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Telling the Truth The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale

A sermon arises out of silence, preacher and writer Frederick Buechner reminds us, and that silence is both an opportunity and a warning. An audience sits in the pews waiting, and each of those who sit there bring with them a long and complicated history. How will you reach them? How will you awaken them? “Tell them the truth,” Buechner says in this brief and powerful book. The Gospel begins here, out of this silence: “It is life with the sound turned off so that for a moment or two you can experience it not in terms of the words you make it bearable by but for the unutterable mystery that it is.” Out of this silence, he writes, the “real news comes, which is sad news before it is glad news and that is fairy tale last of all.” This series of lectures explores these three ways of seeing the Gospel: first as tragedy, as honest sorrow and suffering — this must be faced before anything else becomes possible. From this comes the comedy of new life: a child born to Abraham and Sarah in old age, Lazarus raised from the dead. This is the folly of the Gospel — what Buechner will ultimately call the fairy tale. Drawing deeply from the well of The Wizard of Oz and other stories, he reminds us in this final chapter that “there is a child in all of us,” a child in touch with a truth deeper than the logic of tragedy. ~ Doug Thorpe

An Excerpt

Chapter One: Telling the Truth

In January 31, 1872, Henry Ward Beecher traveled to Yale to deliver the first of the Beecher Lectures on preaching, which had been established in memory of his father. His biographer writes:

He had a bad night, not feeling well. Went to his hotel, got his dinner, lay down to take a nap. About two o’clock he got up and began to shave without having been able to get at any plan of the lecture to be delivered within the hour. Just as he had his face lathered and was beginning to strop his razor, the whole thing came out of the clouds and dawned on him. He dropped his razor, seized his pencil, and dashed off the memoranda for it and afterwards cut himself badly, he said, thinking it out.

And well the old pulpiteer might have cut himself with his razor because part of the inner world that his lecture came from, among the clouds that it suddenly dawned on him out of, was the deep trouble that he was in or the deep trouble that was in him. The gossip about his relationship with the wife of one of his parishioners had left the whispering stage and was beginning to appear more or less directly in print. Compromising letters were being handed around and tearful confessions made. People were taking sides. Charges were being formulated. A public trial for adultery was not far off. It was not just his reputation and career that were in danger but in some measure the church itself-everything he believed in and stood for and had come to Yale to talk about.

So when he stood there looking into the hotel mirror with soap on his face and a razor in his hand, part of what he saw was his own shame and horror, the sightof his own folly, the judgment one can imagine he found even harder to bear than God’s, which was his own judgment on himself, because whereas God is merciful, we are none of us very good at showing mercy on ourselves. Henry Ward Beecher cut himself with his razor and wrote out notes for that first Beecher Lecture in blood because, whatever else he was or aspired to be or was famous for being, he was a man of flesh and blood, and so were all the men who over the years traveled to New Haven after him to deliver the same lectures.

Phillips Brooks, Dean Inge, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr — the whole distinguished procession. One thinks of them all kissing their wives good-bye, if they had wives to kiss, packing their bags, and setting off to deliver their lectures on preaching, on what it means to preach, on how to preach, on what to preach, on maybe even why to preach at all when sometimes almost anything else seems to be more relevant and make more sense. One thinks of how each of them left his world behind to go to Connecticut and yet at the same time did not leave his world behind because of course no one ever can. You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you. You are a world. All of those men were worlds in their time with their whiskers on their chins, some of them, their clean shirts, their steel-rimmed glasses, their freshly polished shoes. As surely as each of them brought a toothbrush with him, he also brought with him his loves and hates, his fears of death and his fears of life, his anxieties, his longings, his pride, his dark doubts. Each carried his world on his back the way a snail carries his shell, and so did the ones who traveled to New Haven to hear them lecture.

So one thinks of them, too, the hearers as well as the givers of lectures. There were fat ones and thin ones, old ones and young ones, happy ones and sad ones, some bright and some not so bright. They also brought their worlds with them and when they looked in their mirrors saw, if not adulteries of the flesh, then adulteries of the spirit, failures of faith, hope, love, failures of courage. Like Henry Ward Beecher, like all of us, each of them too had bled a little. “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:2.3), Saint Paul says, which is another way of saying it, or all are human, which is another. We have all cut ourselves. We all labor and are heavy laden under the burden of being human or at least of being on the way, we hope, to being human.

The distances between the inner world that each of us is are greater in their way than the distances between the outer worlds of interstellar space, but in another way, the worlds of all of us are also the same world. An occasional bad night, not feeling well. A ten o’clock arrival, a two o’clock nap. The same old face in the mirror day after day. An empty feeling in the pit of the stomach. A little blood. We are all of us in it together, and it is in us all. So if preachers or lecturers are to say anything that really matters to anyone including themselves, they must say it not just to the public part of us that considers interesting thoughts about the Gospel and how to preach it, but to the private, inner part too, to the part of us all where our dreams come from, both our good dreams and our bad dreams, the inner part where thoughts mean less than images, elucidation less than evocation, where our concern is less with how the Gospel is to be preached than with what the Gospel is and what it is to us. They must address themselves to the fullness of who we are and to the emptiness too, the emptiness where grace and peace belong but mostly are not, because terrible as well as wonderful things have happened to us all.