Summer/Fall  2000
Volume 5 Number 1


 

by Joe Fanning, M.Div. Class of 2000, who will begin the Th.M. program at PTS this fall

When Buck was in preschool, his teacher took his mom aside and said, "We are having a problem with your son. He is gathering up his classmates and telling them what to do." The teacher suggested that Buck might need some special attention the school could not give him. Buck’s mother took him to a psychologist to be evaluated. After the session, the psychologist said, "There is nothing wrong with Buck except that he is a leader who seems to have found his first followers."

Buck Breland with his wife, Michele.

This story does not surprise those who knew Buck because much of his life was spent gathering people together and giving them things to do—namely, encouraging people to love each other in concrete ways. It is no surprise that Buck’s favorite biblical passage was the story of the Good Samaritan. Buck’s experience of God’s unconditional love made a claim on his life that he could not ignore. The story of the Good Samaritan best expressed the call that Buck heard. It was not a call to a kind of work, but to a way of life.

Buck once wrote, "The doctrine of vocation affirms every aspect of life as an avenue for fulfilling the purpose to which God calls us. We cannot, however, allow the concept of ‘vocation’ to become synonymous with ‘career.’ Our vocation cannot simply be equated with the work we do, for such an equation suggests that some people are not capable of having a vocation, e.g., retired people, people who have lost their jobs, people who cannot work because of physical or mental disabilities.… The doctrine of vocation, therefore, says to each of us individually and to all of us collectively, ‘Your life matters.’ It says that each of our lives is significant in the kingdom of God."

Buck gave us a glimpse of what ministry looks like when the truth of God’s love frees a person to be passionate about God’s purposes. His life and ministry touched the lives of those already practicing and those preparing for the professional ministry. Larry Bethune—who has both an M.Div. (1978) and a Ph.D. (1987) from Princeton Seminary—baptized Buck at University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, in April 1993. As the pastor of Buck’s church, Bethune had a significant influence on Buck’s theology.

When Buck decided that he wanted to go to seminary, he chose Bethune’s alma mater. Buck left Austin to come to Princeton, but not without leaving his mark. Bethune describes Buck’s influence this way, "Buck came to our church with a diagnosis of terminal illness. His world had been turned upside down, but he had a new vision of the preciousness of life—not only his own, but everyone’s! He made a profession of faith and was baptized because the presence of God was his new center of being. He was a model for us, not only of courage in his fight against illness, but in asserting life, faith, hope, and love against the power of death. Buck was not afraid to die, but he was afraid not to live, not to make a difference for others in the time he was given. He was open-hearted, and intolerant only of those who wasted time on insignificant trivia that divided and damaged people rather than lifting and linking them.

"His light burned among us too briefly, but it burned oh so brightly! His joy, his sense of humor, his passion for people was—is!—a continuing inspiration to me and to the people of University Baptist Church in Austin."

Jann Aldriedge-Clanton is the chaplain coordinator at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. To help pastors work with cancer patients, she wrote Counseling People with Cancer (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), a book to which Buck contributed. His influence on her ministry rings through her words at Buck’s memorial service: "Buck’s generosity will continue to bless so many people. He gave an incredibly valuable gift to me and other pastoral caregivers. He contributed to a book I wrote for pastors caring for persons with cancer. Buck’s wise, imaginative, insightful articulation of his cancer experience helped shape the book. He opened my eyes to see more fully into life and into my ministry as a chaplain. He talked with me about sacred images that felt healing to him."

Buck’s life was no less inspiring on the PTS campus. Although health problems made his class attendance sporadic, it did not diminish the influence he had on his classmates. In ways large and small, his life shaped his peers’ understanding of ministry. Consider these words from three students who were Buck’s Class of 2000 colleagues, neighbors, and friends.

"Buck inspired my ministry because he let me know what a real, embodied Good News life looked like. He lived an intense kind of love so that everyone who knew him knew that God had seized him, in life and in death," said Beth Goss.

Tom Goodrich remembers Buck’s "holy urgency and humor in pain; his refusal to let theology remain abstract; his prayer, thought, action, and energy expended in the care of others. Buck selflessly embodied these things. Buck lived in a way that continues to challenge me."

And Brian Marsh wrote, "From the moment I met Buck—when, as the first person I met, he welcomed me to Princeton and helped me unload our furniture—to the last time I talked with him in the hospital—when he spent more time asking me about my life than talking about his own—Buck was a shining witness of God’s unconditional and self-sacrificing love. His physical and emotional wounds shaped his gracious and loving response to all people, friends and strangers alike. It was through the wounds he lived with day in and day out that he was able to touch others with God’s healing and life-giving love in the deep places within themselves where they hurt the most. His impact on my life has transformed me personally and will forever impact me as a husband, father, and minister—as a wounded healer in the name of Jesus Christ."

There is a banner hanging in the foyer of the Mackay Campus Center that reads: "‘It is love that is healing.’ Buck Breland 1970–1999." The first time I noticed this banner a warm, heavy feeling came over me, the kind of feeling that surprises the conscious mind with forgotten pain.

But my sadness was not pure. It was mixed with the feeling that Buck’s death could not completely take away Buck’s life. Buck’s words on that banner and his time on this earth continue to breathe life into other people’s ministries, even after his last breath. From the little boy who led his classmates around the playground to the man whose life became a sermon for everyone he met, Buck Breland gave—gives—us a peek at what ministry can be like when the truth of God’s love gives us the freedom to be passionate about God’s purposes. Thanks be to God for the life of Buck Breland.


Copyright 2000 Princeton Theological Seminary
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