December 27, 2013

The King's Apology

King Herod was a man who weighed things in
the scale of his own judgment, in
his selfish-ordered world,
in which his life out-weighed all other lives.

So in his eyes expediency demanded that
this infant rival king be dealt with ere
he came of age to threaten Herod’s throne.
The other children were collateral loss,
indeed somewhat to be regretted
(as the later letter put it) due
to over-zealous overkill
by members of the royal forces.
(Politicians wipe away their crimes
as handily as crimes wipe out their foes.)

What? Never saw that letter?
Search the archives and I’m sure you’ll find
it, signed with Herod’s hand and seal.
“Condolences to all bereaved in Bethlehem
of Judah. Please accept my sorrow for
your loss, occasioned by excesses on
the army’s part. Those found responsible
will face review and discipline. Sincerely,
Herod, King.”

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
the image is “Aaronic Blessing #3 — The Holy Innocents” 12/26/13

December 25, 2013

Warning for Storytellers

Saint Stephen is considered the first martyr — the first Christian to perish as a result of his proclamation of the gospel. As I encounter the story year by year in the Daily Office, I can’t help but sympathize to some small extent with the rising anger the elders must have felt at his long retelling of the Sacred Story. “How dare this young pup lecture us on our own history!” they well might have said — in spite of the important role that repeating the tale held in their tradition.

That he had a Greek name, and likely a Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jew was also grating to these elders. And when, in the coda of his testimony, his language turned to prophetic invective, no doubt his fate was sealed.

Another young zealot, though of the opposing point of view, stood guard over the coats, and agreed with the slaughter. Saul himself would later sing from a different hymn-sheet, but at the stoning of Stephen, he stood firm with a smug sense of satisfaction that this upstart had been silenced.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The image is from my continued efforts to portray the saints as “real people” and is modeled on my Brother Richard Edward.

December 24, 2013

Christ Child's Play

We are called to welcome Christ, yet how often is he left out, outside in the cold in the feed-trough?

SJF • Christmas Eve 2013• Tobias Haller BSG
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.+

And so we come once again to this holy night, as the old song says, the night when the Savior was born. We hear the story as the historian Luke tells it, fixing the date by means of names of the rulers — that’s how people kept track of things in those days before we had B.C. and A.D., they referred to the politicians in office at the time, emperor and governor. Luke fixes the place by naming the towns and the regions: from Nazareth in Galilee on down to Bethlehem of Judea. And he pins down the people on the basis of their heritage — descended from the house and family of David. Nowadays we would call them Davidsons, of which this parish had its share in its early days, and for whom Davidson Avenue just a block to the east is named. History can teach you some unusual lessons!

So we gather here, in the first year of the second term of the presidency of Barack I, during the governorship of Cuomo son of Cuomo, in the church of Saint James on the road named for Jerome of Brooklyn and the Bronx, nigh unto Davidson Avenue. We, like the shepherds of old, are gathered to welcome a child; a promised child, who had been spoken of hundreds of years before he was born, and has been spoken of every Christmas since. This is the child of whom Isaiah spoke, the child who has been born for us, the son given to us; upon whose shoulders rests the authority of God, and to whom is given that powerful, wonderful, mighty, everlasting and royal name.

But let us not forget he is still a child — a newborn child; born in the cold season, in an uncomfortable place; wrapped to keep him as warm as possible, but placed in a feeding trough instead of a cradle, because there was no room for them in the inn. A child has been born to us; but where do we put him?

+ + +

I spoke this past Sunday about how we ought to welcome Christ and the grace he brings. As the hymn says, we are to “fling wide the portals of our hearts” to welcome Jesus in, to welcome his gracious entry into our hearts. And yet how often is he left out, outside in the cold in the feed-trough? We might hope to say, well we would never do that! But remember how he said, as you have done to the least of these you have done it unto me?

I could remind you that just the other day a man threw his three-year-old son of the roof of a building, and then jumped to his death himself. I could tell you that earlier today in the fantastic slums built upon and around the city dump in São Paulo Brazil, a little boy was picking over the few items he rescued from that stinking, dangerous, poisonous garbage pile, those few torn and tattered things which he can trade for a few cents. I could tell you that earlier today somewhere in Soweto there was a young girl, 9years old, moaning quietly and weeping on her cot as she tried to fall asleep and forget the pain and hurt and abuse she suffered when her uncle raped her, because he believed the fable that sleeping with a virgin would cure him of AIDS. I could tell you that even as I speak a 12-year-old boy in the suburbs of Denver Colorado holds his father’s unguarded handgun in his hands, ready in a moment to end the interminable bullying he has suffered by putting an end to his short, miserable life. I could tell you countless such stories; stories that show what this world too often does to children. After all, it is so terribly easy to say, “We would never send a newborn child off to sleep in a feed-trough.”

Nor was it different back then — not only was this special child Jesus born in a barn and laid in a feed-trough, but in short order the king sent shock troops to the town to kill him; and just to be sure they killed all the little boys in the village. Some things haven’t changed. Syria and the Sudan have taught us nothing new about genocide. There is nothing new about horror and abuse and poverty and tyranny.

It has been said that you can judge a society on the basis of how it treats its children — well, maybe other people’s children. How would our world be judged against the world into which Christ was born? Is it really any better, for all our advances? Will it stand well in the judgment? For believe you me, it will be judged, and by that same Christ! He will have all the experience he needs to judge just how well this world has done in welcoming him, compared to how well he was welcomed in the days of Augustus and Quirinius in the city of David called Bethlehem. Beware the judgment of this child; beware the wrath of the Lamb.

+ + +

But my! What a heavy message for Christmas! And it would be if I left us there; but there is good news in all of this, even if we have to hear those unpleasant truths first to get there. The good news is that the child born in the stable and laid in the manger is still with us. And he is mighty, he is wonderful, he is everlasting, and he is the Prince of peace. He is our Savior — and if we have failed to open the portals of our hearts to invite him in, he will not give up on us yet. Christ the Child will stand outside and knock, and call us to come out to him. He has the unparalleled patience of a child and a voice just as piercing! And remember that he not only said “as you have done to the least of these you have done to me” — he also said, “anyone who does not come to the kingdom of heaven as a child cannot enter it” and “You must be born again.”

He comes to us as a child, and calls us forth as children — and if we cannot open our adult hearts to let him in, he will help us to open our hearts so that we can go out and be born again, so that we can come out to be with him as children once again, out into the world where we can join with all of our brothers and sisters.

Jesus the Christ Child stands at the doors of our hearts and calls out in the bright voice of the child, “Can you come out to play?” His voice is so strong and clear he can call even to those who have been laid low by the sleep of death itself, a voice so powerful that it can not only wake the dead but call them forth, “Can Lazarus come out to play? Can Monica come out to play? Can Rosetta come out to play? Can Russell? Can Charles, and Sarah, and Diamond and Raquel? He is calling us, calling us all forth, this wonderful, mighty child! He is calling us forth to be born again, to be rejuvenated and restored to the innocence of children, to play with him, tonight, and every night and day.

But, be warned, this is no ordinary child’s play — this is the serious and earnest play that children play when they are most intent. They play with strict rules, children do: and among the most important is that the game can not begin until all of God’s children are gathered together. And the children will come streaming from the city dumps of São Paulo and Mexico City; they will come in procession from the South Bronx and Newark and Appalachia and Darfur; they will come in solemn procession from Newtown and Damascus; they will come running as fast as their little feet can carry them from the smokey toil of factories, from the backbreaking work of the pit-mines, from the slums, and from the cemeteries. And only when all of God’s children are gathered together — all of God’s children, from every family under heaven and on earth; from every place and every time — only then will the great game begin. Then, and only then, will the song the angels sang come true in earnest — true peace on earth, to all united in Godly wills.

So harken, my sisters and brothers, to the voice of the Christ Child when he knocks at the doors of your heart. Be born again, become a child, accept his invitation. Turn not that Child away, but join him in that newborn world; go forth and join him in his gracious play.+


Amdist all the busyness of Christmas, including the best-laid plans that go awry, and the expectations that fail to come to pass, recall this:
  • that Mary never expected to be the Mother of God
  • that Joseph never expected to have to be guided on his course by angelic intervention
  • that they didn’t expect the inn to be full, or to have to shelter in a barn, of all things
  • that the arrival of shepherds and astrologers wasn’t in the least on their minds, to say nothing of how startled were both shepherds and astrologers, and
  • that in the long run God has this way of unsettling our settled worlds, coming in the middle of a cold winter night two thousand years ago, and threatening to come at any moment like a thief or a long-absent master returning to find the servants either busy at their duties, or neglectfully pining like a Norwegian Blue.
So buck up, me darlings, and have a wonderful Feast of God’s Inbreaking. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our joy at God’s coming were as much a surprise to God as God’s coming is to us?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 20, 2013

Believing "In"

When I say "I believe in God" I am not just affirming a proposition concerning my opinion about God. I am affirming something stranger and stronger: that I believe my belief is conceived, sustained, and energized because I am "in God" — that is, in God's Body, the church. Read the Nicene Creed with that understanding in mind, and observe what a great and wonderful crowd of supporters sustains and empowers your belief — not just by being "in" the Triune God, but "in" the church, "in" the communion of saints and "in" the sacraments, and ultimately "in" the body of the resurrection itself and on into the life of the world to come.

It was an encounter with that body of the resurrected Jesus that finally allowed doubting Thomas to believe "in" the one whom he had doubted. So may we who have not seen, find our beliefs strengthened by our incorporation among the cloud of witnesses who cheer us on the Way, through the Truth, and into Life.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
ikon of Thomas from my series of "real people" portrayals of the saints

Weaned from a Pickle

The perennial question of the location of the headquarters for The Episcopal Church is on the table once more, in part in response to a resolution from the 2012 General Convention mandating a departure from the Church Center building at 815 Second Avenue, NYC. Note that this resolution only concerns the building, not NYC, as some seem to think. Still, many want that question reopened, even as a major study is going on concerning just what the structure of TEC is to be down the road, including whether it should even have an HQ at all.

The latest step in this peculiar dance is a survey designed to receive input on all sorts of aspects of a possible HQ, including its location. (Disclosure: I tried to take the survey yesterday soon after its announcement, but I think I engaged it as it was still under construction; on my second and successful "go" one of the questions I'd answered in the first round had disappeared.)

Having been a part of many such surveys in the past, however, I do wonder at the soundness of this approach to decision-making. Too many times I've seen survey results ignored as a particular juggernaut presses forward regardless of results. (The adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary is a telling case in point.) It's a good thing Moses didn't survey the Israelites as to location issues. They wanted to go back to Egypt! Oh the leeks, oh the cucumbers! It is hard to be weaned from a pickle.

Frankly, when it comes to the Church Center and its location, I've seen this road traveled so many times it has become extremely tedious. I've been around long enough to see the plans under Presiding Bishop Allin to move to the Seamen's Church Institute undone by city office-space code; the sale of Seabury House in Connecticut; the decades of various studies and plans brought to GC; and the collapse of the General Theological Seminary space-sharing scheme.

Dealing with location issues -- by survey or study or any other means -- prior to making decisions as to restructuring seems to me to be utter madness. Form follows function... or you're stuck with the form and it shapes how you function! And a diet of pickles makes for a sour disposition.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 18, 2013

Homophobia Test

This is a test of the homophobia detection system, designed particularly for the people who say that they are not homophobic, just firmly convinced on rational grounds of the wrongness of same-sex relationships.

The test requires some honesty, but it also reveals honesty when it happens. It is quite simple, and consists of a single stimulus and response. Here goes:

Stimulus: You see two men kissing passionately.
Response: If you feel any negative emotion ranging from discomfort to disgust, you are homophobic. If you calmly and unemotionally reflect, "This is contrary to Scripture," you are homophobic, because, of course, it isn't contrary to Scripture. If you sense any arousal, you are probably gay, but may also be homophobic (this is an ambiguous test result; no test is perfect!).

We now return to our regularly scheduled broadcast. A blessed remainder of Advent, and a reminder that the judge is waiting at the door.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 14, 2013

Religion as Shield for Bigotry

A thought for anti-gay religious people who don't want to be thought of as homophobes

Consider this: the fact that a given belief has a religious basis, or can be claimed to have a religious basis, does not shield the believer from being answerable to charges that the belief is wrong, false, or otherwise flawed. For many years racism had a readily available religious justification, and chattel slavery had its ardent religious defenders in most churches until well into the mid-late nineteenth century. But slavery was always morally wrong. It's just that, for example, the cultures in which Scriptures were written were not able to see past their own economic situation. It is ironic that some who protest that changes in standards amount to giving into cultural pressure, fail to recognize the degree to which cultural pressures created the very standards they think should be beyond reform.

For dealing with any such issue today, the telling indicator will be the degree to which believers apply the same rules and methods of biblical interpretation or religious thinking to actions they themselves condone or practice. A selectively applied religious standard is an offense in the eyes of God and Humanity. That is why the prophets were so offended by unequal weights and measures -- and hypocrisy.

Religion ought not be a shield, but a beacon.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 13, 2013

John of the Cross, 1591

Juan de la Cruz was a Carmelite mystic who died on December 14, 1591. He is famed for the phrase, “dark night of the soul” — the title of one of his two great mystical poems. The other, the Spiritual Canticle, is Juan’s adaptation of the Biblical Song of Songs and portrays the longing of the soul for God imagined as a lover seeking the beloved.

One of his visions was of the crucified Christ seen from above. He made a small ink drawing of this image, which later inspired Salvador Dalí to produce his famous painting, Christ of St John of the Cross.

The Collect
Judge eternal, throned in splendor, you gave Juan de la Cruz strength of purpose and mystical faith that sustained him even through the dark night of the soul: Shed your light on all who love you, in unity with Jesus Christ our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
the model for the image is my Brother-in-Christ Francis Sebastian, a fellow seeker after the divine Beloved

Thought for 12.13.13

On Salvation Through Christ Alone
I tend to think it's a bit like gravity. "Nothing falls to the earth, including sparrows, except through gravity." The sparrow doesn't have to "believe in" gravity in order to be touched by it. Who am I to question the secret working of the power of God in human hearts, perhaps by means of which even the one worked on is ignorant?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
on the 16th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood

December 11, 2013

Not Just Stuff

Jim Naughton reports on an interview between Patricia Churchland and Graham Lawton, concerning her book Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain. Perhaps in a Freudian slip, she refers to her conclusions as, "unnerving..." But if you take away the nerves, by her standards, there can be no ideas!

The "mind-body" debate is a very old one, with a great deal of nuance. Even materialism has to first decide what "matter" is, and I don't think physics has yet plumbed the depths of material and energetic nature to the extent of absolute assurance. I don't think it is likely ever to be settled, as Churchland seems to think it is, through her process of elimination — which I fear looks a bit like a mere reluctance to accept others' perceptions as "real" — a hands over the ears and "la la la la" refusal even to accept the possibility that there is more to the mind than the brain, more to reality than just matter and energy.

Ultimately, neuroexistentialism is just another minimalizing answer to the question of Mind. I find such reductionist models less than helpful — and after all, why should I believe what Churchland or any other collection of tissues suggests is the ultimate reality?

Further questions remain: What if there is an ultimate reality to which, as Neal Stephenson suggests in Anathem, nerve tissue is uniquely sensitive and responsive? What if the brain, even if "just" tissue, is a sense organ designed to pick up on realities not otherwise sensible? What if Spirit is just as real as atoms?

If human beings are just sacks of meat, then soylent green is in our future. No thank you, P.C., I'll stick with the mind as more than the sum of its parts. As Teilhard so wisely said, "My matter is not a 'part' of the universe that I possess totaliter. It is the totality of the universe possessed by me partialiter." My mind exists outside my body, including in other minds — even as you read these words.

So here's to an expansionist, rather than a reductionist, understanding of the mind.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 10, 2013

Rachel Weeps

From my 1980 Requiem for Children.

MP3 File

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing.
Rachel cries for her children and will not be consoled,
because they are not.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon them.
A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and wailing.
Rachel cries for her children and will not be consoled,
because they are not.

December 7, 2013

Welcome Bishop-Elect Shin

Happy to report that the Diocese of New York has elected Allen K Shin as Bishop Suffragan, on the fourth ballot.

I thought we might be at the Convention until late in the day; but the Holy Spirit, I truly do believe, was with us from the start, and the trend was clear and manifest by the fourth ballot. God bless Allen and the beginning of a new ministry, on the anniversary of his priestly ordination, no less.

Also very happy to report that the Baptistery Chapel was reserved for prayer throughout the day, and a few of us found respite from the caucusing there -- in peaceful quiet. The placement in the Baptistery is poignant for me, as my slot in the columbarium is right there staring me in the face; a sobering call to prayer, but in this case, joyfully answered!

I knew Allen from seminary, where he was a year ahead of me. His experience in multiple cultural contexts, and internationally, will bring some new perspectives to the House of Bishops, and be a good fit for the multiplex that is the Diocese of New York. And he sings rather well.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 5, 2013

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron of children, sailors, and pawnbrokers — as well as many another town or nation. No wonder he is considered a jolly saint, to be patron to such a jolly bunch.

Many legends surround him, including calming storms, reviving pickled boys, and saving girls from life on the game by tossing bags of money down the chimney — whence we derive a good part of the current secularized job description. There is no indication in the legend that he was Bishop of the Arctic!

Herewith, however, I add my own contribution to the legend with an icon modeled on my Brother-in-Christ Nathanael Deward — a musician and director of choirs. If anyone learns the gentle art of addressing fallen humanity, including children and sailors, it is a skilled director of choirs, especially church choirs. So here is a gentle face that draws you to do better than you think you can, inspiring you to be as "good" as possible! Remember, he knows if you've been bad or good, so be good, for goodness sake!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 2, 2013

Thought of Train

The terrible train accident yesterday took place only about ten minutes by bus away from my church. It is a train line I take quite often when heading north. Waking to the news, I was struck at how much the Gospel of the day echoed the suddenness and peril of life: "Two are in the field, one is taken and another left... two are at the mill, one is taken and the other left..." Two are in a railway carriage, one is taken and another left.

I was relieved to hear later in the afternoon that my brother in Christ William Francis wasn't on the train, having made the uncharacteristic choice to miss the solemn liturgy at SMV. Again, as the Bard observed, there's a destiny shapes our ends... Or, as it is written in the annals of Dune, When it is time for one to die, there arises in that one a longing to go to the place of its death. It was not WF's time, and for that I give thanks, even while mourning the deaths and injuries of those whose time had come.

I was surprised, even later yesterday, to see on the news the more detailed reports that the train was being pushed, with the locomotive at the north end. That seems to be a recipe for disaster, as any problem with the southernmost carriage will cause a pile up -- which appears to be exactly what happened at that curve in the track. I've been around trains all my life, and I know this pushing mode is used from time to time, sometimes as an assist. But to run an entire trip from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan in this mode seems to me not to be a good practice.

Let us hope that the evidence shows the cause of the tragic accident, and provides recommendations to avoid any more on this heavily traveled corridor.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

Mission East

Channing Moore Williams
Missionary Bishop in China and Japan, 1910

How does a poor farmer's son grow up to be a bearer of the Gospel half-way round the world? One answer is the Holy Spirit, coupled with that young man's willingness to cast his eyes and heart into a mission of such scope. This is a word to the church: God works for the people of the world only to the extent that willing human servants offer themselves to do that work. We have a job description, and have received our marching orders. Sometimes that march will take us to our own neighborhood, at other times to the ends of the earth. Williams took his march to China and Japan, though just at the end of his life he returned to the soil of his Virginia homeland. May all of us make such circuits and accomplish such works, in larger or smaller orbits.

Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your servant Channing Moore Williams, whom you called to preach the Gospel to the people of China and Japan. Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG