Frederick Buechner: Laughter in the Face of a Promise

Frederick Buechner is a novelist/theologian who has written a number of books exploring faith and the meaning of life. Some years ago, I read most everything I could find by Buechner.  I found his prose gripping and his honesty disturbing.  At times, he seemed to be able to put a finger on feelings/thoughts I’ve had but was unable to express. 

The first book I ever read by Buechner was Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (1977).  Listen for a moment to this excerpt regarding the story of Sarah and Abraham. 

The place to start is with a woman laughing.  She is an old woman; and, after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought.  She hunches her shoulders around her ears and starts to shake.  She squinnies her eyes shut, and her laughter is all China teeth and wheeze and tears running down as she rocks back and forth in her kitchen chair.  She is laughing because she is pushing ninety-one hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby.  Even though it was an angel who told her, she can’t control herself, and her husband can’t control himself either….

The old woman’s name is Sarah, of course, and the old man’s name is Abraham, and they are laughing at the idea of the baby’s being born in the geriatric ward and Medicare’s picking up the tab.  They are laughing because the angel not only seems to believe it but seems to expect them to believe it too…

They had had quite a life, the old pair.  Years before, they had gotten off to a good start in Mesopotamia.  They had a nice house in the suburbs with a two-car garage and color TV and a barbecue pit.  They had a room all fixed up for when the babies started coming.  With their health and each other and their families behind them they had what is known as a future….Abraham was pulling down an excellent salary for a young man, plus generous fringe benefits and an enlightened retirement plan.  And then they got religion or religion got them, and Abraham was convinced that what God wanted them to do was pull up stakes and head out for Canaan where God had promised that he would make Abraham the father of a great nation which would in turn be a blessing to all nations, so that’s what they did, and that’s where their troubles started.

They put the house on the market and gave the color TV to the hospital and got a good price for the crib and the bassinet because they had never been used and were as good as new.  Abraham wrote an eloquent letter of resignation to the president of the company and received an equally eloquent one in reply, assuring him that there would always be a job waiting for him if he ever changed his mind and came back.  "If he ever came to his senses" was the way the president expressed it in his first draft because though he thought religion was a good thing, like social security and regular exercise, he didn’t think it was something to go overboard about like Abraham, but in his final draft, he settled for the milder wording.

(Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale, pp. 49-51) 

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9 thoughts on “Frederick Buechner: Laughter in the Face of a Promise

  1. Jim,
    I’ve been so busy lately that I’ve not been able to visit some my favorite blogs, including yours.  It’s good to catch up!  I’d not heard of Frederick Buechner.  Thanks for the heads up and excerpt.  When it comes to books and writers I sometimes think I live in a cave.  I rely on people like you to make me aware of what I’d otherwise miss.

  2. Ben,I also rely on others for authors, etc.  There is so much available, I find that selecting what I will buy/read can be a challenge. 

  3. Thanks for sharing the quote. I recently picked the book up in hardback, new, on sale for $1.00, but had not got around to reading it yet. Now I’ll have to read it. The quote is especially helpful since I’m planning a sermon series on Genesis for next year.

  4. Wade, If you got that book for a $1.00, did you ever get a deal!  I paid much more than that for the book.Buechner is a wonderful writer. 

  5. For years I’ve heard people quote Buechner and I sort of shrugged him off as another theologian. I’ve yet to read a book written by a theologian that was not a chore. Not saying I haven’t read them. But it was seldom enjoyable reading. This little morsel of Buechner has me hungry for more. Thanks for the taste.

  6. Great post, Jim… A blessing and encouragement!
    Also, I want to let you know that I’ve added a link to your blog on the blogroll at The Spiritual Oasis. This is a new web site that I will, the Lord willing, be unveiling in a low key manner over the next few weeks. If you have other blogs that you would recommed, please let me know.
    Blessings to you and yours,-bill