November is a month, perhaps even more than December is, for looking back and for looking forward.
A month that begins with remembering a foiled gunpowder plot. But also a month when we think of the terrible effects of war and of the far too many people whose lives have been lost and scarred by the experience both of going to war and of having to live with the consequences of it.
We remember past conflicts and the toll they have taken on those who responded to the call to serve their country, in the hope that others might not be asked to pay the same price again.
This year on Remembrance Sunday, it will be the first time in over 20 years that one particular man has not read the lesson in Dornoch Cathedral.
Andrew Mackenzie was a WW11 pilot. As a young man he faced what I would hope, no other young man or woman would ever have to face. Flying through barrages. Guiding a heavily damaged Lancaster bomber safely back to base.
Andrew was no mean pilot at 21 and 22 years of age. He gained the Distinguished Flying Cross – but his was not to glorify any kind of war.
I remember one Remembrance Sunday when I scripted a conversation between Andrew (then in his 80’s) and a teenage boy, Robert. Andrew talked of the scary reality of flying, while young Robert talked of the excitement of a warring video game.
The conversation went back and forth, Andrew talking of the very real fear of being under attack – Robert of ‘losing’ lives that could immediately be re-energised.
The contrast between the two could not have been starker.
We had rehearsed it before Remembrance Sunday but on the day, as the reality and the virtual went head to head, the reality really hit home for the teenager. Andrew’s words, his story, literally moved poor Robert – and most of the congregation – to tears.
But Andrew was no dramatist. He said what he said not to revel in war. For him it was very definitely not something to be glorified. It cost far too much.
This year we will not have the benefit of Andrew’s voice. At the ripe old age of 95 he made a final flight three months ago and winged his way to join his wife, Adeline, in the heavenly realm. We will however, remember him and every bit as importantly, his message that war is costly. Far too costly.
November is also a month when, as Scots, we think of our Patron Saint. Whether or not we are people of faith, St. Andrew’s Day is a day to think of our heritage and what it means to be Scottish. It offers the opportunity to reflect on our identity as a nation, to learn from and show sorrow for the mistakes we have made in the past (our involvement in the slave trade for example) and to celebrate things like, our music, storytelling and the better aspects of our history and our culture.
But in an inclusive way, recognising that there are new Scots who bring a new dimension to all the celebrations.
For Christians, November too brings the church year to an end, when we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and then turn to the very beginning of his story by looking for the coming (the Advent) of the baby Jesus at Christmas. The Advent calendars on sale and the treats within them are a pointer to the even sweeter gift to come – the gift of God’s own Son, bringing with him, hope, peace and promise.
Most of us look at November as the in-between month. It’s after autumn but it’s not quite Christmas. A kind of no-man’s-land time of year.
But in fact, November reminds us in the present, that the past is past. It encourages us to celebrate what has been and to mourn it. November provides us too, with the chance to let that past make a difference for the better to the right here and right now. And that makes this month a pivotal month.
So, what are you doing with your November?
Don’t be tempted to hurry it away. Instead why not take the time of an evening, to look back. Why not look back to some personal memories or to historical ones and see what’s worth smiling and celebrating over and what’s worth setting aside and learning and moving on from?
Just as importantly, what is it you are looking forward to? What is it you wish for the future? As an individual? As a Scot? As a citizen of the world?
And as you dream dreams, can I encourage you to ask yourself what you can do to make those dreams become reality,
The Right Rev Susan Brown is minister of Dornoch Cathedral and the former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland