On this Mother’s Day some 50 years ago, the Rev. Leighton B. McKeithen Jr. was at his best before a Highland Presbyterian Church congregation that filled the sanctuary to the balcony.
When it came to the Bible, McKeithen was a scholar. He could recite scripture like none other. His sermons could be a touch lengthy, and his prayers all the more. But McKeithen was deep and heartfelt in his faith. And when he had God’s ear on a given Sunday morning, McKeithen took every second in conversation with his Lord and savior on behalf of us.
“Mama, is Leighton ever going to end?’’ I would whisper to Mama, and Mama would give me sort of a shish like everybody on the pew could hear me.
Leighton McKeithen and Mama were tight, second cousins from Moore County. Or maybe it was third cousins. Mama grew up in the little town of Vass. McKeithen grew up in nearby Cameron, which made Vass look like a metropolitan town.
McKeithen had a rhythm in his preaching words. He knew where and when to pause, and when to tell us the rest of his stories for us to take out into our daily lives. And on this Mother’s Day some 50 years ago, he left me with the best Sunday morning sermon of a lifetime.
A mother’s footsteps
“The young mother set her foot on the path of life,” he began quoting from “A Little Parable for Mothers,” which was written in 1933 by the late novelist Temple Bailey. “ ‘Is the way long?" And her Guide said: ‘Yes, and the way is hard. And you will be old before you reach the end of it. But the end will be better than the beginning.’ ”
The parable, in the novelist’s words, tells us how the young mother was happy. How she enjoyed being a mother to her children and teaching and nurturing them along life’s way. How she shielded them from storms in the night, the cold of winter and drew them close in the midst of their fears.
“Oh, mother, we are not afraid for you are near, and no harm can come,” the novelist wrote. “And the mother said, ‘This is better than the brightest of days, for I have taught my children courage.’ ”
There were hills to climb in this mother’s journey. The hills were challenging for the mother and all the more for her children.
" ‘A little patience and we are there,’ " the mother encouraged her children. “So the children climbed, and when they reached the top, they said, ‘We could not have done it without you, mother.’
“And the next day came strange clouds which darkened the Earth - clouds of war and hate and evil, and the children groped and stumbled, and the mother said, ‘Look up! Lift your eyes to the light.’ And the children looked and saw above the clouds an everlasting glory, and it guided them beyond the darkness. And that night, the mother said, ‘This is the best day of all, for I have shown my children God.’ ”
All eyes were on McKeithen on this Mother’s Day morning, and McKeithen had every ear, too. And not a single one of us was giving thought to the veal cutlet and the mashed potatoes just up the way at the Hamont Grill. And surely not me.
McKeithen took further pause. He looked out at the congregation. He continued with the parable to tell us about the mother’s and the children’s years to come, and the joys they would share.
“… and the mother grew old, and she was small and bent,” the parable says. “But her children were strong and tall and walked with courage. And when the way was hard, they helped their mother; and when the way was rough they lifted her, for she was as light as a feather; and at last they came to a hill, and beyond the hill they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide.”
The mother now would take a pause of her own, Temple Bailey wrote, with her children by her side.
“I have reached the end of my journey,” the mother told her children. “And now I know that the end is better than the beginning, for my children can walk alone, and their children after them.”
The Rev. Leighton Black McKeithen Jr. died at age 88 on May 8, 2013.
I have never forgotten his Sunday Mother’s Day sermon more than 50 years ago.
My mother died at age 88 on Dec. 17, 2009.
I have never forgotten my mother, and I never will.
“And the children said,” Temple Bailey wrote to end her parable, “‘You will always walk with us, mother, even when you have gone through the gates.’ And they stood and watched her as she went on alone, and the gates closed after her. And they said: ‘We cannot see her, but she is with us. A mother like ours is more than a memory. She is a living presence.’ ”
Temple Bailey’s words are worth repeating for all who are remembering a mother this day.
“She is a living presence.”
And you, Mama, will always walk with me and be a living presence no matter where the path leads on the rest of my life’s journey.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-624-1961.