Ask Not For Whom the Bells Toll – It Won’t Be Me

I have never been a fan of New Year. Too much looking back, too much sentimentality, and – for this unreconstructed Calvinist – too much presumption. It never sat easily with me to celebrate the unknown that lay ahead. What if providence brought you something hard, something regrettable?

The year my father died, my husband and I took the decision to spend New Year away from home. We rented a cottage and holed up for a few, snowy days. I didn’t have to feign a celebratory mood, but I was safe with someone who understood exactly how I was feeling. By the time we got home, it was all over, and we could just get on with the business of living.

As it happened, that new year – 2012 – was to be our last normal one together. 2013 brought the shadow of cancer, 2014 came in with great hope which sadly faded at its latter-end, and 2015 brought our final separation. Each turning year seems to bring me further away from him. I am more, and not less, aware of his absence. Every new thing that happens, every person I meet and every novel experience I have, are mine alone. There have been so many moments I would have loved to share with Donnie, things we would have laughed over together, and things we would have discussed endlessly.

These last few months, I have wondered often what he and my father would have made of some of the situations I’ve found myself in.

But these are all good reasons for me to not ‘do’ New Year. Try as you might to be unsentimental, it just isn’t possible and in what may well be a titanic act of cowardice (though I prefer to think of it as self-preservation) I have fallen into the habit of ending the old year a couple of hours earlier than everyone else. Bed, a good book, or a film, and the transition happens without me noticing.

Perhaps, ‘Gone with the Wind’, would be a good film to watch. Scarlett O’ Hara may not be the most obvious role model for a Wee Free widow, but she got one thing right – she told others not to look back because the past can drag at your heart so much that finally all you are capable of doing is looking back.

Lot’s wife paid the ultimate price for just that tendency too. Not, perhaps, because her past was happy, but because it was familiar.

We are all of us wary of the unknown. It is hard to admit our vulnerability, but if we were honest, we could all say to one another that it is something we have in common. What we have already experienced is always preferable because it is a path we have trodden before, and we know where the pitfalls may be lurking.

Faith changes your perspective on all of this, though. The more I meditate on the advice I was given after Donnie’s death not to ‘over-spiritualise’ my grief, the less I understand it. It is putting my trust in God, knowing that He has everything in His plan, which has preserved what little pretension to sanity I enjoy. I am not privy to what He has in store for me, nor even why those events already unfolded fell to my lot, but it truly doesn’t matter. He knows, and He is God; He has never been less than God to me, or to anyone else.

It is easy to focus on the silent voice and the empty chair at this time of year. Grief is selfish, though. Not in the most negative sense, but it is nonetheless about how we feel. We miss them, we wish they were here, and that life could resume its old, familiar pattern.
That is when we have to turn fully to Him. He only brings change, I think, to facilitate growth. And the only growth that matters is the spiritual kind, that we would allow Him to love us more and that He would be glorified.

When we are – quite naturally- missing loved ones who have died in Christ, though, we have this unrivalled comfort: the worst is over. Yes, we go on hurting because we long to see them, yet the next turn in our journey does not actually take us further away from them, but rather, closer to where they are. God has the roadmap, indeed Christ IS the roadmap. And the final separation has already been, as I said. Next time we meet, there will be no further parting.

And, remarkably, this is not even the best part of the story. It is only the tangible aspect, which we are probably best able to get our heads around. Besides, I believe that it offers helpful perspective.

At first, I was perturbed by Matthew 6: 21, which says that, ‘where your treasures are, there will your heart be also’. I worried that my priorities were wrong and that I merely wanted to see those whom I loved, all gone before me – that it was in them the attraction of heaven lay.

It isn’t that, though. You cannot separate  believers from the Saviour or understand them apart from Him. They, we, and He, are united by unbreakable cords of love woven by Him, and binding us all together in ways none can understand.

Yet.

What a beginning that will be, with no trepidation for what lies ahead. Those bells, now, I long to hear.

The Family Tree and the Well

If you want to change your identity in Lewis, forget fake passports – you had better be prepared to forge an entire family tree for yourself. Even if you do, though, someone is bound to recognise you on your auntie Effie, or your cousin Angus. We cannot escape our dualchas, it seems, and especially not in a place which has eyes everywhere and a memory as long as time. Whatever you do may very well be written-off as, ‘rud a bh’ anns na daoine’. If Effie had one Babycham too many at her sister’s wedding in 1973, well, chances are you’ve got a weakness for the hard stuff too.

We have an interest in our genealogy here that is stronger, I think, than in many other places. People tend to be aware of relatives that are actually fairly distant. Recently, through the wonders of modern technology, I have been corresponding with just such a person about our shared Achmore ancestry. My maternal granny was from that village and it is nice to have names, dates and addresses to fill out the sketchy pictures in my head. It is good to know about my people, and to see Achmore as somewhere other than just the place my father threatened to move us to if we didn’t behave.

That interest can even transcend geography. Relatives long since emigrated to Canada will follow with interest the news from ‘home’. My great-uncle Henry, brother of my Achmore granny, went off to live in Australia as a young man of eighteen or so. He died, while reading the ‘Stornoway Gazette’ (me too, many times . . .) The point is that he died an old man, but was still keeping up with goings-on in Lewis, until the very end.

When I was a student, one of our lecturers mentioned that his brother, who had lived in New Zealand for the greater part of his life, would soon be coming back to Lewis for his first visit since emigrating. ‘I wonder’, he mused, ‘how many people who don’t even know him, will have heard that he’s coming home’. He made a valid point. That is how news is shared in Lewis: people frequently tell me things about people I have never met. I have felt heart-sore for men and women who I wouldn’t recognise if I tripped over them.

A few months ago, at a church conference, I met a lady and we got talking. She began the process of ‘placing’ me. It didn’t take too long. Being a (fairly) young widow in a wee place like this makes me easy to identify. ‘We didn’t know who you were’, she said, ‘but we prayed for you’. I was moved beyond words. No wonder I had felt the Lord upholding me in my grief, no wonder He had seemed so near – even strangers were bringing me before Him.

God, of course, does not need to be told anything about me, or anyone else – that is why the gravestones of those who die unidentified frequently bear the legend, ‘known unto God’. Prayer is not intended to inform Him, but to involve Him; it is the greatest kindness one human being can do for another. Imagine, in the worst moments of your life, that unseen community of praying people, committing you into the care of the Almighty. Whether you cannot, or will not, do it for yourself, it is their privilege to pray on your behalf.

The woman of Samaria did not enjoy these benefits of community. Her lifestyle might have shocked and offended her neighbours, so she lived a solitary life, even purposely going to the well for water when she knew that none of the other women would be present. There, however, she met a man who told her everything she ever did. He met her where she was, and to her declaration that her people were waiting for the Messiah to come and reveal all, Christ responded with, ‘I Am’.

We islanders were not the first to place value upon family history, and upon names to embody enduring truths about us. In the Old Testament, a person’s name frequently tells of their character, or their greatest attribute. God often renamed them to fit their new life – Abram became Abraham and Sarai, Sarah, for example. Jesus, who had a human genealogy, just like you or I, chose instead to use ‘I Am’ when meeting this marginalised woman.

We are not told her name. Not even a family nickname to go on. Had she been from Shawbost, rather than Samaria, the lack of detail might be frustrating. But then, she’d had five husbands, so perhaps we could place her after all. Jesus didn’t concern Himself too much with her past, though. Yes, He mentioned it, to show that He knew her, but He didn’t cast it up against her. The woman’s inward transformation came through hearing His name and knowing – really believing- who He was.

Just as we need to ‘place’ people within their family trees in order to feel that we know them, this woman also had to hear who Jesus was. Even if she had been told his human name, however, it might have meant nothing to her. On the other hand, hearing, ‘I Am’ caused her to forget her outcast status and run headlong towards the very people who had shunned her.

That’s the change of identity we should all be striving for. Your DNA might say you’re descended from Vikings, and your family tree tell you that great-uncle Alasdair was a bit of a one for the boireannaich. But your Saviour says, ‘I Am’ –  and none of that other history matters anymore.