An Exeter Student in Each Of Us

Today's article is an excerpt from Secrets in the Dark.

I had a strong suspicion that once they left Exeter [where Buechner once taught], most of my captive listeners would never be caught dead in church again, and that gave me a strong sense of urgency about what I was doing. It might be the last time anybody would try to persuade them that religious faith was not as boring, banal, irrelevant, and outmoded as they thought it was, so if I didn't do it right, that would be the end of it. I tried every way I could think of to catch their attention and make them listen. I avoided traditional religious language and imagery as much as possible as well as the kind of fuzziness, bombast, and sentimentality that preachers are apt to resort to when all else fails. In sermons like ''A Sprig of Hope," "Message in the Stars," "The Sign by the Highway," and "The Face in the Sky" I tried to be as dramatic and vivid as I could without going overboard, to tell a story or set a scene that I hoped would capture their imaginations. I tried not to let them ever see where I was going next, to keep them on their toes, to keep them wondering what on earth I was getting at until suddenly and unexpectedly, if I was lucky, we all of us got there together. I tried to be suggestive, elusive, and unpredictable rather than systematic, dogmatic, and pontifical. I never took it for granted that they believed any of even the most basic affirmations of the Christian faith concerning such matters as God and Jesus, sin and salvation, but always tried to speak to their skepticism and to honor their doubts. I made a point of never urging on them anything I did not believe myself I was candid about what, like them, I was puzzled by and uncertain of I tried to be myself I tried to be honest.

Add to that only that, as I looked out from all those different lecterns at all those different congregations, I always remembered that first congregation of some forty years ago now, who by and large thought the whole religious enterprise was for the birds, as in my darker moments I am sometimes tempted to believe may indeed be the case. It seems to me there is an Exeter student in each of us, even those of us who are churchiest and most outwardly conforming, who asks the ultimate question "Can it really be true?" and every time I have ever preached I have tried to speak to that question-not just to proclaim the Yes in its glory, but one way or another to acknowledge and do justice to the possibility of the No. In other words what I have been essentially doing from the pulpit all these more than fifty years is to tell the story of my life.