Lost Soul?

I sometimes fear we have lost our souls. I look around and see the departure of soul from so many sectors of life.


The same soul flight seems to have affected our religious traditions.
Is it possible to still encounter soul in the superficiality of modern life?


If soul is that which animates us, it seems to currently live in interesting places. Many pilgrims witness that they are enlivened by travel and wilderness experiences. There is a new spirituality that doesn’t need to conform to dogma. In caring for plants, animals and people who are suffering. In stewarding ecology and once again finding divinity in nature, soil and sea.

On closer investigation it seems we haven’t lost our souls, they are very much with us, but need a different diet to cope with the challenges of our hyper-driven world.

Food for the soul is still abundant and this video explores how to find and nurture soul.

The Masked Persona or Facebook Self

In this episode I explore the role of the inner “persona” or mask in our relationship to the world.
The word persona comes from Latin and is the term Romans used for the Greek theatrical mask (prosopon) which allowed actors to play more than one role. Because there were no big screens or optics to improve the audience’s view, the masks were larger than the actors’ heads and set in expressions that portrayed the nature of each character.
We all have a public Facebook self-mask that we have curated for the world.
Sometimes our professions seduce us into stereotypical ways of being in those roles.
The mental-healthy trick is not to become over identified with the masks of our professional or social roles, but to be as authentic when facing the public as when facing ourselves.

You can schedule one on one Skype or Zoom sessions with Peter by emailing peterwoods.pe@gmail.com

‘Talk is cheap’, they say, ‘but money buys the whisky’.

There are various forms of this adage. The earliest one written down is from P.T. Barnum the circus tycoon whose antics were recently told in the movie The Greatest Showman. He said, ‘Talk is cheap, until you hire a lawyer.’

Speaking of whisky and illusionists, if you have ever worked with an addict you will know just how cheap talk can be. Especially if the talk can buy whisky or any other addictive substance they need to survive. The cheapest talk from addicts are their words of apology that roll out so easily when they’ve been exposed in some dishonesty. Addicts regularly paint themselves into some corner by lies and deception in support of their habit. Usually the apology follows a standard form, “I am so sorry for the hurt I have caused”. Said with doleful face and cast down looks the words mean nothing and will be repeated just as easily next time the addict is cornered.

The most effective method ever devised for dealing with addiction, any addiction, are the Twelve Steps. This recovery map first used in Alcoholics Anonymous is now applied in almost any self help programme where people are trying to curb their destructive behaviour. When you examine the twelve steps surprisingly there is not a single mention of apologising. The word is never used. Not that addicts have nothing to apologise for either. If you have lived with an addict you know how much damage they can cause.

So why does AA not speak of apologising for the harm? Because recovery from addiction doesn’t happen by talking.
No significant change in behaviour or circumstances comes from cheap talk. A fact politicians and preachers know only too well. Talk changes nothing. What changes anything is action. So if you want to change, alter your behaviour and attitude.

Oh and by the way, don’t tell me, show me.

The twelve steps calls it making amends. It’s step nine of the twelve and right after, ‘We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.’ Having completed the list in step eight the person in recovery is reminded by the old timers who have gone before and who are now their sponsors how ‘We made direct amends to such people (we had harmed) wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.’

No cheap talk apology here. If you are serious about recovering from your destructive behaviour don’t apologise, make it right. Make amends. Fix what you broke.
Who can count the parents, spouses, children, employers, friends, and family repeatedly suffer the destructive effects of some deeply addicted person they care about? They pray, they care, they rescue, they enable and through it all the addict simply mouths some cheap apology whilst stealing their money to buy the whisky.

Recovery lies in making amends and not in apologising.

Tolerating Intolerance

TOLERANCE“You get what you tolerate”, was tattooed on the inside of her forearm. I suggested “You get what you negotiate”, she was adamant and anyway it was her arm! I didn’t argue but I did ruminate.

We really are becoming less and less tolerant. Especially in matters of faith. Fundamentalism,a relatively new phenomenon and a reaction to the Modernism and Humanism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is deeply suspicious of change. It attacks any new viewpoint in ethics, social behaviour and human rights and yet is the fastest growing sector of all religions not just Christianity.

In Judaism it’s Zionism and Askenazism and in Hinduism the Indian BJP movement. In Buddhism the 969 movement in Burma is extremely intolerant of Muslim Rohingas, and Islam is disproportionately caricatured as only producing Jihadists.

It would be naive to assume that fundamentalism is about religion. These zealots may practice their faith aggressively but in almost every case fundamentalism pursues some nationalist agenda. Religions falter when they lose their essential focus on spreading goodwill and making the world a better place, and are instead seduced by power and privilege for only their members. At that exact point a nationalist agenda will embrace religion to spread the lie that only certain lives matter.

But how do these nationalist-fundamentalist intolerants find a foothold in civilised democratic countries as they do? The ironic answer takes us back to my friend’s tattoo. “You get what you tolerate.”

Some of the world’s most sophisticated nations have fallen prey to militant fundamentalism simply because they regard religious tolerance as the politically correct thing to do. Religious tolerance in Europe only appeared after the French Revolution when one of the proto-republic’s founding philosophers Voltaire was banished from France and lived in England for two years. There he penned twenty four “Letters concerning the English nation” to explain the islanders to a friend back home.

A surprised Voltaire writes, “This is the country of sects. An Englishman, as a freeman, goes to Heaven by whatever road he pleases.” The statement had profound implications for any citizen of France, a nation that had almost destroyed itself in order to establish Catholicism as the only practised religion. Now Voltaire saw that English society was as bigoted as his homeland and how only Anglicans made it in politics and power, but he noticed when it came to business, “the Jew, the Mahometan (sic), and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel only for those who go bankrupt.”

So in England religious diversity was easier to tolerate than financial failure and where politics always bedeviled religion, money made anything tolerable.
It was this free market and business openness that created the religious tolerance which empowered progress in the West.

Sadly with the rise of fundamentalism and the reactive intolerance of America and Brexit so evident, one can only expect the reversal of that progress in years ahead.

The power of the feminine to save. Even from Hell

We all enjoy a love story.

This one from medieval Italy is similar to a million others but is special because it happened to a great poet who recorded it in the most beautiful language. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is famous for writing the “Divine Comedy” which shaped Christianity’s ideas of heaven and hell forever.

He describes how he began to write the epic poem while he was walking along in the afternoon of his life and fell into a deep hole. There is no better description of the midlife crisis than going along with your life when suddenly you fall into a hole. These crises are usually about our unfinished business or unlived life. For Dante it was his incomplete relationship with Beatrice whom he had met when he was only nine. Years later as an adult Dante was standing near the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge that crosses the Arno River in Florence when he saw Beatrice as an adult and fell deeply in love. Dante did not speak to her that day. In fact he saw her very little, and then Beatrice suddenly died, carried off by plague.

Dante was stricken with the loss of his vision. She was the intermediary between his soul and Heaven itself. Dante went on to marry, and he and Signora Alighieri raised three children. Then, suddenly, at the midpoint of his life, he fell into a deep depression. Here his work began.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante is led down through the nine levels of hell by the poet Virgil, symbol of reason and intellect. Dante discovers surprisingly that the lowest level of hell isn’t fire, it is frozen. That arctic wasteland the intellect will bring us to. So he leaves Virgil behind and is led out of hell by none other than his beloved Beatrice. The message is clear. The soul, not the intellect leads out of hell to heaven. The moist, soft feminine soul, not sterile male logic is the way to salvation. Love not reason saves Dante, and us all.

dante out of hell.jpg

Six hundred and fifty years later, during World War II, the Americans were chasing the German army up the Italian “boot.” The Germans were blowing up everything to thwart the progression of the American army, including the bridges across the Arno River. But no one wanted to blow up the Ponte Vecchio because Beatrice had stood on it and Dante had written about her.
So the German army made radio contact with the Americans and, in plain language, said they would leave the Ponte Vecchio intact if the Americans would promise not to use it.

The promise was held. The bridge was not blown up, and not one American solider or piece of equipment went across it. Crazy, isn’t it? Completely illogical. But life isn’t a rational story, it is a love story. Hardened warrior men were turned by creative feminine emotion. In a modern, ruthless war, the bridge was spared, because beautiful Beatrice had stood upon it.

(Many thanks to Robert A Johnson for the bulk of this from his Inner Gold)

Nest or Nets? Matthew 4:12–23 Epiphany 3A /Ordinary 3

nest3Matthew 4:12–23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

There is a poster in popular use to advertise retreats. The picture is usually of a single person in a solitary place, and the caption reads, “Sometimes you have to withdraw from the world to find your place in it.

If we read Matthew chapter 4 carefully we will see that it is a chapter of two withdrawals. The first is Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. The second is a withdrawal anachoreo to Capernaum by Jesus when he hears that John the Baptiser has been arrested.

Anachoreo is an interesting word. It is the root of the word “anchorite” which describes hermits in general and later came to to specifically describe a form of religious life during the early and high middle ages. At this time men (anchorites) and women (anchoresses) withdrew from society and were cloistered away in cells (anchorholds) usually attached to churches.

In Britain the most famous Anchoress is undoubtedly Dame Julian of Norwich, whose record of the mystical “shewings” given her are recorded in her book “Revelations of Divine Love” which is still in print.

The anchorite was often walled into the anchorhold by the Bishop who at that time would conduct their funeral liturgy as they became dead to the world. The rest of their life would be spent walled in with one window, called a hagioscope or squint, open to the high altar of the church so that they could watch the mass. Another window opened to the street through which food and presumably excrement could be passed and also through which people could seek the counsel of the holy soul inside.

Life for Jesus, as for us, took some interesting turns, didn’t it? Driven by fear of persecution by Herod, in the wake of John’s arrest, Jesus anchorites it to Capernaum, possibly to live a life of solitude and prayer? But that is not to be. One day on a quiet stroll along the shoreline of lake Galilee, Jesus in introverted mode, happens upon some fishermen casting their nets.

I would like to think that there was something in the archetypal symbolism of those fish gathering nets that jarred Jesus out of his introverted seclusion into an extroverted invitation to those early followers to come and “fish for the lost people of the house of Israel and indeed the whole world”

Its as if the anchorite nest was converted that day into missionary nets.

In times of dread and threat, nothing seems more inviting than to wall ourselves off from life threatening humanity.

It is then that we have to balance the hermit and the helper, the monk and the missionary.

Jesus found his largest appeal in a desert country he ran to while trying to avoid his mission.

We will probably experience the same.

Whipped up enough to pour yourself out?- Narrative Lectionary John 2:13-25

John 2:13–25

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

Jesus the Jew goes to Jerusalem for a major religious festival. If you read the gospels regularly you will know that the editor of John’s gospel has put this report in a different place from the three synoptics which have it in the final fateful week of Jesus’ life.

It is an editors privilege to do so. As a newspaper columnist I know that editors place columns in strategic places for effect. If current editorial principles applied to the compilation of John’s gospel, it suggests that moving the story of the cleaning of the temple from a finale story to a initial story in the Jesus record gives it more importance. It is as if the editor is saying , “If you want to understand the story of Jesus you have to see him in the context of this temple confrontation” .

In a recently published book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”, inter-faith author Reza Aslan suggests that the Jesus of history was first and foremost a Jew, speaking to Jews, and attempting to reform and revolutionize oppressed Jewish political and religious reality in first century Palestine. Alsan argues that although we know precious little about Jesus, the fact that we do know that he was crucified tells us that he was executed for crimes against the Roman Empire. The Romans who learnt crucifixion from the Greeks who learnt it, via Alexander the Great, from the Persians; reserved it solely for punishing political enemies.
It is this Jesus, one messiah amongst many contemporary claimants at the time, who Aslan succeeds in re-introducing to his readers. A zealot whose zeal for the temple consumed him.

It is with this as background that I read the gospel narrative for this Sunday (in the Lutheran Narrative Lectionary)

Through this lens there are three aspects I would like to comment on as I bolded them in the text above:

  1. The Passover of the Jews was near…he found people selling…” Right there we have the confrontation of Jesus the devout Jew with the populist religion that his dear faith had become. It was then and still is now, prohibited for Orthodox Jews to trade during the Passover. The feast has as its deepest intention a memorial to the emancipation of Hapiru (slaves) from the tyranny of superpower Egypt. Yet here they were, centuries later, enslaved once more to superpower Rome, who used the temple rituals as part of their occupation strategy.
  2. Making a whip (phragellion) of cords, … He also poured out (ekcheo) the coins” Jesus the scourger with a whip, ends his life in the very temple he comes to cleanse and then in Pilate’s precinct, he is the one who is scourged. The action with the coins is even more interesting to me. The word ekcheo is used most in the New Testament in the book of Revelation where seven of the nine instances refer to the pouring out of the vials of judgement and wrath in the angels’ hands. Other usages in the New Testament refer to the spilling of blood or most graphically in Acts 1:18 to the gushing out of the ruptured bowels of Judas. There is something visceral here in the passion of Jesus for cleansing the temple. Again as with the flagellation, how ironic is it that his is the blood that is spilt? Blood money and sweating blood for money are the strange alchemical mixtures that curse our age and every age before us.
  3. “But he was speaking of the temple of his body”… It was Richard Rohr, who made me aware that a core contribution of Jesus’ teaching to the religious understanding of the planet is that Jesus taught that the sanctuary for divine/human encounter lies, not in external structures, sacrifices or symbolic acts, but rather Jesus understood and taught that the temple was an inner space. The kicker being that if the temple is within, then says Rohr, the only sacrifice that remains is my false self to the True Self. Jesus models this truth in his own life and body temple.

How may we continue to pour ourselves out zealously from the inner sanctuaries of our hearts to those who suffer in the structures of systemic oppression?

How did John see the Spirit anyway? – Epiphany 2 / Ordinary 2

John_baptist_byzantine

John 1:29-42
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

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This passage is remarkable for a whole raft of reasons.

Some that demand my attention are firstly, the psychic nature of John the Baptiser’s “seeing” of the Spirit descending on Jesus. (Of course it doesn’t help that I am reading Stephen King’s , “Doctor Sleep” his sequel to “The Shining”)

Nonetheless, there is a sense that not everyone saw what John saw, which begs the question as to what the pre-requisites for such sight, inner sight or insight are?

If I were to have a guess, it would be John’s complete and utter willingness (as opposed to usual human willfulness)to be used by God.
Notice how once he has seen that Jesus is the bearer of the Spirit he is quite happy to stop his path finding and road levelling ministry and even to hand over his disciples to Jesus.

Which is the second impressive thing about John.

Not only is he willing and obedient He also seems completely devoid of egotistical ambition, selfishness and that clinging to success that begrudges anyone else a chance to do better.

So the point to ponder should you want to see the moments when the Spirit descends on people, places and contexts is to cultivate the non-attachment that doesn’t want the Spirit for oneself.

Another remarkable part of the narrative is the descriptor that John uses for Jesus.
Alright, I know that this story is layered with first century church reflection on the Eucharist and there is significant reading back, but the words still get my contemplative attention.

“Look, the lamb of God who bears the failures of the whole, out of sync, creation.”

(My justification for this translation is that the word kosmos only appears in the New Testament and not the Greek Old Testament It is used as a reference to the created order, implying an ordered, logical world. Sin (hamartia) is thus the condition of disorderedness which is what Jesus has, under the Spirit’s anointing, come to bear towards restoration)

Small wonder then that the two disciples of John say to Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” (annointed one).

Keep noticing though that their acknowledgement of Jesus seems to rest, not on their own insight but simply on the recognition and endorsement of their teacher John the willing and ego-less baptiser.

After thirty years of preaching round about 1500 sermons, I can’t help envying John that depth of spirituality and inner-light that invited such profound trust from those he taught. When he said that he had seen the Spirit descend on Jesus and that he was the Lamb of God to be followed, they believed him because his life to that point was so believable.

May your hearers see the same in you this Sunday O proclaimers of the Lamb of God.

Cultivating Change – Lent 3C

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

I keep meaning to look up the definition of procrastination, but I never seem to get round to it.
I really want to change, but Lent after Lent comes around and the same old issues, attitudes and addictions bedevil my development and growth in love.
As a columnist I know the power of deadlines. There is something about having to submit copy by Tuesday that sharpens my focus and gets me tapping away at the keys. I know that the deadline will not slow down it’s inexorable approach, so I had better get my act together and be ready for its arrival.
The gospel story of the martyred Galileans and those killed in the disastrous fall of the tower of Siloam, reflect that the dead did not have had any time to prepare for deaths.
According to this parable our lives have a deadline. The presence of a “dead”-line, (pun intended), should move us to fruitfulness in our lives. According to the story, the fruition of our life is not complicated. If you are a fig tree, produce figs. If you are a vine, grapes.
So often we fall into the trap of assuming that spirituality involves becoming who we inherently are not. That is not true. The Lord does not expect anything, except for us to fruitfully be who were created to be.
So let’s use this Lent to dig around the roots of our lives and prune ourselves into fruition. This may be our last opportunity.
Oh, one last thing, if you are wondering about where the manure comes from, remember Forrest Gump and his wise words, “Sh#t happens”. The failures and hurts of the past are the fecund compost of today.
Can you dig it?