“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23 NASB).
It’s time to “spill the beans,” say my friends.
Bertha Fagan is her name. She is a native of Jackson, Mississippi, and lives nearby in the community of Pearl where she teaches English at the Rankin Center of Hinds Community College.
Bertha is the widow of Dr. Gary Fagan, a seminary classmate of mine. But even though Gary and I knew each other for fifty years, and at one time we all belonged to First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi, we did not know one another’s families. Gary went to Heaven in May of 2014.
My wife Margaret died the following January.
Bertha and I met for the first time on February 15 of this year (2016). Within days, we both knew the Lord had done something special here.
We have assured our families that “even though this started quickly and got up to warp speed in record time, we’re not rushing into anything.” Only recently, after six months, did we become engaged.
After Gary and Bertha left seminary in New Orleans, they returned to Jackson where he directed the work of Youth For Christ. Later, they moved to Atlanta where he led the YFC work there.
They pastored churches near Monticello, MS, in Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, near Boston, and in Melbourne, Florida. Gary taught and served as chaplain at Barrington College in Massachusetts. They served as IMB missionaries (under the “Masters” program) in Malawi and Brazil, before retiring to Jackson where Gary served Southern Hills Baptist Church until his homegoing.
Through the years, Bertha has taught English and English literature, online as well as in high school and/or college. She has a bachelor’s from Bob Jones (she was a classmate of John MacArthur and knew Bob Jones Senior, Junior, and III) and a masters from Rhode Island College. (Interestingly, both she and her sister Laura were homecoming queens at Forest Hill High School.)
They have a son and a daughter and six grandchildren. Jeff lives in Hattiesburg and Lari in Deltona, Florida. He is career military and she teaches school (and is married to a minister).
After a marriage of 52 years, Gary’s death devastated Bertha. She would journal that she would never marry again and would come up with a long list of reasons. After the greatest guy in the world, “the kind of marriage every woman dreams of,” she would say, nothing and no one could ever compete with that.
Meanwhile, a year after my Margaret’s death (written about on these pages at the end of January ’15 and early in February), my son Neil announced his family would be moving to Mobile, Alabama, to be closer to his job. Since I would be left with no family here–son Marty lives in NC and daughter Carla in MO–I began telling the Lord, “If you have someone for me, as ‘the love of the rest of my life,’ here is what I would like….”
Is this presumption, telling the Lord what you want in a mate? I don’t know, but I did it. Each time, I would end the prayer with, “But Lord, You know best. Thy will be done.”
“I would like someone intelligent and godly. Sweet and humble. Attractive is good, but it’s number 5. And Lord, let her not have a lot of complications in her personal life–like grown kids who lay around the house smoking dope or something. (Marry her and your life is all about dealing with them.)”
Then, I thought of one more.
“And Lord, whoever she is, let us both know it up front, so we don’t play a lot of games.”
One day I thought of Bertha.
We had never met, but we each knew who the other was. When Gary had been stricken with an aneurysm in May of 2014, a friend asked for prayer online. I went to his wife’s Facebook page and left a note, then clicked on to see a few photographs. At first, I was puzzled. How could this young thing be his wife? Wasn’t she our age? We were all in seminary in the 1960s. And yet, that has to be her.
Bertha wasn’t on social media often. But anything she wrote, usually a comment on someone’s post, was always gracious and encouraging, classy and positive. She was clearly someone worth knowing.
I sent her a note. “Would you ever be interested in meeting for lunch or coffee? If not, I understand. But if so, I’ll come back and tell you the next time I’ll be traveling through your area to preach.”
Since Gary’s death, mine was the first invitation she had accepted. She had turned down many, including one at the funeral.
We met for lunch at the Corner Bakery in Flowood, Mississippi, just east of Jackson. She said, “I thought we would talk about Gary and Margaret.”
We did, but for two solid hours we talked about them and life and children and careers and God. (She never touched the tomato basil soup in front of her.)
Now, I was exhausted.
I had been in five churches that weekend in the Mississippi Delta. Late Sunday night, I had driven to Jackson and checked into a hotel. Monday, I sketched for over three hours at the retirement celebration of Dr. David Michel from the state Baptist office. Then, Bertha and I met for lunch.
After our two hour visit, we gave each other a little hug, and I drove to New Orleans.
Bertha sat there in her car for a while, she told me later, wondering what had just happened to her. “I was completely discombobulated,” she now laughs.
Something had happened.
That was Monday, February 15, 2016. I drove back to Jackson the following Friday. And it’s been steady ever since.
A friend who heard all this said with a laugh, “Joe, with all those trips to Jackson, just remember you’re not 25 any more.” I said, “You’re right. I’m not 25. I’m 15.”
I’ve put my house on the market and we have found a lovely house in north Jackson (Ridgeland, actually) which we expect to buy. As with everything else, we look to the Lord for leadership and guidance in these matters.
We’ve not set a date yet. At this point, we’re thinking the wedding will be a small thing with just the immediate family. We’ll walk into the chapel at First Baptist Church Jackson, say our vows, and then hug everyone and get on with life.
How much life will God give us together? He’s in charge of that. My parents lived some 20 years past my present age, so I think, “Wouldn’t that be nice, for us to have two more decades to serve the Lord together?” But, our times are in His hand.
Bertha is still teaching (online at Hinds and for Taylor University in Indiana and two classes at her local center) and I’m still traveling to preach and teach. (Next month, I’ll be in Enterprise, AL, Chattanooga, TN, and Baton Rouge, LA.)
We feel so blessed.
We laugh a lot. Early on, she said, “What would be a deal-breaker for you in this?”
Ever the comic, I said, “Well, three things. Do you smoke? Were you ever a man? Do you still work at the roadhouse over on the highway?”
I love the tiny pause between my saying something and the moment she realizes it is a joke. She is quiet a full two seconds, then bursts out in laughter.
Longtime friends reading this will tease that they need to tell Bertha the facts about Joe! Not long ago when Bertha accompanied me to the board meeting of a local ministry, I told them. “To those of you who know me slightly, please tell this good woman nice things about Joe. And those of you who have known me well for many years, keep your cotton-picking mouths shut!!”
I’m so grateful for the Lord’s goodness. He is indeed “marvelous in our sight.”