A Mystical Experience:Making French Onion Soup

The other day, my wife came home and said “ I went to a café for lunch. We had French Onion Soup, but it was terrible. No where near like the one we had in Paris.”


Now the French Onion soup that we had in Paris was something else. We were on the way by train from Brussels where the airport had been bombed, to our home in Switzerland. We had stopped half way between stations in Paris for lunch. There was a lovely restaurant, with tables on the footpath, and beautiful soup, with cheese and bread, and a glass of white wine.


So when my wife commented on the soup, I said “I might make some!’ I got out our wedding present of Julia Childs’ “Mastering French Cooking”, and look at the recipe. It was long! It took about an hour of simmering and stirring the onions before adding the wine and stock. But then came the stock! Making beef stock for the stew was going to take five hours! I went to the butcher, bought some meat, collected the other vegetables for the bouquet garnet, and filled the pot with water. Simmering for 4 hours. Then came the slicing of the onions, cooking in butter, and then caramelizing them.


But the result was amazing. I was transported back to Paris on that March day.

But here’s the thing. I was ‘in the zone!’ Something mystical grabbed me as I read the Julia Childs book, and experienced myself, transported to in the French countryside where the making of this soup is a normal part of ordinary life.


I had experienced something like this some years before, when I discovered that making a curry is not just about ‘getting some meat and adding curry powder’, but that there is an infinite variety of kinds of curry powder, made up of lots of different spice combinations. What fun it was, making curry with mortar and pestle, and the right choice of spices.


Now my friend Nigel, a Francophile, had told me about this ‘ethos’ of French cooking: from the storing of duck in goose fat, to the making of different sauces. But at that time I had not ‘got it’, but more to the point I had not been ‘got’ by it!


But now, starting with the making of the French Onion Soup, I have been got! To think that people can open a packet of dried, French onion Soup and then just add water. No!!!


So what has ‘got me?’ First the simplicity. French onion soup I made from the simplest of ingredients, that anyone will have, just hanging around. Bones, carrots, herbs, parsley, leeks, onions, cheese, bread.


These ingredients are sort of ‘just there’. It’s not as if I had to go to get anything special, except the bones for the beef stock, and even then we used ‘dog bones’!


But the taste! What a sublime taste can come from such simplicity. I love it.


Then the next ingredient is time! It is not a very concentrated time, but a long time. The soup (apart from about a half an hour’s time with the onions) can be made while attending to the rest of the house: cleaning, chatting, going into the garden to get flowers. The making of the soup happens around a day’s activities. The luxury of such time is like the luxury of a five day cricket match!


This experience reminded me of ‘Babette’s Feast’. It felt religious, because I was in a place where everything seemed to fit together.


This experience reminded me of when a Eucharist that really ‘clicks’: the memory of the past, and how great the soup was, the being really caught up in the making of the soup, over the course of a day, the connection with s bigger world called ‘French Cooking’ that was opened up to me, in the concrete action of actually cooking something French and the simplicity of the ingredients! All of these elements also go into connecting me with God, in Christ. I am reminded of what has been, and how other Eucharists have been occasions of love, or celebration or forgiveness.


I am reminded of the time it takes to enter into the world that is disclosed by the Eucharist (especially over Holy Week and Easter). How I am called not to worry about how long it is taking, but to ask myself ‘where am I up to with God, now?’


I am reminded of the simplicity of the elements that go to make up a Eucharist. Just bread and wine and reading and prayer: mix, together with attention, for a delicious meal!


And last, the complexity and beauty of the taste that results, when shared with loved ones.


I’m hooked. How this connection between being Christian and making French Onion Soup will work its way out, but it has certainly worked its way in!!


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How I Also Am Prone To Using Clichés

Recently I found out that I am as much subject to using clichés as anyone else.


Listen to this. I was speaking to my sister who was telling me about her recent experiences in their gospel reflection group. They were reading the resurrection appearance stories, just after Easter, and they began to wonder about who these ‘men in whiter’ might be.


Well, as soon as I heard the phrase ‘men in white’, I immediately went, in thought, to the commentaries. There they say “Any reference to people in white is a reference to either angels or baptism candidates’. That was going to be my ‘stock answer.’


But wisely, I did not say anything till she had finished speaking.


Then my sister said “So we were thinking about what function these ‘men in white’ had in the story. They acted like guides to the bewildered disciples. They helped them to understand the meaning of the events that they were witnessing”. So then we got to thinking about ‘Well, who are the ‘men in white’ for us? This led to some productive thinking, and the identification of people and things tat guide us.”


Well I was surprised and appreciated this insight that my sister had shared a great deal.


So listening to this story put me in mind of the way in which I ‘run to a cliché in order to simply ‘have something’ that stops me from thinking about a thing with fresh eyes, or for a second time.


I am reminded of the book that I have used called ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’.


The thesis of the book is that up to about twelve years of age, we really look at the world, and within the limitations of our age, draw what we see. Gradually we build up an internal ‘library’ of what things look like.


This means that when someone says ‘draw a house’ we draw a box with windows and a door with a chimney. But we don’t draw any given actual house. But at twelve, we want our drawings to look more like the real thing, so we keep trying.


The problem is that the ‘library’ of possibilities that we have is so rich and dominant, that it is impossible not to drag one out for what ever we want to draw. Not being ale to circumvent the library, we give up.


So the book suggests that we need ways of making things look strange again, so that we can really look at them. We had to turn things upside down, or draw them without looking at the paper.


This actually works, and reminds me of an other practice that I have done called ‘Zen Seeing’.


So this is what happened to me when I was listening to my sister. They had come up with a new way of seeing this story. I was still in my ‘library function’.


I am also reminded of another book called ‘Power in the Helping Professions.’ Here the author says that in the helping professions, we also have our ways of defending ourselves against some unpleasant, and sometimes ugly truth about ourselves. He says hat we are so good at rationalising that we need relationships that do not respect our ‘position’(like those with children) to unsettle us, so that our defences against a new way of looking at things can be lowered.


So again, the idea that growth or refreshment comes through a breaking of the clichés is reflected not only in art, but in the field of being a ‘helper’ too.


Think of all the Robyn Williams films (‘Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Patch Adams) that tell the story of people who were able to bring new life to staid institutions because they were prepared to look at things in a different way.


I am also thinking about how a person’s faith grows up. In the beginning we get images o Go from the bible stories which express the Fathering of God, and the wonder of being alive and so on. But then these images do not satisfy us as we get past the teenage years.


They need re-working, they need us to look at them again in order to understand them as adults. It is in this way that images an d stories about God can speak to us again, just as my sister found.


The sad thing is that many both in he church and outside of it, do not do this work. Consequently many leave the church at the spot where a re-looking is what is needed.


The same is true of us in the church. Following Jesus means a regular attempt to open ourselves up to new ways of looking at the Scriptures, to thinking about the whole library of images that we have been given.


To do that, we also need to b e in regular contact with people who will do this with us.


Maybe this is what St. Paul meant when he (could have) said “The cliché brings death, but the Spirit (who is a winnowing fire) brings life.

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Another Cliché: “I can be moral without being Christian”

I can’t stop thinking about clichés!


Here is another one. Philip Adams uses it a lot, but he is not the only one. This cliché is ‘It is possible to live a moral life, or to have a good ‘morality’ without being religious at all.


This repost is in response mostly to Christians who say “Look. What is ‘moral’ derives from some kind of code outside of humanity. Without something ‘other’ (like God) then kit is not possible to have a really moral life. Christians say “Well if you claim to be ‘moral’ where does ‘morality’ come from?


Well, one place morality comes from is ‘our group.’ This means that what is ‘right and wrong’ depends upon the collective, but unconsciously held, sense of what is good and what is bad. This works ok, so long as ‘our group’ does not mix much with ‘their group’ that will have another sense of right and wrong.


In a globalised world, this is getting harder and harder.


Just yesterday, we saw the case of a former Imam who presided over the marriage of a 14 yr. old girl to a 35 yr. old man. For ‘our group’ this is immoral, and illegal, so he was convicted. But for their group, it was ok, presumably. The problem comes when we ask the question ‘well whose group is gong to win in the competition for what ids right and wrong?”


Most of he time we never get there. In the small family groups in which we live, maybe of about 50 people, morality is imposed by the group on is members, without much questioning about where it comes from, or why it is that way. Mostly ewe get along fine, living this unconscious morality.

This is even so for Christians.


One can step back from he idea of ‘our group’ and ‘their group’ and say ‘But there are universal human values that everyone should adhere to. After all, we have the ‘universal declaration of human rights.’ Even this will not work, because there is no ‘universal agreement’ or at least world wide agreement about what these human rights ought to be.


In one case it comes down to ‘might is right’ and that ‘history is written by the winners’. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, and until the outcome of the conflict is known, who will be declared ‘immoral’ is up for grabs.


The other way of approaching morality is to ask the question ‘Well, what does it mean to be a human being?’ Often this question is also not within the realms of becoming conscious, so we are back with ‘might makes right’. The person who has the power to force another person to behave in a certain way, imposes their morality on those who don’t.


This applies to the morality of how we treat refugees, of whom we let out on bail, and whom we lock up and for how long.


The best thing I heard about ‘non religious’ morality came from an atheist, Douglas Murray, who was speaking on the ‘Late Night live’ programme, with Philip Adams, and was I think a challenge to him. Douglas Murray said something like “Our values do not just hang in the air. They have a history. And in Europe, our values have been shaped by Christianity. I accept them, but I don’t accept the God who is supposed to be behind them.”So Douglas Murray is acknowledging the historicity of his value system. He has a sense of where they came from.


Which gets me to the idea of a process whereby we might proceed with one another.


For my money, the morality of a thing depends upon the story that one tells ones self about that thing. Morality is based in narrative.


Christians cannot prove the existence of God, but we do have a group of stories (including the story of our God) that tell us what things mean. As we seek to work out what is right and wrong, we can refer to our stories, and ask ‘Well how is this story important to us now, and what can we do about it so that our lives are found within the world described by that story?’


Then we can ask the same of other people “Can you tell us the story of how it came to be that you are as you are? This at least, though not the end of the matter, at least gives us a way into the meaning of life for those who do not share our story.

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How Everyone Can go Beyond “Spiritual But Not Religious”

Thinking about clichés last week, put me in mind of one more than needs some exploration.


This is the oft heard statement “Well, I’m spiritual but not religious’.


It is interesting that the form of cliché that people use to say “I don’t go to Church” has changed over the years.


In the days when I first became a priest people used to say “Well you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’, now they say “I’m spiritual but not religious”


When I ask “What practices do you do that make you call yourself ‘spiritual’ they will often say “Well I sometimes talk God in the car, or before I go to bed.’ Sometimes they will say “I believe that there is as higher power and that everything happens for a reason.’ Then sometimes people might say “Well I believe in the power of crystals, and I have a ‘dream-catcher’ above my bed. I try to be ‘mindful’ too.


These are good practices I think, for an eclectic kind of spirituality. And I am not against borrowing from other traditions either.


Meditation, for example, is a practice hat has been in the forefront of Eastern religion, but until recently (I mean perhaps he 1960s) this kind of prayer has not been common in Christianity, even thought it has been a part of our tradition.


But the thing that worries me about this cliché are two things. First, it is individualistic. As such it cannot have much force to shape a person’s life.


There is truth in the song ‘For The Union Makes Us Strong’ which says ‘Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one!’


In an individualistic age, people are conned I think into believing that their beliefs are theirs alone. In fact beliefs and practices derive from traditions that are collectively held. So while it is necessary that congregations attend to the individual journeys of their members in a way that was not done before, it is also true that modern individualists need to attend to the collective nature of belief. You can’t have spirituality without religion (collective spirituality). Well, you might be able to have spirituality without religion, but only at the cost of a wilful blindness as to where these spiritual practices come from.


Religion represents the collective expression of spirituality, and lets people know that they are not ‘alone’ in sharing these practices.


But the other thing that worries me about the ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ cliché is that it is a ‘close down’ sentence but not an ‘opening up’ sentence.

The person who says it says “Here is what I think. It nods in your direction, because you too might be spiritual, but because you go to Church on Sunday, you are ‘religious’ I don’t go to Church on Sunday, I’m not ‘religious’, but that’s ok so don’t raise this question with me.


In a sense, I think that ‘religious people’ could be more ‘spiritual’ and ‘spiritual’ people could be more ‘religious’ because both ways of being are interdependent, and belong together. It is a mistake to separate them because to do so means that the ‘spiritual’ person is relying on their heritage of religion, but not acknowledging it and giving it its due value, or being influenced at the collective level by some other claim on their ultimate values (religion) that is also unconsciously held (like work, family, sporting association).


I am also aware that just writing this is not going to change anyone. People are more likely to act themselves into new ways of thinking, than think themselves into new ways of acting.


Here is an experiment I did in the early 2000s. I thought that the Gospel stories were pretty good, and that they held lots of numinous power, or ‘surplus meaning, following Michael Polyani.


Anyone , religious, spiritual or undefined could these stories, and ask, “So what does this story say to me, and what can we do about this in the next period of time? Responding to the stories is what is important. The God who stands behinds the stories ids not an impersonal ‘higher power’ in whom one has to believe, this God comes with our appreciation of and responding to these stories.


So in the responding and acting, spirituality and religion unite in the group of people gathered to read them.


We did this experiment with a group of Christi9ans from the local congregation, and some other people who were friends of mine.


We had our share of difficulties, but in the end, I think that this form of meeting is a way of getting beyond the exchanges of ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ or this kind of reflection that tries to open up the intellectual holes in this cliché. I guess I’m with Nick Cave “And I believe there’s some kind of path….that we can walk down, me and you.”

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Why I’d Rather Have A Funeral Than A Celebration Of My Life

This week, I heard an announcement of a state funeral for a significant member of the community, who had recently died.


The radio announcer said “There will be a ‘celebration of the life of ‘X’’ in the Recital Centre.


This announcement captured my attention. These days, the most common way of describing what happens after a person dies is not to have a ‘funeral’, but a celebration of their life.


When I have spoken to mourners who have come to me to arrange the funeral of their loved one, they often say “Oh, we don’t want a ‘funeral’, we would rather have a celebration of their life.


So I thought that having been in the business of being a Christian priest, part of whose job it is to arrange and conduct funerals, I thought that this sentiment ought to be unpacked.


Is seems to me that the term ‘celebration of life’ has become a cliché. Like all clichés it both reveals something, and hides something.


For me, the emphasis on a ‘celebration of life’ comes from the fact that many people see a ‘funeral’ as being too much focused on loss.


Many people want to read the poem by Henry Scott-Holland and say


Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.

Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.


This is not a ‘bad’ sentiment, in itself, but here is something interesting.


Henry Scott-Holland was a priest. He wrote this poem, minimising death, because he believed that dying was not all that there is. He ends his poem with


Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.*

All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

Believing that death is not an ‘uyltimate’ reality, but a secondary one, places a person’s life in a particular context.


But when the Christian context of a person’s life is not there, the all hat is left is this life, the past, and the desire to ‘celebrate’ that life.


Thanks to my mentor, David, I have been made aware that a funeral has much more to it than a celebration of a person’s life.


Here is what as passed on to me, which I now pass onto you.


The first thing to say is that a Christian Funeral is a pastoral event. This means that although there are prayers said and so on, it is possible for non believers to be present without being offended, or asked to do anything that they can’t with integrity, participate in.


Because a funeral is a ‘liturgy’ (i.e., work!) there are a number of tasks that need to be achieved.


First, we give thanks to God for the life of the person whop has died. This is the ‘celebration of their life’, but it is done ‘God-ward’ as it were. We acknowledge our being creatures of the Creator, and return thanks to God for the life of the person who has died.


But there is more! The very measure of the value of a person’s life is the same measure in which we will miss them because they have died. So allowing ourselves to grieve, in public officially is an important pastoral element of a funeral. We do not ‘hold it together’ and pretend that we have not lost someone, but tell the truth, and mourn their loss.


Being in the presence of a coffin is a p[powerful wake up call too, that we will all die. Being aware o our own mortality ,makes us gentler on our own perfectionist selves, and is a spur to fix up that which is not yet healed, before we too die!


Finally, it is possible in a funeral to make meaning out of death. We can give expression to the hope that the sundering that is represented by death is not the primary reality, but that the putting-together that makes for life and love is, since Easter Day the primary reality in which we live, whether we know it or not, that is what Christians say about death.


For the sake of those who will be alive when I am dead, I would much rather have a funeral, with all of the things in it that I have mentioned, than a celebration of my life.


*Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/death-is-nothing-at-all-by-henry-scott-holland

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What Does It Mean That We Are So Interested In Life On Other Planets?


There has been a lot about space exploration in the media recently. Mostly this has come about because suddenly, we have gone from thinking that there were not many planets around other stars, to actually finding out that there are hundreds, and many of them would be in the

‘habitable zone’.


So the media reports most often go like this Scientists have discovered a new planet orbiting around star “X”, and it is in the habitable zone. Are we alone? Is there life on other planets?”


So my question is “Why are we so concerned about being alone in the universe?”


One way of getting at an answer to this, is to ask “Well, what would be different if we discovered that there was life on other planets?



First, I don’t think anyone is going to be too exercised if we find bacteria or mould on other planets.

This would confirm that yes, the creation of life is something that is part of the structure of the universe. I don’t think that it is going to be possible to prove hat there is no life anywhere else, in which case, we would be special. But knowing that ‘the coming into being of life’ is a common thing puts us within the whole framework of ‘the creation’: something hat we already knew.


But things get interesting if we discover that there is life capable of communicating with us in some way.


Then, when I discover that ‘we are not alone in the universe’ I start to ask he questions like “What are their intentions toward me?” What kind of a culture do they have? “Are they ‘more advanced’ or less advanced than we are, and if so, what re my rights and obligations toward them?


It strikes me that these questions are the same ones as we those which we ask of ‘others’ on this planet. Mould or bacteria cannot be truly ‘other’, but some form of life that we recognise as ‘truly other’ from us, then raises all of these questions. These are the very ones that we have now.


I can imagine some future ‘president of earth’ saying about other life forms ‘We decide who comes to our planet, and under what circumstances they come!’


There would be questions about resources, and whether or not we can trust these new beings.


If it turned out that we were more powerful than we are, would we treat them any better than we treated the colonies or other indigenous people as they encountered us in the recent past? Do we hope that they might treat us better than we would treat them?


This highlights for us no the morality of our treatment of refugees, and our relationship to difference, wherever it happens.


The other thing that would happen I think is that our picture of ourselves as ‘us’ would also change.


Just as in the last period of globalisation, the Sicilians, and the Lombardians and the Piedmontese all began to think of themselves as ‘Italians’ and the Saxons and the Bavarians began to think of themselves as ‘Germans’, so the idea of our being ‘Earthlings’ would rapidly mean a globalisation of our sense of ‘us-ness’. I think this might bring about a degree of peace on earth because the existence of an ‘other’ which is in space, forces us to think in global terms of ‘us’.


What would happen to religion wonder. If it turned out that we were unique in the whole universe, then I think that this would certainly raise questions about our purpose. If, big as the universe is, we are the only life forms ‘like us’ does that not raise the question of “Well why? Do we have a purpose and perhaps even a creator who gives us his purpose?” Being ‘alone’ in he universe would make the case for God easier I think.


But does not being alone in the universe make he case for our God, the Christian God harder? Some people think so, but I don’t.


The creed says that part of he Character of ‘our God’ is that this God is ‘for us’ . We say ‘Who for us and our salvation’. So the incarnation is an expression of God’s being ‘for’ humanity. That is the Christian claim.


I would not expect to be able to tell other forms of life ‘about Jesus’ because I would expect that they would have their own version of ‘God for us.’


But Christ is not only the ‘Logos’ for humanity, but St. John claims that the Word that became Flesh is also the same Logos that created the world. This being the case, I would expect to be able to recognise the shape of this same Logos, not only in the laws of physics in other forms of life, but also in the way that they would have an idea o God’s being ‘for them’ too. How this might look is going to depend on what kind of life they have, and how the ‘incarnation’ might look for them. I would be surprised though I there was no sense of the divine at all, and no sense that this divinity wanted to communicate with them in some way. I might even hope that they too would have a Christ whose features we could discuss: God with them!


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A Tribute to My Friend And Some Reflections On The Church Ads A Result

I want to pay tribute to my friend Peter, who died just last week. We lived in different cities, and I was not as close to him as some others were, but I would like to think that I was his friend.


Here is his story as far as I know it.


Peter was at theological college, preparing for the Anglican priesthood. I am not sure about the exact circumstances, but it happened that there was some questioning going on, and some of the students were asked if they were homosexual. (Being ‘Gay’ was not the common parlance then.) Peter answered the question with a ‘Yes’. For this he was dismissed from the college, and was no longer an ordinand.


He worked at various jobs after that, but continued to exercise his musical talents by playing the organ at an Anglican Church, and got a job as office secretary in another suburban parish.


Then, in the middle 1960s came the Australian Broadcasting Programme “Chequerboard”. “Chequerboard” presented to the public different aspects of Australian life: most of them not commonly known to the majority of people.


It was on this programme that Peter and his partner (also Peter) ‘came out’ to the Australian public at least.


Peter immediately lost his job as church secretary , but there were protests outside that church too! Sadly, they were to no avail.


Peter was at the forefront of the movement aimed at gaining acceptance for gays. He helped to launch the forerunner of the Mardi Gras, the Campaign Against Moral persecution, originally a political protest, sat which many were bashed or subject to other forms of brutality. During the AIDS crisis, Peter spent many long hours being both nurse, companion, and ministering angel to many of the people who went through that terrible death.


The rise of the movement for Gay marriage saw Peter and his partner once more in the public eye, as the image of what a long, loving gay relationship could look like. I remember well the celebration of their 40th anniversary of ‘being together’ and just a few months ago, the great celebrations of their jubilee year.


But Peter was not a prude either. I remember being at dinner with several members of what used to be called ‘The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’.

This was a group of Gay men, poking fun at some of the ‘straight’ puritan responses to sexuality.


Peter lived to see that day, but sadly, did not live to see his dream of being able to marry his partner come true.


Peter donated his body for scientific research.


Before he died, Peter was anointed at Christ Church St. Laurence in Sydney, and accepted the ministry of an Anglican Priest.


I am told that Peter was never bitter about his treatment at the hands of the church.


Peter’s partner, the other Peter is not a believer, but I am sure he would not take offence at what I am about to say. Is there any other story that you could tell that sounds more like the story of Jesus?


John’s prologue comes to mind. “He came to his own people and his own people received him not, but to those who did receive him he gave power….” Now it is Jesus who has ‘light and life’ within himself. It is Jesus who gives us power to become children of God, but this Peter pointed me to what that might look like more than most.


Peter was sent ‘outside the camp’, as the letter to the Hebrews has it, yet there he was literally a ‘ministering angel’ a messenger of God, a true priest.


It is ball-tearingly sad, if all too common, that the Church, which has the task of carrying on the mission of Jesus, fails to recognise in one of its members just the embodiment of that mission.

This is what Peter did. He put his body on the line for others, (here is my body (time, love, touch) given for you). As the paraphrase of the Ghandi quote goes “He was the change he wanted to see.” (As Jesus inaugurated the reign of God, in his body, by how he was with people)


Peter did not let the ‘sleeping dog’ of human sexuality just lie, but he acted in such a way as to make it impossible for us to ignore it, either in being Gay or straight.


Luckily the Spirit of Jesus transcends the Church, especially her manifestations in some places. It is just a pity that someone like Peter was not given the opportunity to earn his daily bread by living such an example.


But in these days, when the image of the church has been nearly destroyed, and not many people want to hear the message of Jesus from us any more, Peter also seemed to know that within this all too earthen a vessel, there is treasure: the treasure of setting our lives within a context of a God crucified, that makes the only sin that cannot be forgiven, the sin of refusing to be embraced.


Rest in Peace Peter, and rise in glory.

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