July 15, 2016

On Church Growth

People talk about church growth but are terrified of change. They want clones, not contrast, numbers in the sense of ciphers, rather than the challenge of novelty, newcomers who come but who are not really new, who fit the mold and don't rock the boat. 

But God created difference, and we should welcome those who bring it. More than welcome, we should go out in search of them. This is part of the wisdom of Indaba: difference energizes with opportunities. Fear keeps things the same, then kills.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 13, 2016

O, Canada!

In case you haven't heard the news, the Anglican Church of Canada has adopted a resolution towards the amendment of their canon on marriage, making marriage equality in the church a canonical reality if the change is ratified at the next session of the General Synod in 2019. The motion passed by the large required two-thirds majority in each order (bishops, clergy and lay) though not after some confusion due to a single affirmative clergy vote having been miscounted in the wrong order, and three other affirmative clergy votes not counted at all. In the end the super-majority prevailed by a comfortable margin.

It should also be noted that the ACoC Chancellor had already opined that even the current canon does not actually forbid marriages for same-sex couples; but some minds may rest easier given the adoption of the first reading of the amendment. Several Canadian bishops have indicated they plan to move forward on these bases, so as a practical matter marriage equality has arrived.

Other minds are not so easy, and the comment threads on the related stories at the Anglican Journal, in addition to expressions of joy and hope, are replete with the complaints of those so unhappy with this turn of events that they are abandoning the church, or mobilizing for a militant effort to defeat the canon change in at its second reading in 2019. Further afield, the trumpet from the Global South has not tooted yet, or at least not loudly or clearly enough to be heard here in the North; nor has there been a comment from Canterbury — though the Church of England has also just emerged from its own General Synod, in which the Shared Conversations formed a major part. That and the turmoil with the recent Brexit vote and the change in parliamentary leadership is no doubt occupying archepiscopal focus at the moment.

We continue to live in interesting times.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 9, 2016

Racism and Realism and Jesus

Racism, no less than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is the junction at which perception meets prejudice, and what is is distorted in the mirror of the mind, as a characteristic obscures the character, the generic obscures the specific, and the individual is lost in an emotional cloud so that who is seen is only a member of a class, and even then not the class as it is but as it is believed or felt to be.

Some offer as an answer an appeal to common humanity. This is good so far as it goes, but it too is generic. Some go further and say we must see the face of Jesus in each person. Again, a step in the right direction, but it does not go far enough.

The goal is not to see Jesus in a person, but to see the person as Jesus sees the person, who “looks on them and loves them” — to see the precious individual who is, in her specific individuality, the image of God, just as much as Jesus is; not because of a common resemblance, a common humanity or a common divinity, but as a specific person, One Who Is.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 7, 2016

The System is Corrupt

Police violence is a tragic but logical element in the systemic racism that is foundational to the American political and social fabric, embedded in its DNA from the beginning: colonial slavery, revolutionary hypocrisy, constitutional inequality, legalized classism via segregation and separation with detriments to housing and education and medical care, a war on drugs selectively deployed, a misnamed “justice” system feeding a commercialized prison system, and a mania for weapons fueled by a fear of the other when the self is the danger. And we wonder why we have problems with a police force that is the enforcement arm of this same system.

I offer no solution; only my grief. God forbid I should give up hope, but hope is ever more difficult to maintain.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


The problem isn't a few bad apples in the barrel. The problem is the barrel.

That is, the system supports and enables the bad behavior. We’ve seen this with the way the Roman Catholic Church mishandled pedophilia — moving guilty clergy instead of dismissing them; with the similar handling of police misconduct; with the polite homophobia that declares it is “just holding to the traditional doctrine / biblical view...”; with a wealth and oppression complex that keeps the greatest wealth among the fewest people. The corrupted system resists reform because reform threatens the system itself. 


June 25, 2016

No Trust in Princes

There is a root problem that plagues any concept of government: a hopeful idealism or dogged perfectionism. If only we can get X better (or a better X) it will solve all our problems, or work perfectly. A benign and wise absolute philosopher-king at one extreme, or a total democracy at the other, both make  the false promise that a systemic solution is possible. But the common factor in all human error is the humans — there is no system so perfectly designed that fallible humans cannot render it FUBAR: this is the normal situation, AFU. Ask anyone who works at the help desk of any software company.

This is one reason I am so fond of the Anglican dictum that councils are fallible since they are a collection of fallible individuals. Democracy is no more a perfect solution than absolute monarchy. The mob and the monarch are equally fallible, and no less dangerous. It is the phantom of perfect government that haunts us, the feeling that if we just try a new system we can get it right. There ain't no philosopher's stone of government, and the admission of a felt need that something needs to be governed — i.e. controlled — reveals there is an unruliness under the surface of any and all government, and those from whom this government is confected (all, many, few, or one) are inescapably the root of the problem. To err is human, and so long as humans are in charge, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will police the police?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

May 27, 2016

Known in Bread

a sermon delivered on Corpus Christi 2000 at Christ Church Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Believe it or not, in our gathering together here this evening we have been surrounded by miracles, and swept up into a mystery. For miracles need not be overtly supernatural so long as they produce faith. That is, the importance of miracles does not lie in whether they appear to defy the laws of science and reason, but in what they work upon the human spirit, leading us into all truth, revealing God’s presence to the eye of faith, parting the curtain of the mystery for a moment to let the mortal behold the immortal, and adore.

You may have heard of the miraculous tortillas that occasionally appear on the griddles of devout women in Mexico. Now the tortillas do not appear as manna from heaven, discovered in the morning with the risen dew, already baked and ready for gathering, with a double portion on the eve of the Sabbath. No, the miracle lies in the fact that cooked into the surface of these otherwise quite ordinary tortillas is the appearance of the likeness of Christ. Perhaps you’ve seen photographs of these miraculous tortillas, dried and preserved in cigar boxes lined with colorful wrapping paper, adorned with plastic flowers, and reverently placed on the shelves of the homes blessed with this miraculous visitation.

And of course one could say that all of this has a scientific explanation: that the human brain, with its need and ability to read pattern into chaos, can see the likeness of Christ in the random scorches on the surface of the baked tortilla, much as one can look at clouds and see them forming ships at sea, castles in Spain, or an entire zoo of fluffy animals.

Yet even though the miraculous tortilla may have a fairly simple explanation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle — for it brings faith and nourishes faith — and it is faith, not magic, that is truly miraculous. Faith is the reason miracles happen in the first place, whether the heart disposed towards God is open to accept the gift, or the soul turned away from God receives a gentle (or not so gentle) tap on the shoulder to recall the straying and jaded eye to the heart and source of reality.

For the real miracle isn’t that the face of Christ should appear on a tortilla; the real miracle is that anyone could believe in a God who would be interested in having his face appear on a tortilla; the real miracle is to believe that God might be interested in surprising and blessing a poor Mexican housewife while she labors over a hot griddle at the end of a long day; that God would be at all concerned with being in our midst this evening as we undertake a ritual with its branches in the high middle ages, and its roots in the depths of the human psyche where the mysterium tremendum et fascinans lurks to raise the hairs on the backs of our necks; that God would be interested in the wanderings of an insignificant tribe of desert nomads, to feed them for a generation on bread they had no better name for than “what is this?”; that the creator and governor of the universe could be concerned about the political affairs of a shepherd-boy turned king; that the God whose love moves the sun and the other stars would visit a young woman at her prayers and chose her to be the mother of his incarnate Son; and then chose to have her bear him in a barn; that God would, in that Son, live and die as one of us, and be raised from the dead, and then — the miracles continue — not immediately ascend to heaven, but continue those prosaic little field trips, having breakfast by the seaside, taking a walk with two disciples, and finally, breaking bread with them.

This is the heart of the miracle we celebrate this evening. That the bread of Emmaus and the manna of the wilderness are no more a revelation of the presence of God than the tortilla of Guadelajara, or the spotless host of Carroll Gardens, even carried in procession like a pillar of fire here to Cobble Hill.

For it is in the simple actuality of bread, an every-day kitchen table commonplace, that God Almighty has chosen and still chooses to be made known — and that is a miracle if ever there was one!

+ + +

And yet… and yet. How slow we are to realize the miracle as it happens! We look for the technicolor, hi-res special effects of the apocalypse, while God reveals himself in the simple white-bread world around us.

How slow of heart, like the children of Israel who looked at the manna with a shrug, and soon complained that it wasn’t adequate food; how like the disciples who walked that road with Jesus, how slow to believe we are when we miss the presence of God with us, feeding us, walking at our side and opening the Scripture to us, and breaking the bread with us, the risen Lord who deigns to be our guest, the God who calls us no longer servants, but friends.

Jesus says, "How dull you are! How slow to believe the prophets!” And with this simple exclamation he echoes God's never-failing amazement with Israel. “When will you get it?” God seems to say. “How many seas must be parted, how many pillars of fire, how much bread from heaven, how many crucifixions, how many risings from the dead until you understand how much I love you?”

God is ever-patient, but often speaks to his people in this way. Just as Jesus walked with the disciples on that rural roadway, so God accompanied the children of Israel in their wandering in the wilderness, and brooded in their midst in the Temple all those years. The prophets, from Moses to Mary Magdalene, had been discounted, ridiculed, and disbelieved by the very people who most needed to hear the news. The church still stands divided, suffering with self-inflicted wounds while a world it was meant to save looks on bemused.

Yet God does not abandon these stubborn children. God loves them — loves us — too much for that. And that is the greatest miracle, the greatest faith: God’s faith in his children, God[‘s faith in his friends. God’s faith in us. It is to that faith, to God’s faith in us, to which God bids us open our eyes! God does not and will not leave us comfortless. There is always time for another message, even a message from God's own Son, risen from the dead. There is always more bread to be handed round, even though we thought there were only five loaves.

God’s faith in us is such that even when we doubt and disbelieve he stoops to make his presence known to us, coming into our midst in a miracle that startles us by its simplicity, that shames us by its audacious condescension — that the gate of heaven opened by this saving victim might be no wider than “this” [the fingers’ breadth width of the host in the monstrance] and that the God who created the universe should be made known in bread.

O come, let us worship, alleluia. ✠

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

May 21, 2016

The Importance of Being Articles

I don't have the time to flesh it out in full just at the moment, but I want to flag how important close attention to text is to any case made concerning marriage. There are two places in Scripture where inattention to the difference between definite and indefinite nouns has wrought havoc with a consistent and canonical comprehension of the texts.

First, when Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 speaks of "male and female" (zakar u'nqebah) it is using nouns, not adjectives. It would be better to translate as "a male and a female." Reading this text as referring to classes of people instead of two individuals has given rise to much unproductive theological reflection concerning everything from the nature of the image of God to a defective anthropology that squeezes the understanding of humanity into a dualistic, yin-yang strait-jacket.

Evidence for the correct reading (as nouns and not adjectives) comes in part from Jesus' reading of the passage to be about a pair: the "two" who become one. (Mark 10:8; as in Matthew, Jesus picks up the LXX version of Genesis which refers to "the two" -- an emphasis not needed in the Hebrew). Jesus uses this as his starting point for the durability of marriage. (I've noted elsewhere that the Qumran texts follow this reading concerning "the two" in support of the call for radical monogamy.)

Additional canonical support for this reading comes from Genesis itself: whenever the phrase occurs in Genesis it could (and should) be translated with the indefinite article to indicate nouns are being used, rather than cast as adjectives. This is perhaps clearest Genesis 6:19 and 7:3,9, and 19 (the only other uses of this phrase in Genesis), all of which refer to the pairs of animals to be saved in the ark. Each pair consists of one male and one female. (Note that other uses of "male and female" in English translations of Genesis, such as references to "male and female slaves" add further confusion. No words for "male" or "female" occur in these passages; there are separate Hebrew words for "a male slave" and "a female slave.")

The second mistaken reading (unfortunately well enshrined in the tradition) is the reading of Ephesians 5:32 that forces "Paul" to make the very unlikely statement that marriage is a great mystery -- understood as a sacrament. Again, I've written about this at some length elsewhere, but want to flag the problems with this reading here. First, it is obviously inconsistent to suggest that the Pauline School (if not Paul himself -- there being some disagreement as to the authorship of the epistle) would attach a quasi-divine status to an institution elsewhere in "his" writings given scant honor beyond its social utility. Second, this is not the only verse in the epistle to refer to "mystery" -- and as the author makes clear in the following clause, he is talking about that same mystery that is addressed throughout the document -- the mystery of Christ and of the Church, how the two become one, a mystery reflected in -- but not consisting of -- the marriage of a man and a woman. And, of course, that is what the text says, though bad translations have twisted it in such a way as to have the author speak of "a" great mystery -- one such marvel among many. But a literal translation of the verse, far from saying "This is a great mystery," would read, "This mystery is great -- but I speak of Christ and of the Church." Not marriage, not the verse from Genesis; but the mystery of salvation in Christ, in which all of humanity, Jew and Gentile, is taken up and redeemed. And if that isn't a genuinely Pauline message I don't know what is.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

May 2, 2016

Great Cloud of Confusion

There is a good deal of confusion in some quarters concerning the status of the commemorations in Holy Women, Holy Men and the forthcoming Great Cloud of Witnesses. This confusion stems in part from the commendable desire felt by many clergy obediently “to conform to the ... Worship of the... Church,” and uphold the principle of common prayer. The confusion enters in due to the habit of General Convention of authorizing various liturgical resources for trial use over the years, and Great Cloud of Witnesses has not been presented in that way.

That need not be a concern. The reason commemorations listed in Lesser Feasts and Fasts went through “trial use” was their inclusion on the Calendar of the BCP (only alternatives or revisions to the BCP actually require trial use; the Bishops of the Episcopal Church, and even single diocesan bishops, can authorize additional liturgical resources as they will, per both the Constitution and the BCP). HWHM was originally to be an extension of Lesser Feasts, and so was offered for trial use due to the changes in the Calendar it would have presented, but GCoW is offered as a resource for congregations to do what the BCP already allows; it does not need “trial use” because the rubrics of the BCP already "authorize" such commemorations, for which GCoW supplies proper collects and readings. The resolution enabling the publication of GCoW states this clearly: “That the 78th General Convention make available for publication and distribution by individuals and in congregations and other church groups for devotional or catechetical use, or use in public worship subject to the provision for optional commemorations on page 18 of the Book of Common Prayer, the liturgical resource entitled, ‘A Great Cloud of Witnesses...’” (emphasis mine). The language is a bit tortured, but “use in public worship subject to... the BCP” is crystal clear.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 21, 2016

On Political and Social Engagement, or Not

While I resonate with frustration over the wrongs of the state (or the state of the wrongs) I have to demur from a strictly Christian Anarchist position, such as that espoused by Jacques Ellul. I regard such Anarchism as aspirational rather that practically universal. While it is perfectly reasonable for a follower of Christ to aspire to abdicate from participation in the state, short of becoming a hermit in a wilderness most of us still reap the benefits of "civilization" (the benefits of the earthly City, not of God, but of Humanity). It is almost impossible not to benefit from the public works of the state, short of retirement to the desert. 

As even St Francis realized (presaging Kant’s categorical imperative), if everyone followed the Franciscan example of absolute poverty and a mendicant lifestyle there would be no one from whom to beg. (One of the rationales for the Third Order was to allow those who could not give up everything to give up something — to support the mendicants — while acknowledging their imperfect realization of Christ’s poverty in penitence.)

This is in part why I am a Christian Socialist rather than a Christian Anarchist: the state itself is not evil (or no more evil than the individual person), “simul iustus et peccator,” and capable of doing good as well as wrong. By participating in the state, I hope to urge it toward being as good as possible, while recognizing that it is not, and never will be, heaven on earth. There is only one City of God, and it is above, where Christ is. In this vale of tears we continue to do the best we can; and there is room for hermits as well as merchants, each of them witnessing to Christ in their own ways and to the extent they are able.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG 

April 8, 2016

Emmaus: A Symphonic Poem for Easter

This is a musical composition reflecting the Lucan account of Jesus encountering two disciples as they were walking in the countryside. In this encounter he recalls for them the events of Holy Week, showing them how these fulfilled the prophecies of the Hebrew people concerning the Anointed One. These recollections warm their hearts strangely as they walk along. When the disciples urge him to stay with them, he does so. At the table, he breaks bread — as he had done on the night before he suffered — and he becomes known to them in that breaking and in that bread, even as he vanishes from their sight.

Images are mostly from Rembrandt, with a few other classic and romantic works. The burning heart is a sculpture from my Brother in Christ Karekin Madteos’ garden.

Blessed Eastertide to all...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 18, 2016

Failure to Concur

This year Good Friday falls on March 25, which would be observed as the Feast of the Annunciation were it not for our rules of precedence which privilege the days of Holy and Easter Weeks above all other Feasts. This is the last time Good Friday will fall on March 25 in this century, and when it does, the power of Cross will once again gently nudge the Virgin Mother forward by a bit over a week.

This failed concurrence gives rise to imagery of such weight I cannot shift it so easily from my mind. Nor have others found it so light a thing. Here is the poem John Donne wrote in 1608 on a similar concurrence.

Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day. 1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

And here is my short poem upon the Annunciation, reminding us that whether the feasts concur or not, salvation is all One.

She knelt beside the neatly planted rows
of cummin, dill, and mint. The clear March sky
was bright; a flock of birds flew high.
She pinched a leaf;
                    then, suddenly, she froze —
a voice had spoken. There was no one there.
It spoke a second time; she looked around.
“How can this be?” she asked the vacant air.
Once more it spoke, yet there was not a sound.
She paused again; her answer in her mind.

In thirty years and three, her words would find
an echo: “Not my will, but thine be done,”
said in another garden by her son,
while three friends slept.
                           So here none heard her words —
except an angel, a high flight of birds,
and three neat rows of cummin, mint, and dill:
“Be it to me according to thy will.”

Bless this day of contrast and devotion, of sacrifice and blessing. Bless us all.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 14, 2016

Stanzas on the Way of the Cross

The Lord who set his hand upon the deep,
who stretched the compass on the heavens’ face,
who planned the universe and gave it life,
here, now, is trapped — the victim of a plot.
The judge is judged, and shares a sinner’s fate,
while Pilate, at the warning of his wife,
evades his guilt with water and a towel,
delivering up the one who would deliver
the world that owed him all of its existence.
The very ones who call out for his death —
that he deserves to die — owe him their breath.

The eternal word now mutely keeps his peace
and opens not his mouth. The worthy one,
held worthless now, takes up his heavy cross.
The one who bore the weight of all the worlds
now wearily takes up a cross of wood.
The Lamb of God who takes away our sins,
in meekness his last pilgrimage begins.

A star shot from its place in heaven and fell
down to the depths of the abyss. Was Christ’s
descent less terrible, his humble stooping down?
Yet humbly he had washed the apostles’ feet,
so now he falls to wash away our sin.
Can we do less than kneel here and adore
the one who all our sin and anguish bore?

A mother’s pain! to see her own child die —
tragic reversal, when age sees youth undone.
The heart that stored such hope, such promised joy
now breaks to see the ruin of that hope.
Yet breaking, that heart’s hope finds its release
and brings the world the promise of its peace.

Simon didn’t know who Jesus was;
just that he’d better do as he was told:
take up that cross and carry it a while.
What unknown hands lift crosses from our backs?
Who serves us? And what strangers do we serve?
Whom do we serve, if not our Lord himself,
who told us that as we each do unto
the least of them we do it unto him?
To follow him we must take up that cross —
to save our lives our lives must suffer loss.

He came to show us all that we could be,
to stand displayed a perfect man, that we
might have a model for our lives. Instead
we turned away; and worse, we cursed and mocked
his beauty, so much greater than our own.
Yet all our hurts and harms could not deface
the inner glory of his perfect soul,
and his wounds only served to make us whole.

How can he bear that weight? How can he bear
the gathered sorrows of a billion souls?
How bear these sins, since he is innocent?
It is no wonder he should fall, beneath
the heavy weight of all this unearned guilt.
All we like sheep are scattered, wandering, lost;
we set the price; and he has paid the cost.

What tears are these? Whence comes this grievous moan?
Is it for him, or for the loss of hope?
If this is how the world will treat its Lord,
what hope is there for anyone? For us?
If green wood burns so easily, what flames
will ravage those whose hearts and souls are dry?
It seems for our own sins we’d better cry.

Where is the light? The candles have gone out!
There is no hope, no way to see the way;
the one we hoped would lead us has collapsed.
Yet in his fall, this third bone-weary fall,
his voice cries out, Remember me, O Lord;
and God, who hears the fallen, will not fail.
Up from the depths and darkness without light,
he calls on our behalf through our long night,
his prayer ascending God’s high throne unto:
Father, forgive; they know not what they do.

The night before, he’d spoken of his blood,
and blessed the cup of wine, removed his robe
and kneeling, washed their feet; and later, in
the garden kneeled again, and asked his God
to let the cup of bitterness pass by.
All comes together here: wine, blood and gall.
The garments are removed, the veil undone:
We see the naked glory of the Son.

The carpenter of Nazareth is brought
at last to Skull Hill’s bloody, dismal mound.
Between two criminals, hemmed in by sin,
the sinless one is nailed upon the cross.
How many times had he with his own hands
wielded the hammer, pegging wooden frames,
or driven nails. He’d made good yokes, good yokes
for oxen at the plough, or at the cart.
Yet here he is undone with his own art.

What legacy is this, what parting gift?
A mother loses one son, gains another,
as John, belov’d disciple, gains a mother.
The end has come; time for one bitter taste
of vinegar on a sponge, a gasping breath,
the words of commendation, and of death.

Long, long ago, an angel called her bless’d
and full of grace. Did Gabriel know the course
her life would take, the life of her womb’s fruit,
the Son of God — that it would come to this?
And did he know as well that this was not
the end, that there was more — far more — to come?
Yet Mary’s grief is not relieved in this,
as on his wounded brow she plants a kiss.

His foster father was named Joseph, too;
in death, he takes another Joseph’s tomb.
He had no earthly father of his own,
nor would he have a grave but as a gift.
His birthplace was a stable let on loan,
his burial in a tomb another built.
And all this was to free us from our guilt.
The Way is ended, now the tomb is sealed —
our eyes have seen the love of God revealed.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG