It is with gratitude and honor that I stand before you today to share a word of hope and good news for all of us who loved Kaye Birkhead.
For how wonderful is it to be able to speak words marking the end of one’s life that are evidence that one truly fulfilled their human vocation, their very purpose for which they created.
In the first story of creation, we read about this purpose. It is the purpose of every human being. It’s the first commandment of God to humankind:
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28)
And how do we do that? How do we become the people God has created us to be?
It is in the second creation story, that we read where God places the human in the garden, because to fulfill our purpose, we humans have to eat.
We are all going to have an opportunity to do this essential, primal thing together in just a few minutes, as we are all invited to gather in Disciples Hall, or what might be called, our church’s garden, to share a simple meal of Pintos and Cornbread, one of Kaye’s favorite dishes that her grandmother used to serve.
A side note here. I have sometimes been criticized for the funerals that I preach for making the person being remembered out to be a saint. Well, let me go ahead and state right here that Kaye was not perfect. Nope, as good as we think she was, she was a human being. For when Kaye’s mother would serve a meal that Kaye didn’t like when she was a little girl, I am told that Kaye would get under the table and cry until one of her uncles would go over to her grandmother’s house and come back with a bowl of beans and some left-over biscuits from breakfast.
Her grandmother’s food would comfort Kaye. It would dry her tears, and feed her heart.
Perhaps that is why Kaye loved coordinating countless meals, making certain everything was prepared just right, to comfort grieving families after the funeral or memorial services. Maybe she wanted to do what she could do to dry their tears and feed their hearts.
Back to the creation story:
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human should be alone (Gen 2:18)
The very first thing that God said was not good in the creation was loneliness, so God created a partner for the human which made him exclaim: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” “At last, someone who gets me, understands me, and loves me.
To fulfill our purpose as human beings, the story of creation is explicit: we need one another. We need to understand the sanctity and the holiness and the grace that is in all human relationships.
It was very difficult visiting Kaye during these last couple of weeks of her life in palliative care, but what made it a little easier was knowing that Kaye was never alone. Kaye spent her last days on earth as she did all of her days, surrounded by her family and her friends, those with whom she shared a sacred relationship, those who got her, understood her, loved her, those who could relate to her so genuinely they affectionately called her “Muffin.” I never saw her in the hospital when Bruce, Todd, Zena, grandchildren, or others were not there with her. There is no doubt thate love that you share as a family is from God and of God.
Right before God creates a companion for the human, something else happens in this creation story that we can sometimes miss.
So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the human to see what the human would call them; and whatever the human called each living creature, that was its name. The human gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field (Gen 2:19-20).
After eating, the very first thing the human did in order fulfill their purpose on the earth was to name the mystery and majesty of God’s creation. To be the person God was calling them to be, the first thing the human needed to do was to name God’s world.
Do you know what we call that? In a recent sermon, I heard the Rev. Charles Johnson from Texas say, “We call that ‘education.’”[i]
The naming of God’s world, naming its beauty and its mystery, naming its diversity and its majesty: this is education.
In order to fulfill the first commandment of God to humankind, in order to be fruitful and replenish the earth, before we can be the person God has created us to be, we first need education. We need to name the creation.
Valuing every child and every child’s passion, and believing that every child, not just those who can afford it, has a God-given, inalienable right fulfill their purpose, to live out the full potential of who God created them to be, Kaye began a career in public education in 1957, a career she would love until her retirement in 2000.
But because Kaye truly yearned for all children to fulfill their God-given purpose, no matter their circumstance in life, she came right out of retirement to work for the Fort Smith Adult Education Center. She loved this work.
I believe Kaye appreciated the words of our second President John Adams who said in 1785: “Let there be not one square mile in this land without a school in it.” With our forbearers, Kaye believed in equitable public education for all, and all means all. And that this was the way to build a great nation.
And I believe Kaye would want her new pastor to emphasize today that equal access to quality public education is not only one of the highest ideals of our country, it is the high, God-ordained, holy work, spelled out on the first pages of our Bible—Learning, studying, discovering, and naming the creation, is the first thing human beings were called to do.
But God’s creation is so wonderfully diverse, so mysteriously majestic, sometimes naming it with mere words simply will not do.
To name the mystery of this miracle we call life, sometimes we need to appeal to the arts. I believe this is why art, sewing, cooking, floristry, the theater, dramatic and musical expressions of life, were so important in Kaye’s life and will always be important in the life of her family.
Likewise, the gospel of Christ, the good news of God’s love and grace, is so extravagantly expansive, so radically revolutionary, naming it with mere words simply will not do.
This is why I believe Kaye will always be known in this city, as not only an educator, but also as a selfless servant. Kaye served her community through public education, her church, her PEO, the Fort Smith Little Theater, teaching through her service the good news of the Christ who came as a sacrificial servant for all.
I believe Kaye’s servitude indicates that the greatest thing that this educator ever learned in life was knowing who she was in the creation. For this, I believe, is the greatest education any of us can receive: Knowing who we are before God in God’s world.
This sacred, intimate and personal knowledge that God’s love enveloped her, God’s grace covered her, God’s presence surrounded her, is the only way I can explain Kaye’s miraculous disposition during these last difficult days. Kaye knew that the one who had always been so gracious to her in life was not going to let her down in death. As a parent herself, she knew that her heavenly parent was going to take care of her the same way she took care of her children, and so many of God’s children.
Therefore, in her final days, there was really nothing final about them. Kaye was miraculously more whole, more alive, more aware, and more hopeful, than the healthiest person any of us know. Even when she no longer possessed the strength to open her eyes, she still mustered the strength to smile and sometimes laugh, for as Kaye always taught us, “laughing makes everything better.”
I marveled how she continued to stay so engaged with the world, so interested in what was going on around her, always asking questions, asking me how I was doing and how things at the church were going. It amazed me how she continued to watch Jeopardy every weekday afternoon.
Maybe it was because Kaye wanted to keep learning. Even at the end of her life, she wanted to keep growing, keep discovering, keep expanding her mind, keep naming God’s beautiful world. Because she believed that God through life itself, always had something to teach her.
The problem with many people we know is that they have life all figured out. They have all of the answers. There is no room for growth and change. Their minds are made up and closed. There is no mystery. And when we think about it, these are the people we usually don’t like being around. They are nothing like Kaye.
Kaye taught us to never stop learning, to never close our minds. As long as we are awake in this world, we should never cease listening to what God has to teach us.
And the good news for all of us who loved Kaye Birkhead is that by the power of the resurrection, God is still using Kaye to teach us. From eternity, this great educator will instruct us for the rest of our lives to keep learning, to keep our minds and our hearts wide-open, to keep growing, to keep discovering, to keep changing.
Continue to learn to know who we are in God’s creation before our Creator. Learn to know how loved we are. Touch, taste and inhale the grace that is in it all. And then, learn to know how we are uniquely called to share this love and grace with others.
Therefore, perhaps the best way you can remember Kaye, thank God for Kaye, celebrate Kaye, is to read a book, visit the library, take a class, go to a play, attend a musical, stop and absorb the beauty of a flower, hold a baby, cook a meal for a loved one, love, laugh, share.
Soak in as much of life as you can. Never stop naming God’s creation. Continue to allow God to teach you how much God loves us—how deeply, how graciously, how eternally.
And then, with the knowledge of God’s expansive and everlasting love, reach out and read to a child. Tutor a student. Get your business to offer an internship. Ask your church to adopt a school. Pray for a teacher. Join a PTA. Donate school supplies. Fill a backpack.
And I believe that Kaye would always want us to remember that this is not only what she would want from us, but according to the first two stories of our Bible, this is what our Creator wants from all of us if we are to be the people God has created us to be.
[i] Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, the keynote speech at the first Pastors for Oklahoma Kids meeting, January 24, 2017, First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
In Memory of Saundra Kaye Birkhead
January 3, 1939 – October 11, 2017
Saundra “Kaye” Birkhead passed into the age of the eternal on October 11, 2017. She was born to Oza Butler Albert and Jack Albert on January 3, 1939 in White County, Arkansas. She and her brother, Jack Albert, grew up a part of a robust extended farming and mercantile family of which she was very proud. She earned a degree from then Arkansas State Teachers College, now UCA, and began teaching on an emergency teaching license in 1957. She married Bruce Birkhead in 1962 and together they raised two children, Zena Marshall and Todd Birkhead, in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Kaye was a charter member of the Carnall Elementary School teaching staff and after a brief time away from education, taught at Orr Elementary School until her retirement in 2000. Rather than “retire” however she went to work for the Fort Smith Adult Education Center where she became the Chief GED Examiner. She was dedicated to each of her many students through the years and instilled in them, and her own children and grandchildren, a love for learning. In addition to her teaching career, she volunteered at the Fort Smith Little Theater for many years and helped many directors costume shows including “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and the “Sanders Family” shows.
She is preceded in death by her mother and father; and son, Brett; her dear friend and sister-in-law, Barbara Arndt. She is survived by Bruce; her brother, Jack and his wife, Diane Albert; son, Todd and wife April Birkhead; daughter, Zena and husband Dan Marshall; her grandchildren, Katy and Grace Featherston, Claire Birkhead, Alex and Mitt Marshall and their families, Eleanor and Larry Underwood, Richard Arndt, nieces, nephews, and her cousins, along with many friends at First Christian Church (DOC) and PEO, Chapter AD, Fort Smith Adult Education Center, and The Fort Smith Little Theater.
Graveside services will be held at Mt. Salem Cemetery in Logan County at 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 14, 2017 under the direction of Edwards Funeral Home.
A memorial service will be held Saturday at 5 p.m. at First Christian Church (DOC), 3501 Rogers Avenue in Fort Smith.
Memorial contributions can be made for books for children who attend the Fort Smith Adult Education Childcare Center or First Christian Church, Fort Smith.