Yesterday, I spoke at the Celebration of Life/Memorial Service for my mother, Lyn Burgess. What follows is the text of the eulogy I delivered.
Eulogy for Mom
by Kirsten Wilson
G.K. Chesterton said, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”
I come from a family of readers. The number of books in our homes is greater than our shelf space—and we’re okay with that. Mom was a voracious reader, and I, too, am a lover of books. But we differed in this: I read my favorite novels over and over again; she read books once.
Why read the same book multiple times, Mom reasoned, when you could explore new ones? The only book she returned to again and again was the Bible. That was the story she chose to find herself in most fully.
And so, as I reflect on Mom’s life today, I’d like to do so in the context of the biblical story that, for those of us who follow Jesus, we walk through each year at this time—the story of the passion and resurrection of Christ. And I’d like to share with you some of the story I saw God writing in Mom, right up to the end.
For the first time ever in my life, to mark the beginning of Lent this year, I decided to attend an Ash Wednesday service. I’d seen people with ashes on their foreheads, observing the day, and I knew the reasons for it. But I’d never joined with other Christians in receiving those ashes. Nor did I know that the marking of a cross on a worshiper’s forehead was called an imposition of ashes.
But the ashes, they symbolize death. And death seldom arrives conveniently. Mostly, it’s an unwelcome interruption, an undesired invasion of a person’s space or time or plans. Death, I suppose, is the ultimate imposition.
Seven weeks before Ash Wednesday, Mom had received her cancer diagnosis. And even though she was no more mortal at that point than she was before this news, I carried the truth differently then, as though someone had dipped his thumb in ashes and smeared them across the days of my calendar and through the rhythms of my conversations and into all the crevices of my heart.
In the service, I found myself filing toward the front of the sanctuary, and at last standing in front of the pastor.
“My sister,” he said, and dipped his right thumb into the container of ashes he held in his left hand.
“My sister,” he said, and applied the ashes to my forehead in the shape of a cross, all the while holding my gaze and gently speaking truth.
“My sister, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…”
I did, of course, remember that. The frailty of life had been screaming at me for weeks. Maybe it’s been screaming at you, too. The death of someone you love will do that. But there was something that happened when I walked away from the pastor to return to my seat. I saw pew after pew of people marked by the cross. This community did not take away my inner screaming, but they met it. They shared the pain of it. They acknowledged it, much as we do for one another today.
That was how Lent began for me. But from that point on, time sped up. I traveled through Lent in a topsy-turvy way, walking the journey through death and resurrection with Mom weeks before Good Friday and Easter arrived on the calendar.
During her time in the hospital and in hospice, Mom displayed a beautiful gratefulness toward each person—friend or family or medical staff—who entered her room. She was careful to thank every nurse, every tech, every doctor who cared for her. Watching this in her was my Palm Sunday. Mom placed gratefulness all round herself like palm branches, all the while looking for the appearing of her Savior.
A couple of my favorite photos of my parents are from a vacation the two of them took to Hawaii. The pictures capture them about to embark on a bicycle tour that would take them down a winding mountain road. They look like they’re preparing for a space launch, complete with flight suits and giant helmets. My parents are grinning and posing like kids, ready for a big adventure.
They didn’t tell me and Josh about the adventure until after they’d done it, which was probably smart, as we would have surely counseled them against it.
And we wouldn’t have been entirely wrong in our trepidation, either, as it turned out. Dad took a header over the handlebars toward the beginning of the ride, and Mom skidded on gravel toward the end of the ride—a spill that resulted in a hairline fracture of her leg.
Somehow, this episode came up in conversation with Josh and Mom and me one day when Mom was in hospice. Josh and I were still, so many years later, shaking our heads at the foolhardy nature of our parents’ ride.
But remembering it, Mom said, “Well, maybe I wouldn’t do it again, but…” And her face lit up at the memory, as if she were living it one more time. “The speed was so exhilarating as I flew down the mountain,” she said. “The views were breathtaking. And I couldn’t help but praise God. I was singing praise songs at the top of my lungs inside my helmet.”
That was Mom. An unexpected adventurer, with a quiet love for speed, and an eye that noticed the amazingness around her and thanked God for it.
Sometimes, as on the bike tour, she praised God for the beauty of nature. But mostly, I saw her praising God for the beauty she saw in the people she loved. I think Josh and I would both say that in losing Mom, we lost our biggest fan. Our spouses and our kids and Dad—they all feel that loss, too. Just last summer, she flew out to Colorado to cheer me on and to participate in a retreat I was leading. She and Dad flew out to watch our kids compete in marching band competitions. When Dad was performing in a play, Mom was in the audience—if not every night, pretty close.
Mom had the habit of noticing the gifts and abilities of all of us in her life—and letting us know how amazed she was by what she saw. If you didn’t get the chance to talk with her during her last days, I can probably guess some of what Mom would have said to you. She likely would have told you how amazing you are, told you that she loved you, and thanked you for the role you played in her life.
If Mom’s gratefulness was my Palm Sunday, then the steadfast way in which Mom moved toward her death was my Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Mom lived by her task lists, and gained pleasure from checking completed items off her list. And her last list was full of the most important events. The evening Mom decided to stop treatment, she asked the family to gather around her hospital bed to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” together. And so we did: Dad, Josh and Amy and Thomas and Grace, my aunt Nancy, and me—and we even FaceTimed my husband, Steve, and our kids, Daniel and Katie, into the circle, so that they could be part of it, too.
A couple days later, Mom asked that we celebrate communion together. Pastor Cody came and reminded us of the environment in the upper room the night of the Last Supper. Passover was a feast looked forward to with excitement and joy—a time that the whole family would gather together. A celebration. But on that occasion, when Jesus gathered with his disciples, there was also confusion and grief.
And yes, we felt all those things, too, as we celebrated our own Last Supper, knowing we would not drink that cup together again until He comes.
I don’t know where you find yourself in the story of the passion and resurrection today. Me, if I had to place myself in the story right now—I’m probably smack in the middle of Holy Saturday. The death has happened, but the stone has not yet been rolled away. I’m mostly quiet and contemplative and watchful. In random moments angry or confused or sad. Mom has always been a steady and faithful presence in my life, and without her, I’m a bit unmoored.
Right now, I miss the teacher I have lived with and loved and followed.
Mom taught me to read and to write when I was two years old, because I wanted to learn long before I would start school.
Mom taught me to stand on my head when I was five—by demonstration.
When I was grown, Mom taught me that the best conversations cause you to miss your exit on the freeway by miles. Time after time. No matter which one of us was driving.
Mom taught me how to shop at Kohl’s, milking the system for all it’s worth. She would love the fact that I bought this bracelet when it was 40% off, and then paid for it using an extra 20% off coupon and my Kohl’s cash.
Mom taught me to be a lifelong learner. When I was an undergrad, she went back to school to get her MBA. When a job she held required knowledge she didn’t, she learned what she needed to learn, and then quietly proceeded to excel at her new skills. Even while she was in hospice, some of our conversations centered around what God was teaching her. She was a learner right to the end.
For many years, though Mom and I each had our own careers, she as a non-profit executive, me as a writer and speaker and church staffer, we both also had husbands who were pastors. And it was good for my soul to share with her that very specific niche of joy and pain. Some days, we celebrated each other’s victories. And other days we talked and prayed each other off the ledge of bitterness or self-righteousness or the desire to plunge into the fray and defend our husbands. Many times, her wisdom steadied me and kept me sane.
Mom taught me that a quiet and steady faith can hold as much power— sometimes more—than the loud and flashy sort. Which I needed to learn, because, like a moth, I had a natural tendency to fly toward fire.
I don’t want to make Mom out as perfect, as a Jesus figure. She would be the first to tell you that her life had all kinds of cracks. But she was, up till the very end, more and more conformed to the image of the Savior she loved. And so I think it’s fair to say that in her last days, she reminded me more and more of Jesus. And I celebrate that.
Any story of Lent must, of course, end with Easter and the empty tomb. But I’m afraid Mom beat me to resurrection this year. Her story skips ahead of mine.
And her story ends well.
I’ve read through The Chronicles of Narnia every couple years or so, since I was a kid. And though Mom would shake her head at how often I’ve returned to those books, I think she’d love the way C. S. Lewis ends the story of Narnia, describing heaven in a way that would appeal to any lover of books.
Lewis writes: “…for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Mom’s story ends well—and it doesn’t end at all.
Notes: G.K. Chesterton quotation from Orthodoxy, 1908. C.S. Lewis quotation from The Last Battle, 1956.
When the world feels incomprehensible and dark and heavy—and really, hasn’t it felt that way for days and weeks and long, long seasons now?—I sometimes turn to the biblical books of the prophets. The prophets lived in an incomprehensible world, too, and their laments and rants and stubborn hope wrap words around my own emotions when I can’t.
Today, I landed in the book of Ezekiel, chapter 37, and I read it in a volume from The Saint John’s Bible (2007), which is a modern illuminated manuscript. (Not every page contains illuminations like this, but many do, and they are glorious.) The bottom of these pages shows the devastation that we see all around us. It’s stark, and it’s fearsome, and it’s piled so very high. The top of the pages shows light and life and color and beauty—it’s what we long to see. And the gap between the two, the darkness and the light, the gap is so large, and all the bridges from one to the other look broken.
But look more closely. Hidden among the piles of dry bones are sparks of light, faint glimpses of color. I am reminded once again that there is a God who has been known to breathe impossible life into moments of consuming death. And I pray that he’ll do it again.
“The hand of the LORD came upon me,
and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD
and set me down in the middle of a valley;
it was full of bones.
He led me all around them;
there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’
I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.'”
–Ezekiel 37:1-3 (NRSV)
One-Day Spiritual Workshop/Retreat
DATE: July 30 (Click to register.)
TIME: 9:00a.m. – 4:00p.m. (Check-in begins at 8:30)
PLACE: Bell Flatirons Community Center, 2200 S. Tyler Drive, Superior, CO
SPEAKER: Kirsten Wilson
For more information and to reserve your spot, go to: By a Thread – July 30
This summer, you vacationed with your family. You hung out with your friends. Now it’s time to plan a getaway with God.
Bible teacher Kirsten Wilson will walk with you through a process that will help you connect with God and listen to the story he’s telling in your life. At one level, every Christian has the same story: Jesus saved me by his work on the cross. But at another level, each believer has a unique and specific and ongoing story of rescue, creatively written by Jesus himself.
Come find your story.
What the day can give you:
- Less shame about your past
- More hope for your future
- Stronger experience of connection with God
- Excitement about who God made you to be
- Greater curiosity about the Bible
- Better questions to ask God when you have no idea what he’s doing
- Deeper understanding of your own story—and the ability to share it with others
What People Say about By a Thread / Kirsten Wilson
“This process helped a bunch of light bulbs go off about myself and my story.” —Lesley, Texas
“You were a breath of fresh air that slapped me in my face with what I needed to hear to apply the biblical story to my life.” —Valarie, Texas
“Prepare to be drawn into an encounter with God. Kirsten Wilson has the amazing capacity to penetrate the soul with creativity, transparency, and clarity. You can’t walk away from her teaching without feeling the impact of it for days.” —Roy, Nevada
What should I bring?
Bring your curiosity, imagination, and a willingness to engage. This is a workshop, after all. There will be teaching, but you’ll also have the opportunity to work through some steps for yourself.
We’ll provide materials for you to write on, and pens. But bring your Bible. You’ll want it at various points throughout the day.
How many people will be there?
We’re purposefully capping attendance at 40. This smaller size will make it easier for you to connect with the others in the room. And you’ll be better able to get your questions answered during the day.
[Note: The day will work best (and be more fun) with a certain level of energy in the room. We believe this is best achieved with at least 25 in attendance. If, for some reason, less than 25 people have signed up seven days before a workshop date, we will cancel that particular event, and offer you either a refund or the opportunity to transfer your ticket to a later workshop date.]
Will there be snacks?
Absolutely! We’re firm believers in the “snacks help us learn better” philosophy of life. There will be a variety of snacks and beverages available throughout the day for your grazing pleasure.
Is lunch provided?
Lunch is not provided, but there are many restaurants within a few minutes of the venue. We’ll give you a list of tasty options before we break for lunch. It’ll be good for your mind and body to get off site for a while—and it’s a great opportunity to hang out with a few of the awesome people you’ll meet at the event.
If you want to pack and bring your own lunch, we do have a refrigerator available to store it in.
What are the facilities like?
We’ll meet in the Bell Flatirons Community Center in Superior, CO. Our meeting room has comfortable, theater-style seating.
Can children attend?
The presentation is designed for adults. If you have a high school student who wants to attend, contact Kirsten at email@example.com to ask about whether the day would be a good fit for your student.
Who is Kirsten Wilson?
Kirsten is a teacher, writer, and speaker. She teaches Oral Communication and English Composition (and sometimes Worldviews and now and then C.S. Lewis) as adjunct faculty at Colorado Christian University. Before moving to Colorado in 2008, Kirsten was on staff as a Teaching Artist at LifePoint Church in northern Nevada.
Kirsten’s undergraduate degree combined studies in English, Spanish, Classical Greek, and Linguistics. She went on to earn a Master of Divinity degree with an emphasis in Teaching and Exposition.
Kirsten met her husband, Steve, in the fine arts dorm of their university when Steve valiantly attempted to save the life of her dying pet betta fish. The fish, sadly, did not survive, but the friendship did. Kirsten and Steve married four years later, and have two children, Daniel and Katie.
When left to her own devices, you’re likely to find Kirsten curled up with a good book and a handful of Oreo cookies, cutting up magazines to create a collage, or writing poetry in the corner booth of our local Chick-fil-A.
Are there any discounts available?
Glad you asked. Yes, there two::
EARLYBIRD DISCOUNT: Register by July 16, and receive $5 off the price of your ticket.
CHURCH STAFF DISCOUNT: If you’re on staff at a church, take $10 off the price of your ticket.
What is your refund policy?
We’ll refund your money if you cancel up to eight days before the event. Within a week of the event, we are unable to grant a refund, although you’re welcome to transfer your ticket to a friend who’d like to attend.
What if I have more questions?
I’d be glad to answer them. Email Kirsten at firstname.lastname@example.org
by kirsten wilson
any labored woman knows
the breaking forth of life
wounds torn and stretched
into our frame
sting and strain and cord and knife
we mothers still
mere years beyond
our own umbilical
birth life from
what then of resurrection
life from death
sudden energy and pulse
cracking a path
through hardened flesh
and flaming heat
through limbic sludge
and darkest inner parts
to solder leaden veins
to silent heart
what cosmic cries
tore through crucified frame
through morning sky
before emmaus roads
and empty tomb
and neatly folded clothes
when life broke forth
from death’s unlikely womb
Above my desk hangs an art print I bought a couple years ago. It’s an artist’s reflection on the biblical story in which Jacob wrestles with God (Genesis 32).
The background brushstrokes evoke a darkness come suddenly alive with struggle. Black merges with purples and blues. Brushstrokes moving too quickly to stop at a defined edge violate the boundaries of the scene.
Jacob is depicted in rough cerulean blue strokes, more frantic shadow than solid form. He’s fighting for his life, fighting with a God he knows and hardly begins to know. From the epicenter of the wrestling match, fragments of butterfly wing tear through the sky like shrapnel, shrieking the painful hymn of transformation.
In the lower right, the artist has inscribed Jacob’s name with black ink in Hebrew characters. Over to the left, just above the heads of the wrestling figures, he has penned the name Israel in gold. These Hebrew characters are smaller than the previous ones, still distant—still more potential than actual. But they contain a light that demands the viewer’s attention.
This new name, this new identity, this new life is what is at stake here in the darkness.
The stakes are high for me, too, just as they were for Jacob, just as they were for all the other God-wrestlers in the Bible.
God has been wrestling with mankind for millennia. But He takes us on one by one, with vast and impressive skills. The best wrestlers vary their approach based on their opponent. And make no mistake, God is the best of the best…
Read the rest over at the Flatirons Women’s Community, where I’m blogging today: Wrestling
I never know when he’ll show up, and he likes it that way. He likes to catch me off guard. He stalks me, I think, watches for any weakness, any pain, any circumstance that might confuse me enough to mistake his darkness for light. And that’s when he barges in, with his cynical smirk and greedy eyes.
He’s a thief, you know, and a trickster. He disguises himself as an angel of light, but wields the power of darkness. Satan, the Bible calls him. The serpent. The enemy. The devil.
On this particular evening, he shows up in the back seat of my car. I’m on my way to church, for crying out loud, but the devil’s a brash one, and he thinks he’s got me this time…