It’s said that you can learn something about a person by examining their bookshelves, noting the authors and the topics of interest. If that’s true, then you can probably learn even more about a writer by looking at his bookshelves.

One of the things you can discern from the writer’s shelves and stacks of books is the identity of his influencers. You see, writers don’t just have favorite authors; their favored writers are literary influencers and mentors from afar. Upon close inspection you’ll discover who those influencers have been by the higher number of books in the collection penned by certain authors.

If you were to examine my collection you would find an inordinate number of books by Philip Yancey, Calvin Miller, Frederick Buechner, Ken Gire, Billy Collins, Brennan Manning and Richard Rohr. Each chairs a department of my school of thought in some area of the spiritual life and the craft of writing.

Invitation and Permission

Frederick Buechner passed away last week at the age of 92. For decades Buechner invited me to think deeply and struggle honestly while also being creative and playful. Calvin Miller granted me a similar permission.

David Brooks wrote in the New York Times last week in his tribute to Buechner: “He spent his life as a border-stalker, too literary for many Christians and too Christian for the literary set.”

As a young adult I could only aspire to be half the brilliant and prolific writer that Buechner was, but I was already familiar with being a border-dweller, living and writing somewhere in between two worlds, not wishing to be defined and confined by either landscape while wanting to feel accepted and welcome in both.

My introduction to Buechner came almost simultaneously and separately from two very different people—my father, Richard Presson, and my wife’s Aunt Dorothy. In a copy of The Sacred Journey gifted to me at Christmas of 1986, my Dad inscribed, “May sacredness beautify your journey through this world, and may it be contagious to those who cross your path.”

I hope that has indeed been happening, Dad.

A Buchner Sampler

Here are some of my favorite Buechner quotes:

On Anger

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back, in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

On Vocation and Calling

“Vocation is the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need.”

On The Writer and the Reader’s Shared Experience

“My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.” 

On Faith

“Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward. It is sensing a presence, not buying an argument.”

On Doubt & Faith

“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don't have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

On Grace

“After centuries of handling and mishandling, most religious words have become so shopworn nobody's much interested anymore. Not so with grace, for some reason. Mysteriously, even derivatives like gracious and graceful still have some of the bloom left.

"Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There's no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.

"A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?

"A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do. There's nothing you have to do.

"The grace of God means something like: 'Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It's for you I created the universe. I love you.'

There's only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you'll reach out and take it.”

For Further Reading

If I’ve succeeded in making you curious about Buechner’s writings, here are three books I recommend as a user-friendly starter kit.

Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC

Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary

Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who

Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage & family therapist in Franklin,  (www.ramonpressontherapy.com)  the author of multiple books, and a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He can be reached at [email protected].