December 2, 2021

Infrastructure Plan

John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 

'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 

  • Every valley shall be filled,
  • and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
  • and the crooked shall be made straight,
  • and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" (Luke 3:2-6)

Earlier this week I was reflecting on this reading (part of this coming Sunday’s Gospel) and for the first time ever I saw the verses about valleys, mountains and hills, and rough ways, not as prophetic predictions about what will happen, but imperative commands — continuing on in the directive mode from “Prepare the way” and “make his paths straight” — about what shall be done. So I format them here as a to-do bullet list.

In short, this is a divine infrastructure plan spelling out exactly what repentance entails; a detailed list of instructions for preparing a way for the Lord, a straight path for God to enter our hearts. 

Every valley of despondency and depression, of neediness or greed, is to be filled in. Every mountain or hill of pride or self-importance is to be brought down, every twisted self-righteous self-defense for past wrongs straightened out and untangled, every rough or brutal thought put aside. Only then, only when repentance has made a way, will the eyes of the heart see salvation standing clear and bright and unobstructed.

The good news is that this is not our work alone: God has made this massive repair to the human infrastructure possible through the grace of God’s enlightening instruction, the Word of command and of comfort; for as Isaiah also reports, God’s Word shall accomplish God’s purpose, and succeed in those things for which God has sent it. (55:11) In this case, the Word is God coming to be in the very flesh that shall not only see the salvation of God, but know it inwardly, incarnate in each human heart by the grace that plants itself within us.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

November 19, 2021

A Future for the Church

I had some serious thoughts about the future of the church this afternoon, after reading about a diocese deciding to close a parish that was only able to support a half-time priest shared with another congregation. I get a sense that many in diocesan leadership are still hoping for the future church to take the same shape as the church of the past: that each parish would have a full-time priest, and be able to fund its own operation and maintain its facility, perhaps supported by some endowment funds but largely from the contributions of its own active membership. 

I don't want to sound too pessimistic, but I'm not sure that this is a reasonable expectation for the future of the church except in a few cases. I'm old enough to recall that the "norm" for the church was just that: a full-time rector, and in many cases one or more full-time paid curates, except in the smallest parishes. It should come as no surprise that many of those salaried curates have been replaced by non-stipendiary associates, often retired clergy; and not a few "rectors" are actually less-than-full-time, and retain the title without the old meaning.
I think the truth is that the church of the 50s died in the 60s, or at least fell seriously ill, and we are seeing the long-term results, not just in the small churches, but in all others apart from those heavily-endowed, or fortunate enough to subsist in urban centers where a ministry or cultural outreach supports the program, or in the few parts of the country where church-going is still considered a social duty; and I don't know how long any of these are  going to last. As someone opined recently, "they're not coming back." Once people discover they can do without the church, they do without the church — or at least the model of the church as "full-time priest and congregation."
It may be that the church of the future in much of the US will be the small parish with a part-time or chaplaincy-model (regular supply) priest and a cadre of lay leaders who carry out most of the responsibility of maintaining the church property and ministry in their community. If the church has the financial resources to do that (pay its bills, including whatever assessment is required, support a cleric at a level less than the old "rector", maintain its property and engage in meaningful ministry of some sort) I would strongly suggest that diocesan authorities should allow it to continue to exist and function at that level; not in the hope that it will bounce back to what it may have been in the 1950s but as a recognition that this may well be the future of the church for the next generation or two, if not longer. 
Taking the option of closing such a church down, selling off the property or otherwise alienating it robs not only the possible future for growth, but the present, immediate and actual future of a continued presence and ministry at a smaller, but still meaningful, scale. 
Part of my concern is that the current metrics for judging the "success" of the church revolve around both the meaning of metrics and of success. I'm also thinking about the mismatch between a focus on the cleric and her salary (and housing and pension) as the normative deal-breaker as opposed to the liveliness of the ministry of the laity — not just in worship attendance (which seems relatively passive) but in what they do in their weekday lives: which supposedly is the mission of the church. In short, are we supporting a model of the church that is still largely clerical and "within the walls" at the expense of possible new models?
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

October 4, 2021

Naked Need

 Proper 22 • Advent 2021 • TSH 

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

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

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

+ + +

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

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

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 28, 2021

Elephant, Snake, and the Garden

A Not Just So Story
by Tobias Stanislas Haller

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Man said, “Tell me more about yourself.”

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or not.


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

April 9, 2021

Icons with Colored Pencils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Black — reinforce the darkest lines and shadows.

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

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

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

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


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