"A word a day to keep the demons at bay" is how Frederick Buechner describes this revised omnibus collection of his popular books of definitions and portraits, arranged alphabetically Peculiar Treasures, Whistling in the Dark, and Wishful Thinking. This prolific and versatile Presbyterian minister is the author of 30 works of fiction and nonfiction. He has been honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Over the years, we have treasured the wide sweep of Buechner's imagination and the richness of his devotional purview. We reveled in the adventures of Leo Bebb, the inimitable lead character in the novels Lion Country, Open Heart, and Love Feast, who infused us with the joy of living. Buechner's autobiographies revealed the manifold ways in which God speaks to us "in the thick of our days." We got the message that "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 us out of their depths."
But it is in his alphabet books that Buechner best catches "the muffled presence of the Holy" in everyday life. He has done nothing less than revivify the worn-out religious terminology of the Christian tradition. No great believer in abstractions, Buechner works from the commonplace and finds great wonders everywhere. He rescues and releases from cliché such words as church, cross, eternal life, humility, joy, mystery, salvation, truth, and worship. In almost every instance, the author is a minstrel who revels in the vitalities of play and imagination. Buechner also provides portraits of the challenges faced by Biblical characters including Abraham, David, Esau, Hagar, John the Baptist, Moses, Paul, Sarah, and many others.
Most of the definitions and portraits in this day book are short enough to be spunky and long enough to be substantive:
• "The visible church is all the people who get together from time to time in God's name. Anybody can find out who they are by going to church to look. The invisible church is all the people God uses for his hands and feet in this world. Nobody can find out who they are except God."
• "Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."
• "In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints."
We are especially taken with Buechner's tributes to the spiritual practices of faith, grace, and mystery. In another book, the author confessed: "Pay Attention. As a summation of all that I have had to say as a writer, I would settle for that. And as a talisman or motto for the journey in search of a homeland, which is what faith is, I would settle for that too." It is Buechner's attention to Christian tradition, his own experience, and the experiences of Biblical characters that make this collection so worthwhile. It is one that all preachers, teachers, and seekers will find themselves returning to again and again for spiritual inspiration.