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Autumn 2003 | Volume 26, Number 4 | Features

A Call to Holy Listening

“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.”

to his memoir Now and Then, Frederick Buechner anticipates a question that is likely to arise in the minds of would-be readers: Why should I want to read the autobiographical reflections of a virtual stranger?

His answer provides a glimpse of both the unpretentious style and the knack for keen observation that pervade the book.“No matter who you are, and no matter how eloquent or otherwise,” Buechner writes, “if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story.”

Indeed, the seemingly effortless elegance with which Buechner tells his story makes this text a favorite of his devoted readers. Because theological and vocational questions drive the narrative, it serves as an ideal point of entry for discussions of issues that concern university students. To that end, the text is a central component of the University Seminar on “The Dynamics of Vocation.” Yet the book’s appeal reaches beyond university freshmen precisely because Buechner’s approach to vocation engages every dimension and every stage of a person’s life.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Buechner’s own sense of calling has emerged over several decades and comprises several dimensions. Renowned as an author — his novel Godric was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize — his career has also been shaped by considerable experience teaching, preaching and lecturing. Now and Then traces his journey into this unique and multifaceted ministry, sprinkling details of his struggles and successes throughout.

In an earlier memoir, The Sacred Journey, Buechner described the subtle movements of God’s grace in the first part of his life, from an unchurched childhood to his embracing of the Christian faith as a young adult. Now and Then picks up the story at the point where his newfound faith inspired him to enroll in seminary to explore the possibility of entering the ministry, surprising his closest friends as well as himself.

Now and Then
is an autobiography, but like its predecessor, it is hardly a typical representative of the genre. Quite often, the stories Buechner chooses to tell in any detail are not the ones that a reader would likely expect. His descriptions of the quirks of his seminary professors and of the intricacies of the old church library that became his office make it clear that his primary purpose is not to convey information about his life. Rather, he utilizes details that might otherwise seem inconsequential to reveal, subtly but unmistakably, the ongoing presence and guidance of God in the mundane as well as the memorable moments of his life.

Buechner’s narrative spans three central movements of his vocational journey. He begins by recounting his years at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where his somewhat hesitant preparation for ministry was sustained by his discovery of the richness of theological reflection. By attending Union in its glory years of the mid-1950s, Buechner encountered a luminous cast of 20th-century theologians. Soaking in lectures by the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Martin Buber, his own calling came into greater focus: namely, to expound the realities of faith in a compelling and fresh manner.

Upon graduation from Union, Buechner embarked on a second phase of his vocation as chair of the new Religion Department at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. With characteristic wit and flair, he describes the challenge and satisfaction of trying to convey the depth of the Christian faith to his students, many of whom were predisposed to reject it outright.

After nine years, Buechner left Exeter to write full-time, marking a third stage in his vocational narrative. Tucked among the peaceful and isolated mountains of Vermont, he honed his ability to perceive and describe the extraordinary overtures of divine grace in the midst of ordinary circumstances.

As freshmen in the University Seminar navigate the details of Buechner’s story, a number of themes consistently emerge. Because the seminar is concerned with “perceiving and responding to our life’s calling,” three such themes become particularly important: 1) vocation as a lifelong and imperfect process utterly dependent upon God’s grace; 2) God’s creative and redemptive work as continually present but only occasionally manifest; and 3) our lives as an invaluable resource for perceiving God’s incarnate Word-in-action.

While many authors treat vocation exclusively as the process of choosing one’s career, Buechner’s concern is broadly oriented toward one’s entire life. Thus, the appeal of his reflections should reach to anyone, young or old, who is willing to engage the senses to perceive the gentle and meaningful movement of God in her or his life.

Buechner notes early in his narrative that Gerard Manley Hopkins, upon entering the Jesuit novitiate in 1868, burned every poem he had written up until then. Worried that his venture into seminary and ultimately into the ministry might mean the end of his own writing career, Buechner expressed a great deal more hesitation: “Just as I did not go live in a seminary dormitory but kept my old apartment, my old friends, more or less my old way of life, I merely set my unfinished novel aside not so much as scorched.”

I suspect that many if not most readers can identify with him at this point. As Now and Then makes clear, vocation for most of us does not involve unmistakable signs and dramatic demonstrations of unwavering commitment. It is rather a haphazard process of stepping forward prayerfully and cautiously, with more than a little uncertainty.

Yet out of the ambiguity of his own story, Buechner came to recognize that his ministry could be exercised through his writing rather than instead or in spite of it. In the presence of his readers, he asks himself whether this particular path has matched the self-sacrifice or contribution of those in more traditional forms of ministry or social service. “I genuinely don’t know and feel sure that I’m better off not knowing,” he responds. “If I have, then it was by grace alone. If I have not, then I can only hope that at the end of the journey, where all roads finally meet, grace may prove sufficient.

”With its refreshingly unassuming prose, Buechner’s appeal to the underlying grace of our vocational journeys reflects a second key theme: the constant but often subtle presence and action of God in the very details of our lives. The title of the memoir stems from a passage written by his old teacher Paul Tillich in a book called The New Being. Tillich expressed that “here and there in the world and now and then in ourselves is a New Creation” — a turn of phrase that nicely captures Buechner’s own theological vision.

A driving concern for Buechner as he recounts his story is that readers recognize God’s movement in his life, and indeed in their own lives. Such movement, he contends, does not only appear in places where we tend to expect or hope for it: “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.” The God that encountered Buechner — and through Buechner’s memoirs encounters his readers — is pervasive throughout creation, constantly but gently working toward its redemption.

Apprehending the significance of God’s redemptive activity in our lives requires, in Buechner’s judgment, some degree of intentionality and a finely tuned set of spiritual senses. Thus a third theme emerges in his exhortation to readers to listen to their lives. God is constantly speaking, and God’s Word was and is incarnate in the very stuff of history. Buechner implores his fellow sojourners to comb their own histories with an openness to the sight and sound of Christ himself. “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.”

This memoir of vocation engages us not as an instruction manual for making vocational decisions, but rather as a call to listen. As Buechner “listens out loud” to his own story, even to those instances that seem on the face of things to be insignifi cant, we as readers are enabled to hear familiar echoes of grace and redemption. To the degree that it impels us to turn our senses toward our own lives to recognize the face and voice of Christ, this memoir is undoubtedly worthwhile.

A conversation with Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament Frank Spina helped shape Doug Koskela’s own vocational journey. As a Clackamas, Oregon, high school student, Koskela was undecided about a college or career when he received a call from Spina. The professor quizzed the young man about his future plans and described his own work as a scholar and teacher. Koskela responded that he wanted to become a theology professor, too.

He graduated from Seattle Pacific in 1995 and earned a master’s degree at Duke Divinity School. He considered becoming a pastor instead of a professor, but another conversation — this time with a pastor — affirmed that he could minister by teaching theology. She encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D. and teach. “It was exactly what I needed to hear,” Koskela says.

At Southern Methodist University, Koskela studied for his Ph.D. (expected completion: December 13) under William Abraham, a former Seattle Pacific professor. Today, Koskela is a third-year SPU faculty member, teaching several courses in the Common Curriculum. When he returned to his alma mater, a new colleague — Frank Spina — reminded him of a phone call that took place several years earlier.


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