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Secrets in the Dark:
A Life in Sermons

by Frederick Buechner
HarperCollins, 2006

review by Jeffrey Needle

It isn’t often that a pastor and scholar can capture the pure beauty of the wonder of faith as well as does Frederick Buechner. Many years ago, I read his seminal work, Wishful Thinking, and wondered how one person can come to express the grandeur of the Christian system and yet keep his feet so firmly planted on planet earth. But Buechner does it, and does it amazingly well.

Secrets in the Dark is a collection of his best sermons, given over a period of decades in which his own spiritual growth, and his growing comfort with his own fallibility, are reflected in his marvelous prose. In this recitation of 37 of his homilies, we come to appreciate anew his view, perhaps sacramental, of the sacredness of life in all its appearances and conditions.

In fact, many of the sermons in this book have appeared in other published volumes. Several previously-unpublished talks round out the book. Together they form a more-or-less chronological study of Buechner’s thought processes, his growth in grace and his ever-expanding view of the emerging kingdom of God.

But why should we be so interested in reading old sermons? It may be that there is some truth in the thought that “we hunger for a sense of the presence of God.” (p. 290) When preaching is truly good, it can play a big part in filling that hunger. Buechner calls on us to fill that hunger by becoming Christs, so to speak, to ourselves and others.

We have it in us to be Christs to each other and maybe in some unimaginable way to God too—that's what we have to tell finally. We have it in us to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us. We have it in us to bless with him and forgive with him and heal with him and once in a while maybe even to grieve with some measure of some grief at another's pain and to rejoice with some measure of his rejoicing at another's joy almost as if it were our own. And who knows but that in the end, by God's mercy, the two stories will converge for good and all, and though we would never have had the courage or the faith or the wit to die for him any more than we have ever managed to live for him very well either, his story will come true in us at last. (p. 89)

Such a hope cannot but fill the heart with hopeful expectation.
It was once said of a visionary man that he scaled the highest heights, and plumbed the deepest depths, but he never paid cash. This cannot be said of Buechner. Instead, he makes even those well-tread teachings such as “faith,” prime territory for ethereal pondering, and brings them down to earth where we really live day-by-day. His sermon titled “Faith,” found in this volume, is a model for bridging the sublime with the earthy, pointing not just toward heaven, but toward earth and ourselves—God’s creation of a good earth, and our re-creation of it as an unholy mess.

Indeed, much of Buechner’s prose is a Christian call for action—not so much for outward expressions of religiosity, but rather an inner transition from despair to hope, an understanding “that the madness and lostness we see all around us and within us are not the last truth about the world but only the next to the last truth.” (p. 71) The final truth comes in the transformation of this mess we call life into the fullness of that life in Christ that we know is coming.

In the end, Buechner is all about the kerygmatic proclamation of the kingdom of God, never reaching so high, nor bending so low, that he isn’t exactly on target in his rhetorical advance toward the beauty of holiness. In fact, it is his view that there is in all of us a “best” than can be discovered and mined to the ultimate goodness of both God and man. In his own words:

Humanly speaking, if we have any chance to survive, I suspect it is men and women who act out of that deep impulse [the betterment of humanity] who are our chance. By no means will they themselves bring about the Kingdom of God. It is God alone who brings about his Kingdom. Even with the best will in the world and out of our noblest impulses, we can’t do that. But there is something we can do and must do, Jesus says, and that is repent...To individuals and to nations both, Jesus says the same thing. Turn away from madness, cruelty, shallowness, blindness. Turn toward that tolerance, compassion, sanity, hope, justice that we all have in us at our best. (p. 160)

This is a wonderful book, and merits a wide readership.

Copyright ©2006 Jeffrey Needle

Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons
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