Friday, 18 July 2014

A house called Askival

A reflection on Highland author Merryn Glover's outstanding new novel A Houce called Askival.

  I wonder if Merryn Glover read Ruth the Rebel when she was a child? It’s a 20th century children’s book about a young girl sent to a children’s home who finds it difficult to accept the its Christian, and in particular to forgive her mother. It was the kind of book which I was dismissive of as a teenager (perhaps unfairly) seeing it as an attempt to coat the pill of Christian propaganda with the allure of story.

Merryn Glover a writer now living working in the Highlands, has written about another rebel Ruth in A House called Askival her outstanding debut novel which has just been published. Askival, set in Uttarakhand in India spans 70 years, and three generations of an American missionary family against the turbulent background of contemporary Indian history.

The story sparkles with colour and vitality, but there is tragedy too. Ruth Connor abandons her childhood Christian faith and is estranged from her parents. But she returns to visit her father in the closing months of his life – can they, we wonder, make peace, can each bring into the open hidden things the other needs to hear? Askival is the old family home (called after the mountain in Mull), falling into decay, a place of ghosts and sadness.

Glover is a Christian; like Ruth her parents were missionaries and she went to boarding school in India; and religion in the melting pot of India’s multi-faith culture is central to the novel, but this fine work is no shallow piece of Christian propaganda. For Merryn Glover is quite simply a wonderful writer; honest, perceptive, with humour, a zest for life and a love for people and nature. She knows how to keep her readers turning the pages. At times she writes like an angel.

Key themes of her novel include relationships within families, the legacies we pass on to our children, the need (and difficulty) of granting and receiving forgiveness, bloody conflict between religions, the ways religious people can unwittingly damage their children, the strange silences of God.

As with all great books, Askival gives us in response to what we bring to it. Three things resonated particularly with me. The novel reinforced my awareness that we edit our recollection of the past, tailoring it to match our assumptions about where we are now, and how we reached this point. It reminded me of my own relationship with my father, and my awareness that though hidden things were shared between us in his final years, others, which I would love to have heard were left unexpressed.

And finally, as I read I acknowledged that something in me wishes I’d been a teenage rebel, in my case in the hedonistic sixties, rather than timidly toeing the line and trying so hard to be the kind of Christian people expected. Yet at the same time the book deepened my gratitude that I was as I was.

The boarding school in Askival was a Christian school, but attended by pupils of many faiths in a country of many faiths. Central to the novel is an exploration of how people of all religions can learn to live together in peace. There’s a colourful scene in the book where people of different faiths are sharing a meal together and talking endlessly – and in perpetually disagreement - about how religions can peaceably co-exist. But where words failed, their action - sharing a meal together, respecting one another - points the way ahead.

There is grace is the book – notably the grace which brought Ruth back from Scotland to India with her barely-recognised longing for reconciliation. And above all there is love in its pages, not the superficial talk of love which smothers unanswered questions, but the love which comes when we’ve looked at all the questions and all the issues and all the pain and recognise that nothing else will do, that the only answer is Love.

There are outstanding examples of love and acceptance in the book, notably Kip who runs a Delhi guest house, and Aziz and his son Iqbal a Muslim who has learned to love Jesus and shows a tenderness and compassion beyond all reason and a humble self-giving which leaves the self enriched.

We finish the book, and we wonder – the pain is real – but is there love like this in the real world? Can I learn the 100th name of God? Will Jesu stoop in the dance of life and wash my feet?

And another question. Does my life as a Christian read like a propaganda novel, superficial, predictable, controlled, much never making it on to the page? Or is it real: colourful, vibrant, packed with drama and conflict and the inevitable tragedy, but leavened always by the healing breath of God’s grace and by love.

A House called Askival is published by Freight Books. ISBN 978 1 908754 59 2 £14.99

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 10th July 2014)

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The River we travel

‘I’ve seen them now, and I will never be the same.’ These are the words of Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling non-fiction writer based in New York.

Reading about him has focussed my thinking on two events in Inverness – the on-going commemoration of the first visit to the city 250 years ago by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (he preached in the High Church on Sundday 10th June 1764), and the recent service at the Cathedral where the Bachuil (or crozier) of St Moluag was on display. St Moluag was a contemporary of Columba: like Columba he met King Brude at Inverness and established many monasteries.
The Bachuil in the hands of its current custodian, Niall Livingstone of Bachuil, current Baron of Bachuil
What did Gladwell see which he claims changed his life? It was, he tells us, ‘the weapons of the spirit.’

Born in England, Malcolm Gladwell was raised in Canada where the family joined the Mennonite Christian community. His two brothers retained their Mennonite faith in adulthood, but though Malcolm continued to believe in God and to view Christian faith as logical, he admits ‘what I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power.’

He told an audience in 2009 that he was ‘truly sad’ he didn’t share his parents’ faith. He described a communion service he’d been present at as one of the most beautiful things he’d experienced, and was sad that nothing out-with faith affected him in quite the same way.

John Wesley preaching
And then he began researching his latest book, David and Goliath: underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants. One of its themes is that sometimes people with no material advantage, and indeed with severe disadvantages are much more powerful than they appear. They have an inner strength and resilience which (in a recent article) Gladwell describes as ‘weapons of the spirit.’

The book includes many personal stories, two of which are explicitly faith-driven. There is a Mennonite couple who find a way to forgive and express love to the person responsible for their daughter’s death. There’s the French Alpine community which, led by the local pastor, quietly resisted the Nazis during World War 2 and helped many Jewish people to escape to Switzerland.

Exploring these stories, Gladwell was amazed by the persistent courage people showed.  Their behaviour was, he said in an interview ‘very hard to account for other than by the particular kind of strength you get from faith.’

As a direct result of this evidence for the power of God in human weakness he says ‘I am in the process of recovering my own faith.’

One of the key points he makes in interviews is that the Mennonite tradition of forgiveness helped prompt and shape the bereaved couple’s willingness to forgive. And the history of the Alpine village standing firm in the 17th and 18th centuries s against state oppression of Protestant faith inspired the villagers’ resistance to the Nazis.

Which is why I got thinking of St Moluag and John Wesley – just a couple of the many Christian leaders who have visited the Highland across the centuries. The tradition we inherit in Scotland is a tradition of faith – of mission, of iconoclasts like Wesley challenging the status quo, challenging us when our faith becomes a veneer rather than a soul-deep reality.

Wesley acknowledged the importance of tradition when he noted on 10th Juen 1764 ‘the remarkable behaviour of the whole congregation after service’, their serious reflection on what they had heard. Wesley attributed this to the fact that Inverness has ‘for at least a hundred years had such a succession of pious ministers as very few in Great Britain have known.’

Malcolm Gladwell challenges us. To some the challenge is to understand the tradition before we reject it, to assess with unbiased eyes the evidence of God we see in lives around us. To others the challenge is to live, uncowed by injustice and adversity, lives in which weapons of the spirit are evident, 

To some the challenge is to rediscover in faith the beauty we have found nowhere else. To everyone the challenge is to recognise that ultimate power does not lie in the hands of those who appear most powerful.

I held the 34” long Bachuil of St Moluag that day in the Cathedral. As my hand encircled the fragile wood I sensed a stillness and continuity. It was as though I’d entered a glass-walled, peace-calmed cubicle. We hold to an ancient faith, fragile but resilient.

Yet what matters is not so much what we hold, as who holds us – the God of St Moluag, the God of John Wesley, the God of Christians across the centuries, the God who isn’t a visitor among us, but a perpetual presence, the God who wills us to seek that vision which will so change us that we will ‘never be the same.’

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 5th June 2014)

At Death Cafe with The Big Yin

I wonder if Inverness and the Highlands are ready for a ‘Death Café’?  The Death Café movement has inspired groups of people elsewhere - not primarily folk who are terminally ill, though they are welcome - to get together for a couple of hours, share coffee and cake, and talk about death and dying. 

Usually at Death Cafés, people share their feelings at the thought of dying, discuss what kind of funeral they’d like, how they’d like to be remembered, what happens when you die – anything those attending want to raise. There is no agenda, and definitely no preaching.

As a society, we’re reticent about discussing death. Do we fear that talk about dying makes us feel, and appear, vulnerable; or somehow bring death closer; or shatter our personal illusion that we will never die? I may acknowledge death in general, while denying the fact that I will die. We Christians may find it especially hard, in the light of other Christians’ apparent confidence, to admit what we’re really thinking.

At the Cafés, there may be as many views about what happens after death as there are people present. We die, and that is the end. We live on as incorporeal spirits. We are reincarnated. We are gifted with a new body, recognisably ours, yet different.

There were many ideas in Billy Connolly’s recent two-part documentary on death, The Big Send Off – a mixture of personal pieces to camera, interviews, and film of Connolly with people engaging in fascinating death-related customs.

I wondered what I’d say if I were in a Death Café with the Big Yin. I’d be listening carefully to see what I could learn from what was being said, how other views challenged mine. The discussion would turn to beliefs about what happens after death.

Billy Connolly says, as he did to camera ‘The conclusion I have come to is: I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea, but I’m completely open. There may be some grand plan but I have no idea what it is or whose plan it is.’

And I say something like ‘Billy, I’ve thought about this too, and I believe that the plan is God’s plan (although it’s a very flexible plan, inviting our co-operation.)  I believe God has self-revealed, giving us tantalising glimpses of God, the timeless Rock of Love in whom we are invited to trust.’

When someone else says (as one of Connolly’s interviewees did) ‘I believe in everything: that way I can’t be wrong.’ I’d say ‘Well I believe that in Jesus the Rock of Love came among us. There’s a strong case supporting the view that Jesus is unique. I am convinced that he died and resurrected, and that because of his death and resurrection he is the one-and-only life giver. In the face of death, I entrust myself to him.’

And when Billy Connolly says (as he did in the documentary to a Muslim man who told him that what counted was being a good person and doing everything right in life) ‘I think that’s what worries me most’. I’d say ‘Well, I think none of us matches that standard. But I’m convinced God forgives us if we seek forgiveness. Loved and forgiven we need not fear.’

You see I’d have to work hard not to preach! I wonder if some of us don’t want the Christian faith to be true, are so committed to it being false that we are in denial about the power of the Christian story and the evidence in its support.

Billy Connolly described those he’s sat with as they died. ‘Even people who were in pain some time before,’ he said, ‘when it came to the time of dying there was an acceptance, and they just slipped off.’ There is a time to stop raging against the dying of the light, a time to let a greater light embrace you.

But what of people who have not specifically placed their trust in Jesus? Those who have never heard of Jesus, or never encountered the real Jesus, as opposed to a caricature? I believe in the love of God and the sufficiency of what Jesus did in dying for the world. And I believe that beyond death when our lives are reviewed, if we have on balance chosen light and love over darkness and hatred, God will say ‘Welcome in the name of Jesus!’

Death Cafés exist to bring death into the open, so that those attending can live to the full. Churches invite us to take an unflinching look at ourselves and at death, and then realise that we are loved, accepted, forgiven, and that the life we will fully enter beyond death begins now. In fact churches at their best are Life Cafés.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 22nd May 2014.)