October 4, 2021

Naked Need

 Proper 22 • Advent 2021 • TSH 

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

What does it mean to receive the kingdom “as a little child” in order to enter it? This is a different saying about children, from the one a few weeks back, which was about welcoming children, in Christ’s name. Today is about receiving the kingdom as little children ourselves. So, what does it mean to receive the kingdom “as a little child” in order to enter it? If “little” is the rule, I guess I’m in, no taller than when I was 14, as I never did get the “growth spurt” they promised would come along. But surely Jesus isn’t talking about height. Short people like me have no advantage when it comes to heaven. We don’t even know what’s on top of the refrigerator.

So what is it about children Jesus wants us to copy? Is it their innocence? Well, some children behave as badly as any adult. St Augustine said, if you want proof of original sin, just spend an hour with a crying infant: that child reveals the root of human sin — a constant cry of “I need” and “I want” content only so long as its needs or wants are met.

So, again I ask, what is it about a child that Jesus wants us to copy? Wait a minute — could it be that very neediness and dependency? Could it be that St Augustine missed the point of a child’s needing and wanting — not as signs of sin, but of what it means to be human? One reason human families, across many cultures, are structured as they are is due to the fact that infant humans need lots of care for a long time: human childhood lasts for years. A young horse or cow is up on its feet within minutes of being born; but a human child will take months even to crawl, and many more to toddle or walk. Human children are dependent, and this dependency — this need for care — has shaped human families from the beginning, with not just parents, but often grandparents, aunts, and uncles; as the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The long human childhood is intimately connected with human civilization itself. Perhaps Jesus’ teaching here is like his teaching concerning “the poor” — those in need who are always with you so that you can supply their need, as a good civilization should.

+ + +

Not that human civilization is always so civilized. How much over the last few years have we been treated to human inhumanity to fellow humans — to drowning boatloads of refugees seeking escape from the war-torn middle east; children separated from their parents as they seek refuge from murderous threats; children killed in drug-fueled crossfire on our own Baltimore streets? I would like to hope this suffering will not be in vain, and that the hearts of enough people will be moved to do all in their power 

to end these tragedies. But I also know that while people’s hearts are sometimes moved to sympathy, they are rarely moved to action.

Still, I refuse to give up hope. I know that while we all have that needy, self-centered infant deep within us, we also have within us the capacity to transform our need, not by losing it, but by presenting it to the one who can and will supply all of our needs. And this, perhaps, this is what Jesus means when he says we need to receive the kingdom as a child — to receive it as a child receives a gift, for heaven is a gift that none of us deserves, but which God is prepared to give to any who hold out their hands to receive it, as easily as the Bread of communion is placed upon the palms of our hands.

+ + +

Seven hundred ninety-five years ago tomorrow, a little man from the town of Assisi, Italy died. His name was Francis. He came from a wealthy family — his father sold fine fabrics, even more a luxury then than now. Francis was a trendy young man with a taste for the finer things in life; but he experienced a powerful conversion. He did a complete turnaround and rejected all that he had, all that his family wanted for him, all that they had given him; even some they hadn’t given him — for he took several bolts of expensive fabric from his father’s warehouse and gave them to the poor. His father hauled him up before the authorities and complained he was ungrateful. He reminded his son, “You owe me everything!” In a dramatic gesture, Francis called his father’s bluff and said, “You want everything? It’s yours!” and he stripped himself bare naked right there in the town square.

Francis went on to embrace a life of complete need: he refused to own anything, and lived as a beggar the rest of his life. He had learned the crucial difference between “I need” and “I want” — that what people need to live is far less than what they want to have. He learned how to receive everything as a gift, to receive as children do — children who receive care and nurture not because they earn it, but purely as a gift, because their family and society provide it.

Francis lived like this all the way to the end. Even as he was dying, frail and sick, he asked a hard thing of his grieving brothers: to strip him naked, and place him on the cold floor of his monastery cell. He wanted to die in complete need, without owning anything at all, not even the clothes on his back: naked as the day he was born, as naked as a new-born child. His Franciscan brothers could not bear this for long, seeing that miserable, shrunken body — marked as it was in hands and feet and side with the miraculous wounds that Francis had received when he begged God to let him share in Christ’s suffering. His brothers finally convinced him, to let them clothe him in a robe 

they insisted was only on loan, and didn’t belong to him. And so he died, in borrowed clothes, receiving Sister Death as he had received life — not as his own, but as one last gift from God.

+ + +

The New English Bible translates one of Jesus’ beatitudes as “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” Is this what it means to receive the kingdom as a child — a child who needs everything, and who can do nothing for itself; being able to be in need, to depend on God in the way we depended on others when we were infants? Perhaps it is the family of humanity that needs better to learn how to care for children, so that all can learn what it means to be a child — a child of God and of humanity — as Jesus himself is Son of God and Son of Man.

It is said that a society can be judged on the way it treats its children. I will go further and say not only its own children, but the children of others. Those two sayings of Jesus are tied together after all: we dare not expect to receive the gifts of God as children, if we fail to welcome the needy children of this world, recalling that as we welcome them, we welcome Jesus — all of those many children living in need: the ones towards whom we who have stand in the position of being able to give. +

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 28, 2021

Elephant, Snake, and the Garden

A Not Just So Story
by Tobias Stanislas Haller

When God made the earth there was a special place called the Garden that was full of beautiful plants — flowers, fruit trees, vines, and shrubs. Four rivers flowed into it, providing ample irrigation; and a hedge surrounded it. And God said, “I will make a creature to live in the Garden to tend it; this will provide something for the creature to do and at the same time be good for the health of the Garden.”

And so God went to one of the four rivers flowing into the Garden, and from the riverbank gathered a supply of clay and took it to the workshop that stood just outside the hedge. And God took some of that clay and formed it into a creature with a head and two arms and two legs, and breathed into its nostrils and it came to life. And God named it Man.

Then God lifted Man up over the hedge into the Garden, and said, “You shall tend the Garden, and in return the Garden shall provide you food from the fruit trees and the vines and the shrubs, and the flowers shall delight your eyes with their beauty. But you shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — the large tree with the beautiful, bright red fruit that grows in the middle of the Garden — for the day you eat of its fruit you will die.”


And so it was that Man took up the work that God had assigned. All was well for a time and then it seemed to God that Man had become morose and unhappy in the work of tending the Garden, and even began to be less pleased with the beauty of the flowers, and the taste of the many fruits. And God said, “Loneliness; that’s the problem. Man needs a companion. I will make other creatures to keep Man company, and they can work together to tend the Garden.”

So God returned to the workshop and began to make other creatures from the same clay from which Man was made. And as each was made God brought it to Man to introduce it, and Man would give it its name. Among the last to be introduced was a very large, imposing creature. Man asked it to say a bit about itself, and it said, “I have a broad forehead, which shows that I am wise and have an excellent memory; I have two enormous ears, and am very good at hearing sounds, even from a great distance; I have a long nose that is sensitive and flexible and I can use as a tool to lift things both heavy and light; and I have large white teeth that I can also use to dig and thresh, which will be very helpful in tending the Garden. You may also be interested to know that though my feet appear to be flat pads, I am actually walking on my toes, for God has given me soft cushions under my high heels!”

Man said, “Most wonderful creature! You shall be called Elephant, because your face looks like a capital E turned with its fork-side down, with your marvelous nose in the center and your two phant-astic ears on either side.”

Then God said, “I regret there has been a slight problem. I was working on one last creature, but had used up so much of the clay for Elephant, that I left the creature unfinished on my workbench when I went to get more clay from the riverbank; and when I returned the creature was gone!”

Suddenly, a thin raspy voice spoke up from the ground, “Hhhhhere I am! Down hhhhhere!” God said, “How did you get into the Garden?” and the creature responded, “When you did not return, I rolled offff the bench in the workshhhhhop and wriggled through a ssssmall hole at the bassssse of the doorjamb, and then on the through a ssssspace between the rootsss of the hedge around the Garden.”

Man said, “Tell me more about yourself.”

“I am clearly very clever,” said the creature. “I took my own initttttiative to get into the Garden; I am long and thin, and I shed my skin, and can passssss through narrow ssssspotssss and difficult channels. I can tie mysssselffff in knotsssss, or sssstretch out sssstraight like a sssstafffff. Becaussssse God ran out of clay, you ssssee I have no legsss, ssso I cannot sssstand; I have no butt, sssso I cannot sssssit — and sssso, I lie — and that’sssss the truth!”

Man said, “What a curious creature! You shall be called Snake because you snake into the Garden — or is it ‘snuck’ or perhaps ‘sneaked?’ In any case you have your name, and you may be useful in finding roots and tubers and things that need tending low to the ground.”


All was well for a while, but once again Man seemed to be growing morose and not happy with the beauty of the flowers, or the taste of the fruits, or the company of the creatures. God asked, “What seems to be the problem? Are the flowers not beautiful? Are the fruits not various and delicious? Are the creatures not helpful companions?” Man replied, “The flowers have beauty, but there is something else I long to see that I do not understand. The fruits are various and delicious, but their taste leaves some unknown deep hunger unsatisfied. The creatures are very helpful, some more than others. But I long for a companion who is more like myself in form and manner.” And God said, “I will see to it. But to ensure that this new creature is like you in form and manner, I will not make it from the clay as the other creatures were made; but I will take a little from you and build it up into a new creature, sure to be like you, as made from you.”

God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Man, and then took a portion of Man’s body, and carrying it carefully to the workshop, set to work to build it up; and when it was ready, brought this new creature to Man who woke to the sight.

Man was astonished, and said, “This is the greatest marvel yet; I dare say the best I have ever seen! This is the beauty I have longed for! This is the one who can satisfy the longing I have felt. O new creature, new companion, tell me about yourself so that I may give you a name.” And the creature replied, “What is there to tell? I am yours and you are mine, made from you and made for you. I am your beauty, and I am your joy.” And Man said, “Thus you shall be called Woman, for when I saw you I was like, ‘Whoa — Man!’ And you shall be mine and I shall be yours, beauty and satisfaction to each other.”

And God was pleased that it had all worked out so well at last.


Some time went by and Snake began to grow more and more angry about lacking legs. Yes, Snake could squeeze through small spaces and coil into a lump underground. Yes, Snake, by shedding skin, would always have a fresh and lovely complexion. But Snake’s perspective was always so low, and the wriggling grew tiresome as a means of locomotion! When regarding all of the other creatures, Snake envied the Walkers, the Swimmers, and the Fliers — oh, to be able to fly; Snake dreamt of it sometimes, only to awaken in the dust, legless and tied in a knot. But it was Man and Woman he hated most of all, for standing tall and erect on their hind legs — not even using their forelegs as legs. An almost complete waste of legs — and here Snake had none at all.

And so Snake decided to spoil the Garden for Man and Woman. 

One day Snake’s chance appeared. Woman was in the middle of the Garden near the tree from which God had told Man not to eat. Snake asked Woman, “You eat of the fruit of all of the trees and vines; but you do not eat of the fruit of this tree. Why? It is very beautiful and attractive to the eyes.” Woman said, “Man told me that God forbids eating of this tree, for eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil will bring death.” 

“Oh, that’sssss thissss tree?! O my, God issss having you on. Not only is thissss tree edible, but it is God’s own favorite, and God wantssss to have it all, with none left for you. It is a sssource of God’s wissssdom, and it will make you wissse as well. Just think: to know good and evil! You will know when Man or any of the other creatures has done ssssomething wrong, and will be able to correct them and punishhh them. Thissss will give you power to control them.” 

Woman took all this in, and looked once more at the beautiful fruit, and was about to reach out for it, when all of a sudden Elephant came storming into the middle of the Garden and trumpeted loudly, “Stop! Even though I was far away working at the edge of the hedge, with my excellent ears I have heard all that has been said here in the middle of the Garden. You, Snake, are true to your lying nature, for you spoke true when you said that you lie all the time. You shall not destroy this Garden which God has made for joy and delight and peace, for God has given me my high-heeled feet with cushioned soles just for this purpose.” And with that, Elephant rose up on those high heels and came down to crush the head of Snake, then grasped the body with that flexible nose, and with a mighty heave threw it over the distant hedge and out of the Garden.


God, of course, heard about all of this at once, and called Man to meet with Woman and Elephant near the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God said, “I always knew Snake would be trouble.”

Man asked, “Is it true that the fruit of this tree will bring death? How is it that you eat of it and do not die? And why would we die if we ate of it?”

God replied, “I have eaten only once of the fruit of this tree, before you or any of the other creatures were made. It is beautiful to look upon, but the taste is bitter, and I recognized its deadly properties at once and spat it out. Snake spoke in partial truth — that was always Snake’s way, to give a lie some hook into belief — when saying the fruit made one wise to judge. But judgment was and is mine already, and no other creature has any need of it. Were you to eat of it, the poison of judgment would cloud your minds, and the need to have power and control would destroy this Garden, and death would come with judgment. This is not what I want for People — I think I shall call you ‘People.’” 

Man asked, “Why have the tree at all if it is so deadly, and its fruit is not to be eaten.”

God replied, “It is what I call ‘an Ornamental.’ I value it for its beautiful foliage and fruit; and you may do the same and enjoy its appearance; but you now know how poisonous it is, and will not be tempted any longer to eat of it. For you are my People, and I want you to prosper in peace and joy, without judging one another; and that is the greatest wisdom — to love and not to judge. Then love will do its work. There will be more of you soon, made from your own bodies, by yourselves, without needing a trip to my workshop, or any more clay from the riverbank. And I promise you, you will enjoy the work!”

And so it was that People began to populate the Garden, and there were so many that the hedge had to be removed and the Garden extended to cover the whole earth. The forbidden tree remained in the middle of the Garden, one of the most beautiful trees, surrounded by a stout fence with a plaque that said, “M. sapientiae, Ornamental. Fatally poisonous and potentially invasive.” And God looked upon this Garden earth, and saw that it was very good indeed.

And up to our own day People find that all work is a pleasure, and no one is ever hungry, nor does anyone judge another, or seek to control or dominate them, but all live in peace and harmony with all other creatures and with the earth itself. And Elephant — well, Elephant remembers, and is the one who tells this tale.

Or not.


Note: This little fable is based on an almost “throwaway” line in C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra. “Did Maleldil suggest that our own world might have been saved if the elephant had accidentally trodden on the serpent a moment before Eve was about to yield?” It came to me as I lay in bed for two days, napping in recovery from some surgery of the week before. Soli Deo Gloria.

April 9, 2021

Icons with Colored Pencils

 As some of you know, I have been spending much of Coronatide in drawing what I call “quick icons” of the saints on the Calendar of The Episcopal Church. I did the earliest of these some years ago with pen and ink, then shifted to watercolor pencils. Lately I have begun working with regular colored pencils — unlike the watercolor pencils, which have a dusty or dry finish, regular colored pencils have a waxy content, which allows them better coverage while retaining a degree of translucency. In this, they are remarkably like tempera, my favored — though time-consuming — medium

I decided as well to go back to the masters, in this case Cennino Cennini, whose medieval essay on technique records many details of how one is to work with tempera and fresco. I've adapted this for colored pencils, and the animation above shows the basic sequence. This is an icon of Joseph of Arimathea. Here are the details of each step, with the color of pencil* and what is done with it:

1. Black — limn out the darkest shadows and bare outlines

2. Pea Green — lightly wash over the whole surface of the eventual flesh (this is where Terre Verte would be laid over in fresco and tempera).

3. Blue Green — lightly green over the dark shadows.

4. Olive Green Light — work up the shadows and shape them.

5. Carmine — lightly add red to lips, corners of eyes, and very lightly to the nose and cheeks (what Cennino calls the “little apples”).

6. Blush Pink — over the cheeks and lips to blend, introducing a bit of highlighting.

7. Beige — begin to introduce the midtones of flesh into the shadows, but do not go completely into the green, leaving some to show through.

8. Light Peach — lighter tones of the flesh, blended into the midtones.

9. Salmon Pink — wash over the whole face, including into the green. (A different color might be used as a wash for other skin characteristics, using raw or burnt ochre.) This stage I find almost magically transforms the image into the flesh tone and texture desired.

10. Dark Brown — reestablish the shadows and fine dark lines (eyes, nostrils, mouth) that have been dulled by the wash in step 9.

11. Black — reinforce the darkest lines and shadows.

12. White — the whites of the eyes and brightest highlights on the eyelids, cheekbones, nose, lips.

13. White India Ink with fine brush — because the waxy layers prevent the white pencil in step 12 from being as completely opaque as desired, a few touches of white India ink with a very fine brush will accomplish the bright highlights in eyes (and whites of eyes), tip of nose, and any other spot requiring it.

Hope this proves helpful and instructive to those interested in applying old techniques to new media.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


*In this case the color names are those assigned by the maker (Blick) though I've included shots of the pencils themselves in the graphics.

October 9, 2020

Of “Revision” of Marriage Rites

The debate over whether the proposed marriage rites authorized under Resolution B012 of the 2018 General Convention constitute “a revision of the BCP” or “trial use in accordance with Article X” is moot. Article X provides for the authorization of trial rites "throughout this church" as part of the revision process of the BCP. 

So when someone says these rites were "not proposed as a revision" that only means they were not proposed under the first part of Article X as a “first reading” to be approved finally at the next session of General Convention. That is a procedure only undertaken when rites have been tested and are ready for their final form

It is not at all unusual for a rite to be authorized in the manner of B012. Since the early 60s, in the leadup to the wholesale revision of the BCP in 1976/79, the various revisions of individual liturgies were published, promulgated, and authorized “for trial use” until, in 1976, the “first reading” of the whole new BCP was approved, and the same (with only a couple of minor emendations to take account of the approval of the ordination of women) ratified in 1979. The marriage rites are now in the exactly the same situation as the numerous revisions of other rites, including matrimony, that were published from 1964 on; that is, as Article X says, they are authorized “for trial use throughout this  Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof,” as “a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof...” (emphasis mine.)

Meanwhile, part of the reason Bishop Love of Albany has been found wanting is due to the marriage canon (I.18.1), which states that all clergy may solemnize marriages using “any of the liturgical forms authorized by this Church.” The rites are unquestionably authorized, and Bishop Love interfered with that clerical right, though he had absolutely no need to do so. 

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 21, 2020

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, a Symphonic Poem

This is a Symphonic Poem, based on the poetic elegy by Walt Whitman, this is the first movement of a projected work based on several key periods in the poet’s life: this first being his account of the origin of his poetic spirit, awakened in childhood to the reality of love and loss. I began this work in the late 70s, only bringing it to completion this year of 2020... so I may never complete the project! But here is what I have to offer; the video provides a sing-along to the poem in a vocal part suitable to a lyric baritone or dramatic tenor.

The music reflects my influences, from John Cage (in some of the aleatory involved in creating the thematic and harmonic material) to Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss (in shaping the harmomics along chromatic lines), with a nod to Richard Wagner — both in terms of how the leitmotifs were evolved (in this case from a pair of 12=tone rows) and applied, and with a specific brief quotation of a phrase from Tristan and Isolde: this Whitman poem being the American poet’s Love-Death meditation.

July 21, 2020

Pastoral Care in the Time of Pandemic

One of the key elements of the ministry of pastoral care is presence: being present to and with the one to whom one relates as a pastor. So the greatest challenge in this time of pandemic — and concomitant social distancing and isolation — is the inability of the pastor to be in the physical presence of those with whom the ministry of pastoral care is exercised.

I take as my text in response to this the words from First Corinthians 15: “If there is a physical body there is also a spiritual body.” Paul is, of course, talking about the resurrection; but this also applies to our present circumstances. If there is a physical presence there is also a spiritual presence — and this should not be a surprise to those of us who believe the promise that where two or three are gathered together in God’s name, God is present with them; and who trust and believe in the presence of God in, with, and under the forms of bread and wine.

Of course everyone knows the difference between sitting next to a person in flesh and blood and looking at their image on a computer monitor. But I would like to draw on another element of our tradition in response to that distinction: the tradition of the icon. It is part of that tradition to believe that in venerating an icon — an image of a saint or of Jesus Christ (the Incarnate One, the perfect image of God in human flesh) — the believer enters into their real presence, through a window into heaven. The icon is, it goes without saying, an image — and the faithful contemplation of that image requires imagination — image-ination). This imagination is a work of empathy and sympathy, of feeling with and feeling for — of allowing one’s mind to expand one’s spiritual presence to be with the other.

This is not as exotic as it may sound. One of the reasons using a mobile phone while driving (or even walking down the street!) — even with headphones, or mounted on a holder — is so dangerous, is that in conversation over the phone one’s mind wanders to be in the presence of the other person, mentally away from where one is physically to where one is mentally. What I’m suggesting is that this can happen in a good way, a spiritual way, when we are engaged with another in an act of pastoral care via Zoom or some other application — or even on the phone.

I would like to draw on two other saints from our tradition, two Francis’s. First, you may be familiar with the time that St. Clare visited St. Francis of Assisi in a vision while she was some 50 miles away — this is why she is the patron saint of television! More relevant, both to us as a community and to the question of pastoral care at a distance, is St. Francis de Sales. His work contributed to the foundation of the Sisters of the Visitation, without which we would very likely not be here, as it was through their presence on the Hudson River in Riverdale that our founder Brother Richard Thomas formed and shaped his vocation. St. Francis de Sales was renowned as a pastoral guide, but did most of his pastoral guidance and spiritual direction at a distance, by means of his own era’s primary communication technology: paper and pen and ink. One can read his letters still, and put one’s mind back to the 17th century, and receive spiritual guidance from one long dead — through the power of imagination.

Imagination is also key to another strand of our tradition that relates to pastoral care and spiritual guidance: the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. The technique St. Ignatius commended is a form of spiritual imagination, in which one places oneself into the biblical scene as vividly imagined as possible. For example, in our readings for Morning Prayer this week, we can imagine ourselves walking in silence with the children of Israel around that mighty but doomed city Jericho, hearing nothing but the sounds of our own footsteps multiplied by thousands, and the harsh and frightening blaring of the rams’-horn trumpets, aware of the awesome presence of the Holy One in the ark leading our procession, catching on the air, through the stirred-up dust, the bitter scent of fear wafting down over the walls that will soon come tumbling down. Can’t you feel yourself there?

And so my brothers I urge you to use your imagination in your pastoral ministry, to use the tools provided to make your presence felt and to feel the presence of those with whom you minister, as best you can. We are in the midst of a fast — a fast from our usual tools of ministry, a fast from being able to gather in our churches as congregations. But let us not forget that the church is the church when it is scattered as much as it is the church when it is gathered — indeed, as the deacons remind us, this is when we get about the work we are called and empowered to do, loving and serving God and our neighbor. 

This is a time of fasting, but let us always recall that what counts in a fast is not what you give up but what you take on. Take on the work of imagination, and let it empower your ministry of service and pastoral care.

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG 
This is a reconstruction of an off-the-cuff presentation delivered via Zoom at the recent virtual Convocation of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory.

May 5, 2020

A Prayer for Communion with Christ

Because of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, most Episcopal parishes have been unable to hold public worship, though many are live-streaming celebrations, bidding those at home to commune in spirit. Some have commended a prayer by Alphonsus Liguori. I would like to note, however, that the Episcopal Church has a resource for this situation, in the 1988 edition of A Prayer Book for the Armed Forces, edited by Howard Galley.* I believe this prayer is superior to the prayer by Liguori, and better congruent with the traditions of the Episcopal Church.

In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer to you praise and thanksgiving. I remember your death, Lord Christ; I proclaim your resurrection; I await your coming in glory. And since I cannot receive you today in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood, I beseech you to come spiritually into my heart. Cleanse and strengthen me with your grace, Lord Jesus, and let me never be separated from you. May I live in you, and you in me, in this life and in the life to come. Amen.

Note: the 1951 edition of the Armed Forces Prayer Book had this form:

In union, O Lord with the faithful at every altar of Thy Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated, I desire to offer Thee praise and thanksgiving. I present to Thee my soul and body with the earnest wish that may always be united to Thee. And since I can not now receive Thee sacramentally, I beseech Thee to come spiritually into my heart. I unite myself to Thee, and embrace Thee with all the affections of my soul. Let nothing ever separate Thee from me. May I live and die in Thy love. Amen.

—with thanks for all who serve and all who hunger, Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
* I worked in the publication office of the international HQ-PECUSA (“815”) at the time, and assisted in the production; hence my familiarity with it.

April 6, 2020

On being alone

When Wesley taught that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian he was emphasizing his belief in a particular kind of realized ecclesiology — that the church is the church when it is gathered as a “Society.” Far be it from me to deny the social aspect of the church, of the Body of Christ composed of many members, and of the need Christians have for each other.

My concern is that in this time of enforced solitude for most if not all Christians — a solitude only lessened but never entirely erased by virtual fellowship — that those in isolation may put too much stock in the necessity of sociality, and neglect or forget the truth that the church is not only itself when gathered, but equally so when it is sent — even if that sending is to isolation rather than to mission. Many a saint (and many a sinner) have found in the depths of isolation the truth that lies on the other side of Wesley’s maxim: that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because no Christian is ever entirely alone: she is part of the Body, like an outreached hand extended yet still attached to the arm, the shoulder, and the heart. Donne had it right when he pictured each of us as a promontory, not an island.

But there is more: there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because even in isolation, there is always One to keep her company; One who has been with her from the beginning; One who will never by separated from her by even so much as a hairs-breadth; One who is close enough that she can feel him breathing.

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 25, 2020

The Broken Body

The Holy Eucharist is about the assembled people of God, but it is not only about the assembly. For while it is true, as the Didache put it, that the grain once scattered on the hillside is in the Bread of Communion made one, it is also the case that that Bread is then broken and distributed — just as the assembly is dismissed at the end of the gathering, with a missionary purpose. We at present dwell in our sequestered isolation, viewing the celebration through the virtual "squints" of our laptops and tablets, unable to receive due to illness we may not actually have, but in fellowship with all those sick monastics and anchorites who saw the Eucharist only at a remove, through a narrow gap in the stone, or from the balcony — our fellowship, our communion, is no less real. This is the Body truly broken, to testify that it is in our dispersal, in our brokenness, that we find our true vocation as "given for the life of the world." Ite, missa est!

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

January 20, 2020

Sickness unto Death

Parts of the church are experiencing a kind of autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself. Such conditions are always painful, and sometimes fatal.

This — among other things — is leading more and more people to realize that one does not need to be a “churchgoer'' or listed on a parish roll in order to be a Christian; it leads many into the company of those who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

More and more people, for various reasons, are coming to see that institutional aspects of the faith have little or nothing to do with its core values. While it is true that one cannot be "a solitary Christian" there is no need to identify the locus of the community of faith with a parish — especially when that parish, and its leadership, adopt policies or practice behaviors so inimical to Christ and his teachings.

Christendom is not yet dead — but it is sick; and much of its sickness is self-inflicted, the product of its embrace of empire and institution at the expense of the Gospel.

September 16, 2019

Half Empty

St Luke’s Philadelphia • Sept 15 2019
RCL1: Jer 4:11-12,22-28; Ps 14; 1Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-10

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation, yet I will not make a full end.✠

You have likely heard of the difference between an optimist and a pessimist, and how they see a glass as being either half-full or half-empty. I actually have such a glass at home, a wine glass with a line marked on the side half-way up (or down, depending on your point of view) with the words Optimist and Pessimist etched in the appropriate places above and below the line. Well, today’s passage from the prophet Jeremiah should leave us with no doubt on which side of the line he places himself. It is a good reminder of why he is thought of as a prophet of doom. No, Jeremiah clearly never got the memo, “Don’t be bringing me no bad news.”

What he speaks of in this morning’s passage is a hot blast of wind that sweeps everything away, not just to “winnow or cleanse,” no, but too strong for that, too strong for a mere dusting; this is a real grab it by the end and shake it out the window kind of wind. This is a knock it all down and start it all over kind of wind; if the Middle East had hurricanes, this would be category 5. Jerusalem then would look worse than the Bahamas does now.

The prophet looks, and in the aftermath of this terrific blast of wind, he sees nothing but a waste and void below, and nothing but darkness in the heavens above — Jeremiah quotes the words of Genesis, recalling the time before creation itself, before God filled the dark and empty void, before God called forth the light of heaven; this is the desolation of primeval un-creation.

Yet into this desolation, the prophet gives one hopeful word he has received from the Lord, one brief phrase of promise, one little shred of hope, like the still small voice that came after the winds and tempests and earthquakes that shattered the mountains: “Yet I will not make a full end.”

This little glimmer of hope, this whisper of a still, small voice with the shred of a promise, is a common theme in the words not just of Jeremiah, but of many of the prophets. Even when everything seems lost, when it seems all have turned bad and we are tempted to join the Psalmist in declaring that “there is none who does good, no not one” — there is still some remnant, some little portion, some crack in the drought-stricken soil into which a hopeful seed has found its way to bide its time until the rains come.

God had assured the despondent exile Elijah in that still, small voice, that there were more than a few left in Israel who had not bent their knee to Baal, that he was not alone in his struggle to remain faithful; Isaiah had received the promise that a remnant would return from exile in far Babylon; and Ezekiel would celebrate the promise that God would return to the once-forsaken, once-abandoned Temple. These prophets bear witness to this promise: However bad it gets, however dark the night and desolate the prospect, a slim, small hope for dawn abides. A portion, however small, remains. The handful of meal and teaspoon of oil will somehow last for three years; the glass that didn’t even seem so much as half-empty, the cup with just a few drops left in the bottom, turns out after all to be full to the brim.

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This seems to have been St Paul’s personal experience as well, though he applies it universally to the whole human condition. Like the desolation of the land described by Jeremiah, Paul’s condition — when he was still the unconverted Saul, before the light shined on him on the Damascus Road — was about as bad as bad can be: a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence, foremost among sinners. And yet, in the midst of that parched, dry wilderness of anger, hatred, and self-righteousness, God was able to find the little shred of salvageable goodness that is still present in even the worst sinner, and make the most of it, stretching that little bit out to serve God’s purposes. Like the surprise of water in the desert suddenly welling up to overflow, God poured out mercy and grace upon one almost — but not completely — empty of any good, and made him into an instrument for the spread of God’s good word of promise.

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So much for the pessimists! Today’s Gospel looks at things more from the glass-half-full side. Just as half-empty (or even less than that) is not God’s ultimate will, so too even half-full isn’t good enough for God. Even almost full isn’t good enough for God. Jesus attests that he is not one to deal in acceptable losses, to say, “What’s one sheep lost when I’ve still got ninety-nine; what’s one dime out of a dollar lost under the sofa-cushion?” No, our God is not a God of acceptable losses; God wants it all. God will not suffer anything to be lost.

Now, I know it’s that time of year, and as tempting as the ten-percent proportion of one dime from a dollar might be, this is not going to be a sermon about tithing... Except... to remind us that the tithe is not all that God wants. God wants it all — all of us, in both senses of that phrase: every last one of us, and everything that each of us is and has, our whole heart and mind and soul and strength, all those faculties of ourselves the full extent of which we are called and challenged to apply to our love of God, as strongly and completely as our God loves each and all of us.

For in the end, it isn’t about proportion, about acceptable losses, but about the perfection of all in all. It isn’t about a glass half-empty or half-full, but completely full, abundance piled up and packed down, full to the brim and then to overflowing. God did not rest, at the first, at the beginning Jeremiah recalls for us, God did not rest until the days of creation were fulfilled and the Sabbath of completion was come. Nor will God rest in the work of the new creation in Christ until all is well, and every manner of thing is well, and complete, and full to overflowing, brought to perfection by him, and in him, and through him.

As today’s collect prays, we seek for the Holy Spirit’s direction and rule “in all things” — and the aid the Holy Spirit provides is not that desolating wind that levels the mountains but the powerful yet persuasive guidance of the Spirit as in the beginning, when the Spirit hovered over the uncreated deep. This is not a wind of desolation, but of creation, the new creation of all things — we seek this, the Holy Spirit’s aid, guiding and directing us so that our hearts may be completely given to God, vessels open to receive God’s gift of grace, that we might be filled — not just a bit, not just halfway, but to overflowing completion. Whether we find ourselves rescued by the skin of our teeth when we are almost entirely bereft and empty, or content to think ourselves satisfied with the half-measure we already have; whether we feel we are running on fumes or cruising along on half a tank; whether desolated by the blast of an ill wind, or mistakenly satisfied with the good-enough compromise for which we might be tempted to settle; God will surprise us with amazing grace, and shower us with blessings. Rejoice, then, my friends, for the lost has been found, and filled, and blessed; and join Saint Paul in his joyful acclamation: to the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 8, 2019

Beyond the Call of Duty

Church of the Advent, Federal Hill • Proper 18c 2019
Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.+

A mother once tried to teach her daughter about stewardship. She gave her a dollar bill and a quarter, and said, “It is up to you which you put into the offering plate.” During the sermon, the mother watched her weigh the possibilities — dollar in one hand and quarter in the other. Finally, when the plate came into her aisle, she nodded to herself and confidently put the quarter in the plate, then sat back with a contented sigh. After worship, her mother asked, “Why did you decide to put in the quarter?” The child responded, “Well, I was going to put in the dollar; but then the priest said, ‘God loves a cheerful giver,’ and I thought I’d be more cheerful if I kept the dollar.”

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Many Christians take this subjective view about stewardship: how does giving make me feel? This is the “Feel Good” school of giving. Problem is that while some may feel a glow of discipleship when they give generously, many — like this child — feel a glow of satisfaction when they hold on to as much as they can.

Our gospel today presents us a different view, not based on feelings but practicalities: considering how much it costs to build a tower or wage a war. This is the “Balanced Budget” school of giving. Its advantage over the “Feel Good” theory is that it is better engaged with the reality of what it costs to maintain a church. But it too has a down-side, as giving becomes commercialized, the church itself “monetized” (to use the modern term of art). Just as with “feel-good,” this view is focused not on God or the church, but on the giver, as it appears to say, “I support the church, for what I get out of it.”

Most people realize that this approach is too much like building a tower or waging a war. And while it smacks of common sense, it derives more from the spirits of Scrooge and Marley than those of Christmas past, present, and to come. If people think giving to the church is exchange for a product, a kind of “give and get,” they will come to see the church as if it were just another shop on the High Street where you pay your money and take your choice, a kind of vending machine that dispenses spiritual satisfaction when you put money in the slot. Such an attitude transforms believers into customers.

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Ultimately both of these views run aground on the astounding statement with which today’s gospel ends: “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” How shallow both “feel good” and “balance the budget” look in contrast to this astounding clam that Jesus makes on the disciples — including us! Even those who devote a significant portion of their income to the church — the ten percent of the biblical tithe — even the most generous must feel like pikers in light of the astounding challenge from Jesus: “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” What is five or ten percent or even more compared to all! What could Jesus mean by this astounding, ultimate demand?

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We will find an answer to this question in today’s second reading — the bulk of Paul’s letter to Philemon. We heard how important the runaway slave Onesimus has become to Paul as he suffered in prison; and how Paul trusts that when Onesimus returns to his master Philemon with this letter in hand, he will not suffer the fate imposed on runaways. Paul trusts Onesimus will be welcomed back as a brother in Christ; for he has become a Christian while with Paul, perhaps even a deacon. Paul’s poignant letter suggests as much in noting how Onesimus has been of service to him: how he has “deaconed” to Paul in his imprisonment. What’s more, Paul notes that Onesimus after all had not been a very good slave — beyond having run away, Paul says he had been “useless” — making a joke out the slave’s name, which in Greek means Useful. Upon his return, Paul suggests he will live up to his name and be “useful” indeed as more than a slave, not less: a brother in Christ, perhaps even to serve with him as a deacon. Paul assures Philemon that he is not demanding this: he wants Philemon to do a voluntary good deed, not something forced — even though Paul does remind him that he owes him more than he can possibly repay: “I say nothing” — thereby saying something! — “about your owing me even your own self” — echoing the teaching of Jesus.

Paul is saying Philemon can have his cake and eat it too! He can have the free service of a useful brother in place of the half-hearted work of a useless slave, by giving up a slave-master’s control-over, and instead cooperate-with him as a brother in Christ.

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And it is that “giving up” that connects with that hard saying of Jesus: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions.” We don’t just owe God our possessions, after all, but, as Philemon owed Paul, our selves! Yet Jesus does not say, I’m taking your life — he wants us to live our lives in service, not throw our lives away. So too he doesn’t ask us here to “give away” all of our possessions, but to “give them up.” And the difference is suggestive: this is about surrender, not commerce. He wants us to “give up” to him, as the old hymn says, to “surrender all” to him! It is about learning how to loosen our grip on what we have, treating it not as something controlled by us, but as ultimately coming to us as a gift from God — as indeed our lives come as a gift from God, and God wants us to give them up in return as well. We are called to treat what we have been given with the same kind of liberty with which Paul counseled Philemon to treat his former slave, and to do so voluntarily, not under compulsion or as doing our duty, but as going beyond the call of duty into the realm of the freedom of the children of God. In that realm there are no more slaves, but all are free — free because we have given up, we have surrendered to God, whose service is perfect freedom.

We are not called simply to balance the books and pay our share so that we get what we pay for
and what we think we deserve. Friends, I assure you that if we got what we deserved we would be neither cheerful nor proud!

But when we treat all we have been given — including our very selves, our souls and bodies — not as “ours” to control but as the free gift of a generous God, and which we return to God as a reasonable and holy sacrifice — then we will find ourselves going beyond the call of duty to maintain the church. We will be embarking on the mission of spreading God’s kingdom of freedom, in which all are God’s children.

Yes, it is our duty to maintain our little corner of the kingdom here on South Charles Street, to do what it takes to support its work and worship. But we are called to do much more; to be God’s servants, not slaves working only because they have to, but children of God who work so hard because they love their Father in heaven, and love their brothers and sisters so very much.

If this spirit of generosity and freedom can fill us all who knows what might happen? Let me tell you one last thing. Onesimus the runaway slave became so useful in the church that decades later he shows up again in Christian history — as bishop of the church of Ephesus! Who would have thought a useless runaway slave could become such a useful servant of God?

When we give up and surrender all to God, who knows what God might make of us? When we go beyond feeling good; when we go beyond balancing the budget; God will surprise us with amazing grace, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Though I am bold enough in Christ to suggest you do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love. To God alone — who is Love — be the glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.+

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG