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A short break from the usual light hearted blog posts to let you know about my lent series on ‘deconstruction’ which starts on the 26th of Feb. I will be using my regular ‘weekday meditations’ email series to explore the idea of deconstruction, what it is, why people go through it, what to do if you find yourself in the middle of it, all that good stuff.

Touching on issues of social control, power, loss, love, failure and other good stuff. You can sign up here, (it’s free and I won’t misuse your data) I’m also aiming to produce some supporting material to go with it as we go along…

I hope you can join me!

“What are those red things in the hedge?”
“No idea.”
“Come and look – there are two red things in the hedge. They look like… chillies.”

We’ve been promised a storm, and I’m awaiting its arrival at the living room window. But my attention is not on the scudding clouds or the leaden sky, I’m transfixed by the two red things in the hedge.

“I know what they are, or rather, what it is!”
“What?”

As I look at the two strangely shaped red things I have a sudden memory, to a summer day when I was enthusiastically clipping the hedge. I was armed, as usual, with not with just one, but three different types of cutting items, a standard pair of garden shears, some loppers to cut back the bigger branches, and a small pair of secateurs. With red handles.

“It’s my secateurs! I’ve found my secateurs!”
The lack of response is a little aggravating. But I continue enthusiastically nonetheless.
“The red things, they are the handles of my secateurs, I must have balanced them on top of the hedge…”

The discovery is both pleasing and discouraging. How am I that person who loses a pair of secateurs in a hedge? I then begin to idly wonder how many pairs of secateurs are lost in hedges on a regular basis. There is no way I can tell, so I guess that it happens a lot.

“Didn’t you do this with a trowel too?”
The question cuts through my reverie, and I am forced to face facts.
“Do you mean the trowel I left in the bag of ericaceous compost?”
A year or two ago I unwittingly ‘overwintered’ a trowel in a bag of ericaceous compost. I had discovered it in the spring, when I had cause to get some compost out of the bag.

“That trowel was lovely and shiny when it came out of the bag…” I remember that I thought this could be a good way to store tools, the acid in the compost had agreed with stainless steel of the trowel leaving it gleaming. I had however chosen to stick with a mixture of sand and oil for garden tool storage. Buying expensive bags of compost just to stick tools into seemed like a waste. Looking at the red handles of the secateurs I wonder if I’m likely to consider a hedge a good place to store cutting items. I suspect not.

Staring out of the window, I make a mental note: “Don’t, under any circumstances, let anyone find out about this.”

FIVE HOURS EARLIER

“Of all the types of rock,” drones the bore, “I like punk the best.”
Of all the types of rock? I give him a look which says, “you clearly know nothing about music.” But despite this, he carries on regardless. Soon I know his opinions on everything and they are more or less uniformly deplorable.

I choose to break in to his monologue with a left field idea: “If you don’t have a lanyard,” I ask, “do you even have a job?” This throws him, and leaves him searching for words, thus clearing the way for me to the exit the conversation without having to engage in an act of violence – something I had hitherto found myself almost ready for.

The conversation now effectively over, I’m now able to mingle, which is something I’m keen to avoid. Instead I make my way to the kitchen where my wife is holding a mason jar with home made pickled cabbage in it. Her arm is outstretched and she has the appearance of an actor playing Hamlet, holding the skull of Yorick. On the outside of the jar there is white substance which she is looking at suspiciously. “That looks fine.” I say. “It’s just a chemical reaction.”

She continues to look at the jar, before swivelling her head to turn a laser like gaze on to me. “You have a way of saying things,” she says, “which makes it sound like you know what you are talking about, but when you think about what you’ve just said, they don’t make any sense.”

I am undone. Bluffing has got me all the way to 43, but now what? The smokescreen has at last been pierced, and people know. They know.

I’m still thinking the same thought as I stand in front of the window. How many other people know, maybe they all know. Or maybe only one person knows. How do I know?

I’m still standing there thinking the same thing when my wife comes in to the room. “Everything ok?” She says. “I was just thinking,” I reply. “I was thinking that at times like these, I wish I had listened to what my Chemistry teacher used to say.” “Why?” She asks. “What did she say?”

I turn to her with a baleful gaze. “I don’t know. I didn’t listen.”

Original image by Fidlerjan on Morguefile.com Used under Creative Commons.

Original photo by Anthot4 on Morguefile.com. (Creative Commons)

In which I meet a had-been and would-be-again pop star, and am embarrassed by my footwear.

A number of years ago, when I worked for a media organisation which shall remain nameless. Because we were journalists we occasionally got invites to the openings of new places, the best tickets usually went to the senior people, but sometimes the treats trickled down.

On one occasion the entire news team were invited to the opening of a new Go-Karting track, to which a number of media and ‘celebs’ had been invited. It was on a week night, and directly after work, as a result we all turned up in our work gear, which in my case included a pair of pretty shiny black brogues.

I knew – somehow – that we would be given protective overalls to wear, but for some reason I’d somehow overlooked or forgotten about the issue of footwear. As a result I found myself in a changing room pulling on a boiler suit and worrying about my shoes.

The man next to me was also getting changed, and zipping up his grey boiler suit. I suppose I assumed that he was a journalist too, but couldn’t be sure, so I said to him: “What do you do then, mate?” “Oh,” he replied, “I used to be a pop star.” “Really?” I said, looking at him in the hope that I might perhaps recognise him. “Were you in a band then?” “Yes,” he said, “I was in a band called Take That.” “Oh… yes, I’ve heard of them…” I replied rather weakly. This was a fairly momentous error on my part, Take That had been huge shortly beforehand. The conversation ended shortly afterwards, and we said goodbye. He smiled broadly, I grinned sheepishly, and he went off to the track wearing, I noticed, a pair of trainers. I meanwhile tied the laces of my brogues and headed off awkwardly to find my colleagues.

The mystery singer turned out to be Howard Donald, the Take That heart-throb who had until recently sported a head full of dreadlocks. I told myself it was his new hair cut that had flummoxed me. I told the rest of the team about it, noticing that they too had all thought to bring trainers with them. In our team photograph I alone stood wearing the boiler suit and shiny shoes. But we wrote up the story – which was published the following day in the Daily Record, of all places, with the headline ‘Howard is Top of the Crops’ and giving a blow by blow account of our changing room conversation.

Jesse Stone, the now largely forgotten (ironically) Blues musician who some think of as the founder of rock and roll prophesied the nature of my little encounter with Howard when he said: “Fame is a fickle thing… as soon as you relax for five minutes, they’re gone, you know, and they’re following somebody else.”

It’s been a big week.

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.

The new weekday meditations series starts on Monday, I’ve taken a couple of weeks off over Christmas and New Year, which has been great. Sign up today if you fancy heading through 2020 with me.

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.”


Welcome to Chronicles March 2019

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.

The series begins on March 6th, but you can join in any time through the 40 days.

House Conferences

“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

On the Ropes (Mint Royale - cover album).jpg

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.

One argument that is sometimes made against this is Matthew’s designation as ‘tax collector’ which some see as a job which would have meant he was educated and relatively wealthy. This well written article addresses this question, taking a look at the words which designate the sort of tax collectors that Matthew and Zaccheus were, for instance. Written as a conference paper, it’s very readable, and worth a look.