Eulogy for a Syrophoenician Woman

[Given at First Reformed Church, Spring Lake, MI, January 12, 2018]

Good morning. My name is Holly Teitsma.

I am here with and representing my step-son Austin Teitsma, grandson to Dena, and my husband, Jack Teitsma, Dena’s son. Dena, therefore, was my mother-in-law. She was my first and only mother-in-law, even though I was not her first and only daughter-in-law. But she accepted me as if I was.

What I’d like to share with you today about Dena, my mother-in-law, would best be shared while considering the Syrophoenician woman whom we learn about in the Gospel of our Brother Mark, Chapter 7.

Now, there are many of you here who might be familiar with the story of the Syrophoenician woman as a story about a helpless, poor woman who had nothing left to lose other than the well-being of her child who was possessed by an unclean spirit. A woman who nonetheless wormed her way into Jesus’s hiding place, threw herself at his feet, and asked him to heal her child. We know her by Jesus’s quizzically harsh response to her, telling her the children, the Jews, must be fed first…that it wasn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.

But I’d also like you to consider how other people groups outside of West Michigan, people who are oppressed by a wealthy power class, how they see her. Their interpretation of the Greek Syrophoenician woman is supported by cultural evidence and translation clues that would have us understand the Syrophoenician woman to be one of those elites, one of those with power. She was not, in this view, a helpless waif but a woman of means, means that nonetheless were not enough to heal her beloved child. It is to this woman Jesus says that with him and the realm he brings, the powerful dogs aren’t going to get his bread first, insistent as they may be. But it is this woman who, unfazed, volleys back at him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

However you understand the Syrophoenician woman, though, each interpretation of her had the critical point of the story in common with Austin’s grandma, with Jack’s mom, and my mother-in-law. Like these women, Dena Teitsma knew, whether in poverty or with means, exactly who she was to this Christ Jesus, and she knew and lived into the integrity, conviction, and courage which came with such a knowledge.

Like the Syrophoenician woman, Dena had opinions. I doubt I need to tell any of you that. She had her views and she had her opinions. But when she had something really important to say to you, something hard and important, she said it this way…She’d say, “I am going to say this to you once and I’m never going to say it again,…” And whatever it was, she wouldn’t say it again. I suspect she never really had to.

For example, when my husband, Jack, first told his mother about me, he noted to her that I was a very new Christian. He let her know I had not grown up in the church but at 34 had very suddenly and unexpectedly found myself a believer, thrown at the feet of Jesus. It was this fact that later prompted one of her “I’m going to say this to you once…” statements.

“Jack,” she said, “I’m going to say this to you once, and I’m never going to say it again,”

“…Don’t ruin her.”


…Don’t…ruin her….

Dena didn’t like for things…or people…to be ruined.

And I promise you, Mom, he did not.

With the same hutzpah of the Syrophoenician woman, Dena fiercely loved her family, her grandchildren in particular. It emanated from her. In fact, just yesterday, in one of those moments that are unique to fresh grief, I expected to walk off the plane and see Dena greet her grandson, Austin, when we all landed in Grand Rapids. It was always a sight to see—a perfectly coifed, white-haired octogenarian turn into a giddy little schoolgirl whenever she laid eyes on her 290-odd pound grandson. Her eyes would twinkle and she’d coyly wait for her big Austin bear hug. When Austin played football for Illinois, she would hungrily grab up his free tickets each season like those bread crumbs from the table.

She was proud of you, Austin, and rightly so.

Yes, Dena fiercely loved her grandchildren and her family. In fact, one of the greatest gifts Dena gave to me was a Christian, covenant family. She and Dad Teitsma were open with their faith and it was woven into their daily lives, into the life of the family, which was a new experience for me, one I treasure. She did not have to welcome me into this family, but she did. She welcomed me and nurtured my faith. She was supportive of my time in seminary and frequently sent me clippings from reformed publishings or articles about Western Theological Seminary…

….But it’s time for me to wrap up…

So, Mom, I’m going to say this once and I’m never going to say it again:

“Go on home, Dena, the unclean spirit has already left your daughters, your sons, your granddaughters, and grandson…Rest in peace.”

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