Frederick Buechner: “The Sign by the Highway”

Earlier this week, I started excerpting Frederick Buechner’s challenging book, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, by Frederick Buechner (New York, N.Y.: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007, pp.28-31).

My mother Lois gave me the book for my birthday in 2006, and I read through it slowly and thoughtfully over the next two years as a morning devotion. Knowing her so well, I can only imagine that she had found Buechner to be a helpful spiritual advisor in her own faithful struggles with doubt, and that she intuited my need for his gentleness.

I returned to this book a few weeks ago once I recognized that I have been in a long period of spiritual dryness. This is not the same as doubt or disbelief but, rather, a vaguely distressing, fallow sort of time, when I feel nothing of that curiously visceral connectedness which obtains when I am consciously “in the Spirit.”

Let me quote more excerpts from Buechner and see what arises.

A man drives along the highway…[and sees on] a concrete abutment of a bridge, written out in large, clumsy letters,…the message JESUS SAVES…. And if that man is like most of the people I know, including myself much of the time and in many ways, he will wince at the message; and that is really a very strange and interesting thing, both the message and the wincing….


[In] our strange times, among people more or less like us, the effect at least of the words is clear enough: Jesus saves…. [We] wince because we are embarrassed, and embarrassed for all kinds of reasons…. [There] is something in the name “Jesus” itself that embarrasses us when it stands naked and alone like that, just Jesus with no title to soften the blow.

It seems to me that the words “Christ Saves” would not bother us half so much because they have a kind of objective, theological ring to them, whereas “Jesus Saves” seems cringingly, painfully personal—somebody named Jesus, of all names, saving somebody named whatever your name happens to be. It is something very personal written up in a place that is very public, like the names of lovers carved into the back of a park bench or on an outhouse wall.

And that is the key for me. I’m not concerned about anyone—including myself—embracing the orthodox Christian theology of Jesus as the “only begotten Son of God.” Theology is not my visceral concern. Connection with the personal, with life, is my concern.

Jesus Saves is embarrassing because if you can hear it at all through your wincing,…what it says to everybody who passes by, and most importantly and unforgivably of all of course what it says to you, is that you need to be saved.

I’m not concerned about being saved from “original sin.” This is my concern:

[The word “saved”] is in its way an offense to…all of us, because what it says in effect to all of us is, “You have no peace inside your skin. You are not happy, not whole.”

That, of course, is the human condition. It is not a consequence of a “fall.” It is simply the reality of being conscious—which means being limited to the few sensory and conceptual glimpses of reality which our organic brains are able to contain within consciousness. We cannot know all that is. We cannot even know all that we are.

To have peace “inside our skin,” we need to connect personally with Something which we can trust to hold in Itself that whole knowledge which it is impossible for us to obtain as human beings.

If [the man who painted the JESUS SAVES sign] had said God, at least that would be an idea, and if you reject it, it is only an idea that you are rejecting on some kind of intellectual grounds. But by saying “Jesus” he puts it on a level where what you accept or reject is not an idea at all but a person; where what you accept or reject, however dim and disfigured by time, is still just barely recognizable as a human face.

And that is the crux of the matter.

When I encounter spiritual dryness, that sensation warns me that I have in some sense stopped being a breathing human being and have become, in some weird sense, just an idea of myself. I need to reconnect with a Person.

Reconnecting with the Person Jesus does this for me.

I don’t say that others need to connect with Jesus. What they need is to connect with the divine Personhood of reality.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,

2 comments On Frederick Buechner: “The Sign by the Highway”

  • Joanne Herrmann

    The sign on the wall, “Jesus saves” can mean many things in a person’s life as one’s consciousness expands and the idea of being saved develops. At one point in time I believed in an original sin that plunged me into a sort of spiritual death until baptism grafted me onto the vine that was Jesus and his life flowed through me. I guess you would say that I was “born again,” but only in my understanding of what happened to me as a babe at baptism. Then I realized that the imagery created a nice concept in my head, but what was the personal reality as it applied to my life? As the concept faded, in a sense, I began to find the reality in the spirit of Jesus in others. (This took a long time, by the way as I lived a life of inattention to these values.) In time, “Jesus saves” took on an entirely different meaning, one in which we encounter the living breathing spirit of each other and serve that spirit’s needs.

    • Michael Austin Shell

      You speak my mine, Joanne.

      Decades ago a lesbian minister was amused with my twenty-something resistance to Christian theology. Her gently teasing response went something like this: “We have to help people to understand that they are going to heaven rather than hell, before they can understand that there is no hell.”


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