December 26, 2014

Keeping a Secret

One of the celebrated icons of the tradition portrays John the Divine (that is, the Theologian) with a finger to his lips in the age-old gesture for silence or secrecy. I've always supposed this imagery is based on the commandment John receives in Revelation 10:4, to keep secret the message delivered by the seven thunders. Roger that, 10-4 indeed, point taken.

Whether this passage or the whole theme of an ironic “revelation” written in such heavily coded language that only an initiate can understand it, the suggestion of secret knowledge is a sure-fire way to generate book sales. Few books of the New Testament generate quite as much reflection — some of it no doubt widely divergent from the author’s intent — as well as a good amount of fevered speculation as to when it is going to “come true.” There seem to be a couple of cable TV channels dedicated more or less permanently to such prognostication.

I do not think, however, that this was the goal of the author, be that author John as the text indicates, or some other figure making use of his name. The message does seem distant from what one might expect of a Galilean fisherman promoted to disciple, perhaps the beloved one. But a lot could happen between the time spent by Galilee and in Jerusalem, and the long years on Patmos. My sense is the author made use of the time for reflection and introspection, and in the end was passing on the warning his Lord had given: be prepared to endure before you are finally vindicated. This is also, perhaps needless to say, a welcome message, particularly to those suffering real persecution.

So we honor John the Theologian, accepting his counsel to keep stum on some things while proclaiming others boldly. And to bring things a bit up to date, I've recreated the icon with a modern model, my own dear Brother-in-Christ Maurice John Grove, casting a wise and knowing eye in our direction. My goal in all of these icons is to make the saints as real and human and living as I can, and I give thanks to Maurice John for serving to that end.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 25, 2014

Christmas Dialogue

a reminder of the what why and wherefor of the Incarnation

Lord, look at the nations engaging in war
as they ravage, destroy, and slay.
Why is it, O Lord, that you seem to ignore
all this violence, day after day?

My beloved, I gave you the power to choose
to love one another or not.
You have chosen the latter, and now you confuse
what I gave you with what you have got.

Lord, look on your people now stricken with AIDS
as they perish, waste, and die.
Is it nothing to you that this virus invades
as you watch from your throne in the sky?

My beloved, I gave you the cure for this ill
in the bark of a tropical tree;
but you burned down the forest to fatten the till.
You made that decision, not me.

Lord, look at the peoples divided by race,
by language, culture and clan.
Why not give us each the same color and face?
Please tell us, Lord, what was your plan?

My children, I gave you your races and clans
that in contrast you might find delight.
Instead you have chosen to counter my plans
using race as a reason to fight.

Lord, look at the needy, the starving, the poor
who have insufficient to eat.
Why do you in silence and distance ignore
them, up there on your heavenly seat?

My beloved, I give you enough food for each,
that all might be filled and not die.
I have given you freely all that you beseech,
Yet you hold it and hoard it, not I.

Whatever we do, Lord, we seem to go wrong;
we turn all your good gifts to ill.
Lord, help us and save us—for we are not strong—
if your grace is offered still.

My children, I gave you a brother, my Son;
the very best thing I could do.
I gave you myself: that is what I have done,
and I made that decision for you—
I took flesh, and became one with you.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG, 1990

December 22, 2014

On the Development of Discipline

There is an old joke about a man offering a woman a small sum of money to sleep with him, which she rejects in indignation. He then offers her a fantastic amount and she agrees; but he then counters with another low offer, to which she responds, “What kind of woman do you think I am.” He answers, “My dear, we’ve already established what kind of woman you are; we are just haggling about the price.”

This reminds me of the claim by some in the church that approving same-sex marriage would be caving in to the demands of worldly culture. Surprised at the connection? Stay with me. When one examines the history of the church’s engagement with marriage, one finds that the early church gave in to worldly culture by conceding to marriage in the first place. The teaching of Jesus and Paul marks out marriage as a “worldly” phenomenon in which Christians are permitted to participate (per Paul) when they cannot control themselves and (per Jesus) provided that they remain permanently faithful. A review of the history of marriage in church law ever since shows a steady stream of concessions and adaptations to life in the world. Second marriages of widows, marriage with one not baptized, marriage of one (or more) divorced persons, marriage within the borders of affinity — all of these mark out concessions to worldly pressure.

One cannot claim that this is a matter of the faith once given instead of the discipline constantly revised.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 20, 2014

Static Charge

There is a well-known twist on an equally well-known saying: “Don’t just do something; stand there!” While this can be good advice for a stage actor in her first TV role, or a person perched on a narrow ledge, it takes on a very different quality in the church, particularly when it comes in the form, “Please don't do anything that might upset other members of the Anglican Communion.” This was the philosophy that lay at the heart of the still-not-fully-adopted Anglican Communion Covenant, and it has reemerged in the past few days in the form of a charge from the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order to the Anglican Church of Canada not to amend its canon law to allow for same-sex marriage within the church, in order to give more time for delicate relationships to heal.

There are a number of problems with this request, itself a response to a request from Canada, and I suppose if you ask you will receive; though one is reminded of the saying, “Who among you, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone.” The most glaring problem for matters of "Faith" (a part of the Commission’s work) lies in the distance between the core doctrines of the Christian faith and issues surrounding marriage, especially civil marriage, as far as Anglicans are concerned. I won't repeat the obvious here, but note the absence of much reference to marriage in the core doctrinal statements of the early church (the Creeds), the silence of the classical Anglican Catechism on the subject, and the short references in the Articles of Religion that acknowledge marriage as “allowed” and that it is “lawful” even for clergy to marry “as for all other Christian men... at their own discretion...” (Note to Scotland!)

The second “faith” problem lies in the implication in the IASCUFO statement that this is a temporary urging, and that as soon as relationships are healed in the uneasy marriage of inconvenience the Anglican Communion, it will be belly up to the wedding prie-dieu. So this is not pitched as the faith for all times, but a temporary moratorium. The implication is that same-sex marriage will be acceptable as soon as those offended by it reach a better mind, and it is only to avoid offense that the delay is counseled. Saint Paul commended giving in to “the weak” in matters indifferent such as food; but he held the line when it came to matters he regarded as important, such as circumcision. In this case marriage is clearly important to some — those who are marrying; no one need take offense as someone else’s marriage is for them to work through, and for others to respect. If you don’t want same-sex marriage in your own province, then don’t approve it.

This sums up for me the deepest problem with this static charge: the confusing ethic that underlies the request: “Do not do for yourself what someone else doesn't want to do for themselves.” This barely recognizable “tweak” of the Golden Rule has long been the ethical standard in the dead center of Anglican circles. Rather than walking together, it amounts to standing still together, and is utterly foreign to the way history shows the church at its actual work in promoting transformation. Had this principle been employed in the 16th century, there wouldn’t be an Anglican anything today. The whole history of the church is based on some one or ones doing something that some others thought was a Bad Idea at the time.

I wrote a short blog post entitled “What Should Have Happened” about this ethical stance back in 2006, and I think it worth repeating here:

  • The General Convention should have listened to the clear directions of the Primates and repented and repudiated all that had been done to offend
  • The Episcopal Church should have ignored the tradition of national church polity and remained as a missionary arm of the Church of England even after the Revolution.
  • The Church of England should have listened to the pope and never separated from Rome.
  • The Eastern Orthodox should have done the same and submitted to Rome so as not to sever communion.
  • The martyrs should have followed Saint Paul’s advice to obey those in civil authority.
  • Saint Paul, in the interest of not tearing the fabric of the early church, should have acceded to the circumcision party instead of trusting to his own private interpretation of Scripture.
  • The Jerusalem Council should have ignored the anecdotal evidence of Paul and Barnabas — which could only serve to make Law-abiding Jewish converts uneasy.
  • Saul should have ignored his personal “experience” on the road to Damascus and followed his orders from the Sanhedrin.
  • The other apostles should have ignored Peter’s “dream” and stuck to the letter of the Law.
  • Jesus should have heeded Peter’s advice and turned back from Jerusalem.
  • He might also have considered more seriously the various options presented to him in the Wilderness Report.
  • Joseph should have ignored the “personal revelation” he received — again in a dream, no less — and acted in accordance with the Law, and when he found Mary to be with child by someone other than himself, had her stoned to death, and her unborn child with her.
  • Then we wouldn’t be having all these problems with the Anglican Communion.
True then, true now.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

December 11, 2014

Faulty Divorce

There is such a thing as “no fault” divorce in which the parties agree to separate with no other “cause” than their desire no longer to continue in their marriage. By its very nature this is not something that one party can impose on the other. When one spouse says to the other, “I can’t go on living like this,” a number of responses are appropriate. These include:

  • “What have I done?”
  • “Can’t we work this out?”
  • “Are you saying you want a divorce?”
It would, however, be inappropriate and presumptuous to say, “You’ve asked for a divorce; so be it.”

Similarly, when a worker approaches a boss and says, “I can’t go on working under these conditions,” there are appropriate and inappropriate responses. Appropriate responses include:
  • “What conditions? What is / are the problem(s)?”
  • “How can we work this through to our mutual satisfaction?”
  • “Things aren’t going to change; are you planning to resign?”
It would be utterly inappropriate to say, “I accept your resignation.” You can no more “resign” another person than you can force them to divorce you. You may be free to fire them or divorce them, but that puts the action — and the responsibility — on your side.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 26, 2014

Of Confidence and Confidentiality

Issues of disclosure have been much in the news lately. From the scandals plaguing the Roman Church to the debates about the seal of the confessional in the Church of England, to the concerns about closed meetings of Executive Council, and unpublished bylaws at the General Seminary, there appears to be a good deal of confusion about what things, and when and how and to what extent, ought to be kept under wraps.

One of the common reasons advanced for confidentiality concerns “personnel matters.” But when the personnel matter under discussion is misconduct — in some cases to a criminal level — then confidentiality that allows the guilty employee to find another job in a similar setting amounts to conspiracy, and in the long run serves no one well. Even if it did, that is a road down which no one should want to tread.

Another reason for confidentiality is that being allowed to reveal incriminating information about oneself without fear of it going any farther is essential to the ministry of reconciliation in the confessional. The argument here is that few would avail themselves of this ministry without the assurance that what is said will not be held against them. I can understand the pastoral practical side of this, but have been unable to find any dogmatic rationale that supports the notion, particularly given the dominical teaching on the dangers of hypocrisy: that what is said in secret will be made known at length (Luke 12:1-3). The apocalypse is a warning that in the end nothing is covered up that will not be revealed.

Obviously some things do deserve the protection of confidentiality — which at the level of the confessional applies to the act of confession as well as its content. But some things, by their nature, demand public notice. Among these are minutes of meetings, actions taken by boards of directors, and changes made to bylaws. This is particularly the case where the decisions are taken in the name of some larger entity than just those immediately present in the room. Any action that touches a wider constituency ought to be communicated to that constituency.

Above all it is important to distinguish between confidentiality and secrecy. For instance, doctor / patient and attorney / client confidentiality is well understood not to prevent a doctor or lawyer from discussing a case study — with the name of the patient or client concealed.

To apply this to some of the current controversies about publication of actions of church bodies, I have suggested that in part the Chatham House Rule would make good sense in such situations. Under this rule, the subject matter of a closed meeting, and comments made in it, can be shared, but the identity of the speaker and the speaker’s affiliation are not to be revealed. This allows for open discussion of the subject matter without endangering anyone for expressing an opinion that might be controversial.

But in the end, I have no confidence in confidentiality when it amounts to selective secrecy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 23, 2014

The King Is Here

SJF • Proper 29a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, When the son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory... and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

We come now to the last Sunday of the church’s calendar year — you know our calendar doesn’t quite match up with the secular and civil calendar that starts in January. Our church year starts on the First Sunday of Advent — next Sunday — and so this church year ends this week.

It ends with a celebration that goes in some places by the name of the Feast of Christ the King. It’s a reminder of who our King is, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the one under whose feet, as Saint Paul told the Ephesians, all things are put in subjection.

Our gospel today shows this our King in action. The Son of Man comes in his glory, sits on his throne, and executes judgment. Talk about an executive order! For this is not just an order, but a judgment; and a chilling judgment it is. For those who are rewarded are not great heroes and martyrs. No, the reward of blessing is given to people who did very ordinary things: who fed the hungry and gave the thirsty something to drink, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who cared for the sick and visited prisoners.

And those who are judged guilty, are not perpetrators of horrible crimes — those who here are sent away into eternal punishment are not mass murders and terrible villains. No, they are people who simply failed to do the same things the blessèd ones did: who gave no food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty, who shunned the stranger and provided the naked with nothing to wear, who didn’t care for the sick or visit those in prison.

And the reason these two groups of people are judged as blessed or cursed is because those they served or rejected were not just anybody — they were the King himself in disguise.

+ + +

We’ve all heard stories about kings in disguise. It is a daring enterprise for a leader to put on a false beard and eyepatch and a humble garment and wander among his subjects. He had best have a strong will and a solid ego, for the things he hears may not be to his liking. Without his crown, without his royal robes of state, a king may be treated just like anybody else — for good or ill depending on who is doing the treating. One of my favorite stories is that of King Alfred, who was hiding from Danish invaders back in the ninth century. He hid undercover for a while in a peasant’s hut. One day the peasant’s wife told him to keep an eye on cakes baking on the griddle while she went out on an errand. With all of his troubles, his mind wandered, and he allowed the cakes to burn. When the woman of the house returned she gave him a ferocious tongue lashing — not knowing, of course, that she was speaking to her king.

+ + +

But we don’t have that excuse. We’ve been given the warning of who our King is. Jesus, our King, has told us in words of one syllable that as we treat the least of those who are members of his family, so we have treated him. When we fail to give food to the hungry, when we neglect to give drink to the thirsty, when we don’t welcome the stranger, or fail to give clothing to the naked, when we don’t care for the sick and ignore the prisoners: we are doing it to him.

We at Saint James Church have a number of opportunities, not just as individuals as we walk through the streets day by day, but as a congregation, to honor our Lord’s royal presence among us. Let me just mention a couple with immediate impact in the next few weeks.

First of all, this Thursday is Thanksgiving Day, and as we have done for the past several years we will have a midday worship service and then serve hot meals to any who come to our door that afternoon; and I invite all of you to come and help in that service and to share in that fellowship.

Second, your vicar and deacon have at our disposal a small fund which comes from the loose plate offering received several times each year. It is called “adiscretionary fund,” and it is used entirely for charity and outreach. When someone off the street comes to the office door and asks for something to eat, or help filling a prescription, or money for the train home to Yonkers, it is from this fund that we’re able to give a fare-card, or a few dollars. Deacon Bill has been using part of his discretionary fund to provide food to the hungry through the Elijah Project: it’s a wonderful and creative way to share, and involves members of the parish in the work of sharing. And believe you me, it is at this time of the rolling year, as the winds grow cold, that more and more people are in need of help. So today’s loose plate offering will be set aside for that purpose, and so I ask you to be generous, helping us to help others in your name. There is an old saying that the ministry of hospitality may lead you to entertaining angels unaware. Believe me, when we serve any who are in need we are not just serving angels, we are serving Christ our King as well.

These are just two concrete and real things you can do to honor our King in disguise as he spends time among us, in the here and now, so that in the day of the great “then” he will recognize us as having treated him as he deserves.

+ + +

I mentioned King Alfred a moment ago. Well, a story is told of another English king, George V, who planned to pay a visit to the northern industrial city of Leeds. The town council was very excited, and posted banners announcing the royal visit throughout the city. Multitudes flocked in the streets to celebrate, waving the Union Jack and cheering to the sounds of the brass bands. A children’s school was fortunate to have its schoolyard right on the route of the railway train upon which the king would leave the city. It was agreed and arranged that the children would be outside in formation to greet the king as he went past, and he would wave at them in return. The children were, of course, terribly excited. The great day came and the children were ready to sing their song of greeting. Down the track, out of the long tunnel, the royal train came into the bright sunlight, the engine steaming and chugging its smokestack, the steam whistle loudly announcing the arrival. The train slowed as it came by the schoolyard and his Majesty King George V emerged from the coach at the end of the train and took up his place on the platform where the assembled children could see him. He was dressed as he normally did: in a black morning coat, striped trousers and vest, and a silk top hat. He waved politely to the children with his pocket handkerchief, and then the train picked up speed and he slipped back into the coach. The cheering of the excited children subsided, until there was only the sound of one little girl who was weeping her heart out. A teacher asked the little girl why she was crying. And the child looked up, and through her sobs and tears bitterly complained, “I thought we were going to see the king; but it was only a man in a top hat!” She was expecting to see the king looking as he did in the picture on the classroom wall, with his crown and red robe trimmed with ermine. That’s what she was expecting, but that’s not what she saw.

+ + +

What do we expect our King to look like? As we pass by a hungry person on the street do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his crown?” When we see someone cold and shivering in a threadbare coat, do we think, “This is not our king, for where is his regal robe?” When we hear that someone is sick and alone, do we assume, “This could not be our king, for a king would have courtiers and officials to take care of him.” When we see a stranger, do we say to ourselves, “This could not be our king, for where are his ambassadors?” When we hear of a person in prison, do we think, “This could not be our King, for no king would ever be convicted of a crime and sent to prison!”

What do we expect our King to look like? He has told us exactly how he looks. He looks like a man — a man hungry or thirsty; he looks like a woman — a woman far from home and looking for help; he looks like a child — a child sick and alone. For our King is King even without his crown, even without his robe of state; even without his top hat and morning coat! He is our King even when he is hungry, even when he is thirsty, or sick, or naked, or lonely, or in prison. He is even our King when he is nailed to a cross — and he did that for us.

What shall we do for him? He has told us. “Oh, that today, you would hearken to his voice.”+

November 4, 2014

Board Stiff

In spite of a few hopeful signs at the end of October, the effort to resolve the ongoing tensions at the General Theological Seminary have reached another detente. One can hope for movement, and hope has the power to grease gears, but what is needed above all is the greater virtue of charity: an ability to give, even when one believes one is in the right. And my concern is that I and others lack the third virtue of faith that the Board of Trustees is prepared to adopt that posture.

The Board of Trustees' positive move of offering to engage an outside specialist in reconciliation (the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center) was offset by the apparent refusal to provide a mechanism for a permanent neutral ombuds officer to field complaints (presumably from any side), as proposed by the eight faculty who are engaged in a work action — and now without salary. The Board instead proposed that a committee chaired by one of its own members serve in that capacity. This in itself appears to be a rejection of the notion of neutrality — for how can a member of the Board (even of Trustees) be trusted to maintain a neutral pose (that is more than a pose) in fielding complaints against actions of that Board? Given the fact that a subcommittee of the Board dismissed earlier complaints — an action that contributed to the current conflict — a truly outside auditor is needed. There is an old Latin saying, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Who will watch the watchers? The saying is apposite to the present situation.

At the same time, the question is fairly raised: What can an ombuds officer do? If the Board is able to ignore the complaints brought to it by faculty and students, what is there to teethe an ombuds office to hold others to action? This is an endemic problem in institutions that essentially operate on a notion of "good faith" and principles of obedience; and if "the fish stinks from the head" and there is no mechanism for replacement of that head, yet another impasse is surely at hand.

It seems, in the long run, as I've noted elsewhere, that a different approach to the governance of the seminary is needed. The original model, in which the Trustees were distant and largely hands-off, confining themselves to assuring the reputation and financial stability of the seminary, and the main day-to-day work both of administration and education were the focus of the faculty (one of whose members annually served as dean in rotation) makes a good deal of sense. Given the abject failure of the current (and preceding generation) of Boards of Trustees in holding up the financial end of things, apart from overseeing the slow parceling off of much of the patrimonial property, it would appear that outside professional help is likely in order in any case.

Finally, I want to add a word rejecting the notion that the day of the residential seminary is over, and that the formation of clergy can be left to distance learning or other models. First, the notion is patently false at the outset: there are perfectly stable (financially and otherwise) seminaries even among the small number of Episcopalian institutions, that continue to maintain an essentially residential model (I think of VTS and Sewanee — the latter of which could hardly be more residential if it tried!); to say nothing of the many secular colleges and universities that do quite well with a residential model.

Second, there is more to the training of clergy than education. The more important part of the training lies in formation: and one formed for service in the community that is the church must have some experience — even if it is only for three years — of the ancient rhythms of that church's life, nourished with daily worship. One of the more shocking revisions of the current administration at GTS was the paring back of the daily round of worship. It is of course completely true that the seminary is not out to create Benedictine monks and nuns — yet the wisdom of the Rule of Benedict, the balance of prayer, study, and work as tools for spiritual and personal formation and education, has stood the test of time in a way any seminary would be happy to match.

In short, there is no simple solution to the problems at General Seminary. But grace and flexibility are essential for any short- or long-term solution, one hopes geared to a future more productive than the recent past.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 20, 2014

More on General

In response to a very defensive comment from a current member of the Board of Trustees of General Theological Seminary, which argued essentially that if the public knew what the Board knew (but couldn't divulge, nudge nudge, wink wink; and that the Board had no other options available) I posted the following, presented here in a lightly edited version, with a few links added for convenience of reference:
When it is not even possible to find with ease a copy of the current much-amended bylaws of the Board of Trustees of the General Seminary, and we are told to trust the trustees who know things they cannot divulge, and when faced with what appear to be abuses, it is very difficult to believe, let alone trust, that any proper process is being followed.

What is abundantly clear is that the letter from the faculty was neither intended to convey, nor did its "plain English" state, that the faculty were submitting their resignations. That the Board purported to "accept" the resignations, rather than engaging in a process to terminate employment by legitimate means (if that was to be their decision, and for which a special meeting, with notice, was required in older versions of the bylaws) represents a failure in due process. The Board were not backed into a corner. They had plenty of options at their disposal (including doing nothing), and they chose a path remarkable for its duplicity and irresponsibility.

The Trustees, above all, seem to think they are the institution. They are not. In academia -- which is not just like other not-for-profits -- the faculty are the heart of the institution, together with the students. The faculty are not mere employees, they are not merely "staff" -- and above all they are not simply replaceable production line workers.

I join Bishops Dietsche and Breidenthal in their call to return to the status quo ante as soon as possible.
  Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 16, 2014

On Texting

In Matthew 19, Jesus cites texts from Genesis 1 and 2 ("male and female he made them" and "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife") in order to show that "what God has joined together no one should separate." In other words, this is his response to the question about if and when divorce is appropriate.

However, in current discussions, this text is more likely to be applied as an effort against marriage equality; sometimes even within traditions and by people who do not hold fast to the opposition to divorce which appears to have been the point of Jesus' teaching.

This assertion of a subtext, removing the prooftext from its context, strikes me as a pretext.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 11, 2014

The Church's Treasury

General Theological Seminary
Commencement Day Eucharist, 1997

(Various Occasions #24)
Psalm 8 - Ecclesiastes 3.1,9-13 - 1 Peter 2.11-17 - Matt 6.19-24
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Today’s readings might well be paraphrased as, Don’t Worry be Happy, Be a Good Citizen, and Try Not to Make too Much Money. The first — Don’t Worry Be Happy — is engraved on the outer wall of the Hoffman Refectory, in its more formal Latin version, Carpe diem; the second — Be a Good Citizen — is sound advice only so long as one lives in a good city, a good state.

 Of the three, it is the third, Try Not to Make Too Much Money, that appears to be particularly directed at those who serve in the church. Anyone who goes to seminary on the basis of the promise found on a matchbook cover, Go to College to Increase Your Earning Power, has either pulled the wrong catalogue off the shelf, or is two sandwiches shy of a picnic. True, the church leaves its threshing oxen unmuzzled — but it keeps them on a short leash and moving in circles at a hectic pace. In short, devoting one’s life to the work of the church — as most of us here have chosen to do — or have been chosen to do — is an effective way to follow our Lord’s advice not to lay up treasure on earth.

If, that is, we are talking about the kind of treasure that comes printed with portraits of dead politicians, in various denominations. But there is another kind of treasure that is more beguiling than the folding green. And it exists in various denominations, too: Not fives, tens and twenties, but Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran... It is a treasure which those who serve the church, and the church itself, are tempted to store up, perhaps compensating for getting less of the kind with a politician’s image and likeness on them: whether that politician be Tiberius Caesar or Andrew Jackson.

This compensation is the treasure of respectability, of stability, of survival achieved by walking the safe road of compromise. It is the treasure of becoming established of becoming an institution.

The First Letter of Peter shows this process at work; it counsels good citizenship as a strategy for survival in the Empire. Fortunately for the church, the Empire got so bad that “good” citizenship became impossible; for if the church was to remain the church it must eventually collide with Caesar.

Those who had counseled accommodation then found themselves called to re-evaluate — surely Saint Peter repented of his advice to honor the emperor when crucified head-down; and just as surely Saint Paul must have reconsidered the wisdom of appealing to Caesar’s justice when he faced Caesar’s sword. Both apostles eventually realized that they could not serve two masters — Christ and Caesar — though too late for them to leave epistles to that effect.

Imperial persecution clarified the church’s vision with the bright light of the refiners fire, and empowered it to see that survival on Caesar’s terms was not worth survival. Thank God for the martyrs whose blood tempered the steel of the early church; thank God for the confessors who realized that the time had passed for playing goody two-sandals.

And, strange as it may sound, thank God for the Caesars, the Domitians and the Diocletians and all the others who gave the church something to stand up to, something to stand up for. It was persecution that reminded the church of its primary mission: not to survive at all costs, not to survive by ceasing to be itself — but to spend itself for the life of the world, as its Lord had done.

It took the Caesars to remind the church that those who seek to save their life will lose it. It took the Caesars to remind the church that it was the body of Christ — Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate, who suffered death and was buried, and only then was raised from the dead. Christ set the pattern for the church’s life. Only by losing one’s life can one’s life be saved; only what dies can be raised again.

Much time has passed since those fiery, foundry days. The world’s animosity towards the church — with a few notable exceptions — has cooled to chilly toleration. And how has the church responded? How does the church expend its energy these days, now that Caesar no longer persecutes so vehemently? Isn’t most of the church’s warfare these days intramural? Where is the church’s treasure being spent — on outgoing mission, or ongoing questions of self-definition?

Is the church laying up treasure in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and thieves cannot break in — or is it squandering its wealth on the ecclesiastical equivalents of mothballs, Rustoleum, and security systems?

It happens in parishes, national churches, religious orders — it even happens in seminaries! I’m told… The focus shifts from the mission to the mission agency, from the work itself to the procedures, protocols, and policies for carrying out that work; from the apostolic mission to the apostolic order; from the vision to the vision statement.

The church’s vision, once turned outward to take in the needs of a suffering world, turns inward. When this happens, the church’s vision is in danger of the double darkness of which Christ warns in the Gospel — blindness that thinks it sees. The church’s view and perspective become blinded by its own bulk, its own reflection, its own precious self.

When this happens, the church risks its title as a wonderful and sacred mystery and is on the verge of becoming an institution like any other. A church preoccupied with survival rather than with mission, risks abdicating its role as bride of Christ and becoming more like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Preoccupation with self-perpetuation transforms the church from a wedding festival with lamps ablaze and eyes bright with future hope, to a draped and shuttered room whose lonely inhabitant tries in vain to preserve a past that never was.

Am I exaggerating? Think of the energy and resources that have gone into addressing the fears of those who see the Episcopal-Lutheran Concordat as the end of the church as we know it. The Episcopal Church treasures the episcopate, and rightly so — but here is an opportunity to extend the very thing we treasure if we are willing to set aside preoccupation with its substance for a time to focus on its purpose.

The apostolic order is not an end in itself, but the chosen means for the apostolic ministry and the apostolic message:— it is the chosen vessel to bear the good news to the ends of the earth.

We are called and commissioned in that apostolic succession, to that apostolic mission, called to risk what we treasure, to spend what we have for the sake of the gospel, to risk what is most precious to us in order to share it.

And the gospel message we share is strengthened when we share it in a gospel fashion: only those who lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save them; only what dies can be raised; only what is spent can be redeemed. True wealth, after all, is revealed in what you are willing to spend, not in how much you possess. The life of the church is death to self; and the church is most truly itself when it spends itself with an abandon that matches the liberality of the spendthrift Christ — Christ who gave himself up on the cross, who spent himself completely, who emptied himself and took a servant’s form. And he did it all for love, for the love of his bride, the church.

Christ and his bride are that perfectly mad young couple who store up no treasure — who spend all they have on each other, but having each other need nothing else. You know the story: she cut off her hair and sold it to the wigmaker to buy him a watch-fob; he pawned his watch to buy her a tortoise-shell comb — gifts, that in their purchase and giving were rendered utterly useless and yet infinitely precious, for they represented the gift of the self for the other.

What, then, is the church’s true wealth? Only Christ, and him crucified. Are we mad? Yes, we are, but so is Christ, who with divine madness values each of us poor fragile creatures as chosen and precious treasures. As the old, old, love song tells it, Solomon’s love song, the Song of Songs sung to a Christian tune: Christ is our treasure, and we are his.

Long, long ago, a good deacon faced the powers of Caesar as they oppressed the church. The authorities demanded he turn over the church’s treasures. Expecting him to bring forth gold and silver, how surprised and angered they were when he assembled the poor and the sick and said, This is the church’s treasure.

We — the members of Christ’s body — are the church’s treasure still, because beloved and treasured by Christ, because we are where his heart is, and no moth, no rust, no thief can touch us. We are the treasure of the church, and this holy place is its treasury. This place, and every place where the church gathers, and every place from which it is sent forth, though they be earthen vessels, are God’s treasury. Don’t you ever let anyone tell you they are just institutions. And don’t you ever let anyone make them so. You who teach and you who learn, you who worship and you who proclaim, you who administer and steward and care for the fabric of these vessels, keep your vision clear, always turned to the needs of the world that the church is called to serve. Carpe diem: Seize the day — the time is now. Christ is risen and ascended, and the Spirit is poised to shower us with gifts. Realize your citizenship in God’s kingdom — the country without borders where there are no aliens.

We are Christ’s treasure, and Christ is our treasure, — Christ who gives himself into our hands, precious fragile treasures of bread and wine that feed and strengthen us to spend ourselves in Christ’s service, to turn from the service of self, to do the work God gives us to do in truth and beauty for the common good. May we now and ever spend ourselves freely — spend ourselves selflessly in company with the saints: those gone before, those sitting here now, and those yet to come — all those saints who bought by Christ, are free to serve — Christ’s treasure on earth as he is ours in heaven.

Note: as indicated above this sermon was preached in 1997. It still seems timely, in spite of some of the illustrations being dated. However, other circumstances have arisen to replace them, so if you will apply the rule of mutatis mutandis, I share it here.

October 4, 2014

Generally Speaking

One would have to be living under a paving tile if not a rock not to have heard of the turmoil that has been under way at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I won't go into the details here, as the unfolding of this tragic conflict has been amply covered on blogs and websites and in social media. I would be tempted to say it is like watching a slow-motion trainwreck, were it not for the fact that the Internet has enabled what appear to me to be rather hasty quid-pro-quo reaction and counter-reaction, as well as a halo of commentary.

I take a good bit of this personally. I am an alumnus, having graduated in 1997. I was the valedictory preacher, and in my sermon heightened the tension between the seminary as "an institution" and as "God's treasury" — with my strong preference for regarding it more wholesomely as the latter. Two of the faculty from whom I learned the most while there, Drs. Good and Hurd, are among the eight faculty most touched by the current conflict. I have met the Dean in the past, and shared a meal with him at Dr. Good's table in what I can only regard as happier days. I know members of the Board of Trustees, including Bishop Sisk, with whom I have worked closely and whose prudence and judgment I have long admired. So, much of this appears to me, emotionally, to be an example of bad things happening to good people.

And it is difficult to set those emotions aside, especially given the haste and the form of the charges, counter-charges, and reactions. Rush to judgment seems to have become the watchword, rather than due process and careful consideration. In particular, it seems to me that interpreting the job action by the eight faculty as resignation from their positions is not a helpful approach. At the same time, it seems prejudicial to allow the Dean to continue functioning in the face of what at least some feel to be substantial complaints, rather than imposing a form of administrative leave to allow a cooling off period.

Some of this appears to me to be systematic and institutional: I'm on record as not being a big fan of Boards of Trustees in general; nor do I think it wise to vest too much power in a Dean (and President), as I believe academies function best as collegial bodies in which the faculty have the principal governing role — led, but not dominated by, a Dean. It is helpful to note that in the 1832 statutes of the seminary, the deanship rotated on an annual basis among the faculty in order of seniority, and the principle functions of the Dean were coordinative and administrative. All major decisions concerning curriculum were to be made collegially. One detail gives an idea of the Dean's scope of action: the school Janitor is to report directly to the Dean.

Most importantly, as tempting as analogies are, it is a misunderstanding to map other structures onto the peculiar academy which is the General Theological Seminary. The Dean is not to the Faculty as a Rector to a Vestry, far less a congregation. (If there is a "vestry" it is the Board of Trustees, though even there the analogy breaks down on almost all counts.) Given that this is a seminary and not a secular school, it is also important not to map its situation too closely to that even of a secular academy. For one thing, the chapel has a historic role in the life of GTS, and some of the allegedly unilateral changes in the chapel worship made by the Dean are among the complaints raised. While it is quite true that the seminary is not a monastery, the life-giving heartbeat of the school is the round and rhythm of daily worship and prayer. In fact, it seems there has been far too much knee-jerking, and not enough knee-bending, in the current tumult.

I have no answers other than to appeal for reevaluation of extreme action, and a pullback to a moderate and moderating position in which grievances might be addressed without prejudice or favor.

And in the meantime, the seminary is in my daily thoughts and prayers.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 1, 2014

Fragment of a Litany

God is not wise… God is Wisdom.
God is not eternal… God is Eternity.
God does not exist… God is Being.
God is not the travel nor the traveler… God is the Way.
God is not the lover nor the loving… God is Love.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 16, 2014

Visionary Woman

Hildegard of Bingen is one of those unique and challenging people from the distant past who seem to be in touch with something beyond time and space. She was a mystic and a scientist, testimony to the fact that a close observation of the things of this world need not occupy one interested in the next.

I commend Margarethe von Trotta’s film on the life of this wonderful character. I delayed watching it (on Netflix); perhaps I thought it would be a pious and tedious tract. On the contrary it is an absorbing and entertaining portrait of an extraordinary woman — extraordinary in her own day, and likely any day up until the present, and perhaps even now.

My "quick icon" is based on the actress who plays Hildegard, Barbara Sukowa. She captures the ambiguities and imperfections of this very real woman. 

One of the most fascinating things about Hildegard is her music. It inspired me to write my own setting of "Come, Holy Ghost" for the profession liturgy for some of the Sisters of Saint Gregory. No recording was made at the time, and it hasn't been performed since (as far as I know). So I offer a synthesized choir which sounds a bit like a group of (perhaps) Bulgarians for whom English is a second language. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy... Here's to Hildegard!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

MP3 File

September 10, 2014

Carts and Horses

I've held my tongue on the subject for a while now, but I find that proverbial fire burning within.

While there is much to commend in the TREC letter  (on the restructuring of The Episcopal Church) when it comes to practical streamlining and downsizing some of the superstructure of the Episcopal Church (including several proposals I've made myself over the years, such as trimming deputation sizes and retiring some CCABs) I still find myself wondering to what extent we are putting cart before horse — if the horse really exists and it isn't all cart, all form with no real handle on the function.

I raise this because it seems to me that the Great Unanswered Question is: What is this superstructure (PB, GC, EC, etc.) for? What are the ministries that can only, or best, be performed for the good of the church and the world by an [inter]national organ of the ecclesiastical body, so conceived and so constituted.

And I find I can think of precious few things that require or commend such an [inter]national structure: setting the law and liturgy of the church; engaging in formal interreligious and interfaith dialogue and work; [inter]national level mission programs and ministry. These are off the top of my head -- there is likely more; but however much is best or only done at this supreme level, it seems to me that the vast bulk of the work of the church is done in and by the parish, secondly by the diocesan and regional entities, and only thirdly at the national and international level.

And until it is manifestly clear just what work is best done at that level, arguing about how the workforce should be structured to accomplish it is premature — and very likely a waste of time and energy. “Form follows function” should apply to ecclesiastical structures as well as buildings.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 5, 2014

Order in the Court

Richard Posner's opinion in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, striking down anti-marriage equality obstacles in Wisconsin and Indiana, is a fine piece of work, as others have noted. One thing that stood out for me was his citation of Supreme Court Justice Alito's dissent in Windsor, in which Alito refers favorably to the argument "that marriage is essentially the solemnizing of a comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing new life, even if it does not always do so." (133 S. Ct. at 2718)

This thesis is one of those truthisms that mere repetition does not prove. It is absurd on the face of it, but that doesn't stop some people taking it seriously. The principle problem lies in the word intrinsically, which means essentially, necessarily, or inherently: something that is in the nature of a thing as and in itself, without which that thing would not be what it is. So, why does this not work for marriage? I can quickly come up with four reasons.

First, to attach a modifier like intrinsic to an action (such as marriage or sexual intercourse within marriage) is already philosophically questionable, since actions are by their nature not "substances" or "things" but the behavior or activity of things.

Second, the notion of an order is about intention or plan — even further removed from being intrinsic, since intent and plan necessarily involve a state not yet realized.

Third, the action in question, and the estate in which it takes place, is one involving more than one actor — two "things" if you will — and this also violates the notion of intrinsic as particular to a thing.

This is brought home in the final astounding admission that the desired result — assuming it to be desired, which it often isn't even when possible — does not always take place. So much for it being essential, inherent, or intrinsic — something which may not be possible can hardly be held to be essential.

It is fine to say that procreation ought to take place within marriage; but to attempt to reduce marriage to one of its possible outcomes — and one acknowledged not to be possible in many cases — is looking into the beautifully decorated wedding hall through a very narrow crack.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 31, 2014

The Speed of God: Mainline Religion

Karl Marx famously observed that religion was the opiate of the masses, meaning that it provided an escape from the harsh realities of life. This may well be true, but looking at the conflicts arising in the Middle East these days, I’m inclined to observe that religion is the amphetamine of the masses.

Now, some will suggest that the conflicts between Arabs, Christians and Jews in Palestine/Israel, or between or among Islamists (Sunni and Shi’a) are simply proxy struggles for what is at base political conflict. I think this gets things wrong, and does a disservice to religion, as well as politics.

There may well be cynical non-believers who make use of the religions conflicts of our time to their own political ends. However, there are also true believers for whom the religious issues are the source and end of the conflict. A look at European history will show that this is not a new phenomenon. Look back to the European conflicts of the 15th through the 17th century — focus just on England if that makes it easier — and you will see people killing each other over things like vernacular liturgy and the theology of the Eucharist. There is nothing new about beheading or burning people over religious differences. As I said in an earlier post, if you want to understand the Muslim present, look to the Christian past.

It is also no use trying to play one Muslim off against another — or to accept with an easy nod the soothing reassurances of the “good Muslims” that the Islamists are in error and do not truly represent Islam. Who says? Council after council anathematized those it deemed “heretics”; the Pope said the same thing about Elizabeth I; American Baptists distance themselves from the folks in Westboro; the Global South Anglicans will condemn Episcopalians as apostates. These divisions of opinion do not mark the boundary between true and false religion — or if they do, who is to decide which side is right? One chooses one’s side based one’s own understanding of what is right and just and true — but so do they all, excepting the odd occasional cynic who might just be doing it all for political gain; and I think every side may have one or more such game-players.

So I hate to be the bearer of bad news to those who think that “good” religion will solve the problems of the current world crisis. Religion isn’t the solution; it is the problem. Christians trying to be sweet and reasonable by saying to Jews and Muslims, “We all worship the same God” is really a bit condescending, and ultimately false, since only some nominal Christians are willing to soft-pedal the orthodox notion that Jesus is God — so not really quite the same as the God of Judaism or Islam, at least from their point of view.

However, we nor they need not alter beliefs in order to work towards a pluralistic world in which people resolve not to kill each other over religious differences. What is needed is something like the Elizabethan settlement — which derives not so much from an act of will or resolve to peace as from a war-weariness in which all but the most zealous finally recognize that the continued fighting is getting them nowhere fast, and it is time to stop mainlining the speed of religion. Christianity more or less reached this detente a few centuries ago; we can only hope that Islam doesn’t take as long to reach its stasis point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 29, 2014

Heaven on Earth

Charles Chapman Grafton was an early member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, with a missional heart and soul for the Gospel nourished in the Anglo-Catholic spirit of Edward Bouverie Pusey: which is to say, one who understood both the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. He served at Boston’s Church of the Advent, and later as Bishop of Fond du Lac. He was an active supporter of the revival of religious life in The Episcopal Church, and assisted in the foundation of the Sisters of the Holy Nativity. He also sought rapprochement with the Orthodox and Old Catholic church leaders of his day.

It would be a great mistake to reduce such a legacy to the “Fond of Lace” school of prettified and petrified worship of the means of worship. For people like Grafton, the smells and bells were not an end in themselves, but a mark of the singular dignity evoked by a lively awareness of the presence of God in our midst, and in our persons, a deeply incarnational faith.

May he and all who seek the glimmers of God's presence — in art and music and the human person — here on earth rejoice unto the ages of ages in the imperishable halls of heaven.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
icon in wash and ink 2013

August 26, 2014

(No) Thanks for the Complement

One of the problems with the theory of gender complementarity is that it tends to reduce the human to the visually physical. Heterosexuality is held to be normative on the basis of gross anatomy — the fact that male and female bodies exist is taken uncritically to mean that they not only can join, but only can join. This biological determinism ignores that much (if not most) of sexuality is mental and emotional — and that these aspects of the human being are also just as much physical (in the brain and nervous system, in particular as acted upon by the endocrine system) as the gross anatomy of the external sexual characteristics. The “dishonorable members” cannot say to the brain, “I have no need of you.” Every member shares in the wholeness of the body.

The essence of sexuality, as in so much else about what it means to be human, lies in the inside, not the outside: it is content, not form alone, that constitutes the human person.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 21, 2014

Living in Another's Skin

I have only ever once been accused of shoplifting, at a Pathmark in Yonkers, when the "security" attendant saw me put something in my pocket and failed to recognize it as a shopping list. (What of value in a supermarket he imagined I could put in my pocket, I can not tell, but suffice it to say the incident was embarrassing, angering, and put me off shopping at that store ever again.)

However, I also realize that what was a one-off unpleasantness for me is, for anyone born brown or black in this America, a daily possibility or worse, probability. I recall years ago hearing in shock from one of my African-American brothers in Christ of his experience being challenged as he opened the trunk of his own car as we gathered for an evening meeting in White Plains NY. That simply would never happen to me, in my own skin, which makes me both grateful and furious.

For I do not deserve this favor, nor did he deserve the hassle, nor does anyone deserve to be shot unarmed in the street, strangled on the sidewalk, or pummeled on the highway. The chances of my being challenged as I enter my own home or car are vanishingly small. The possibility I will be shot in the street, unarmed, is almost nonexistent. As a white male I have almost no basis for sympathy with my African-American brothers and sisters on the basis of my own experience, other than my being human, and being at the end of it all saddened and shocked and angry that I live in a racist nation.

There, I've said it. I live in a racist nation. Having a black president only goes so far; and I dare say if Barack Obama were wearing a jogging suit on a poorly lit street, not surrounded by Secret Service agents, he might well be challenged if he tried to open the trunk of a car one evening in the aptly named White Plains.

I just want to say, Stop it. Stop it, now. Train the police to use less lethal methods, and prosecute to the fullest extent those who don't. Put to rest the constant need to suspect on the basis of a profile all too aptly suited to fit the native prejudices. End the madness of the war on drugs that has nourished the vast bulk of this problem in the first place, like its pale ghost uncle Prohibition. End it all. Just stop!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

August 20, 2014

Bernard's Song per Dante

In celebration of the feast of Bernard of Clairvaux, here is a rehearsal tape of the Hymn to the Virgin from the Celestial Rose, from Dante's Paradiso, Canto XXXIII. I composed this for St Luke in the Fields back in the 80s, for performance in Advent. I made a tape of the rehearsal, but the recorder died during the actual liturgy. Still, it gives an idea of what I was after. Bill Entriken is the organist, and the cellist is from the St Luke's Chamber Orchestra.

Bernard sings:

«Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio,
umile e alta più che creatura,
termine fisso d’etterno consiglio,

tu se’ colei che l’umana natura
nobilitasti sì, che ’l suo fattore
non disdegnò di farsi sua fattura.

Nel ventre tuo si raccese l’amore,
per lo cui caldo ne l’etterna pace
così è germinato questo fiore.

Virgin Mother, daughter of you Son,
Humble and high beyond creature,
Fixed limit of the eternal counsel,

You are she who so ennobled human nature
that the Creator did not disdain
to make of it his maker.

Within your womb was rekindled
the love by whose heat, in eternal peace,
thus was germinated this flower.

(The Flower is the celestial rose which is constituted from the company of saints themselves...)

Pardon the poor quality of the tape.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

MP3 File

August 13, 2014

Greater Love

Jonathan Myrick Daniels holds the honor of having fulfilled the greatest love attested by our Lord Jesus Christ himself: to lay down one's life for one's friends. The story of his self-sacrificial placement of himself between a bigot's arms and the body of a young African-American co-worker in the struggle for civil rights is well enough known to obviate the need for me to tell it once more here. Suffice this to be a moment to give honor to this honorable young man, fervent in faith, steady in resolve, and sudden in action to do what was right in the face of grievous wrong. May we all contribute a glimmer of such light by our own feeble candles.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
ikon of Jonathan as the seminarian he was

August 11, 2014

The Butterfly

Taking a sabbatical on the bridge’s bannister
— a momentary flex or two of wings a major
interruption in your short life-span —
I notice that your dappled right-hand wing
has lost a section of the dexter chief
of your escutcheon, your family crest thus dis-
emblazoned by a proper relic of
some former battle with a spiderweb.

You rest — and when I move you flutter off,
but then return, to bask another moment,
to lengthen our unspoken consultation;
finally to flutter off and by — a Viceroy
or a Monarch (I too ignorant of
the heraldry of Lepidoptera to know) 
but rested, ready to reclaim the air
with wounded wing.

You know my wounds, Lord; some of them you gave me,
some I gave myself. I still will fly —
but with your help, for you alone can save me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG, 2006

August 8, 2014

In a Glass, Darkly

When religions of whatever sort have the power of armed forces at their disposal they will go to war with those they hold in contempt, eager to convert or expunge. That goes for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, as well as most other sects. The larger Christian bodies lost their state-supported armies a few hundred years ago. A few insurgencies lasted until my own lifetime, in, say, Ireland; and there are fringe groups in the Pacific Northwest whose force of arms warrants our concern. 

That there is relative peace among Christians in our day has precious little to do with Christianity as a religion of peace, but more to do with the withering of state and popular support for Christian warfare, a pragmatic response summed up by Elizabeth I in her desire to keep her counselors’ heads upon their shoulders.  

For whenever Christians had the coercive power of arms at their disposal, they were just as likely to use them as anyone else. Imperialism, triumphalism, conquest and intersectarian bloodbaths are all a part of our Christian past — the Gospel notwithstanding. Look to that Christian past and you will see the Muslim present. It is not a pretty reflection, nor is it monolithic: there are islands of sanity amongst the chaos and crisis, but the theme is one of struggle rather than of settlement. Meanwhile, the God of peace weeps over his foolish children.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 25, 2014

Good Earth

Joachim and Anna are remembered as the Parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I've chosen to portray them in this image as a rather earthy Jewish peasant couple, married, so the legend goes, for decades before being blessed with issue. I can only guess that the household in which Mary grew to marriageable age herself must have been a happy one, full of joy and love. Things like this run in the family, and what a family it is! Remember, we are adopted into it; so let joy abound!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 20, 2014

People, Places, and Things

Looking at the big picture of Creation, and hearing how it groans in expectation...

A sermon for Proper 11a 2014 • St James Fordham • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

After my mother passed away, my youngest sister took up the task of trying to make some orderly sense out of the boxes of loose photographs that my mother had accumulated over the years. Not only were there a number of photos from her own mother and grandmother, but of those taken in my generation — and I was the oldest of six, so there were a lot of photos. There were literally hundreds of them, and it was a challenge to sort through them.

One response to organize such pictures is to divide them up into three familiar categories, at least to begin to get a handle on the task: to sort them into three piles of pictures: people, places, and things. For some pictures, the sorting is easy: the baby pictures, the school pictures, the graduation pictures, first communion, confirmation — those all go into the “people” pile; while the views of the Grand Canyon or the Belvedere Fountain in Central Park go into the “places” category; and the photos that my dad took of his model airplanes are clearly to be numbered among the “things.”

But what do you do with the picture of Mom and Dad standing in front of the Washington Monument? Is that a “people” picture or a “place” picture — or even a “thing” picture if you have a collection of pictures of monuments? How do you categorize something that seems to fit in many different categories?

+ + +

This morning’s Scripture readings face us with just such a challenge. At first glance, as with some pictures, it seems to be easy: the reading from Genesis is clearly about Jacob’s experience at the place, about Jacob’s experience of the place that he would come to call Bethel. The reading from Romans is clearly about people, in particular about us as we become children of God. Finally, the reading from Matthew is about the weeds and the wheat and the harvest — all of them things.

But when we look bit closer the categories are not quite as clear as they appear at first. The reading from Genesis is about a place — a place in which Jacob begins by making a pillow out of a stone, lying down to sleep and to dream. Clearly this is no ordinary place, and Jacob recognizes it as the gateway to the house of God — which is what Bethel means in Hebrew.

But in addition to it being about that holy place — there are those things: the stone, to oil, the ladder, the gate; and the people (or perhaps I had better say the personalities) of Jacob, the angels, and the God of Abraham and Isaac — now to become the God of Jacob as well, as he makes with him a covenant of adoption and promises to be with him to keep him wherever he goes. Whatever place he goes to, God will personally be with him.

Which brings us to the second reading, which is clearly about people, and how we are adopted, through the Spirit of God as children of God, as the Spirit leads us to cry out, “Abba! Father!” Yet no sooner does Paul describe the personal aspect of adoption, than he turns around and applies it to a thing — the thingiest thing there is, the whole creation, the very embodiment of thingdom! For what is more a creature than creation? And Paul is bold enough to claim that redemption is not just for people, but for that whole creation; that somehow in God’s good time and place, “the whole creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God!” This is one of the Scriptures I point to whenever people ask me if I believe whether our pets, our animal companions, will share with us in the resurrection. I am also comforted and encouraged by the words of the Psalms. For they not only call upon all things that have breath to praise the Lord — and believe me, if you have a pet cat or dog, you know they have breath! — but also for the trees to clap their hands and even for the hills and mountains to leap for joy. This brings us back to Saint Paul is saying — “the whole creation” must mean “the whole creation” — that is, there is nothing outside God’s grace and redemption, for God hates nothing — no thing — that God has made.

Finally, in that reading from Matthew, we appear to be dealing with just such things — the seed, the weeds, the wheat, the harvest — but then Jesus offers an explanation of this parable to the disciples and he immediately brings in places — all places, for the field is the world. He then he tells of those people: the Son of Man and the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one, and the enemy, and the very angels themselves, the same ones whom Jacob saw ascending and descending upon that ladder.

+ + +

So what are we to make of this? What categories can we use? Perhaps the key after all lies in that lesson from Romans. Perhaps what God is trying to tell us this morning is that the categories we create to divide up the world aren’t quite so clear as we think them to be — that we and the angels, and the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky, and the seed of the fields, and the trees of the forest, and the forest itself, and the hills and the valleys and the mountains — indeed that the whole of creation is groaning in the pains of childbirth until now.

Instead of an assortment of little pictures, there’s just one big picture: a view such as perhaps the first man who walked on the moon had, forty-five years ago today, looking back and seeing that the world was not split up into many different things, but is one beautiful thing, hanging there in the sky. The whole creation is awaiting the redemption that is not just our destiny but the destiny of all that God has made.

Perhaps God is saying to us that we are all in this together — that although human beings do hold a special place in God’s creation, as people who are more than mere things, yet we still share the role of creatures, with all of God’s creation. I mentioned pets, our animal companions, but there are others: we usually treat our pets fairly well, but there are others we don’t so well. It does not take a great stretch of imagination to look into the eyes of a captive orangutan, whose young have been stripped from her, sent off to a zoo somewhere — confined now to a cage in a forest in which she once ranged freely, but has now been torn down, burned down so they could plant a plantation for the production of palm kernel oil — it doesn’t take much to look into the depth of those sad, sad eyes of the captive orangutan and ask, What have we done to our fellow creatures? It does not take much of a great stretch of experience — although it seems to be a stretch too far for some — to see the collapsing ice sheets of Antarctica, the disappearing glaciers of northern Europe and Canada and the Alps, the polar bears vainly trying to swim because there is no more ice left for them to climb upon — it is no great stretch to see our profound impact on creation — and, oh, how it groans! It does not take a great stretch of imagination to look at the raging wildfires of the American West, or the smog in China so thick you can cut it with a knife, and not ask yourself, “What have we done?”

Perhaps God is trying to tell us in these powerful lessons — lessons written not only in the pages of Scripture but in the black and white of the world itself — that we do not live in heaven — we are still sleeping here on earth on our stony pillows and our dreams of ladders. And it is time to wake up, and out of our stony griefs to raise up Bethel. To take our part in making this world what God means it to be: God’s world, in which we dwell as guests. Too long have we thought that this world was just a place we could despoil and neglect, because we were headed for a better one up that ladder into the world to come. What does Saint Paul say? The creation has been waiting, waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God? And when we are revealed, what are we revealed to be? Will we be seen as those who did not care, who despoiled and neglected God’s creation; or worse: will some of us be seen as enemies of God’s creation who spread bad seed upon God’s field, so that it brought forth weeds instead of wheat? Is it not written, as you have sown, so shall you reap?

My brothers and sisters, these are sobering questions for us today, far more important than the mere categories of people, places, and things. It is the whole creation — the big picture — of which we form a part, and which we change — for better or for worse — by our actions. We are not called to divide things up, but to pull them together: not to divide, but to unite. God intended humanity to care for creation — pulling it all together. Let us, my friends, be responsible stewards of that which has been committed to our care — and for which — one day — we will be called to render an account.+

July 17, 2014

The Long View

William White had the good fortune to live a long and active life (1748-1836). This took him through the early years of the Episcopal Church, in which he was a major participant as layman, priest and bishop. While not the first American bishop (Seabury holds that title) he was soon in the mix. Since it takes three bishops to consecrate a bishop, no sooner had Samuel Seabury returned from Scotland than the young American church put forward William White of Philadelphia and Samuel Provoost of New York, who were consecrated as our second and third bishops.

White was a devout pastor, founding several charitable and educational institutions to help the poor, the deaf, and a ministry devoted to helping prostitutes rebuild their lives. White also served as the Episcopal Church’s first Presiding Bishop. His Memoirs of the Protestant Episcopal Church (his 1836 second edition is available free on-line in ebook format) provide a fascinating glimpse into the formative years of the church, from his unique perspective.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
This was one of my first efforts at a "quick icon" in wash on paper

July 12, 2014

The Circle of Our Embrace

If you ask someone to define a circle, you will likely get several different definitions, depending on their mathematical sophistication; but if they are good definitions they will be accurate. Some may be procedural: a circle is the shape traced by a compass moving through 360 degrees. Others may be Euclidean: a circle is the set of all points in a plane equidistant from a single point. Note that these “definitions” can also accurately be called “descriptions.” They both limit what a circle is and how a circle is formed. The question, “But why is a circle defined or described in this way?” — were it to arise — would very likely be met with a blank stare; though a wise philosopher might simply respond that this is a convention useful in geometry and mathematics, and of course there are an infinite number of circles that can be drawn around any given point, and this gives us a tool to name them and work with them.

Would that the marriage debate were so simple. There are some for whom it is that simple, in their own minds. Marriage is “defined” — for example — as “the lifelong union of one man and one woman,” and any example that doesn’t meet the definition falls outside the term. Some such definitions are also fairly called “descriptions” but nonetheless draw the line at some things being within the category while others are not.

Leaving aside the reality that a strict application of that definition fails to address whether a marriage that ends in divorce was ever a marriage, or still is, the more serious problem arises when people ask the question about marriage that I hazard no one would ask about circles: “Why is marriage limited in this way.”

When faced with this question, some will resort to a merely definitional and tautological approach that boils down to, “Because that’s what marriage is.” This is unassailable, but also not a real answer to the question, as it begs it.

Other answers will commonly include an appeal to the fact that only men and women can procreate. Of course, the problem with that answer is evident: people can procreate without marriage and marry without procreation — so clearly the ability or the lack thereof cannot be essential. The creation of such notions as virtual or potential procreativity seem even further removed — and beside the point as even those who definitely can procreate might not marry or procreate; and this particular dodge is ultimately a subterfuge to preserve the “man and woman” requirement in their essential, rather than procedural, reality — which the more astute among you will recognize as another form of begging the question.

Among other appeals will be the well-worn fallacies of appeal to authority, tradition, or numbers — forces to which one may choose to bend but which are not in themselves proof of the rightness of the premise.

Ultimately, the question with which we have to deal is much more serious, and much more complex, than simple definition or description. It concerns the lives and loves of countless human beings, seeking to order their lives under a discipline that allows those lives and loves to flourish and grow. It is not easy to stretch definitions when they are deeply entrenched in a culture, but it is incumbent upon us to recall that marriage is a cultural convention, and an infinite number of circles that can be inscribed round any given point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

July 9, 2014

The Failure of Mission

There has been a new development in the case of Canon Jeremy Pemberton, a Church of England priest and chaplain who had the temerity to marry his beloved of many years, Laurence Cunnington. Jeremy works as a chaplain for the National Health Service (NHS), and was up for a promotion; but because the promotion requires a license (or licence, as the English spell it) and the bishop has denied the license, his promotion is on hold. Laurence has written an eloquent summary of the situation.

This is a sad example of what happens when a church loses sight of its primary ministry and mission, and allows secondary (or tertiary or even more remote "concerns") to deflect the implementation of ministry.

For there are few ministerial offices with the weight of dominical force; but among them is the commandment to minister to the sick. There is no dominical command either to marry or to refrain from marriage, though Jesus clearly held that there are requirements placed on those who do marry.

So in this case, the Church of England is not only confecting a discipline, but perverting the course of ministry by applying it.

I offer my prayers for both Jeremy and Laurence, and more particularly for that benighted institution the Church of England, of which I rejoice in not being a member, else my own ministry would be offered up on the altar of a false gospel.

Tobias Stanislas Haller

June 18, 2014

Youthful witness

Bernard Mizeki was a refugee from slavery who came to South Africa in the mid-19th century, and found more than a refuge — he found the faith. He became a missionary and catechist in Mashonaland, and suffered death at the hands of those opposed to the incursions of Europeans and Africans who supported the importation of a foreign religion. His body was never found, but a memorial was raised close to where he is said to have died as a martyr to the faith, and one who would not abandon those who had joined him in it. That memorial stands in testimony to this young man's willingness to testify.

The Collect
Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Bernard Mizeki: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his triumph may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

ikon by Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

June 13, 2014

NT Wright: Wrong Again

NT Wright is a distinguished scholar in the area of New Testament studies, but when he gets off his primary topic and into the muddy waters of the marriage equality debate he does not serve either himself or his reputation well, particularly when his comments are off-the-cuff in an interview. That being said, it should be expected that any competent scholar would be able to avoid the shoals of error upon which Wright founders in this conversation.

And a strange conversation it is. Wright begins by launching into an ill-informed and curmudgeonly argument about the meaning of the word marriage. His claim is that applying marriage to a same-sex couple is a total novelty — not just in English but across all cultures — and implies that the effort to give it that meaning is similar to word-torture by Nazis and the Politburo. Marriage, he claims, has “always been male plus female.”

He is obviously wrong when it comes to English; perhaps he is to be forgiven for not having heard of the 19th century “Boston marriages” in Durham. But as a scholar he is distressingly ill-informed when it comes to the language of Scripture. It has to be admitted that the Hebrew and Greek texts do not have a simple word for the concept of “marriage” — or for “husband” or “wife” for that matter, as the common words are simply the words for “man” and “woman” or (in the case of men, the equivalent of the word “lord.”) The Hebrew words for “marriage” normally revolve around the concepts of taking or carrying off — a relic of which still exists in our marriage rite as each spouse “takes” the other. And this language was applied to same-sex couples in the rabbinic tradition: it is used in Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8 in its interpretation of what Leviticus forbids in terms of the practice of the peoples distinguished from God’s people. “A man married a man and a woman a woman, a man married a woman and her daughter, and a woman married two men.” The word translated “married” here is the same used in Scripture in Ruth, Ezra, and Nehemiah. So the Hebrew mind was capable of wrapping itself around the notion of same-sex marriage, even while disapproving of it. Whether such marriages actually were a part of the Egyptian and Canaanite societies is beside the point, though if they were that would undercut Wright’s thesis as well.

So Wright can assert his counterfactual on word usage as much as he likes, but marriage not only has been used to refer to same-sex marriages for millennia, but it is now part of civil law in many countries. His response: “Simply at that level, I think it’s a nonsense. It’s like a government voting that black should be white. Sorry, you can vote that if you like, you can pass it by a total majority, but it isn’t actually going to change the reality.” Obviously he is also unaware that the English word “black” derives from the Anglo-saxon blæc — meaning “white.” (Think “bleach”). But let that pass.

More serious is Wright’s assertion that what he calls “complementarity” of “pairs that work together” lies at the heart of the created order. But it seems very odd to talk of “heaven and earth” and “sea and dry land” as “working together” in the way a man and a woman do. I have no doubt that the narrative shows a man and a woman working together — but I do not see any evidence that heaven and earth or sea and dry land “work together”; to say nothing of the many other “binaries” in Genesis 1: light and dark, fish and birds, plants and trees — to say nothing of the triads such as the sun, moon and stars. Wright is either just straining to read something into all of this to support his exclusion of same-sex pairs (which, after all, are also pairs who work together!) or indulging in a reading that would be more appropriate to the I Ching, which does indeed conceive the cosmos as being built up from opposites.

Moreover — and again Wright should know this but his antipathy towards marriage equality appears to have induced some biblical blind spots — the “marriage” portrayed in Scripture is not complementary or balanced. The institution of marriage in both Testaments is tilted strongly towards male privilege and power. This is why in the allegories the husband figures God or Christ, and the wife the people of God or the Church. It is true that there are some passing descriptions of real marriages where some sort of mutuality is enjoined or enjoyed, and the Pauline tradition attempts gingerly and modestly to even the scales ever so slightly, but when it comes to imagery the balance tips to the man, away from the woman.

In the final section of the interview Wright show all the signs of frustration at a lost cause. I can almost hear him holding his breath at the end, after a final foot-stomp. He compares the movement for equal marriage to the pressure towards war in Iraq (and why is it that all of his comparisons are violent and over the top). He seems to think that being on the wrong side of history is a statement about trends and pressures. History doesn’t force things, it records them. In this interview, Wright is wrong about history as well as being on the wrong side of it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG