Buechner, Frederick. 2017. The remarkable ordinary: How to stop, look, and listen to life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Buechner has been writing books for a long time: He is 92 years old and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. His 30+ books include novels, memoirs and theological works. According to Wikipedia, an Institute was inaugurated in his name in 2008 at King University, the former King College. The Institute is dedicated to the work and example of Buechner, exploring the intersections of faith and culture that define our times.
The Remarkable Ordinary, a slim book of 120 pages, is divided into three parts: I) Stop, look, and listen for God; II) Listening for God in the Stories we Tell; and III) Telling the truth.
The first chapter of part I is about “the remarkable ordinary” that we encounter in life without thinking much about the small things we see about us, as well as in art and music. Buechner encourages us to stop, look and listen to the creation and nature around us, which reflects “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” and to look “with X-ray eyes” (31).
The second chapter is called “To See is to Love, to Love is to See,” in which we are encouraged to pay attention not just to what gets into the headlines, but also to the mighty works in our own lives. If you want to love your neighbor, you must see your neighbor—someone to love, but we must “look with the imagination as well as with the eyes,” with compassion and empathy (41).
Chapter 3 is the first part of part II and is called “The Laughing Room of Maya Angelou.” Buechner met Maya through lectures, conferences and conversations. Maya, although different than him, had stories about racism (she is black) and prejudice, but told with humility and laughter.
Chapter 4, “The Subterranean Grace of God, or Why Stories Matter,” includes wisdom and insight on the use of our life stories. (I could have used this chapter and book at the course I taught on “storytelling” some years ago.) Bible stories need to be retold because they “are like coins that have been handled so long that the images rub off” (57). Stories are basic to our faith and in telling them we “discover cracks in the ground” of our lives and are “able to glimpse the subterranean, life-giving grace of God” (66).
“A Long Way to Go” is the title of chapter 5 and is a brief but compelling autobiographical account of Buechner’s early life, including the influence of his grandmother and education.
Chapter 6, “Holy Moments,” demonstrates the influence one person can have in a life. In Buechner’s case it was George Arthur Buttrick, a pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Buechner wanted advice on going to seminary and, after some hesitation, Buttrick drove him to Union Seminary. It was the right fit for Buechner and, while there, he met the faith healer Agnes Sanford, who “was the real deal, there was no question about it” (91). She was not only a physical healer but later in her life a “healer of memories” as well. Through her, Buechner “found myself for the first time really daring to pray for people who came to me for help, as she always did and as Jesus did before her, with her hands on the head of the person and praying for healing” (92).
“Better Than I Used to Be, But Far From Well,” is the creative title of chapter 7. Buechner recalls that he was certain that the good life around him was not going to last—it was just too good. Bad things did happen and Buechner needed therapy to help him through them and, as the title indicates, “The journey continues; I do what I can. The great problem is to try to live in the present, not the past, not the future, but in the now” (105).
The book concludes with chapter 8, “The Presence of Peace.” It is mainly about prayer and problems, such as his daughter’s decision to move to Florida. But the theme is also about joy and getting rid of the superstitious feeling that if you talk about something good it will bring it “to an end when the demons come and gobble it up” (114). God gives us glimpses of joy through the ordinary “even through you see only through a glass darkly, even though lots of things happen—wars and peacemaking, hunger and homelessness—joy in knowing, even for a movement that underneath everything are the everlasting arms” (120).
This is a great little book of Buechner’s stories, told with a style that only he can use so effectively. You cannot read the book without identifying closely with the events and responding with emotions of your own.