Sunday, January 07, 2007

That 'Long' Distance Phone Call

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.


Evan said...

That is a GREAT story. I have goosebumps. I've been very encouraged reading your blogs and books lately after spending some (too much?) time reading J.D. Crossan and Marcus Borg. You and your writings are a huge encouragement. Thank you.

Tangela said...

That story was magificant....that's pretty much all I can say about it.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Witherington~
I think sometimes it's hard for me to wrap my head around "things that cannot be seen".
I'm so used to this physical world that I think sometimes we forget there is a whole spiritual realm we don't engage in for whatever reasons.
Keeping all this in context...
thanks for the reminder.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Kurt: The importance of the story theologically is that God communicates with us in various ways, not just in his written word. Ours is such a text bound culture that we forget that in Biblical times all those cultures were oral cultures, where the living Word and the living voice of prophecy was the main thing. I would simply say, God still speaks to us, though of course all such experiences should be evaluated critically and carefully, but at the end of the day this one passes the test of close scrutiny, as does the famous story about the spirit of C.S Lewis speaking to J.B. Phillips after Lewis' death to help Lewis' housekeeper and brother find some important documents.



Andrew C. Thompson said...

Dr. Witherington -

That is a phenomenal story (in more ways than one!). Thank you for sharing it.

Now let me ask a question, which is directed at the issue of discernment. You wrote of the hesitation that you were experiencing at the time between the teaching ministry and the pastoral ministry. For those of us who also experience a dual call to both pulpit and teaching lectern, can you offer any words of advice for how to engage in intentional discernment? I have experienced revelations of the Holy Spirit before, though perhaps not from one of the saints of heaven as you describe. But I would also be interested in hearing what you would say about practices of discernment in the day-to-day.

Perhaps this is too much to deal with in the 'comments' section, and if so, I apologize.

paul said...

"In fact that is exactly what had happened."

"...but at the end of the day this one passes the test of close scrutiny..."

Ben, I have been a "blog-stalker" of yours for quite some time. I have always admired you... enjoyed your writings, lectures, etc. (I am an Asbury grad)

I have to confess being really thrown off by this post. Where I agree that God still speaks, I guess I struggle with this. There is a difference to me in God still speaking... and dead people speaking. And I struggle with how to differentiate this with the "Jonathan Edwards - Crossing Over" kind of stuff. (I am also a magician... and magicians laugh at Jonathan. He is using common magic/mind reading techniques to do his "contact with the dead" and the fact that some believe otherwise makes a lot of magicians wish we would have thought of the idea first. :O)

Could you elaborate a bit on the difference between God speaking and other speaking? I'm guessing you don't see those as the same...

Thanks for your posts.

Ben Witherington said...

Such good comments and interesting ones on this post. First of all in regard to the issue of discernment about calling I do not think this process should ever be insular, by which I mean just between you and God. I think you must listen to the wise counsel of good friends and colleagues, you must have someone outside your immediate circle of friends assess your gifts and graces (there is an excellent inventory in regard to leadership style called the Style of Influence Inventory which is first rate). You must of course pray and search the Scriptures. For me the issue becomes not, what am I capable of doing, but 'what is the very best use of my gifts and graces right now.' It seems clear to me that God's call can vary over time with persons moving from one sort of ministry to another according to God's leading. I would warn on that front that 'the open door' criteria is a potentially dangerous one, if you make it a final criteria for decision. Sometimes open doors have been opened by someone other than God and they become trap doors.

Now in regard to the dead speaking to the living, of course we have the famous story of the shade of the prophet Samuel in 1 Sam to speak to this issue. Here I would make a distinction between necromancy--- where we try to summon up and consult the dead, and when the dead actually make contact on their own initiative and literally out of the blue. These things do definitely happen and have done so ever since the beginning of the Biblical era. So I would say we have to be open to them without seeking them or trying to manipulate the spirits, which is prohibited in the OT.

Part of the issue is of course has to do with one's view of the 'communion of the saints'. Consider for example Heb. 12 where the deceased are seen as cheering us on to the finish line from the heavenly grandstand. One must also realize that neither the dead nor the living are in their final state of affairs or condition until the return of Christ, the resurreection of the dead, and the life everlasting in the new heaven and new earth.



Pastor Astor said...

I like your story. And I love the fact that you as an academic doesn't hide it away as a comforting, but theologically troublesome episode, but that you share it, even on your blog.
And not only that - you do´'t even pretend to be untouched by it, instead making it an important story in your story. Before the mystery of God and eternity we SHOULD be in awe, we shouldn't be able to grasp it. I like you even more after reaing your post and understanding that an experience like this is as important for you as it would be for me. You have my respect, increasingly.

Camassia said...

By the way, John Edward is the guy who talks to dead people. Jonathan Edwards was an 18th-century Calvinist preacher.

Carry on.

paul said...

Camissa... you are very right, I stand corrected. :O)

And it would be hard to confuse the two!

Thanks for your response, Ben.

Ben Witherington said...

Actually you are both not quite right. John Edwards is my fellow Tar Heel and graduate of UNC, a United Methodist and is running for President :)

paul said...

Can he talk to my late aunt flood? I would love her potato salad recipe. If he could get that I would vote for him! :O)

Sorry, long day and I'm a bit slap happy.

paul said...

the above is supposed to read, "late aunt Flo?" If you have to correct the joke, it's no longer funny.

Okay, I will stop taking up valuable memory on your blog.

Evan said...

To be perfectly honest the discomfort that I felt initially after reading this post was not skepticism about communication from beyond the grave, but the use of a common, less than spectacular device such as a phone, to make the communication.

But I quickly reminded myself that God often uses that which seems less than spectacular to do amazing things. Moses, a former slave with a speech impedament - leads the Israelites out of Egypt, David a shepherd - (insert stroy here), Jesus a Jewish peasant - saves the world.

If we at first feel that something God chooses to use doesn't fit our preconceived notions as something God would work through, maybe we should re-read our bibles.

Naomisu Onamy said...

"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."

In my first year as a mature-age female Christian studying NT Greek in 1997 at an Australian university, I gained an understanding of Romans 8:28 through picturing God working all things in life "into" good in the tapestry of my life. All the heartaches and stupidities in my life especially after giving my life over to Him were being woven into His picture of me. I had only been looking at the back of the picture with bare patches and threads still hanging perhaps waiting to be put to use somewhere else in the design, but He was at the front lovingly working on my life to produce an image of Himself.

mudmama said...

I have just read with great interest your story on Bertha Albrights communication from "the other side". I agree that it is entirely possible for such things to happen. It is not for any of us to question why God allows such things to happen. Instead we should be thankful for the interaction that has been allowed between "there" and here. I am a former resident of that wonderful town myself, born and raised there. I'm glad that you too have such wonderful memories of the sleepy little town too.