Let it be with me according to your word.
Last week, my beloved grandmother, Elma Donevan, died peacefully in hospital, with her loved ones around her, at the age of 91.
As we journey through the season of Advent, I reflect on the patterns by which my grandmother lived and how those are of ultimate significance, life and death significance. And as we prepare to tell the stories of our saints, the ones in whom Christ was born, I also find myself naming the way those patterns have touched my life. I trust that those two pieces, the personal piece, the faith piece, are complementary. In our Christian faith anyway, God is revealed in the personal. The stories of Mary and Bethlehem and shepherds and magi and Joseph remind us that if we want to know something about God, if we want to know something about ourselves, we look for that meeting, God at work in a human life. A human life saying yes to God.
The last thing that I want to do is back my grandmother into a corner, to pigeon-hole her with some sort of definition, or lift her up on a pedestal, that keeps her from being real. A lot of people mentioned to me after her death that my Grandma was “sweet.” Maybe she was. But I knew her more as a person with healthy doses of grit and vinegar. I rarely heard her speak about her interior life of faith or prayer, I’m sure she would be uncomfortable with my making a lot of claims for her about what she believed. But she didn’t need to say a lot about her faith, because she showed what she believed in how she lived.
What she believed started with love. My grandmother didn’t give praise or affection lightly or loosely. But those who were paying attention were drawn to mirror back to her the loyalty and care they discovered in her. Adopted at the age of six months, my grandmother exemplified the Christian virtue of family, family which extended far beyond bloodlines, which found brothers and sisters, children, grandchildren, in a whole variety of circumstances, and throughout her life. Children, grandchildren, greatgrandchildren, Stepchildren, stepgrandchildren, stepgreatgrandchildren, her god-daughter, her in-laws, her neighbours, her best friends’ children, her Eastern star sisters, her church family, and in later years, her caregivers, Red Cross workers who would visit her long after their obligation to her as a client was ended, I loved to watch how my quiet, dignified, kind but not effusive, grandmother drew people in and formed life-long bonds with the people wise enough to see how worth it it was to count her as a significant part of their life. My grandma’s life is shot through with a pattern of quiet, profound, barrier-breaking love.
What she believed continued with love. The people were most important, but love got lived out in grandma’s life in secondary ways too.
- The special communion she had with the beauty of God’s creation, never happier than when she was puttering in her garden, talking to her plants, noticing the birds, never in a rush, always busy, intuitively understanding that the world around her became more beautiful as she treated it as beautiful.
- Her tireless service in this community of Orillia, in her church, Eastern Star, the hospital, volunteering, participating, giving.
- Her thriftiness, her depression-era almost superstitious reaction against any sort of wastefulness, which, to be honest, resulted in some clutter over the years. And which also left a lasting impression on me about how I am to value what I have.
- Her way with children, a way that deepened over the years. My own many happy memories of picnics down by the lake on a big old tree stump sharing pieces of juicy watermelon, or cheezies and chocolate milk for breakfast at bass lake, assure me of the joy that she took in me and my brother as children. And yet, as the pace of her own life quieted down, the delight that she took in the presence of children increased, especially her great-grandchildren, her own sense of play, of fun and games, matching their own.
I opened my Thanksgiving letter to my congregation this past October with these words:
“I write this letter on the heels of having spent my day off this week with my grandmother. She is 91, she went out to work as a young pre-teen girl in the Depression, she sent a fiancé off to fight in the Second World War, buried a child, has been widowed twice, and is in the process now of transitioning into long-term care. Throughout those challenges and tragedies, she has moved with a graciousness and lightness that has led me to name her as one of the most important influences in my life. She is someone who deals in reality: she isn’t weighed down with fear and regret, she is able to accept what is, and more than that, to recognize blessings and give thanks.”
I wanted to reflect to my parishioners the importance of identifying models of how we wanted to live. And for myself, I wanted to name the thing about my grandmother that made the most lasting impression: the love and gratitude she was able to offer throughout her life, that started with a heart that did not become jagged and sharp in reaction to heartbreak, it became more open. She was able to love and whistle and play with our kids and grow beautiful flowers because of her remarkably open heart.
And somehow that open heart resonates in the words of Scripture that are particularly poignant in Advent. A peasant girl is approached by the angel Gabriel with an impossible task, to put her life in jeopardy to give birth to a child out of wedlock, to watch that child come into harm’s way and to lose his life, to be part of an early movement of outsiders and rebels which eventually formed, in the midst of persecution, the Christian faith we now have today. And in response to what is being asked of her, to the heartbreak and the service that lies before her, Mary simply says, ‘let it be with me according to your word.’
That is where our Christian faith starts. That is where the way of life and the promise of resurrection, seen in Jesus, starts. It starts with a heart that responds to reality, in all of its glory and promise and challenge, with ‘yes.’ With a willingness to serve and an ability to see God’s blessing and activity, not in life going the way we want it, but in the actual circumstances which unfold. It starts with one open heart. And God can use that one open heart to create family, to serve community, to tend creation and to commune with the little ones. It leads to the proposition seen in Jesus, promised in Jesus, that this open heart becomes a participation in the very life of God, that these patterns of love and faithfulness and service are holy patterns, Resurrection patterns, we would say, and that, in fact, a life that gets caught up in love and holiness will be raised up.
Which brings me back to the personal: a grieving granddaughter. I look to my grandmother to remind myself how I want to live. I fail regularly and spectacularly in doing so, so I bind myself in writing to keep coming back to this particular shape of living. Ultimately, I make that commitment publically because I know it’s not just about me. It’s not just about all of the others who were similarly touched by Elma’s example. It’s not even just about the promise, which if we were paying attention, we saw clear as day in Elma Bartlett Wylie Donevan’s life – that a human life can show us something about who God is, what is real and what is true – of course Grandma is now sharing in God’s eternal life, because she shared in it while she was here, because that peace and light filled her room as she took her last breaths, and now she is home. Elma, we have joked, is even now likely beautifying the pearly gates with some fresh garden beds. And it’s not even just about that.
It’s about the possibility of what our lives are for. It’s about a God who chooses to be powerful in our world because now and again there is an open heart that finds the capacity to say yes. Let it be with me according to your word.