Saturday, July 23, 2011


After a nearly 6 month battle with pancreatic cancer, my mother, Irene Gibson, passed away on July 19, 2011. This is what I read at her funeral:

There aren't many 38 year old men who would stand up in public and say that their mom is one of their best friends. Yet I stand here today and say that without a doubt, my mom has always been one of the most important people in my life and among my best friends. The relationship that we have shared together is unique and special and it's the same relationship that I wish for my boys to have with their mother.

I think that my mom always secretly wished that she had at least had one little girl. It was just my brother and me, I don't think she ever wanted anymore than us two. God knows that we were probably more than enough for her to have to deal with as well. In some ways, I guess I became the daughter that she never had as we formed a relationship between mother and son that probably better resembled the relationship that some mothers have with their daughters.

Whenever something significant happened in my life, whether it was good or bad, exciting or depressing, there were always two people that I would call: my wife and my mother. My mom always listened, interjecting where she felt necessary. She shared in my joy or in my sorrow. When I would shed tears, so would she. When I would laugh, so would she. I always knew that whenever I made a phone call to her, she would join me and come alongside me, wherever I was. My love of the Psalms, reliance on prayer, and knowledge of Scripture are a result of my Mom's fervent prayer and instruction.

I always knew what silence on the other end of the phone meant as well. Our family has always been honest with each other, no exceptions. My mom learned this from her family and it's a trait that all of my aunts and uncles share. Honesty has been our best policy, speaking truth to each other, regardless of how difficult it is, has always helped our family survive. When my mom didn't agree with something that I said, I would know pretty quickly that was the case.

My mom grew up with a stern father and a mother who was a rock, sweet and loving, but resilient. My uncle was a marine, another uncle a pastor. My mom's two sisters, one older and one younger, also learned the strength and resiliency that my mom learned. Her sister, Marge, learned resiliency through life experience in the loss of her first husband. My grandfather, after being abusive with his wife and children, finally gave his life to Christ and became a different person, enjoyable and fun.

Mom has been the epitome of servanthood and unconditional love to me, my brother, my dad, and our family. She has always sacrificed herself for whatever would be best for her husband and sons. She might not have always been happy about it, but it never really showed. She would silently forge on, continuing to love and serve in the way that Christ instructed us to love and serve, with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength.

Wherever she went, whatever she did, Mom exuded the love of Christ. She worked in the Darien Public School system for over 20 years as a teacher's aide. All of the teachers that she worked with were thrilled to have her as their aide. She went above and beyond what they expected and was always an incredible encouragement and support to them. I would hear of many of them whenever we talked on the phone, hearing about the things that were happening in their lives and the ways that my mom was praying for them, in hopes that they too would know the life-changing love of Jesus Christ. In fact, one of the last people to see Mom alive was a teacher that she had worked with in Darien who had just had a baby last month. Mom had been praying for both mother and child and was so excited for this baby's arrival.

In November of 2010, my parents left Calvary Baptist Church in Darien, CT after serving there for more than 36 years. They left a sense of security and familiarity to step out into the unknown. They moved down to Williamsburg, VA to be close to my mom's sister, Audrey, and brother-in-law, Roy, as well as me, my wife, and their grandsons. Life changed dramatically on January 31, 2011 when my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

In the six months that followed, we journeyed through cancer's roller coaster ride, the ups and downs of hope and dread. As we waited on God to direct us in next steps, it still seemed that Mom was willing to pursue whatever everybody else might have wanted her to pursue. Every step we took, Mom would walk in resiliency and faith. While she expressed her fears now and then, we also shared together the hope in Jesus Christ that believers share together. Mom's body had been breaking down for years, she always looked forward to the day when all things would be made new again.

Mom's desire throughout her journey through cancer was that she not be a "wimp." Just like her Marine brother who battled cancer before her, she wouldn't let it get the best of her, and if it did, she wouldn't let anyone but those close to her see. When she was a little girl, whenever she would get hit with the belt, she would defiantly tell her parents, "That didn't hurt" and would stand strong, willing herself to not cry. She faced this cancer with the same defiance. In fact, the night before she went into the hospital for the last time, although she was tired and not feeling good, she went to her sister and brother-in-law's to celebrate their anniversary, followed by a big bowl of frozen yogurt over at Sweet FROG's in New Town.

But Mom's resilience was not something that came simply from within herself. Her reliance was on Christ Jesus, the One who had suffered and died for the redemption of the world. As I spent hours with her in her last days, I looked on her nightstand to find this prayer, based on Isaiah 61, written out in her own hand:

Lord, anoint me with the oil of gladness instead of mourning, bestow on me a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. May I be a planting of the Lord for the display of Your splendor.

Mom was truly what she had prayed, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor. I am reminded of Jesus' words in the Gospel of John, "Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." The seed of my mother has died, but what remains is in the life that was planted in others and the example of faith that she shared with all those around her. She was truly one who gave her life for others as an example of Jesus Christ and she is now experiencing eternal life with him.

In some ways, my mom's wish to have a girl was fulfilled when my brother and I got married. She was always thrilled to have two daughters-in-love, as she would call them, who have supported, encouraged, and loved her sons. Mom welcomed both Karen and Carrie into her family the way that she would welcome two daughters of her own. A few weeks before my mom was diagnosed with cancer, my wife, Carrie, and I found out that we were expecting a third child. Already having two boys, we decided to not let this baby be a surprise, in the off chance that it actually might be a girl. Sure enough, the ultrasound confirmed that it's a girl.

Mom had a bucket list of things that she would be able to experience. One of those was to see her first granddaughter and hold her. The girl that she had longed for would finally come through her son. When this little girl finally arrives, she will be named Chloe Irene Joy Gibson, in honor of her grandmother. Carrie and I pray that she might grow up in the legacy that her grandmother left, loving and serving Jesus, her family, and everyone that she comes into contact with.

One of the other things Mom wanted to see was me finally graduate from seminary with my Master's of Divinity degree. She knew how hard I had been working and always told me how proud of me she was. I laughed at the fact that my preaching magically improved in her eyes as soon as I entered seminary. Whenever I would call her and update her on my grades and progress, she would always say, "I don't know how you do it." I have always been able to do it because of the example that she set for me, never relying completely on myself, but relying on the strength that I am given from the One who saves me.

Not only did Mom have a list of things that she wanted to experience herself but she had a list of things that she wanted others to do as well, particularly me and my brother. My wife and I recently celebrated 10 years of marriage and from the day that we were married until a week ago, I grew my hair long. Having already had to endure long hair with my brother, my mom was none too happy about me growing my hair. So every chance that she got to ask me when I was cutting my hair, she would do it.

This past Saturday, after I left my house in Mechanicsville, I went right to the hair salon and told them to cut it all off. I wanted Mom to see her little boy with the haircut that she had been wanting him to have before she passed from this life.

For my brother it was different. Mom was a fervent prayer warrior and she prayed for years and years that my brother would return to the faith that had been instilled in him early in his life. Although others might have given up on him, Mom prayed continuously. She would often quote 3 John 1:4 to me, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth." Her greatest desire was that she would be united with her children when we all stand before Jesus, face to face. Thankfully, Mom was able to see this and experience this in the last months that she had even before she was diagnosed. As usual, Mom's persistence had the last word.

For my dad, she wanted him to be okay and to make it. He's had a rough time since he retired in November, dealing with more life transitions and change than someone half his age could deal with. In the last week, my father has stepped up to the plate and risen to the occasion in the midst of adversity. As difficult as it has been, he's held himself high and done what he needed to do for Mom. I am proud of him, Steve is proud of him, and I am sure Mom would have been proud of him too.

I have a frame on my desk that my mom made for me. She wrote out Luke 1:14, "He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth." She would quote that verse to me often, especially after I became a pastor. She always wanted me to know how proud she was of me. Mom has left a legacy in her husband, her children, her grandchildren, and every single person whose life she has touched.

2 Timothy 4:6-8 says, " 6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." These words of Paul, that he spoke to Timothy as his life came to an end are the same words that I encouraged Mom with as she neared the end of her life. Mom taught us how to live, love, and laugh, but she also taught us how to die. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will be for her a crown of righteousness. She has fought the good fight, she has finished the race, she has kept the faith. Her legacy will live on and I know we will meet again, in a place where cancer can no longer ravage the body, where tears are wiped away, and where we will worship Jesus, the One who gave himself up for us, forever. I love you, Mom.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wake Up

2011 has probably been my least favorite year so far. My family and I have been wading through all kinds of stuff since the calendar turned to 2011. My mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and her health has continued to deteriorate. My dad's health has not been great either. All of this in the twilight of retirement for them. Not exactly what anyone was hoping and expecting for them, unfortunately.

My wife and I celebrated 10 years of marriage together, which I considered to be a pretty big milestone. It's not a milestone because I'm surprised. God knows that we are far from perfect, but over the past few months, we have seen a number of marriages that are either ending or in serious turmoil. Our hearts have been broken over this, especially as they have been close friends.

Ironically, while we were in Connecticut for Christmas and New Year's, our church kicked off the New Year with a series called "Wake Up. Pay Attention. Tell About It." The sermon that we missed was "Wake Up," but the thing is, that's been the message that I have been getting all year long. Wake up!

I have seen the frailty of life and in the midst of that, all of us have a choice, face it or run away. I have seen some respond to it by running away, attempting to recapture their youth, turning their back on God and hoping to assuage their conscience with hedonistic pleasures. I have seen others fall into an abyss of depression, wallowing in the brevity of life, unable to move past the stark realization that life will end. I have done my best to approach this realization with balance.

I'm not advocating a pursuit of all things carnal, but I am advocating a pursuit of what God has offered us through Christ: an abundant life. Despite what some might say, I don't see that as meaning that I get everything I want. I don't believe that it means that I win the lottery and I have no financial worries and that nothing bad ever happens to me. I do believe that it means that even in the midst of trials and difficulty, I experience a Shalom, a peace that passes understanding. It's a peace that is not achieved through anything natural or artificial, but supernatural, through the Holy Spirit.

I am reminded of what Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

All of us are given a choice and an opportunity: to live life to the fullest or to simply get by. Every day, I get up in the morning and see 3 (soon to be 4) good reasons to get out of bed. I might not feel like living to the fullest, I might like to crawl up in a hole, I might like to fly away, but what I do, whether I like it or not, has a serious impact on those around me. I cannot simply and selfishly cut ties to responsibility and think that it won't be detrimental to anyone else but me.

The other day, I took my 4 year old to play disc golf on the course at our church. We had a great time and in the midst of the July heat and humidity of Richmond, Virginia, we were soaked with sweat by the time that we finished. But we had a blast. I saw new life in my son. I saw him invigorated from the son who often follows the bad habits of his father, wasting time in front of the computer, the TV, or the Wii. He is a "mini me," and if I fail to model for him this manner of living life to the fullest, my legacy will carry on and it will not be a legacy that I will be proud of.

Life is frail. None of us can be 100% sure of what we might expect. In the briefest of moments, our lives can take dramatic turns, for the better or the worse. I have experienced this, both first and secondhand. It has been a wake-up call for me.

I am also reminded of Paul's words to Timothy, his mentor and "son" in the faith. As he was coming to the end of his life, he wrote, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

Some of us our achievers, we want to do everything well and perfectly. Maybe I've got more of Bart Simpson in me than I would like to admit, or even George and Marty McFly. Maybe I'm a slacker and underachiever, but I know that sometimes, just getting by is all that I can do. That's not what I strive for, but sometimes, that's the best that I can muster up. Forward motion. One foot in front of the other, step by step, inch by inch.

Today is a new day, full of new opportunities. Regardless of how badly I may have lived yesterday, how many mistakes that I made, bad habits that I fostered, I have a second chance today. I don't simply ignore the mistakes of the past, I use them as momentum to push off today. God's mercies are new every morning, He gives me new chances to make a difference, to live life to the fullest. All of us are given those same opportunities, we make the most of what we have or we simply get by.

Whether my life ends tomorrow or 50 years from now, I want to look back and say, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." As melancholic and introspective as this might all be, it is not meant to bring down but to boost up, to encourage us all to do the same, face new opportunities, good or bad, with a newfound faith that we will move past them. We may not come through them all with flying colors, but sometimes, just getting by is all that we can muster up.

I am awake. I am paying attention. I have told about it. My hope and prayer is that I might continue to live, seeing the opportunities in front of me and doing my best to seize them as they come. I can't do this by myself and my strength, but only through the strength that God gives me and through the help and support of the community of faith that surrounds me. May God grant us all this same strength to live, awake, attentive, and vocal!