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Grace has an eternal benefit
If you can love someone you've only known one hour, then I love Berniece Robertson with all my heart.
She called the newsroom early one Tuesday morning about a week ago from the hospital. She was dying, and it was her last day in our area. Her son had come from Missouri to take her to his farm to live out her remaining days.
I went to see her, not knowing what to expect, although I should have had a clue when I noticed the sky. Over the newsroom it was dark and gray; but the sky to the east, where Berniece was, was brilliant and bright.
As I entered her hospital room, Berniece greeted me with a raspy voice and a huge smile.
"I'm dying -- and this is the happiest time of my life!" she said.
She told me that for the first 64 years of her life she lived rough; drinking and smoking. "But I won't go into that," she said.
Fifteen years ago when Jesus changed her life, she asked God to help her stop drinking.
"I had a can of beer in my hand and took a drink and spit it out -- it tasted like soap!" she said. Quitting smoking wasn't as easy. She felt bad, she said, because she "disobeyed God on that one."
While we talked, her friend Sandy called. Sandy cried and she told Berniece that she would pray for her.
Berniece yelled into the phone, "Don't you do that, Sandy! Don't you pray for me to be cured. I want to set an example for others that God gave us the ability to accept his will."
When Berniece hung up the phone, she said Sandy loved her and that she loved Sandy. It's hard to say good-bye to someone you love.
"I used to preach and pray for people in front of Big Lots," she said, "but then I got disabled and that made me unhappy because I couldn't talk to people that really needed it."
One Sunday morning she had a terrible headache and got into her van to drive into town. "I was in shorts, a T-shirt, no bra and sandals, and I didn't have any intention of doing this, but God took my van to the Vineyard church."
She walked in and right up to the front.
"The minister said, 'Do you need help?' I said, 'My head is hurting bad.' He said, 'Do you believe the Lord can heal you?' I said, 'Yes, that's why I'm here!' "
She faced the congregation and said, "People, believe in the Lord because he can heal you and ease your pain, and I need prayer right now!"
They prayed and five minutes later her headache was gone, she said.
"I just bought a new Bible, a one-year Bible, and I'm having so much fun because there's so much adventure in it," she said.
"Some say the Christian life is hard to live, and I believe that," she said, "but it's easier to live a Christian life than a sinful one. Going to church doesn't cost anything, but a sinful life costs a lot -- your beer and everything else you want."
Although she was sad about leaving her friends and neighbors and the town she loves, she was almost giddy to get on with her death and to see her Savior face to face.
"I'm leaving this evil world," she said, "and I hope to be happy while I'm doing it. My son has an 80-acre farm and has horses. He teaches disabled kids to ride and how to be brave. And I'll be with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren with all the love they can pour out on me. Anyone can come over to see me -- it'll be like church!"
When it was time for me to leave, I hugged her for a long time and then I went to my car and wept, although I'm not sure why.
Her joy in the face of dying made me ashamed of how tied I am to this world, how tied I am to things, to money and comfort and TV. She longed to die well; I longed for a grilled cheese sandwich.
I also longed to taste what she tasted -- the nearness of eternity and the grace to travel there.
Her name is Berniece Robertson, and although I only knew her for one hour on a Tuesday morning, I love her with all my heart.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of "Move Over, Victoria -- I Know the Real Secret," "When Perfect Isn't Enough" and her latest books, "Between Two Loves" and "Praying With Women of the Bible." She can be reached at 563-5660, Monday through Thursday, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.