Earlier this week, I started excerpting Frederick Buechner’s challenging book, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederick Buechner (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007, pp.28-31).
My mother Lois gave me the book for my birthday in 2006, and I read through it slowly and thoughtfully over the next two years as a morning devotion. Knowing her so well, I can only imagine that she had found Buechner to be a helpful spiritual advisor in her own faithful struggles with doubt, and that she intuited my need for his gentleness.
I returned to this book a few weeks ago once I recognized that I have been in a long period of spiritual dryness. This is not the same as doubt or disbelief but, rather, a vaguely distressing, fallow sort of time, when I feel nothing of that curiously visceral connectedness which obtains when I am consciously “in the Spirit.”
Let me quote more excerpts from Buechner and see what arises.
A man drives along the highway…[and sees on] a concrete abutment of a bridge, written out in large, clumsy letters,…the message JESUS SAVES…. And if that man is like most of the people I know, including myself much of the time and in many ways, he will wince at the message; and that is really a very strange and interesting thing, both the message and the wincing….
[In] our strange times, among people more or less like us, the effect at least of the words is clear enough: Jesus saves…. [We] wince because we are embarrassed, and embarrassed for all kinds of reasons…. [There] is something in the name “Jesus” itself that embarrasses us when it stands naked and alone like that, just Jesus with no title to soften the blow.
It seems to me that the words “Christ Saves” would not bother us half so much because they have a kind of objective, theological ring to them, whereas “Jesus Saves” seems cringingly, painfully personal—somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named whatever your name happens to be. It is something very personal written up in a place that is very public, like the names of lovers carved into the back of a park bench or on an outhouse wall.
And that is the key for me. I’m not concerned about anyone—including myself—embracing the orthodox Christian theology of Jesus as the “only begotten Son of God.” Theology is not my visceral concern. Connection with the personal, with life, is my concern.
Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing,…what it says to everybody who passes by, and most importantly and unforgivably of all of course what it says to you, is that you need to be saved.
I’m not concerned about being saved from “original sin.” This is my concern:
[The word “saved”] is in its way an offense to…all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, “You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole.”
That, of course, is the human condition. It is not a consequence of a “fall.” It is simply the reality of being conscious—which means being limited to the few sensory and conceptual glimpses of reality which our organic brains are able to contain within consciousness. We cannot know all that is. We cannot even know all that we are.
To have peace “inside our skin,” we need to connect personally with Something which we can trust to hold in Itself that whole knowledge which it is impossible for us to obtain as human beings.
If [the man who painted the JESUS SAVES sign] had said God, at least that would be an idea, and if you reject it, it is only an idea that you are rejecting on some kind of intellectual grounds. But by saying “Jesus” he puts it on a level where what you accept or reject is not an idea at all but a person; where what you accept or reject, however dim and disfigured by time, is still just barely recognizable as a human face.
And that is the crux of the matter.
When I encounter spiritual dryness, that sensation warns me that I have in some sense stopped being a breathing human being and have become, in some weird sense, just an idea of myself. I need to reconnect with a Person.
Reconnecting with the Person Jesus does this for me.
I don’t say that others need to connect with Jesus. What they need is to connect with the divine Personhood of reality.
And so it is.