July 30, 2012

Indaba: Do!

Here is a news story about the Continuing Indaba and Mutual Listening Process, with which I've been involved as a member of the Reference Group. Watch the videos, too.

This is a hopeful future for the Anglican Communion, a way that rests on building consequential relationships rather than invoking "relational consequences."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 29, 2012

Nothing from Nothing

A miracle on the North Side of Pittsburgh -- a sermon for Proper 12b

Proper 12b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what is that among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.”

In the opening scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear the old king is trying to urge compliments from his daughters in return for their getting a share of the kingdom from which he is choosing to retire — very unwisely as it turns out. Two of the daughters are lavish in their flattery — the ones who, as it will turn out, really despise their father and hold the old man in contempt, and eventually conspire to dispossess him completely. But the youngest, Cordelia, who truly loves the old king, is also determined to be honest with him and not hand him a platter full of false flattery. She knows that her love is richer than her tongue. When Lear coaxes her as her turn comes up, “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?” The honest daughter responds simply, “Nothing, my Lord.” Lear then warns her that “Nothing will come of nothing.” And so the tragedy begins, as the foolish king imagines that his loving daughter does not love him.

We’ve seen in recent weeks, how it is that old King Lear might have had experience on his side. It is true that nothing comes from nothing. If you want to grow a tree, you need a cutting or a seed. If you want to build a building, you need stone and mortar.

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The pairing of the reading from the Second Book of the Kings with today’s Gospel from John is new to our cycle of Scripture readings. No doubt the editors of this lectionary wanted to highlight the fact that Jesus was acting after the manner of one of the prophets of old when he fed the multitude. What is more important to me about both of these passages concerning miraculous feedings is that they start with some food — twenty loaves of bread in one case, and fiveloaves of barley bread and two fish in the other — and it is from these scant resources that the multitude is fed. Nothing, in this case, comes of nothing, but something from something: both Elisha and Jesus take a small amount of food and they feed many with it.

So this is not a miracle like that of the manna in the wilderness, where bread miraculously simply raided from heaven. Jesus — as I hope you’ve noticed — prefers not to work that kind of miracle. As you may recall, he rejected the devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread. No, he takes five loaves and two fish — which the apostle Andrew recognizes is not enough to feed five thousand people, as anyone would realize — and somehow that food stretches, not only to feed and satisfy that crowd of thousands, but to leave twelve baskets full of leftovers. Nothing comes of nothing, but a great deal can come from something, with the power of God at work.

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A priest friend of mine, Gene White — who I’m sad to say died young almost twenty years ago from a rare form of cancer — once told me about an experience he had while in seminary in Pittsburgh. This was some years ago, as you’ll soon be able to tell. Every seminarian studying for ministry had to learn what it was like to be homeless for at least one night. They were each given a dime to make a phone call in case they got truly desperate — a dime, so now you know how long ago this was! Not only could you make a call for a dime, but there were actually phones on the street where you could make a call.

Gene came from a respectable middle class background, and was at a significant loss as to what to do with himself. With only a dime there was no place to go to, no food he could afford, even in those days when a dime went a lot further than it does today. He was hungry and thirsty, lonely and miserable. Finally he gravitated to the public park and took a seat on a park bench. No doubt he’d seen many homeless or impoverished persons do just that, so I suppose he thought that was how you do it, this is what you do when you are homeless: you go to a park and you sit on a bench. He was naturally reluctant to approach anyone to ask for help — he had never had to ask for help in his whole life — and so he just sat, praying, hard, that something might happen to get him out of this terrible situation.

Well, his prayer was answered, but in a way he never imagined. A middle-aged day laborer in dusty work-clothes happened to come by, and noticed him, and no doubt saw how miserable this young man was, sitting there on a park bench by himself, with his head bowed. He approached Gene and asked if he needed help. Gene could see that the man was not likely to have any money to give him, but simply said that he was hungry, and didn’t have any place to stay. It took a lot for him to swallow his pride and his upbringing to say those words. The man nodded and said that if Gene liked he could come home with him to have supper with his family.

Gene brightened up at the prospect, hungry as he was, and went along willingly. They walked a good while into the poorer part of town on the North Side — and if you know Pittsburgh you know it’s got some pretty poor parts. The man turned in at the gate of a run-
down house, its front yard littered with odds and ends, spare parts of cars and washing machines. Three or four young children were playing in the dust around these relics of appliances, but they jumped up when they saw their father arrive, and they ran to him and they hung off his dusty work-clothes until the man carried them all inside, and beckoned to Gene to follow.

The man called out to his wife in the kitchen, saying that there’d be one more for supper. She called back, “That’s fine; the Lord will provide.” She came to the door of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron — remember aprons? — and waved hello to the guest. The man invited him to sit on the ratty sofa and wait for supper. They chatted for a while, and then after a little bit the family gathered around the Formica-topped kitchen table. There were places set for all and an extra one for Gene. The china didn’t match; neither did the knives and forks; but that was O.K. The father bowed his head and the family did the same. “For what we are about to receive, Lord Jesus, give us grateful hearts. Amen.”

It was only when the meal was served that Gene realized just how costly this grace was. For what the mother set before the family and the guest was half a loaf of Wonder Bread fried in Mazola Oil. Gene never forgot the sparkling eyes of those little children looking up at him and grinning as they relished this feast of bread fried in oil. And he never forgot the generosity of that family, willing to share that half-a-loaf of Wonder Bread and that bit of oil. They did not feed a multitude that night — except the countless throngs of angels that gathered round that house and savored the rich taste of pure grace and charity.

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Nothing comes of nothing. If we are not willing to offer what we have — however modest it may be, however small and unlikely to satisfy, however little it may seem among so many — then nothing will come of it. But if each of us offers that little, that little of what we have, then we will find that there is more than we expected. Nothing comes of nothing, but great things can come from small things, when those small things are dedicated to God and to God’s glory, blessed and sanctified with prayer for God’s purposes. So let us then give of ourselves, dedicating our small gifts to God’s service, with grateful hearts. Who knows how many they will feed, both in body and in spirit, when we give them with open hands, and in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

July 26, 2012

Of Church, Decline, and Culture

There has been a lot of statistic-tossing back and forth about the decline of the Mainline Churches in the US, in particular in comparison with such entities as the Southern Baptist Convention. That there has been decline is evident; but the efforts at showing causality seem to me to be hampered by a failure to recognized the differences in culture geographically. When you average things across the whole United States, you tend to miss some important factors.

This might reflect something of the phenomenon of entropy: there is a gradual winding down of things and increasing disorder, yet even while that happens there are “islands” of increasing ordered complexity. So too there may well be islands of growth amidst an over-all trend towards diminishment.

For example, churchgoing is a cultural reality that has been maintained in the South better than in the North. Since the South is a stronghold of the Southern Baptists (duh!) It might make more sense to compare them, and their growth (or decline, as I understand it) with that of dioceses, presbyteries and synods of the mainline churches in those same regions. I know when I was in Memphis two years back I saw a level of churchgoing in all sorts of churches that many in the North would envy. Averaging what is essentially a cultural/regional phenomenon over the whole country is not going to give an accurate picture.

As John Chilton noted in a conversation at the Episcopal Café, you could say the same thing about bowling. It might be helpful to take a look at all sorts of cultural realities and compare their decline and geographic distribution since the 1950s. Is it only the churches that have changed? What about bowling? How has that institution and social phenomenon thrived or declined, and is it tenpins, duckpins or candlepins? What is the most successful “sect” in the realm of Bowlingdom?

The rise and fall of the Drive-In Movie might also make for a good analysis, or even the Cinema itself. Does the rise of the Multiplex reflect the rise of the Megachurch, and for similar reasons? And what relevance does the death of the art house or the neighborhood movie theater have for the plight of small and dwindling churches? In a more mobile culture, perhaps the message to the church is to consolidate the many small neighborhood or village churches into larger and more well-supported few churches — with ample parking!

Context and culture and geography are not lightly to be neglected when seeking to understand social phenomena — of which churchgoing is but one. And distinguishing causality from coincidence is also helpful.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 25, 2012

What Marriage Is For

I've been working off and on on an essay on the question of "companionate marriage" which some (mostly those who oppose same-sex marriage) assert is a modern invention; i.e., that marriage was always about property and inheritance until the 19th century sometime, or even later. I hope to post the whole thing at some point, but want to flag the topic here because it came up in the comment strand of the previous post.

This false impression that marriage was all about property and money arises in part from recourse to legal history. Naturally legal history focuses on such things as property and inheritance --- but people are people, and have been for millennia; and there is ample evidence that people felt the same sorts of emotional bonds in earlier times, and married for those reasons, apart from whatever legal forms were at issue. The focus of history on the dynastic woes of people such as Henry VIII notwithstanding, even the dynasts had their affections and preferences, even if they were not the most successful in maintaining faithful marriages. I guess we can at least credit Henry with the "one-man six-women" model, in addition to the liaisons that gave rise to a number of Fitzroys.

However, to get back to love as a basis for marriage, in addition to the contrast that Genesis 1 presents with Genesis 2 (the first chapter about progeny, the second about a suitable companion for the whole of life) another touching example of this is the story of Elkanah, who declares that he loves his wife Hannah in spite of her apparent infertility. (1 Samuel 1) It is true he takes a second wife in order to have children (thus compliant with the law’s demand to be fruitful and multiply) — but his love is testimony to that human quality that no law can completely govern or define: the mystery of human love, one for another, not for what can come out of the relationship — whether property, children, or security — but for what goes into it. A good marriage is not a means to extrinsic ends, but a union of two persons who have come to see their end in each other.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Scots for Marriage Equality

News is out that Scotland may become the first portion of the United Kingdom to adopt marriage equality, the BBC reports. When I heard the news I did a quick Google on "Scotland marriage" and was introduced to a website with an appeal for a petition against allowing for same-sex marriage. This site (which I won't reference, but which you can find as easily as I did) provides the same tired old lies as its rationale for opposing this development.

  • Marriage is for one man and one woman  — well, that is one form of marriage, but it is clearly not the only one; to wit:
  • This will lead to polygamy — polygamy was the other most popular form of marriage; the point being, of course, that it was and is predominantly heterosexual. It only took a few generations and less than a handful of chapters to get from Adam to Lamech (Gen 4:19) If anything led to polygamy it was heterosexual marriage!
  • People will be silenced if they disagree — as long as discourse is civil, people will be free to speak. That there is protection from hateful or inflammatory speech is part of the cost of living in a civil society. All proposed laws give ample protection to religious institutions that do not wish to perform marriages of which their religion disapproves. (Is anyone forced to marry legally divorced people in church if their church does not believe in divorce?)
  • This should be a matter of popular referendum — it is a basic principle of social rule that rights are not to be legislated simply on the basis of popular opinion, but on the basis of demonstrable harm or benefit.
The good news is that the longer people keep making phoney arguments, the sooner things will change.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 14, 2012

Taking a Constitutional

Prior to the recently ended session of the General Convention, a few fringe voices had been raised contesting the constitutionality of provisions of Title IV of the Canons. Since the Convention, similar, if not identical, voices have been raised questioning the constitutionality of the liturgy for the blessing of a same-sex covenanted relationship.

Let me address the latter first. The bulk of Article X refers to alterations of and additions to the Book of Common Prayer, and for authorization of trial use to that end. The explicit proviso at the end of the Article allows the Bishops to take order for other forms in accordance with the rubrics -- the principal of which is the rubric on page 13, which deals with the question of additional rites directly.

In addition to [the Daily Office and Holy Eucharist] and the other rites contained in this Book, other forms set forth by authority within this Church may be used.
This includes the Book of Occasional Services, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, and more recent supplementary liturgical material such as those in the Enriching our Worship series. It also includes the liturgy approved at this past Convention by an overwhelming majority in both Houses, for the blessing of a life-long covenant. This liturgy is not in conflict with the BCP, any more than a liturgy for the blessing of a battleship would be. The fact that the BCP does not refer to such blessings is not in itself a limiting factor, nor does this blessing liturgy in any way conflict with or alter the forms in the BCP. It is a supplemental rite making provision for something the BCP does not address -- which is the nature of a supplement. By Constitutional definition, the limit upon authorized rites is respected, and with the proviso of local episcopal approval, these rites may be used as of authority in this church, equally as much as the rites I have enumerated above. Some bishops will decline or refuse to permit the use of this new rite -- this is what renders it provisional, and they will be within their competence to act in this way.

Questions of constitutionality have been referred to the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons. In the past they have been reluctant to rule on Constitutionality as beyond the ambit of their role, but in accordance with Canon I.1.2.n.3.v they have by resolution C116 been charged to take up the question. The opinions of canon lawyers (and others) on both sides will no doubt be considered in their deliberations.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG