Simon Cross: author, activist, researcher and chaplain. Theology, spirituality, politics, wellbeing, and personal development.
Author: simon cross
Simon Cross is a community and spiritual activist, theologian, and interfaith facilitator. He speaks about spirituality and progressive approaches to Christianity, and has published on the phenomenon of New Monasticism, and Nature Connection in the Christian tradition.
For years the doors in our house have been a problem. The ones that closed made noises, the ones that didn’t make noises, didn’t close. We could always tell which of the kids got up in the night, by the noise of their door. But at least they closed.
Dave turned up on Tuesday morning along with his team. They don’t mess around those lads. It took them two days. Now there are new doors, and they all close.
“The new doors have changed my life!” I say. Adding: “for the better.” For the purposes of clarification.
Others in the house are less certain, but I feel strongly. The dining room door for instance, has changed my world. I stand by it, opening and closing it with admiration. “They had to take this off about ten times.” I explain to my daughter, “it was so hard to get it right.”
Its taken us about eight years to get these doors done, but at last its happened, and all our doors not only close, but they match too. Unprecedented.
“I feel like I’m living in a holiday cottage” I say as I go upstairs. “I don’t like it, it’s weird.” Says a daughter, looking worriedly at her new bedroom door. “It’s not weird, it’s great.” I explain to her. She doesn’t understand. So I try to explain with reference to literature.
“Aldous Huxley said that when someone had been through a door, they are changed, wiser but less sure of themself, humbler in acknowledging their ignorance…” “When he said ‘doors’ what was he talking about?” “Um, well he was talking about a number of things, art, religion…” “Drugs?” “Well yes, I suppose he was talking about drugs too. He was talking about how there are things which change the way you think.” “So not real doors then, not doors like these.” “Well no, I suppose not.”
“Maybe”, I think, “I’m the only one who loves the new doors.”
I’m reminded of another Aldous Huxley quote, ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad’. “Shut up Aldous.” I think. Before wondering what sort of a name Aldous was anyway.
My wife comes up the stairs. “Good doors!” She says. “Yeah, I’m pretty pleased with them.” I say. “Me too!” She says. “You know the dining room door, they had to take that off about ten times before they could get it to fit.”
For some reason, even on routes that I have traveled many times, I still sometimes feel compelled to use a Sat Nav. I tell myself it’s because it may help me avoid traffic delays on the motorway, but it’s more likely that I’m just concerned that I will miss the junction.
So on my way to an overnight meeting, at a venue I’ve been to many times, I pulled over at a service station about half way, and typed the destination into my phone. That was probably my first mistake. In what was probably my second mistake, I then drove off, following the directions from the authoritative voice that came from the phone. “At the next junction, turn left…” And so I did, even though it took me off the main road which I know I have to go down to get to the venue. I’m the sort of person who commits to things, and once I’ve decided I’m following a disembodied voice, then that’s what I’m doing. And so on I went, following what seemed to be an increasingly bizarre set of directions. “At the next junction, take the second exit on to B… The journey usually takes me down a main A road, then on to a Motorway, and then back on to another A road before the quick skip through a village to reach the destination. Usually.
As I drove down the increasingly tortuous set of winding roads, with names like ‘forest lane’ and ‘burned stump hill road’ occasionally blinded by the headlights of an oncoming vehicle, I found my mind skipping back to a story I had covered as a young journalist. Mike Hamill, a man who had suffered a rare disease that had made his arms whither away, had taken to driving his automatic Volvo with one foot on the pedals, and the other on the wheel. I don’t know how he turned the radio on. I had covered the case reasonably extensively, speaking to Hamill before attending the hearing at Manchester Magistrates Court at which he was banned from driving. I had got what I thought was ‘every cough and spit’ which was a favourite phrase of my editor at the time. Except when I came to type it up, it turned out that there was something missing. “Is he going to keep driving?” “What?” I said. “Is he going to keep driving?” The volume was louder on the second ask – and trust me the volume could get pretty loud. “I… uh…” “YOU DID ASK HIM, DIDN’T YOU?!” Of course I hadn’t asked him. I was so full of the facts of the case, and all the ‘colour’ of background information that I’d gleaned, that I hadn’t thought to ask what seemed to be the most obvious question. In the end, he did keep driving, and eventually went to prison because he wouldn’t stop.
I thought about this case, as I drove through the dark, my own automatic car occasionally bleeping to complain that a filter might clog. “What on earth are we doing?” I wondered. “Driving around in enormous metal boxes powered by burning refined oil, while getting lost in the countryside, guided by disembodied voices from small black rectangles. What a weird way to live.” Then I thought again about Mike Hamill, and his desperate attempt to maintain his independence by driving his car with his feet alone. And as I passed a sign that told me I was heading towards a place which I know to be in the opposite direction of my destination, and the Sat Nav told me to turn left on to what appeared to be a farm track, I thought about how lucky I am.
The meeting was called by the youngest member of the family, and stern faced we all gathered to face the matter at hand.
“I want to start off by saying,” the youngest remarked, staring at me, “that this is your fault.”
It was a bit early for recriminations to begin, there is usually a bit of to-ing and fro-ing before the mud starts to truly fly.
“I don’t think we need to apportion any blame,” said my wife, at which point I shot her an appreciative glance.
“Yet.” She continued. I looked at my hands.
“The situation is critical.” The eldest, until now silent decided to chip in. Usually she can be relied upon to fight the good fight. Not today.
“Stocks are really low.” She said.
“I’m sorry, stocks?” I said. Feeling slightly confused.
“Socks.” She shouted. “Socks are getting really low. There is hardly any clean underwear anywhere. There are about three socks in my drawer, and none of them match. One is a sports sock, one is a hiking sock, and one is a sock that doesn’t even belong to me.”
“You could wear the sports sock and the hiking sock together…” I began to suggest. I was fixed with a withering glare.
“What I want to know is, how has this happened.” The youngest, my original accuser was back at the crease, aiming to hit a six. Or failing that, a four, so long as it really made the fielder run.
“It’s the weather!” I said, in a desperate attempt to defend myself. “The wretched weather, it’s been hopeless. And then whenever I do manage to get clothes on the line, the birds use them as a latrine.”
“Oh and that’s why none of us have got any clean underwear? Get real.”
While her sister had been viciously attacking me, the eldest had quietly made her way to my top drawer.
“Look at this!” She yelled. “Loads of pants! He’s got loads of pants in here. There’s literally… loads.”
“This is why he shouldn’t be allowed to do the laundry.” Announced the youngest. Because he prioritises his own underwear, so that he’s always got boxer shorts, but we have nothing.”
“I don’t, it’s just…” I said, my voice beginning to trail away as I realised I couldn’t explain this anomaly. Perhaps, I thought, my best defense was to go on the attack. “The reason I have plenty of clean underwear” I announced, “is that I put it directly in the wash every day. I don’t leave it on my bedroom floor and then gather it up in a great big load and expect it to be washed immediately.”
“We all do that.” The youngest hissed. “We all do that, because we know that if we don’t, then we won’t have any underwear. And despite that, despite us playing by the rules, we’re still in the same position.”
“It’s not a question of rules…” I began, but even I knew it was feeble. My attack had been neutralised, my excuses have come to nothing. “I’ll get a wash done this morning. I will wash all the underwear that’s in the basket.”
The family meeting broke up, my wife went to work, and I retreated to the bathroom, where I looked into the mouth of the laundry basket. I pressed a corner of the lid, and it spat a sock at me.
As I stood there the door opened, a girl put some more clothes into the basket. “These need washing too.” She said. Outside a bird squawked. “Bring on the latrine!” And I heard the pitter patter of raindrops begin to hit the window.
In the dying days of 2019, as my ‘Alternative Advent’ series drew to a close, I asked subscribers to my weekday meditations emails for some feedback on the things I’d been writing through the year.
A goodly proportion of subscribers filled the survey in, it’s all anonymous so I don’t know who said what, but it was a super useful exercise.
One of the most interesting things was to see that (of the people who responded) a very large proportion of them read the emails I send out every day, without going through the analytics on the mailing software – which I’m not sufficiently motivated to do – there’s no easy way for me to tell this. I’m encouraged that so many people make it part of their daily routine. I asked people to tell me why they remain a subscriber, here’s a few of the answers:
“I like the alternative, slightly heterodox views you present…” “I enjoy the mails. I like their brevity. But they are honest and grounded and give me something to think about.” ” To read your unusual and interesting take on issues.” “They’re a great, pithy and reflective way to start the day.”
Of the various series I have written through the year, the Alternative Advent series was most popular with the people filing in the survey, however, that may be because it was the series ongoing at the time of the survey. More telling was the proportion of people who chose the word ‘challenge’ as being important to them. The two smallest scores landed with ‘Religion’ and ‘Secular’ – which was also really telling, that ‘progressive’ score though… fascinating.
My feeling is that this underscores the kind of written feedback I got through the survey, and which I often get via email too: responses like this: “I read other reflections also. Yours give the more edgy, controversial option which I like…”
In my surveys I always ask people to give a quote that I can use to ‘promote’ my weekday meditations, given the fact that many of my daily emails offer some wry humour, I should have expected what I got in response to that request:
“It’s better than not thinking.” “Off his trolley, or on to something?” “Simon Cross: He’s not cross (but his name is Simon).” “Is he too clever for his own good, off his head or does he have a good point?”
I love my readers. They are the best bunch of people. And some of them wrote other things too, things like these:
“Takes me places other reflections don’t.” “Simon’s daily meditations are a progressive and well presented source of encouragement, inspiration, challenge and provocation and the best thing that lands in my email inbox each day!” “Want to find deeper meanings behind traditional narratives? It’s worth exploring the mind of Simon.” “Simon’s emails are pithy and to the point. They encourage us to question our views and preconceptions. They challenge us to see Jesus in the current, messy world in which we live.” “They make me think and feel which is s rare combination.” “Simon has a unique way of saying something very profound with depth in a concise and simple way.“
It’s Wednesday morning, and I’m up early. As usual. “I shall use this time productively.” I think to myself, reaching for the remote control.
An hour or so later, I hear the stairs creak. My wife opens the sitting room door.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” She says. “Yes.” I say, fixing her with a stare which communicates the great importance of what I am doing. “What are you watching?” “It’s based on a true story. Which means it’s a kind of research.” “Right.” “So it’s a productive thing to spend time on.” “Right.” “They had good hats in those days, didn’t they.”
The door shuts. And reopens a few minutes later, for the cup of tea to be passed to me. “I’m still researching.” “Right.” “So if you need me, you’ll know where I am.” “Yes I will.”
Later in the day I yawn. “I need a nap.” “You should have slept later.” “I had research to do. Anyway, naps are good for you.” “Who told you that?” “I can’t remember it, I seem to remember reading it somewhere.” “Or was it in a film…” “Films can be legitimate forms of research.” “Right.”
This is my monthly newsletter which gives an glimpse of some of the things I’m up to, as well as one or two of the things that have absorbed my attention over the last few weeks.
IN THIS EDITION…
The Wheels Fell Off ● Sympathy for the Devil? ● House Conferences ● Throwback: Mint Royale – On the Ropes ● Tax collectors and toll collectors
The Wheels Fell Off
It seems to me that most people go through a time when they find themselves trapped in a cage of certainties. Its often a cage of their own making, probably first put together as a kind of scaffolding, to support them through difficult times.
This is true of religious or spiritual people, just as its true of others who have constructed a supportive network of ideas of any other sort that help them through life. The trouble comes when these ideas become restrictive, unable to adapt to or move with the changing circumstances, or experiences of life.
This is what happened to Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, and the writer of a hymn which in my house became known as ‘the bicycle song’. You can find his story here, you might find it’s your story too.
Sympathy for the Devil?
I started writing my weekday meditations as a Lent project last year. I enjoyed the project so much I continued it through the year, and at Christmas I did my first ‘special series’ which I called ‘Alternative Advent’.
That went pretty well, so I’m doing another special series for Lent 2019, which I’m calling ‘Sympathy for the Devil?’
Ultimately Lent has a lot to do with the Devil, but he remains a deeply confused figure: The Satan of the Old Testament is one of God’s court, the Satan of the New Testament, meanwhile is a different figure, and the Devil of 21st century Christianity owes at least as much to John Milton as he does to the Bible. So my weekday meditations throughout Lent will be taking a closer look at this idea, and asking, ultimately, if we might begin to have sympathy for the Devil.
“House conferences” are my small way of trying to reinvent the whole idea of what a conference should look like. Of course there’s a place for large scale conferences held in big rooms, but I tend to think that often the best learning takes place in small intimate environments, like someone’s lounge. That’s why I’m booking house conferences throughout the year, and across the UK.
The first house conference of 2019 takes place in March, it’s a special conference for a group of people who are keen to deepen their spirituality, and to think about their rhythm of life. I’m really looking forward to it.
House conferences are definitely the ‘way forward’ as far as I am concerned: informal, experiential, personal, they give the opportunity to develop relationship and to get to grips with some deep learning, while also having a comfortable chair. Get in touch if you want to think about booking one.
Throwback: Mint Royale – On the Ropes
A disc that’s been getting a few spins this past month has been this classic from Mint Royale. On the Ropes was Mint Royale’s debut in 1999, and it captures a lot of the big-beat bounce that was around at the time.
Perhaps Mint Royale’s most enduring contribution to the pop music canon was their later remix of ‘Singing in the Rain’, but On the Ropes has some classic tracks that are still worth revisiting.
Fans of Lauren Laverne, the current 6Music Breakfast Show host will know her as the lead singer in punk popsters Kenickie, but she actually scored her biggest hit with the Mint Royale track ‘Don’t falter’, which is probably the stand out track on the album, although it has less of the overt turn of the century optimism (despite it’s upbeat lyrics). Anyway, well worth checking out in whatever way you tend to listen to music these days.
Tax collectors and toll collectors
There are lots of ways to read the Bible, and the way one approaches it depends very much on what preconceptions one holds. An academic approach favours a rational, critical reading, which I find helpful and enlightening at times. From this perspective, there are many questions about the texts, including concerning the authorship. Who actually wrote the gospel books for instance? Those of us interested in the role of social class within Christianity may have particular questions about the ‘class’ of the writers. The New Testament contains some pretty sophisticated literature, Matthew’s gospel for instance has a complex series of literary references to Hebrew scriptures, and for various complicated reasons was clearly written by someone schooled in Greek literature, but from a Jewish background.
The author of Matthew must have been a well educated person capable of reading and writing in a complex manner. For those who assume that Jesus’ disciples were the authors of the gospels which bear their names, this clashes with the characterisation by some of Jesus’ disciples as lower class peasants, who were much less likely to be able to write sophisticated texts.
The first of my ‘Longform’ pieces of writing went online on Jan 26th. I’ve started writing these after gleaning some feedback from the stuff I wrote last year. Some people were interested in reading more about some of the deeper subjects I had touched on, so I’m going to publish a new article on the last Saturday of each month, for this year at least.
Swine Flew is a short essay about the Bible story known as the ‘Gerasene Demoniac’, exploring a political dimension to the story that (I think) is a little too overlooked. Take a look for yourself, and let me know what you think!
I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of Niteworks before picking them up from a recommendation on Laurene Laverne’s 6music breakfast show. They make really richly textured music which draws heavily on their Gaelic roots, so you’ll hear singing in Gaelic, and you’ll hear traditional instrumentation for instance, but it’s also full of very credible contemporary EDM.
I tend to cast around for references when I find a new artist, and I suppose the most obvious one would be the wonderful Martyn Bennett, but there’s other stuff in there too, ethereal vocals of the sort that Clannad made popular back in the day, even stuff that sounds a bit like Sigur Ros. Anyway, you can buy their music from them at Bandcamp, and check them at all the usual streaming services. Well worth a listen.
One of the things I’m really looking forward to in 2019 is the Canoe Retreat I’ve been trailing since summer last year. The venue and dates have been decided now, we’ll be paddling around Loch Awe in Argyll, Scotland on the weekend of the 27th – 30th of September.
Loch Awe is the longest fresh water Loch in Scotland, I’ve paddled there before, and loved it, it’s a wonderful place, calm waters, islands to explore, that sort of place. I can’t wait to take a group there – days spent paddling, evenings sat talking around a fire, and time spent lost in contemplation. It’s going to be brilliant. I hope you can come, it will be much more fun if you do!
Just One Of Those Swings
In January I uploaded my Electro Swing Mixtape ‘Just One of those Swings‘ to Mixcloud, it must have been a quiet month for uploads or something, because it ended up peaking at no.3 in the platform’s global Electro Swing chart. Ok, perhaps that’s a bit of a niche chart. But still… number three! It also made no. 25 in the ‘Beats’ chart, which is perhaps a bit more mainstream.
I enjoy making those mixes, they’re all different, just depending upon what I’ve been listening to or has caught my attention at the time. You can listen to this one, and all my past uploads here.
Photos from Robert Landon
My old friend Robert is, it turns out, a great photographer. I’ve been really impressed by some of the pictures he’s been uploading to his instagram account recently, if you’re a lover of striking imagery, particularly of the natural world, then you should definitely check it out.
Before the summer really gets going I’m going to be assisting Dr Alastair Jones on his cycling retreat in the hills of the Peak District. The whole thing is happening on the 14th – 16th of June just outside of Huddersfield.
I’ve got to admit I’m a little worried about my cycling fitness, a few months out of things last year with a nasty back injury has left me fighting to catch up, but I’m back in the swing of things now, and although I’ll probably still be puffing along at the back, I’ll try to stay with the pack!
If you’re keen on life on two wheels, you should definitely come along. Alastair is a great cyclist and you can be assured of some picturesque routes, my focus is going to be on the reflective content… and the tea.
2019 House Conferences
One of the things I’m really keen to get going this year is a programme of House Conferences. I got the idea for this when I saw how many of my musician friends were doing house concerts, effectively small, intimate, private concerts held in someone’s house (or similar type of venue).
I could see the sense in it, much better connection with the people who are there, a wonderful experience for all concerned, no faffing around with expensive venue charges, it made all kinds of sense to me and made me think that this would be a much better way of doing the kind of conferences that I like to do. So we’re having a bit of a push on that this year, if you think that having me and a little group of people in your front room might be fun, then you should let me know and we’ll see what we can fix up.
As always, there are lots of ways to stay in touch with me, besides this newsletter, I send out a ‘weekday meditations’ email which you can sign up for, for free. A short ‘thought’ to start the day with. And you can find me on the usual social media channels, or you can come round for a cuppa. I’m often around on a Friday, and its always nice to chat to you…