difficult sections. Even when the meaning seems perfectly clear, a commentary can greatly enrich your understanding. The book of Jonah, for instanceonly two or three pages long and the one genuine comedy in the Old Testamenttakes on added significance when you discover its importance in advancing the idea that God's love is extended not just to the children of Israel, but to all humankind.
3. If you have even as much as a nodding acquaintance with a foreign language, try reading the Bible in that. Then you stand a chance of hearing what the Bible is actually saying instead of what you assume it must be saying because it is the Bible. Some of it you may hear in such a new way that it is as if you had never heard it before. ""Blessed are the meek"" is the way the English version goes, whereas in French it comes out, ""Heureux sont les debonnaires"" (""Happy are the debonair""). The debonair of all things! Doors fly open. Bells ring out.
4. If you don't know a foreign language, try some English version you've never tried beforethe more far-out the better. Nothing could be further out than the Bible itself. The trouble with the King James, or Authorized Version, is that it is too full of familiar quotations. The trouble with familiar quotations is that they are so familiar you don't hear them. When Jesus was crucified, the Romans nailed over his head a sign saying ""King of the Jews"" so nobody would miss the joke. To get something closer to the true flavor, try translating the sign instead: ""Head Jew.""
5. It may sound like fortune-telling, but don't let that worry you: Let the Bible fall open in your lap and start there. If you don't find something that speaks to you, let it fall open to something else. Read it as though it were as exotic as the I Ching or the tarot deck. Because it is.
6. If people claim that you have to take the Bible literally, word for word, or not at all, ask them if you have to take John the Baptist literally when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God. If people claim that no rational person can take a book seriously that assumes the world was created in six days and humankind in an afternoon, ask them if they can take Shakespeare seriously, whose scientific knowledge would send a third-grader into peals of laughter.
7. Finally this. If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior's Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.
Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a holy bore and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.
~originally published in Beyond Words
"We all got secrets. I got them same as everybody else things we feel bad about and wish hadnt ever happened. Hurtful things. Long ago things. Were all scared and lonesome, but most of the time we keep it hid. Its like ever one of us has lost his way so bad we dont even know which way Is home any more only were ashamed to ask. You know what would happen if we would own up were lost and ask? Why, what would happen is wed find out home is each other. Wed find out home is Jesus that loves us lost or found or any whichway."
In recognition of National Vocation Awareness Week, here are two well-known Buechner descriptions of Vocation:
In the year that King Uzziah died, or in the year that John F. Kennedy died, or in the year that somebody you loved died, you go into the temple if that is your taste, or you hide your face in the little padded temple of your hands, and a voice says, "Whom shall I send into the pain of a world where people die?" and if you are not careful, you may find yourself answering, "Send me." You may hear the voice say, "Go." Just go.
Like "duty," "law," "religion," the word "vocation" has a dull ring to it, but in terms of what it means, it is really not dull at all. Vocare, to call, of course, and a man's vocation is a man's calling. It is the work that he is called to in this world, the thing that he is summoned to spend his life doing. We can speak of a man's choosing his vocation, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a vocation's choosing the man, of a call's being given and a man's hearing it, or not hearing it. And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing. A man's life is full of all sorts of voices calling him in all sorts of directions. Some of them are voices from inside and some of them are voices from outside. The more alive and alert we are, the more clamorous our lives are. Which do we listen to? What kind of voice do we listen for?
Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, "to call," means the work a person is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self-interest.
By and large a good rule for finding out is this: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you've presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you've missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you're bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren't helping your patients much either.
Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.
Periodically our blog features one of Frederick Buechner's books. In this article we highlight Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, which is the second of Buechner's four memoirs. Click here to learn more.
""There is something more than a little disconcerting about writing your autobiography. When people have occasionally asked me what I was working on, I have found it impossible to tell them without an inward blush. As if anybody cares or should care. As if I myself should even care that much - like showing your baby pictures to strangers.....But I do it anyway. I do it because it seems to me that no matter who you are, and no matter how eloquent or otherwise, if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story. I do it also in the hope of encouraging others to do the same - at least to look back over their own lives, as I have looked back over mine, for certain themes and patterns and signals that are so easy to miss when you're caught up in the process of living them. If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that he speaks to us largely through what happens to us, so what I have done both in this book and in its predecessor is to listen back over what has happened to me - as I hope my readers may be moved to listen back over what has happened to them - for the sound, above all else, of his voice. Because the word that God speaks to us is always in incarnate word - a word spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically, in events, even in the books we read and the movies we see - the chances are we will never get it just right. We are so used to hearing what we want to hear and remaining deaf to what it would be well for us to hear that it is hard to break the habit. But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear him, he is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, his word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling. In that sense autobiography becomes a way of praying, and a book like this, if it matters at all, matters mostly as a call to prayer."" - Frederick Buechner, in the Introduction to Now and Then
""Strikes to the heart Unpreachy meditations on life and Christianity at its most profound."" People Magazine
""Buechner writes better than almost anyone. This book and its companion, The Sacred Journey, reduce and clarify the who and what and why of his whole life to something not unlike the palm-sized egg of crystal. Deep within it, as we read, the sun shines and the constellations rove."" James Merrill
""The humility of this title--the ""now and then"" that refers to the occasional glimpse of glory but does not claim any more for itself than that--beautifully reveals something of the tone and attitude of Buechner himself. It also suggests what it is about him that readers hold so dear."" - Doug Thorpe
""Buechner is graceful in story and insights."" Los Angeles Times
""Candidwistfulbreathtaking images. Christian Century
""Buechner is a worthy member of the great prose stylists: Pascal, Newman, and Merton, who have harnessed their art to a passionate religious faith."" Louis Auchincloss
In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.
Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way. On the contrary, no less a saint than Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, ""I am foremost among sinners"" ( l Timothy 1:15), and Jesus himself prayed God to forgive him his trespasses, and when the rich young man addressed him as ""good Teacher,"" answered, ""No one is good but God alone"" (Mark 10:18).
In other words, the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else's, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them. When you consider that Saint Mary Magdalene was possessed by seven devils, that Saint Augustine prayed, ""Give me chastity and continence, but not now,"" that Saint Francis started out as a high-living young dude in downtown Assisi, and that Saint Simeon Stylites spent years on top of a sixty-foot pillar, you figure that maybe there's nobody God can't use as a means of grace, including even ourselves.
The Holy Spirit has been called ""the Lord, the giver of life"" and, drawing their power from that source, saints are essentially life-givers. To be with them is to become more alive.
My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.
- originally published in Telling Secrets
When somebody you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other's presence.
- originally published in Wishful Thinking then later in Listening to Your Life and in Beyond Words
"I hear you are entering the ministry," the woman said down the long table, meaning no real harm. "Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?" And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own or anyone else's. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening in the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure.