The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life By Frederick Buechner

Learn to see God's remarkable works in the everyday ordinary of your life.

Your remarkable life is happening right here, right now. You may not be able to see it--your life may seem predictable and your work insignificant until you look at your life as Frederick Buechner does.

Named the father of today's spiritual memoir movement by Christianity Today, Frederick Buechner reveals how to stop, look, and listen to your life. He reflects on how both art and faith teach us how to pay attention to the remarkableness right in front of us, to watch for the greatness in the ordinary, and to use our imaginations to see the greatness in others and love them well.

Pay attention, says Buechner. Listen to the call of a bird or the rush of the wind, to the people who flow in and out of your life. The ordinary points you to the extraordinary God who created and loves all of creation, including you. Pay attention to these things as if your life depends upon it. Because, of course, it does. 

As you learn to pay attention to your life and what God is doing in it, you will uncover the plot of your life's story and the sacred opportunity to connect with the Divine in each moment. The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life


Frederick Buechner ✓ 7 READ

This book was so good. So good and so needed. I think I love Frederick Buechner. The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life This was my first Buechner read, and I really enjoyed it. It's the first contemplative-style writing I've read in awhile, and it helped me to stop, listen, and be more in the moment, which I so appreciated. Buechner points out how art puts a frame around a moment - whether captured in a painting, a poem, or literature - and thereby allows us to examine that moment in a way that's very different than how we normally live our lives. We easily skip over the ordinary. But looking at Van Gogh's haystack painting, for example, slows down time and helps us to see that moment as remarkable. By slowing down and being attentive in our own life, we can experience what is remarkable in it. I look forward to reading more of Buechner now! The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life “Knowing that even though you see only through a glass darkly, even though lots of things happen - wars and peacemaking, hunger and homelessness - joy is knowing, even for a moment, that underneath everything are the everlasting arms.”

I could have chosen many other quotes from this book to start this review. There were just that many.

I was attracted to this book, not by its renowned author, but by its fascinating topic. Going in, I knew very little about the massive influence of Frederick Buechner, a Christian minister and novelist known for his touching memoirs and masterful ability to craft a sentence. If I had, I would have started with one of his earlier works, not a published book of unfinished lectures.

That said, this is a charming little book on how wonderful life truly is and how God's handiwork can be seen in even the most mundane of moments. I greatly enjoyed the first chapters that showed how art is used to draw our attention to aspects of life we are programmed to block out. I especially loved his discussion of music and how it draws our attention to the quality of time, rather than its quantity:

Music in a way, is saying keep time in another way – keep it, keep in touch with it, keep your hands on it somehow. Keep in touch with the sadness of your own time, with the joy of time, with the marvelousness of time, with the terror of time, with the emptiness of time, with the fullness of time.

Marvelous stuff.

As my first foray into Buechner's work, this wasn't a terrible choice. Being written in the latter years of his life, it did assume some familiarity with his previous novels and memoirs but he did provide accommodations for new readers unfamiliar with his life story. I can truly understand and even appreciate the appeal of his honest and down-to-earth writing style. He doesn't see himself as a moral exemplar or even a saint but attempts to show how God can be shown through human weakness. He looks at life not really as a theologian with every doctrine clearly defined and described but as an artist looking to experience the goodness of God.

In saying that, while I recognise this isn't meant to be a sermon or theological piece, I do feel that he delved too much into a vague, abstract notion of Christianity. Not everything he noted set right with me, although I do realise that I would need to read more of his work to get a grasp of what he was trying to get at. These are personal musings and observations about God's influence on his world, not an attempt to nail down specific theological tenants. Understanding this may help us to appreciate it more, but as it stands some parts did appear a little wishy-washy. His occasional use of course language was also a little jarring and may be a detractor for some audiences.

Also, while I thought the first chapter fit perfectly with the book's title, I felt some of the chapters were a little meandering. They were still filled with interesting insights and stories but it was difficult at times to understand their relevance to things as a whole. Maybe I need to think about them more, and it is quite possible I missed something. Still, I can't fault it here as it appears that these writings are an unpublished assortment.

I am intrigued to dive into the books that define Frederick Beuchner. He does have a remarkable command of the English language and there are many quotes that I will continue to think upon in the future. If you are looking for something experiential, I think this is definitely worth checking out. The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life My first time to read him and I loved this book so much. Beautiful thoughts, effortless prose, conversational style like talking to a friend at a coffee shop and a comforting counselor all at the same time. Always thankful to find an author that feels like home and that makes me think. The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life I write a decent amount of book reviews for my blog. Reviewing Buechner is different. How does one begin to review a master? Still, I was given an advanced digital copy of his forthcoming book The Remarkable Ordinary from Netgalley so I need to keep up my end of the bargain and write something.

I’m actually sitting on a plane right now somewhere between Houston and Salt Lake City. I just put down my Kindle (which I later realized I left on the plane) and I have to say that I had the same experience with this book that I’ve had with most of the books that I’ve read by Buechner. That is, I simultaneously smiled and had tears in my eyes. The other day I was listening to a conversation between Krista Tippett and the late John O’Donohue. It was a remarkable conversation. Towards the end of the conversation Tippett said something fascinating about Celtic music. She remarked that “it seems to express the greatest joy and also the deepest sorrow, almost indistinguishable from each other, and yet both with a kind of healing force.”[1] That’s a great description of Buechner’s writing! Great joy and great sorrow mingled together with healing in it.

Buechner has the great ability to cause you to listen to your life. This, of course, is one of his overarching themes and the title to one of his books. He does this by telling his story in such a way that you find your own story somewhere beneath the surface. In one chapter he talks about his relational connection with Maya Angelou. One time they both spoke at the same event and after Buechner finished his speech, the person introducing Maya said, “Ms. Angelou will now get up and tell you her story, and it will be a very different story from the one that you have just heard from Frederick Buechner.” Buechner writes that as the man said that Maya Angelou was shaking her head no. She got up and said, “I have exactly the same story to tell as Frederick Buechner.” Pondering this Buechner writes that “that’s the only reason I have, the only justification, to tell you my story. Who gives a hoot about my story? But you can give a hoot about it because it’s in many ways your story.” Mission accomplished. (For the record, I give a hoot about Beuchner’s story.)

If you’re familiar with Buechner’s work you’ve probably heard him tell some of these stories before. There are several times throughout the book where he’ll basically say, I’ve written about this before but…here we go anyway. There’s a freshness their telling, though. This is not like reading the same story twice (though I suppose there can in many ways be a freshness to that in a different way). He tells his story in a new way, like the man nearing the end of his life. There is a hopeful rawness to it all. Abraham Heschel once said, In our own lives the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time. Reaching the peak of years, dispelling some of our intimate illusions and learning how to spell the meaning of life-experiences backwards, some of us discover how the scattered syllables form a single phrase.[2] You get the feeling in this book that Beuchner has found that phrase and is is spelling it out for us one beautiful letter at a time. He is also providing the hope that we, through our own journeys, will find our phrases too if we simply pay attention to the Remarkable Ordinary.

I can’t recommend this small book strongly enough.

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, God In Search of Man, p. 174 The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life

Holy, shimmering, honest, earthy, beautiful and true. I believe that this is one of my favorite books ever. What a gift! The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life One of my favorite quotes comes from John Muir Laws. He says, “Fall in love with your life by paying attention.” This whole book was this quote. Pay attention to the music of your life, the music of others, the ordinary, mighty acts you are about to do because they become the psalms of your life. The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life In Buechner’s usual style, the book quietly explodes with truth. He is an artist! The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life Author: Frederick Buechner
Title: The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life
Publisher: Zondervan
Year of Publication: 2017

Writing of Frederick Buechner, Maya Angelou elevates his writings to an incredible standard:

“If Frederick Buechner subordinated his nature and chose to write on naughts and nothings, he would still exalt his readers. When he is in representative harmony and writes of the accessibility of God to humanity and of humanity’s agreement with its potential divinity, we, the readers, are lifted up, buoyed up, and promised wholeness.”

While only a simpleton would discredit this author’s incredible legacy, reading his nonfiction novel left me collectively scratching my head. Prior to this read, my only exposure to his writings was when I was required to read Godric in college. His The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life strikes some interesting chords; however, it seems very disjointed.

Truly, Buechner encourages readers to find that life is something to behold, especially if it appears to be ordinary. Note, for example, his take on the collective arts – if literature, music, and paintings are saying anything, they are reminding us to stop and pay attention. Each of these modalities are attempting to frame life in a moment and are asking to be noticed. Art makes us see life in a way we would never have seen it under the normal circumstances of living—too many of us are jetting through life on automatic pilot without really seeing anything of the world around us.

Although there is disjointedness in his thoughts, all spiritual seekers can learn from this instruction about time. We should pay attention to the quality of time, whether it brings an accord of sadness or joy, empty or fullness. His distinction and amplification of the difference between two Greek words for time, kairos and chronos, was exceptional. Kairos speaks to the supreme moment where chronos refers to sequential time. In the busyness of life, we are collectively swept away in chronos while missing kairos.

I love the way Buechner reminds us that God could be all around us in the ordinary, just waiting to expose us to something remarkable. He relates a story of feeding a neighbor’s sheep, where in that moment, he beheld the snow and dust falling on the straw and finally understood what the manger was all about. A veritable “God-moment” in the midst of something as ordinary as keeping a promise to feed a neighbor’s animals.

Along this same narrative the part of this work that spoke the most to me was Buechner’s development of what he calls the subterranean presence of grace. The idea that God is always at work, just below the surface. In this way, we can always look at the evening news and instead of lamenting the wars fought between nations rather ask collectively, “What about the wars we fight with others?” We need to find where God is at work and join him there, very similar to the thesis presented in Experiencing God by Henry & Richard Blackaby and Claude King.

The Remarkable Ordinary will cause you to refocus your attention to see even the trite and trivial as worthy of God’s touch. Buechner advises us all that playing it safe by staying home where candles are lit and a meal is prepared diminishes one’s life. Rather, we should go out into the world, even if the world scares the hell out of you, bores you to death, intimidates, or confuses you—that is the only life.

Are you tired of seeing life as merely ordinary? Leaf through this treatise by Buechner, perhaps you will discover it is far from ordinary. The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life A brand new Frederick Buechner book that isn't just a hodgepodge of previously published materials? Yes please. The Remarkable Ordinary was born from material of Buechner's, unearthed from a 1987 Norton lecture, and 1990 lecture from Laity Lodge, edited by John Sloan. Here Buechner reflects on the sacredness of ordinary life, calling us to stop, look and listen to life. While this book was not prepared for publication by Buechner himself, these are very much his words and sensibility.

The chapters are arranged in three sections. In part one, Buechner invites us to stop, look and listen for God. In chapter 1, the title chapter—The Remarkable Ordinary, Buechner invites us to see the sacred within our ordinary life. Travelling through the arts, Buechner stopswith the haiku of Matsuo Basho, listens to time with music and sees through the lens of J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield (Catcher & the Rye) and Franny and Zooey. In chapter 2, Buechner turns to sacred writ, exploring how the Bible calls us to pay attention, to see God and our neighbor through the attentive eyes of  love:
Jesus says the greatest commandment is loving God and loving our neighbors. I don't know what it means to love God—really, I'm all that good at it—but one of the things it means is, just as in the case of loving anybody else, you stop and watch and wait. Listen for God, stop and watch and wait for him. To love God means to pay attention, be mindful, be open to the possibility that God is with you in ways that, unless you have your eyes open, you may never glimpse. He speaks words that, unless you have ears open, you may never hear. Draw near to him as best you can. (36-37).

And later:
To love your neighbor is to see your neighbor. To see somebody, really see somebody the way Rembrandt saw the old lady, not just the face that comes to you the way dry leaves blow at you down the path like other dry leaves, but in a way that you realize the face is something the likes of which you have never seen before and will never see again. To love somebody we must see the person's face, and once in a while we do. Usually its because something jolts us into seeing it. (39)

In Part 2, Buechner describes how to listen to God through the stories we tell. In chapter 3, he describes an Episcopalian conference on story he didn't want to speak at, but agreed anyway to come and share his story. His co-speaker was Maya Angelou. While the details of their personal narratives are different, when Angelou got up to speak, she said, I have the same story to tell as Fredrick Buechner(53).  Buechner reflects:
And I think what she meant is that at a certain level we do, all of us,  with all our differences, we do have the same story. When it comes to the business of how you become a human being, how do you manage to believe, how do you have faith in a world that gives 14,000 reasons every week not to believe, how do you survive—especially surviving our own childhoods as Maya survived hers and we've all survived ours—at that level we all have the same story, and therefore anyone's story can illuminate our own. (53).

And this gives us the justification for each us to tell our own story and to find ourselves in the stories of others. In chapter four, The Subterranean Grace of God or Why Stories Matter, he reflects further on the meaning in our story:
I think that a part of what to tell one's own story in the religious sense means is to affirm that there is a plot to one's life. It's not just incident following incident without any particular direction or purpose, but things are happening in order to take you somewhere. Just the way a story begins and has a middle and an end. Things are somehow wrapped up at the end, and everything in some fashion can be seen to have led to this inevitable conclusion and to have had its own place, however circumstantial and odd and out-of-the-way some of those things that happened may have been. They had their purpose in the overall shape and texture and reality of one's story. (59-60)

The subterranean Grace of God that shows up in our lives are exemplified as we spy the whiskey priest in Graham Green's The Power and the Glory, or in Buechner's own Leo Bebb novels (62, 64-67).

In Part 3, Buechner reflects deeper on his own story, traversing familiar ground to those familiar with his autobiographical works, his father's suicide and learning to face the pain, vocation and the journey toward wholeness, the presence of peace, and hope.

What makes Buechner such a good writer, is how honestly he is able to cross-examine his own spiritual experience, without resorting to trite platitudes and Christian cliché. His call to us to attend to the remarkable ordinary, rests on the conviction that God and his subterranean grace haunt our lives—the mundane, the significant, the quotidian and the grotesque—and we will see and hear a Presence it if only we can stop, wait and listen. Art and literature, and telling one's story help us to pause and take notice. So, art is saying Stop. It helps us to stop by putting a frame around something and makes us see it in a way we would never have seen it under the normal circumstances of living, as so much of us do, on sort of automatic pilot, going through the world without really seeing much of anything (23). This is what Buecher's novels and memoirs accomplish. They frame reality, so if for a moment, we can see.

Having read a good number of them, I wouldn't say this is my favorite of Buechner's books. But it very good and had all the elements and insight I've come to appreciate from the nonagenarian Presbyterian. It is a short book and well worth your time. I give it four stars. - ★★★★

Notice of material connection:  I received a copy of this book from HandleBar Media in exchange for my honest review.

  The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life