Dear Mr. Buechner

Pastor and writer Kathleen Long Bostrom pens a final letter to the beloved theologian Frederick Buechner, who responded to her previous notes and played an important role in her sense of call. Buechner passed away on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dear Mr. Buechner,

I’ve been meaning to write to you for a while now. I’ve written to you before, and each time you graciously responded with a handwritten note. I know I’m one among thousands who have written letters of gratitude over the years.

My intent was to write one more “thank you.” I waited too long, but I am compelled to write anyway, one last time.

I grew up unchurched. So when I felt called to seminary, I was more surprised than anyone. From the very first day at Princeton, I was so far over my head it’s a miracle I ever rose to the surface. My knowledge then of the Bible, theology and church history would have scarcely filled a thimble.

While my heart was seeking to be faithful in this unexpected calling, I felt like I was drowning in a sea of words I could barely spell or pronounce, let alone understand, like “sanctification,” “transfiguration” and “omniscience.” Then I read your definition of doctrine in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC — “No matter how fancy and metaphysical a doctrine sounds, it was a human experience first.” Doors flew open, bells rang out!

In Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, you gave a voice to the peculiar, puzzling biblical figures we were discussing in class. For me, you turned them from cardboard characters into real people: Moses, “breathing his last up there in the hills with his sore feet and aching back.” Noah, his “eyes closed and tears on his cheeks” as the dove lands “on the calluses of his upturned palm.” Sarah, “cackling behind the tent door so the angel wouldn’t think she was being rude. I realized that all of them are flawed and fallible, treasured by God. Like all of us. Like me.

While my ability to write the Hebrew alphabet that I spent hours learning in seminary is long gone, approaching theology as autobiography, the alphabet of grace as you call it: I live that every day.

In an intense season of studying Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society among others, Wishful Thinking was the book from my seminary days that spoke to me most deeply. And it still does. I don’t think I will ever remove my tattered, coming-apart-at-the-spine copy from my bookshelf.

In 1992, I heard you speak at a conference in Wheaton, Illinois. I was a mom of young children co-pastoring a church with my husband, and I had recently been stricken with the crazy idea of writing for publication. I mostly wrote short devotional essays, inspired by the world and people around me, including one about the creak-thump of my grandmother’s walker as she slowly moved from room to room preparing to bury an adult child for the third time. I was proud of that one and brought a copy with me.

After a captivating talk, you made your way to the lobby to greet your eager fans. I nudged down my crowded row and arrived at the aisle just as you were about to pass by. I thrust that sheet of paper towards you and said something like, “Mr. Buechner, I so admire you and want to be a writer. Can you read this piece of mine?” I still can’t believe I had the nerve to approach you like that.

You looked at me with soulful eyes, thanked me in your soft, sonorous voice, and took the paper with you. “Well, I tried,” I thought, expecting that would be the end of it.

A few weeks later, an envelope arrived in the mail, hand addressed. Tucked inside was my essay, on which you had written in blue ink (kindly not red!), encouraging yet honest comments offering suggestions with no false pretensions that I’d written a masterpiece.

It wasn’t so much the comments that kept me writing; it was you; so full of grace in your response, in responding at all. I kept writing, and dozens of books later, I am still writing, still being rejected but persevering, in no small part because of you. In gratitude, I have done my best to follow your example with new writers. Sometimes even the smallest bit of encouragement is all that we need.

Among the honors I’ve been given, two hold a special place in my heart: having some of my early work published alongside a piece from you in Voice of Many Waters: A Sacred Anthology for Today; and teaching a class at the 2016 Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Seminary. I wrote you a letter after the former, and you responded: “I’m delighted that some word of mine encouraged you to go on with your writing and that it’s fared so well.” Always humble, always gracious.

Thank you for being the most effective theology professor I ever had, for unknowingly teaching this unprepared preacher to see the world with the eyes of her own heart in ways beyond words. Thank you for gently encouraging a wanna-be writer to discover the remarkable ordinary of her own so that she could encourage others to discover theirs. Thank you for revealing to me, like the Wizard of Oz to the Cowardly Lion, that I possessed courage I didn’t know I had.

Even though you have now stepped beyond time, you will continue to be the very best of company on this life journey that you revealed to me as sacred.

Thank you, Mr. Buechner, for the grace of your life. The party wouldn’t have been complete without you.