Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Reluctant Seminarian Returns…

It’s been nearly half a year since I’ve updated my blog. Some of it was the madness which surrounds graduating from seminary. Some of it was the emotional exhaustion of a summer unit of CPE (at a hospice no less!). Some of it was feeling like I was not having adventures in far off places, so why bother updating about my ho-hum boring life. Some of it was just plain laziness.

But, as a friend of mine says regularly, it’s time to fish or cut bait. It’s time to reinvigorate this blog, or close it down for good.

I think reinvigorating it (to some degree) would do my heart and mind a bit of good. I’m in the middle of my first pastorate (without actually being a pastor – it’s complicated), and need a space to just be. Just being doesn’t happen a whole lot when you’re running from a meeting in a city an hour drive away, to a church council meeting, then to the local nursing home. Just being takes a back seat to the endless e-mails, mountain of administrative paperwork, and inevitable arrival of Sunday morning (sermon finished or no). 

I occasionally channel my inner Anglican
In this slice of the interwebs, I did a lot of adventure-telling, but also a lot of pondering, musing and being. Who am I, if I’m not “Student” or “Candidate”? 

I’m the Reluctant Seminarian. Or, I was. Now, I’m the Reluctant Pastor. This is a whole new identity with several new restrictions and responsibilities that I couldn’t have imagined or prepared myself for.

You see, as the Reluctant Seminarian, I was firm in the conviction that I was most certainly, under no circumstances, never, not ever going to serve as a Sunday morning preacher. Maybe an Associate Pastor of Groovy Young Adults or Social Justice Outreach who preaches when the Important Head Pastor is away, but certainly not as the head, let alone only, pastor of a church. No, no, no, I was training specifically for University chaplaincy and Higher Ed ministry. It’s where I became a Christian after all, and it’s where I feel most called (more on that later).

But, God has a funny way of doing things. Never mind that by the time I graduated seminary I had served at three colleges (one of them in England!). Never mind that I wanted to stay in a big city so I could continue my involvement in interfaith relationship building and maybe meet a spouse that shares similar religious/political leanings. Never mind that I’m still 3 Ordination exams and 1 exegesis class away from being eligible for Ordination. Never mind that I didn’t grow up in church and still occasionally feel like a foreigner trying desperately to learn the language and customs.

Never mind it one bit.

God picked me up and plunked me down in Livingston, Alabama (never heard of it? Me either) to be the “Interim Student Pastor” or “Temporary Supply Pastor” or “Interim Temporary Supply” (this has been of some serious debate) of the First Presbyterian Church (see them here). 

How I got here is a wonderfully delightful story of Methodist connectionism working to benefit a poor Presbyterian seminary graduate. Suffice it to say: God moved people – some of whom had to be pushed rather firmly – to a place where me and all my rule-bending exceptionalism could pastor this small church. I still marvel that this church could see anything in a mile-a-minute talker with practically no parish experience, but they asked me, they fought to get approval from Presbytery (which itself was in a bit of tumult with it’s now ex-Exec Presbyter), and they have supported me whole-heartedly since my arrival in September. I still am amazed by the people who put their faith in my – a not-yet- 27-year-old ministry novice who is still shaky behind a pulpit – abilities to guide and shepherd them as they begin the search process for a long-term call. And I still wonder at a God who has taken me to these reluctant places again and again. I never know quite what is in store!

There are many stories to tell. Like the time a Baptist lady, upon discovering that I am unmarried, asked me if I fool around (I kid you not). There’s much catching up to be done, like  about moving to a village-hamlet that has only about 1% (you read that correctly) the population of my former metropolitan home. But for now I will just be: the return of the Reluctant Seminarian. Or perhaps the baptism by fire of the Reluctant Pastor.
Either way, here I am Lord.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mary Did You Know? A sermon in the shadow of Sandy Hook

Mary Did You Know?
God is a God of being in the messiness. Into the upside down world of an unwed teenage mother came the Christ-child. Into a people oppressed came the King of kings. And into our very midst – the messiness of national tragedy and broken and breaking lives, comes the living God. This is the Prince of Peace, who loves us despite our reliance upon guns and swords and bombs. This is the Wonderful Counselor, who hears the cries of our cracking hearts. This is the Might God and Everlasting Father, who gathers his children and holds them in their grief. 

I wonder if Mary could have imagined all of that when she was visited by the angel Gabriel. I wonder if she could have dreamed of what it would mean for God to be born into this messy, hurting world. I wonder if she could have fathomed the kind of pain he would suffer – for us, for her, for everyone – but also the kind of joy he would kindle in the hearts of those who followed him.
There is a popular song on the radio about Mary. “Mary did you know” which was written for a children’s pageant in the 1980s. Listen to the lyrics:

Mary did you know that your baby boy would some day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary did you know

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will walk again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak the praises of the lamb

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding is the great I am
Christmas is about remembering that the Lord of all Creation came to us, in the middle of our seizing, stinking, awful brokenness. God came near. God came here. And God is here still.

Mary did you know that in your womb grows a baby who brings light to the World in the most amazing way?


She couldn’t have, of course. She could never have guessed the beautiful things that Christ did – healed the sick, fed the hungry, freed the captive. She could never have known of the ministry or the miracles when he wiggled in her belly. Nor could she have dreamed in her worst nightmare the pain of sacrifice and loss she would witness as her precious first-born son hung upon the Cross. And, she could not have imagined the hope that he brings, for Christ is the Resurrection and the life, and light of the world – a light that not even death upon a Cross can put out.

This Sunday of Advent we mark with a pink candle because it is “Joy” Sunday. We are to remember that the angels brought Glad tidings of Great Joy. They whispered do not be afraid. Fear not, for we bring news of Joy. Fear not, a Savior has come to the nations. Fear not, God is here.
The angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Fear Not, the Lord is with you.” Do not be afraid, Mary, God is near.

God is near. Even this week, when this country was faced with two shootings, the first at a shopping mall in Oregon and the second a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Connecticut, we must hold fast to the promise, “Do not fear, the Lord is with you.”

God is with us, in the tragedy and the triumph. God is with us, as we rejoice in families brought together for the holidays after months apart, and God is here as we mourn with families who will never see their precious children open the presents already wrapped under the tree. God is with us, as we face an uncertain economy. God is with us and with the people protesting in Egypt, and with the victims of violence in Syria, and with the hungry children in Africa, and with the grieving families in Connecticut and Oregon.

Do not be afraid, God is near.

Advent is a season pregnant with hope and anticipation. It is a season which looks beyond itself, beyond the here and now, toward the future  - toward the coming of Christ-child in a manger lowly, and toward the second coming of Christ the King in glory. We are not striving to generate joy for the Christmas holiday, we are striving to testify to a Joy that will be a balm to every tear[1]. To a Joy which is the light of the World. To a Joy that is embodied, unending, and enduring from generation to generation.

Mary, did you know that you need not be afraid any longer? God is with us. God is near.  Now and always. Amen.

[1] Thanks to Rachel Hackenburg, from whom this line was borrowed, (http://revgalblogpals.blogspot.com/2012/12/11th-hour-preacher-party-where-is-joy.html?showComment=1355523678525#c4357837497824239842)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Talkin' 'bout JC - A Free Write

Folks, I've been absolutely overwhelmed with work. It's that season of life, as you might expect. I am in the final sprint toward my masters degree. I am wrapping up programming at my job (at an undergraduate college). But, perhaps most importantly to me (right now, anyway)  am working on my Candidacy paperwork for PCUSA. These are the statements of faith and belief that will make or break me (well, for the time being). Articulating why this statement or faith claim is important - or why I fall down on the side that I do is WAY more complicated that one could initially imagine. One of my free-write-anything-you-want-to-get-the-juices-flowing session yielded an amusing, but also insightful look into what I think about good ol' JC. No, not John Calvin, or even Jimmy Carter, but the One and only Jesus Christ! I include it below as a sign of both my thoughts on our Lord, but also as a sign of my (maybe unhinged?) mental state. And the effects our three cups of coffee in less than an hour. Be warned - there is a bit of rough language. It is a free write, after all.


Jesus is…kinda a big deal. Like seriously. A Big mother fucking deal. No joke, dudes. He’s a big deal because he’s, like, God. Not like, but actually God. The God. The God who spoke the world into being. The God who led the Israelites out of Egypt and parted the Red Sea. The God who called for justice and righteousness through the prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Hosea. This majestic, benevolent, merciful yet justice-oriented God is the same God that is fully present in the human being Jesus Christ. That’s a big deal. A really, really big deal. Why? Well, for one thing, the God of the universe took on flesh – took on the weakness of a newborn babe. The awkwardness of a teenage boy – complete with zits and growth spurts and the like. Took on the vulnerability unto death. That all by itself is pretty damn remarkable. But what is even more remarkable is that this God became incarnate – took on human skin and limitation and finitude – because this God loves us. God moved toward us, in our wayward, unfaithfulness. God abided with us in the most intimate way. God covenanted with us and redeemed us through this incarnation.

How is this love? How is God’s incarnation a loving act? Well, if the whole, creator-of the-universe-in-human-flesh-to-be-closer-to-us doesn’t come across as loving, then maybe the fact that Jesus is the eternal sacrifice to redeem humanity from sin will. Yep, Jesus Christ, that wandering fool from Nazareth who is secretly God incarnate (do you see a pattern – God incarnate), is also the paschal lamb- the redeeming act of grace confirmed upon a sinful humanity across all generation for all time. Jesus didn’t just exist historically (although, that’s part of God’s whole coming to earth as a human being thing – being limited to historical finitude), this act of reconciliation of creation (not just humanity!) to the Godself (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) is an eternal act, existing both in the singular, profound moment in historical time, and also eternally happening.

This is why Jesus is a big deal. Jesus is the example of what true humanity should be – what it looks like to have a “right relationship” with God (one characterized by freeing the oppressed, eating meals with sinners, redeeming the “impure” and generally living in a way that is ABSOLUTELY different than EVERY expression of Christianity around today. Yep, all of us are far, far short of the example Christ gives us). Jesus is a big deal because in him we come to know God, that wholly Other, fully different, majestic and profound God who breathed all creation into being. In Jesus, God accommodates the Godself to our limited understanding. God “condescends” as Uncle Karl (Barth) would say, to humanity. God moves to us. Not, of course, because God has to, or needs to. God is NOT lonely. God does not NEED anything. God is whole. God is complete within the trinity. But God is a God of self-giving love. That that, my friends, means God loves us so fucking much that God become a creature (do you get that, the Creator became a creature), to show/prove/emphasize this unwavering, inexplicable, undeserved love for us. That is why Jesus Christ, God incarnate, Word made flesh, is a great big, fat deal.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reflection on Ash Wednesday

Last year on Ash Wednesday, I watched as the Body of Christ was fractured. I listened as a one clergy member’s theology took the Holy Bible and turned it into a weapon. Slings and arrows in the words of Joel. “Sound the trumpet” he proclaimed. Alert Christendom ! There are Gays among the clergy! There are Gays among the ordianands! And these homosexuals are not welcomed  - not just in our seminaries, or holy orders, but in the very Church, the universal Body of Christ.

My memory of that early morning Ash Wednesday service is one of an embodied kind of pain. It is the kind of pain that I remember feeling deep within my bones. I looked at the faces of the gathered community and saw the shock, horror and disgust with the so-called “proclamation.” We gathered as an ecumenical group, attempting to bridge not just denominational divides, but political and social divides. We gathered as an ecumenical community to say that evangelicals, “high church” folks, “low-church” folks, main-line, emergent , traditional and modern Christian could celebrate the season of Lent. A visiting Anglican Bishop from Uganda shattered the trust that we as a diverse and often disagreeing community had pieced together over nearly a year of shared worship. He disregarded the history of God who moves toward us in love, who seeks to make the Godself known to all regardless. He ignored the holiness of the season of Lent, using his invitation to preach as a bully pulpit to articulate a political and theological message of hate and exclusion. Never have I felt such collective pain embodied in the these muscles, down cast eyes and utter brokenness as I saw that morning. I couldn’t look the priest who gave me ashes in the eyes. I felt used, violated, victimized. I felt that the Church, the precious Body of Christ, had, too, been violated, blemished, debased with these arrogant and unloving words.

But that was last year, 2011. That was England. This year was different. This year, I watched as a university chapel filled with Christians of all flavors, all socio-economic class and all stages of life. From protestant professors and their wiggling children, to nervous students who hadn’t been to chapel since Christmas, to tired-looking staff members we sat together as four ministers representing different traditions celebrated the beginning of Lent.

Susan Henry-Crow, the Dean of the Chapel at Emory and a United Methodist minister, president over the imposition of Ashes. Father Natal, the campus Catholic Priest, gave the homily. Mother Mandy, an Episcopal Priest and campus chaplain, proclaimed the gospel. And, Rev Saul Burleson, a Cooperative Baptist minister, helped ash the students. Together, across wide traditions, we collected ourselves to celebrate this new liturgical season. I sat next to a Methodist from Denmark, who had only celebrated Ashe Wednesday once before. This holy, whole, peaceful celebration was the exact opposite of the shaming, hurtful, broken ritual that I had participated in the year before. This space was the diverse, yet united Body of Christ. It didn’t seek to make us the same, but to bridge the spaces of difference to celebrate God’s enduring love.

My journey as a Christian, and more so as a seminarian, has been tides of unity and brokenness. I have seen the joy of the Church together. And, I have felt the painful fractures of the Church apart. In the face of division in my denomination, my Presbytery, my community, I pray that this season of Lent is a season of unity and celebration of diversity.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Boundless in 2012

We are often asked to step outside of ourselves for the sake of the Word. God’s love is boundless, and we are asked to push past the artificial boundaries imposed by our culture and community to be an expression of God’s love.  This “Holy Discomfort” is exactly how I started my New Year.

Welcome 2012! The End of the world looms, if you’re Mayan. If you’re not (or at least, not concerned about End Times prophecies a la 1 Thessalonians 5:2), then another year rolls on ahead, full of it’s unique challenges, joys, burdens and blessings. For me personally this is a year when I finish seminary, and creep fearfully into the Big Bad World of Actual Real Life Adults. Not particularly exciting if you ask me. A Ph.D looks more and more appealing the closer to May 15th (the day after graduation) I get. Let me not get ahead of myself too much. Because New Years Day started off with a band (sort of).

Now I had Epic Death Cold the whole week after Christmas. And even went so far as to stay at home of New Years Eve in my pjs drinking tea and watching an NCIS marathon (I’m a winner!). You might say “Brekke, why didn’t you just power through?! Tough it out for one night!” Except that A) I’m really broke and couldn’t justifying spending my hard earned (or loaned-out) money on drinks that I couldn’t taste anyway, and B) I had to get up early on Sunday morning. Why you might ask? Oh, because I accepted an invitation to preach on New Year’s Day, like a good little seminarian. So December 31st, 2011 was spent tweaking a sermon, and trying desperately to get over the Death Cold before I had to preach at 11am the next morning. I am happy to report that God answers prayers and I got over the Death Cold in time to preach (although, I’m still waiting on the mysterious inheritance from a kindly old person to come my way…).

I didn’t just preach anywhere. I preached at a quaint, little community church in Lawerenceville, Georgia to a congregation of mostly over-40 adults (and literally 4 kids) who had the commitment to not just come to church the day after New Year’s, but to come listen to some strange seminarian who isn’t even a member of their denomination. Yep, not even a member of their tradition. Someone outside their boundaries (not that this church seemed to have particularly thick boundaries). Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, part of the ELCA (clearly, since I’m a lady-preacher), welcomed me with open arms and warm smiles when I came to preach. I was “reformed enough” as a Presbyterian, and although I was hopelessly lost during much of the liturgy (thank the Good Lord for the Cantor), my sermon and prayers at this “dry Mass” were kindly received.

Prepping at the Pastor's Desk - all official and stuff
They had me “robe up” – something way beyond my comfort zone. I wore an alb (and felt rather holy and also completely inept at the same time), which is the first time I’ve ever worn liturgical robes in any form or fashion. I felt a bit like a nun instead of a preacher.
I preached on the Holy Name – one of the more obscure selection for the first Sunday after Christmas (my Feasting on the Word commentary didn’t even have it listed!).  And while there were moments that I was scared out of my mind (like the three seconds before I started my sermon), I knew as I opened my mouth that it wasn’t about me and my feelings of inadequacy. It was about the Word of God, the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the redemptive love of Christ.

Children's moment - each name is especially chosen!
It is so easy in this world to forget our chosenness. To forget that God knit us together in our mother’s womb. That God calls us by name.

Jesus' name was specially chosen too - in Hebrew it means "He Saves"
For the first time I saw myself in local parish ministry. I know that it’s not the life-long calling that some people feel, but it is a calling of mine. To preach, to teach, to touch the lives of individuals with the boundless love of God. This is a brand New Year – a year that started off with the Word proclaimed, a year of “Holy Discomfort”, and a year of great change. Hopefully I’ll muddle through, and y’all will be along for the adventure!

That Parament is providential