Formative: Telling the Truth by Frederick Buechner

When we lived in Michigan, I started a group called the Pastors Theology Roundtable. Every other month, several of us pastors from around the state would get together to talk theology. Often, one of us would present a paper about some off-the-wall theological idea we had – and the others would shoot holes in it. For a bunch of theology nerds, it was great fun.

One month, we read a book together, Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. It’s a short book about preaching. Something about it captured my imagination, maybe because it was so very different from every other book about preaching that I had ever read … I just don’t think I understood it at the time. But I loved it nonetheless.  

Frederick Buechner

When our pastors group got together to talk about it, we struggled a bit. I think we got hung up on Buechner’s use of the word “truth.”

We were fundamentalists. We had grown up being taught – and continued to teach to our congregations – that truth gets capitalized. Truth. We thought of truth as an objective, propositional, absolute thing. Truth was an object that could be handled and examined. It was something that could be accepted or rejected. It was its own thing, present in the world.

When I read Buechner saying that I need to “tell the truth” when I preach, I instinctively imported my own understanding of Truth into his book. I heard again that I needed to present propositions about God and life and eternity in my sermons.

And I completely misread Buechner.

Buechner didn’t use the word “truth” like I was used to hearing it used. Rather than talking about truth as a set of absolute propositions, Buechner used “truth” as a synonym for “reality.” Truth is your honest and accurate experience of life.

When Buechner was imploring preachers to “tell the truth,” he wasn’t telling us to preach sermons with three logical points. He was begging us to be honest about ourselves, our lives, our struggles, our doubts. He was explaining that something powerful happens when we let people into the reality of our lives. Rather than shielding ourselves behind a set of propositions, the act of preaching is an opportunity for the preacher to become vulnerable and authentic before God and the congregation, thereby inviting the congregation to do the same.


Truth is reality. Truth is authenticity.

I’m not sure when this lightbulb went on for me. But when it did, I gained a whole new level of insight into and appreciation for Buechner’s book.

In my own book, I quote my favorite passage from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. It’s become formative for me as a preacher. Here it is again:

In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee. …

The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of silence, he will tell them?

Let him tell them the truth.


Get the whole Formative blog series here.


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