For the last few years I have ‘done something’ for Lent. I think it started a few years back when I took part in a 40 day fast for a food poverty campaign – I thought ‘if I can go without food for forty days, then I can probably do other things too.’ After not eating for six weeks, everything else seemed easy.
That’s how my daily emails began – as a Lent thing. That was before email newslettery things became cool again. I was just giving folk a few things to think about during the whole season of Lent. And then it just carried on for years and years and…
But then 2021 came along, and I didn’t feel like Lent was going to be a time for doing difficult things, or making people think about troubling subjects. So instead I thought I would send people postcards.
I got the idea when I saw that during the 2020 lockdown a theatre company had done a play ‘by post’ – a story told in a series of postcards. I thought – ‘that’s a good idea.’ I am deliberately remaining vague, but with my postcards there will be stuff for you to think about on the back, and the images on the front. Taken together the images will also do something interesting.
I really wasn’t sure if anyone would want to take part, so I sent out a speculative email. It turns out that lots of people do want to – I have another project on my hands.
There’s not much time before I commit to buying a certain number of postcards and stamps – so if you want to get involved – you need to click here. The whole thing will cost you £7.00. Some people have asked me if they can buy bundles of postcards to send to their friends, that too can be arranged if we’re quick – just get in touch if you want to arrange that.
One of the things that make Brian McLaren such a great writer is his tremendous fluidity with words – he is the kind of author who draws you along with the flow of his prose while others seem determined to trip you up with theirs. There’s a risk though, with authors who have this persuasive and easy going prose style, that their content doesn’t hit the sort of heights you might want it to. At first I was concerned this might be the case here – I’ve read many books about spiritual development and I was worried that McLaren was going to present a simplified version of other schemas. I shouldn’t have worried – not only is this a deliciously good read, it is also full of quality ingredients.
McLaren, a pastor and an educator, presents a gentle and hopeful picture of the direction in which doubt can lead us. Rather than presenting a simplified version of ideas by the likes of Fowler and Rohr, he actually improves on them – and demonstrates convincingly why those who spend a lot of time in theological reflection often find it particularly hard to find a home in the church to which they belong.
He correctly (I think) identifies key moments of crisis that precipitate movement from one stage of spiritual development to another and speaks insightfully of the ever-present split between conservative and progressive ‘wings’ of Christianity.
It feels like a very timely book – one which sets out to explain the problem that a lot of people are currently facing as the faith ‘journey’ seems to accelerate so that the kind of experiences that were once commonly faced towards the end of life are now often faced in middle age or even earlier. It is written through the lens of someone who has walked the path and has emerged with the sort of acceptance which characterises the truly spiritually mature. “I do not regret my journey of faith and doubt, because I do not regret who I have become.” He notes. Not enough of us are able or willing to talk about doubt and the part it has to play in our lives – but without it we remain stuck, for we must learn to lose if we wish to gain anything of great value. If you want that pearl of great price, after all, you must first sell all you have.
The book begins with a Paul Tillich quote which seems to serve as a touchstone for McLaren: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it is an element of faith… Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful.”
I’ve read a number of Brian’s books – and his early work was important at a formative time in my own spiritual development. This, I think, may be his best work yet.
Steve Aisthorpe’s new book ’Rewilding the Church’ takes as it’s starting point the enduring fascination in contemporary society for rewilding, a process of returning large tracts of countryside to a more ‘natural’ state in an effort to bring back lost bio-diversity and species rich habitats. Aisthorpe lives in the Scottish Highlands, the Shangri-la of many rewilding devotees who see the mountains and glens as an ideal locus for their efforts. He also works for the Church of Scotland, a historic denomination which faces many of the problems that other denominations do – declining church attendance and challenging issues to do with ministerial recruitment and elderly buildings. An accomplished researcher, Aisthorpe has done fieldwork among those who, while professing Christianity, no longer attend church. This provided the material for his first book ‘The Invisible Church’ and further research has been added to contribute to this one. Aisthorpe has found favour within the Fresh Expressions movement, which in some cases seems to me to serve as a thinly veiled attempt to get people ‘back to church’ – that’s not his approach though: ‘I am certainly not suggesting that anyone should chase after people with the intention of corralling them into homogenised congregations!’ He declares. Aisthorpe as a thoughtful and creative missiologist seems to recognise the opportunities posed by the changes in society that are reflected in this shift away from ‘how things have always been done’ as well as facing the challenges they present.
His book is a good read for those who like me are keen for Christianity to move away from it’s religious trappings and to return to a more fundamental focus on the teachings of Jesus, Steve and I may disagree on points of Christian doctrine, but we’re in full agreement there. He is what some would call a ‘loyal radical’ speaking uncomfortable truths from within the fold of his historical church home. This is recalled throughout the book, not least when he remarks that the church has many unloving critics, and many uncritical lovers, what it can always use, he remarks ‘is some loving critique’. Among other things, Aisthorpe calls for an approach that values simplicity over complexity, he also calls for a place to be found for doubt, questioning and journey ‘Churches perceived as standing for certainty, dogma and fixed practises are no place for pilgrims’ he notes. A lifelong adventurer and outdoorsman, he calls for an ecclesial outlook which values adventure, innovation and exploration.
One of the things that rewilding is famous for as an ideology for its call to re-introduce apex predators as a way of dealing with pests. Aisthorpe stops short of this, but does call for the culling of invasive species like busyness and fear – perhaps this is where he could have gone further, there are other invasive species I’d like to see culled that are much more human than this. My feeling is that he has pulled his punches here a little, however his call for a more contemplative, inclusive and welcoming spirituality is certainly deeply welcome. The book is peppered with quotes which demonstrate the breadth of what I think is his own inclusive and open small ‘e’ evangelical Christianity. As well as frequent Bible references he draws upon a range of popular authors, from Henri Nouwen to Rob Bell, as well as new pieces of field research to make his point. He wants to see a church that is more Jesus shaped and effectively says that unless we loosen our grip on it and allow ourselves to be guided (or lured?) in a spirited direction we will continue to see catastrophic collapse in the church as in our natural environment. “If you want to rewild the Church” he says, “don’t promote mission strategy and teach church-planting tactics. Instead foster a trust in Jesus and nurture a deeper love for those he brings across our path.” Ultimately Aisthorpe believes that God is rewilding the church, the question is whether we try to resist this, or fall in step.
Steve graciously agreed to answer a couple of questions I had about the book – or rather about the concept of rewilding as it applies to the church…
Q: One of the most enduring critiques of rewilding is that it fails to take account of lives and livelihoods in the current landscape. What do you say to those who like ‘church as it is’ and don’t want to see it change?
Authentic Church arises out of our responding to the call of Jesus, ‘follow me’. No blueprint or road map exists. Yes, we can discern certain trajectories and get fleeting glimpses of the destination, but his call is an invitation to join a holy adventure. So the Church is always ‘an interim Church, a Church in transition’ as Hans Kung put it. To go back to the rewilding metaphor, if something carries the label ‘church’ but is committed to remain unchanging I would suggest that it is time for a radical reintroduction programme! Just as the reintroduction of a keystone species impacts the whole ecosystem, individual disciples and any expression of the Church need to allow the one C.S. Lewis called ‘The Great Interferer’ to transform and regenerate the landscape.
Q: A significant barrier to rewilding is the question of ownership, which resolves to ‘money and power’. The church is home to the same issues, how do we tackle that? And how do you approach that personally from your position within a historic denomination?
I live in a valley where the owners on one side manage the land as traditional sporting estates. The land there is managed to ensure that optimum numbers of a very small number of species (deer and grouse) are available at key times of the year. In contrast, the landowners on the opposite side of the valley have entered into a shared commitment to a 200 year plan to rewild the landscape. Ownership makes a huge difference, but it can work in different ways. There are real choices and occasionally owners make courageous, personally sacrificial and radical choices. When it comes to the Church, this is the time for such courageous choices.
Having said that, whether in land or church, I am convinced that ‘small is beautiful’. See below! In my first book, The Invisible Church, there is a cartoon by Dave Walker which pictures a huge ship named ‘The Church Unchanging’. It is sinking and surrounded by a haphazard host of small vessels, life rafts etc. To me, this sums up the current situation. Where ‘ownership’, power and money are centralised in large institutions, this is the time for divesting, decentralising, refocusing resources on the emerging etc.. Personally, working in ‘a historic denomination’ I want to be part of God’s rewilding: subverting traditionalism (not to be confused with tradition, as explained in the book), fear of change and the veneration of things that have ‘always been this way’ wherever I find em – and encouraging and celebrating the faithful rhythm of listening and responding to the one we follow – whether that looks ‘traditional’, innovative or whatever.
Q: Rewilding really requires scale in order to take hold. Just making a hole in your garden fence may encourage biodiversity but it isn’t the same as ‘rewilding’ – how do you address the problem of scale when you’re encouraging people to think ‘small’?
The question of scale is an interesting one. My observation is that God’s rewilding of the Church is reflected in a simplification, a flourishing of the small and simple and the rapid decline of the large and the complex. While the increasing interest in cathedral worship is one of many indicators that large institutions will continue to be part of the overall biodiversity that is the Church, there is no doubt that the overall balance is shifting towards the small and the simple. Rewilding the Church will involve a revolution of small things. The Church (and that includes us, because we are the church) needs to recapture a sense of its identity as the global body of Christ, but also foster the small and local, where Christian community can be sufficiently agile to respond to the Spirit’s life. If all you are able to do is the ecclesiastical equivalent of making a hole in your garden fence, do it! Who knows where it’ll lead!
“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.
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.”
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.“
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…
At the end of 2018 I did a small survey of some people who regularly read the stuff that I write. One of the things I asked was – ‘what can I improve on?’ I got a number of answers, including: “get better at grammar”, but it also became clear that some people wanted to read more on some of the more complex topics that I write about.
I usually write short articles, blog pieces are never more than a few hundred words, and my daily emails are only three paragraphs. So yes, there is room for me to write some more lengthy articles.
I’ve had a good think about how best to do this, and I’ve come up with a new project: ‘longform‘. Basically I’m going to write a longish article each month, in the region of 2000 – 3000 words. And that will allow me to go into a little more depth on some interesting topics.
I’m a journalist by background, as you may already know, but I’m also working on a PhD, so these articles are likely to be a mixture of essays and articles, with maybe an interview or two thrown in.
As usual with my work, it will be free to access. But something else that was made clear to me last year is that some people want to contribute, now and then, towards the work that I do. Which is nice. So there is a button for you to donate, if you wish to, when you download an article. Or if you prefer, you can pay a small monthly subscription, and I’ll send you the article by email.
The longform project will kick off on January 26th, with an essay giving a political take on an interesting Bible story, it’s called “Swine Flew: the curious case of the Gerasene Demoniac“. I can’t promise perfect grammar, but I’ll try.