Thursday, July 27, 2006

Musings on Buechner, Growing Up, and the Voice of Life

I'm close to finishing yet another amazing book, The Sacred Journey, written by Frederick Buechner (and the first of his three autobiographical volumes). For those who may not be aware, Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister and writer whose works -- particularly his collections of sermons -- have provided inspiration to millions of people, clerics and laity alike, around the world. This first book focuses on the early part of his life, from childhood through early adulthood.

Two particular ideas that Buechner sets out in telling his life story jumped out me as worth reflecting on, and so I'd like to take a moment to do just that.

First, one of the major themes threading through the book, and a lesson that Buechner says he learned for himself as he has progressed through life, is that one should always listen to the sounds of their life. As he says after running through an example of the sounds (what many would refer to as noises) he was listening to in his house at a particular moment, "We must learn to listen to the cock-crows and hammering and tick-tock of our lives for the holy and elusive word that is spoken to use out of their depths."

How often do we indeed take time to listen to what is going on in our lives? As I have discovered in my discernment process, I am an introvert, tending to draw much of my strength from solitude, and I use my love of music -- something I have had since I was a child -- as a tool to help drown out the distractions of life. Whether it be going to or coming from work, or trying to get to sleep at night, or sitting and reading on the front porch, I am pretty much always playing music; until now, I thought it was to help relax me. In truth, it appears to be simply a manner of pulling within myself to refresh and escape the noise of life.

But why should we avoid the cacophony of what is going on around us? Why should we not take in (without eavesdropping) the conversations going on around us? Why shouldn't we accept and be attuned to the sounds of the birds in the trees, or the cars driving by on the street, or the airplanes flying overhead? As Buechner points out, we should do that very thing: "...all those sounds together, or others like them, are the sound of our lives. What each of them might be thought to mean separately is less important than what they all mean together. At the very least they mean this: mean listen. Listen. Your life is happening. You are happening."

The 21st century world in which we live has, for good or bad, become a very type A world (a trait that I fear I have acquired during my professional career). Because of that, people all too often focus on the immediate task at hand, complete it, and rush to the next problem or obstacle or assignment to clear it off their list. In doing this, we miss so much -- hurrying to get the garbage to the curb in the morning just as the garbage truck rumbles up the street prevents us from hearing the birds sitting on a wire overhead who are observing us running around. Hurrying through the neighborhood on the way to work could easily keep us from hearing the laughter of children enjoying their summer vacation.

Buechner reminds us that "at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks." It's a truly valuable lesson, and one that I think that all of us should try to remember; in the noise and in the silence, God is talking to us. At the very least, we should take time to stop and listen to what he is saying.


Another important story in Sacred Journey deals with the transition that we all must make from being a child to being an adult. In describing childhood, Buechner writes, "...for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless...It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity." Reading these words brought me to a very reflective point, where I was thinking back to how timeless my own childhood was: the summer nights out in the yard that we some of the most enjoyable times of the year; the Christmas Eve dinners at my grandparents house that ended so late that, when we left their house, the cold, clear December air was lit with the twinkle of millions of stars; the long walks and playtime in the woods that were the highlight of my week; the parties and games with my friends -- all of these provided memories that I still carry with me to this day.

I never thought those times would end. As slowly as life seemed to be progressing for me, I never thought I would so quickly move to being nearly 40, having a family, having responsibilities, and having to make my way in the world without the luxury of Mom and Dad and the old house to come home to every evening. Those times do end, though; " starts at whatever moment it is at which the unthinking and timeless innocence of childhood ends, which may be either a dramatic moment...or a moment or series of moments so subtle and undramatic that we scarcely recognize them." I don't know when that time was for me, and honestly I think it falls more into the series of moments to which Buechner is referring. Even now, so many years later, I miss the part of my life where time didn't matter, where I was sure that all of the tough decisions affecting my life would be made for me, and where I didn't have to worry about growing up and moving out into the world.

At times, I still try and recapture that feeling -- going back to visit that one special former home, or taking a walk through the woods that were so important as a child, or revisiting the places that held such significance in the years that I was growing up. Even now, at 36, there are still moments where I have difficulty accepting that time is flying by so quickly. Part of me still longs for the time where it didn't matter to me that (paraphrasing Buechner) that there were clocks and calendars all around that were "counting my time out like money."

But as often as I've heard it in my life, you really can't go home again -- or, as Buechner writes, "We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music." The lesson here is not to try to relive the individual moments that make up your life, but to listen to the overall story that God has crafted by speaking in those moments. That's one of the most amazing things that has come out of my discernment process -- learning to hear the voice of God and find the movement of the Spirit in my life. The joy from that is even greater than the joy of having lived the life.

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