Celebration of Life: Mary A. Keith

download (1)Photo:  First Christian Church, Choir.  2014.
Celebration of Life message from the at April 15, 2018 service for Mary A. Keith, a long-time and very active member of First Christian Church.  It is a huge understatement to say she will be dearly missed by all of us.  -Vinson


One of the characteristics of the New Testament, especially the Gospels, is that when followers of Christ are mentioned it is because they were major influences in the first and second generation church.  Name-dropping is intentional, speaking to those known and typically still alive at the time of the writing.  They aren’t there just for a cameo appearance, but because of the work they were doing to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And so, what catches my attention is how the name “Mary” is so strongly associated with the ministry of Jesus, more than any other name.  Think about it for a moment.  Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrected Lord; Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who took the role of student at the feet of Jesus;  Mary, the mother of James and Joseph; Mary the wife of Cleopas and one of the first witnesses to the Resurrection; Mary, the mother of John Mark and sister of Barnabas; and even Mary of the church in Rome who was of such importance that Paul lifted her up by name – which was his way of noting who were leaders in the early church.   Of the women at the Crucifixion and those at the resurrection, all who were named, except for one, were called Mary.

Names were given in that culture as a personal description, rather than just as a given name.  In fact, given names were often dispensed with or replaced – as we see numerous times in Scripture.  And, as Hebrew does not have written vowels, MRY carries the meaning of “beloved.”


I bring this up because such involvement in the lives of others in order to do good, and being “beloved” – fits how our Mary was truly experienced by each of us.


Raised in a large, rural North Carolina farm family, everyone had a role to play.  Tobacco was the mainstay, and for those who have never had the pleasure of working with tobacco, it is hard, hot, sweaty work.  Heaven help you if you wiped your eyes, because tobacco juice stings and blinds one for a couple of days.  Her brothers would work in the dark, extraordinarily hot tobacco barns, hanging the sticks holding the leaves to dry, working from the uppermost racks downward, until the last leaves would almost touch the ground.  Mary would needle the jute twine in and around the fresh pulled yellowing leaves, lashing them to the sticks – although she was notorious for putting more on one side of the stick that the other!  In all of the work at hand, she learned the type of family teamwork that would define her life – at work and at home.

I have to think this, along with a very sharp mind, is why as a customs broker she could flawlessly mange the international and logistical complexities of international shipping, first at Wilford Shade and then at Liebherr America.  In this, typical of Mary, she developed the kind of friendships and collegiality which foster successful work accomplishments, while also engendering the kind of loyalty that doesn’t end at the threshold – but is for life.  For instance, one comment posted by a former co-worker read: “It was a wonderful experience to work for and with Mary.  Her kind, calm and caring demeanor made everything easier. She became a dear and cherished friend…”

In church, as much as her former work life, Mary was all in!  Some of the photos that have flipped past on the screen touch all-too-briefly upon the many ways her faith was seamlessly integrated into her acts of service.  No small wonder I think of Mary, when I read the Letter of James, 2nd chapter [vs. 14-18]:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

But, in the end, illness was ever more closely limiting her ability to “do” for others, and on the 27th of the last month, Mary and I were talking.  It was clear to me how much she missed the people of this congregation and being a contributor to The Welcome Table.  For our guests today, “The Welcome Table” is a ministry of this congregation in which we feed 120-140 souls every week, as the Biblical “least of these” are welcomed and cared for.

Each Monday morning is food preparation time and Mary would sit at table, methodically slicing all of the bread to an exact width with a remarkable gadget, and then putting silverware and napkins into plastic sleeves.

Not a gregarious person, yet I always noticed how Mary was at the center of it all, sometimes interrupted by her short, pithy sentences full of meaning and her very dry wit!

Quietly working.

Having something funny to say.

Encouraging others.

Sharing a word of love.

This is what we experienced.  Mary was simply not wired to be a bystander when work was to be done, and she did not make distinction between friend and stranger, as to the largeness of her heart.  Whatever difficulty she had in walking the last year or so, it was not a hindrance to her work ethic – but most especially it did not limit her heart for others, including welcoming my wife into her embrace of love.

Mary’s hospitalization last December drew that portion of her work to a close for her, and how she missed it, and we, — her.

The table just seemed empty.


We were poorer for her absence and quiet witness to the physical work of the Gospel.  So, we crowded into her apartment for Christmas Carols to cheer her, and she was the one who wanted to cheer us.  We visited her countless times, family and friends alike.  What did she want?  To hear about our lives and what we were up to, soaking it up – because our beloved loved us.  Janice took books and read to her, and others visited as the staff at The Newport noticed – the crowd had followed Mary.

For a good reason.

I’ve been present for far too many in the process of dying, whether of hours or months, hundreds of souls.  I’ve watched some evidence fearfulness neediness… and who withdraw into themselves.  I’ve watched others evidence boldness, selflessness… those who serve up the last portion of their hearts to others – knowing the Lord will refill it all and more when they are taken up

Trapped in bed, for months – it was hard for Mary to be on the sidelines.  It just wasn’t her.  The legs just weren’t going to work anymore.  Infections had taken their toll on her stamina, as well.  Cancer was back.  Yet, she wanted to know how others were doing.  She wanted to know how things were at The Welcome Table.  She wanted to know how this grandchild and that was doing… how her kids were doing… how her siblings were doing.  She wanted to clear out what regrets she had, but most of all she wanted to be good with everyone.  No clearer example was on March 27th, when I recorded a video message to take back to the Monday “Welcome Table” kitchen crew.  It’s still on my phone.  In Mary’s words, a bit more clipped sentences as breathing was more difficult that day, she said everything that needed to be said:

“Tell everyone that I love them. I miss them. I can’t wait to be back with them.”  Then, she said, “I’m doing fine.  You all don’t worry about me.” I had to chuckle, when she said that.  Here she was, dealing with increasing pain and increasing disability, knowing it wasn’t going to get any better – and with that typical cadence in her voice, she added that she would try, in her words “to not be too much of a wimp.”

As the past two weeks slid by, more confident in letting God embrace her in the perfect healing, looking forward to heavenly reunion with cherished ones already in the Lord’s embrace, I can think of no more fitting words that those, which may be familiar to some:

I am standing upon the seashore.

A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze, and starts for the blue ocean.

She is an object of beauty and strength, and I stand and watch her until she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There!  She’s gone!”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight – that is all.

She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination. Her diminished size is in me, and not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There!  She’s gone!” there are other eyes that are watching for her coming; and other voices ready to take up the glad shout:

“There she comes!”

And that is death.

Sunday last, the first thing she had to say when we walked in was “I’m ready!”  The day would become about her children seeing her, a granddaughter too.  No fear.  Just gentleness and trust in her Lord and Savior in approaching the great letting go in order to be bourn up to God.  No indication her time of departure would be so soon, but she was indeed “ready.”-


“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” Paul wrote the Corinthians, “but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” [I Corinthians 13:12-13]

Tilting her head as Mary did when saying something that was the deepest part of her heart, Mary concluded the words she wished to be shared, meant for that Monday, they are all her – and her truest legacy:

“And I love you all, very much.”


Pastor’s notes:  Obituary accessed on 13 April 2018, at http://www.legacy.com/funerals/peninsula-newport-news/obituary.aspx?n=mary-a-keith&pid=188729847
Mary A. Keith, 82, went to be with the Lord on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, after a long and courageous fight against leukemia. Mary was a wonderful and caring mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt and friend. She was preceded in death by her husband, James Keith and son Thomas Butch. Left to cherish her precious memory are sons John Butch, Timothy Butch, daughter Julie Sutton, and numerous other family members and friends. A Celebration of Life memorial service will be held 2 PM, Sunday, April 15th at First Christian Church in Hampton. The family will receive friends after the service. Memorials may be made to First Christian Church, 1458 Todds Lane, Hampton, VA 23666. Arrangements are under the care of Peninsula Funeral Home.

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