Her name was Bertha Albright, and she was a real saint of Concord United Methodist Church in the little village of Coleridge N.C. After my wife and I had moved to Coleridge from Durham England where we lived in the shadow of a Norman Cathedral and in the midst of so much rich culture, going to red clay rural N.C. was dubbed culture-less shock by my wife. No matter, there were still wonderful Christian people like Bertha. I was the pastor of her church and three others, preaching in quadraphonic, and by the fourth attempt the sermon was pretty good. We had come to Coleridge immediately after I had finished all but the revisions on my PhD in 1980. It was Bertha and her friends who made us kindly welcome. My wife was a high school biology teacher without a job except to be the pastor's wife and raise our daughter, and the adjustment was difficult-- she wasn't prepared for being a rural pastor's wife. Bertha made it much easier.
During this time in Coleridge I began doing some part time teaching at High Point College (now a University) and at Duke Divinity School. Though I was enjoying the pastorate, I was not sure I was supposed to keep going with that indefinitely. In other words, I was praying about direction in regard to my call. There came a weekend when Ann and I went down to Charlotte to see my folks for a couple of days, due back Saturday evening.
On that Saturday morning Bertha got up and went to a Rotary luncheon in Asheboro where she lived. At the luncheon she became ill, and was rushed to the hospital. By midafternoon she had passed away. Of course this was B.C., before cellphone, so I knew nothing about all this until I got back Saturday evening. But when I got back, all heaven broke loose.
There on my doorstep was my neighbor, Roger Whitehead. He proceeded to tell me that his mom Jesse Whitehead was freaking out. She had been one of Bertha's best friends. But it was not just the shock of Bertha's sudden death that was bothering her. You see Jesse had received a phonecall from Bertha at the very end of that Saturday afternoon--- POST MORTEM! Roger had been right there when his mom took the call, and she talked with Bertha for a good long time. Now she was worried she had lost her mind. Could Bertha have really called her--- from heaven???
In fact that is exactly what had happened. I asked Jesse while I was trying to calm her down how Bertha sounded--- she said she sounded very far away. I guess so. I wonder what Bell telephone charged for that long distance call. As my attempt to call Jesse down proceeded and she began to accept my reassurances that she was not loosing her mind and these things do occasionally happen, I asked her what else Bertha said. Jesse said to me--- "Oh Bertha said tell Ben he looks good in his robe, and he should continue to do what he has been doing, trusting God." Well that was a word of confirmation from above I really needed just then.
This past spring I was asked to come home to High Point and preach at my home church's 150th anniversary in High Point N.C. I had not anticipated the reception I got-- lots of folks including Bertha's children came to hear me and speak to me thereafter. It was like a family reunion--- what a blessing. I was reminded all over again about the ministry of Bertha to my family, even continuing after she passed on.
John Muir the great American naturalist once said something like--- "We look at life from the back side of the tapestry, and its all loose ends, knots, dangling threads that we see. But sometimes the divine light shines brightly through the tapestry, and we get a glimpse of God's large design, weaving the dark and light hues together." On that day in Coleridge, Bertha broke through the veil that separates the material from the spiritual world, and I was one of the beneficiaries. These are the moments that mold you in life and ministry. Thanks be to God.