Four years ago, I was attending Western Theological Seminary and taking a class with Chuck DeGroat. One of the assigned readings was Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this seemingly random book would play a part in transforming my journey. Three graduate schools later (with no degrees to show for it) I’m currently one semester away from graduating with a Master’s in Counseling Psychology from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. (Mom & Dad I think I’m actually going to make it this time! Please Lord.) For the last four years I have been wrestling with my secrets and I have been walking with people who are wrestling with their own. This journey continues to be profoundly humbling, at times overwhelmingly difficult, but more than anything, really really good. The more I learn the more I realize I don’t know – but here’s one thing I’m continuing to realize: Frederick Buechner was right… The deepest and darkest places in our lives, those places that we are afraid of and ashamed of, those places that are messy, unruly and seem utterly wrong – it’s in the thick of those places that God shows up. It’s in the thick of those places that His love is waiting. It’s in the thick of those places that Love Himself resides.
I wrote this little reflection four years ago for Chuck’s class. If nothing else, I hope it inspires you to pick up Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner. Some things have changed since I wrote this piece, and some things haven’t. But after four years on the journey, I can assure you it’s worth going to that deep dark place inside you where your secrets are kept. Is it easy? No. Absolutely not. But love is waiting for you there. I promise.
A Reflection on Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner
“I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and the most precious we have to tell” (p. 3).
There are times in my life when I drink too much. I really like the feeling of the buzz that washes over me, taking with it the anxiety that seems to hold me so tightly. There are some times when I slip into the temptation of pornography. The curiosity and the excitement create a spark somewhere inside of me, a quick flicker of light in a space that often seems so dark. Every once in awhile I will sit on my front porch and smoke a cigarette. It reminds me of the predictability of a time that is now past. The smell of the smoke, the ten minute break from “real” life, an inhale and exhale that reminds me I’m alive, for now anyway. A month ago, if you had asked me about my secrets those are a few of the secrets I would have told you.
As I opened the pages of Buechner’s Telling Secrets I half-heartedly assumed these would be the secrets I would continue to work through. Maybe this time I’d finally develop the self-control to quit drinking too much. Maybe some new insight would keep me from slipping up and looking at pornography. Maybe this next year would be the year I don’t smoke a single cigarette. It took all of three pages for me to realize I was about to begin swimming in deeper waters. I began to realize that after this visit to Buechner’s office, overlooking the foothills of Vermont, I might need some time to catch my breath, to be still, to sit in the quiet, to be filled with wonder and awe. It took all but three pages for Buechner to invite me into the deep place. As we sat in his office, both of us gazing out over the rolling green pastures, he whispered, “I suspect that it is by entering that deep place inside us where our secrets are kept that we come perhaps closer than we do anywhere else to the One who, whether we realize it or not, is of all our secrets the most telling and most precious we have to tell” (p.3). I began to realize my secrets were deeper than their manifestations. I looked down at the floor and asked, “You really think He meets us there… In the deepest and darkest places?” I was filled with wonder, and a little hope even. I quickly realized my so-called “secrets” … The drinking, the porn, and the cigarettes… were found in the shallow places of my life. I was being invited into somewhere deeper.
“That is the story of all our lives, needless to say, and in the process of living out that story, the original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out all the other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather” (45).
I was sitting with a friend yesterday. She is a counselor who works a lot with girls who wrestle with differing types of eating disorders. She loves so deeply, a love that has been birthed out of her own struggle. While we were talking and reflecting on where I am at in life, I began to realize that in some ways I struggle to know who I really am. I am a middle-upper class white male who has privileges that are truly absurd. I haven’t had to work for much, pay for much or struggle that much to be where I am. And yet, I sit at my desk and wonder, “Who am I?” I know that I’m not a shimmering self. I know that I’m a lot of different people for a lot of different people. I know that throughout my life I have taken routine trips to the Salvation Army store to drop off my old coats and hats that are no longer in style for where I am at in life. For the first time in my life, I’ve been able to admit and accept that my coat and top-hat of choice are perfectionism and people pleasing. I understand those are relatively “nice” problems to have, they are in style right now. But that is where I am at and that is why Who I am, whoever that is, has been exhausted lately.
I’m not a recovering alcoholic, I’m not a recovering porn addict, and I’m not really a recovering smoker either. For the first time in my life though, I can say I’m a recovering perfectionist and a recovering people pleaser. I understand that sounds like a white boy problem, but those are a couple of my problems none-the-less. As I sat with Buechner in his office, I wish I could have stopped there. Fortunately, he didn’t let me stop there. We both realized that I had forgotten to take off my coat and top-hat when I sat down in his office. He offered to take them from me, and tucked them away in his closet. We sat in some silence; I felt a little uncomfortable, a little cold even. I suddenly realized that if he had just taken my coat and hat, we were going to be sitting there for awhile. Rather ignorantly I asked, “So what’s next.” He replied, “The original, shimmering self… Its buried deep… deep inside of you.” He went on…
“What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort, as the huge monk in cloth of gold put it, than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to it’s seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.
God knows I am no good at it, but I keep trying, and once or twice I have been lucky, graced. I have been conscious but not conscious of anything, not even of myself. I have been surrounded by the whiteness of snow. I have heard a stillness that encloses all sounds stilled the way whiteness encloses all colors stilled, the way wordlessness encloses all words stilled. I have sensed the presence of a presence. I have felt a promise promised” (pp. 105-106).
I spoke at Holland Christian’s chapel a couple of weeks ago, on a Monday. The Friday beforehand, I was practicing for the chapel, trying to memorize what I had written. A newfound friend of mine sent me an iMessage wondering if she could swing by the church to say hello. She walked into the room where I was sitting and asked what I was up to. I explained to her I was working on my chapel talk. She sat down and said, “I’d love to hear it.” “The whole thing?” I asked. “Yeah, the whole thing!” she replied. I anxiously read my chapel to her. I finished reading and kept staring at the paper, not wanting to look up, afraid of what she might think. In a soft, but sweet voice she said, “Matt, that is beautiful.” I don’t remember how I responded. I probably said something a nervous 6th grader would say. I do know that it made me anxious. The following night I was having dinner at my parents. They asked about my chapel talk and I told them about my experience the day before. As I told them the story, I got to the part where she said, “Matt, that is…” I started to weep.
I think I struggle to realize that God is present, because a layer below my perfectionism and my people pleasing, I struggle to accept and believe there is something beautiful. I try so hard. I do so much. The inner dialogue inside of me is often obnoxiously loud and noisy. And in the middle of that noise, as I was thumbing my way through the pages of Buechner, Jesus said, “Be still. And know that I am God.” I have really struggled to be still, and it was in Buechner’s office, that I finally realized that it’s in the stillness and in the silence of the holy place that we experience God’s presence. I was in the silence of the holy place this week, and for the first time in a long time I heard God speak and He said something like, “You are my beloved and you belong to me.” I am still trying to find peace and rest in who I am, but at the very least, in the midst of my deepest and darkest secrets I am beginning to realize and believe that somewhere deep inside of me, there is The One… who created The Original, shimmering me, who is still with me, and who is continually whispering to me, “You are my beloved son, and with you I am well pleased.”
Buechner, Frederick. Telling Secrets. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991. Print.