October 29, 2008

It’s the Stupid Economy

So the market shot up yesterday after a week or so of jagged decline. Why? The key word seems to be “confidence” — a very subjective thing upon which to pin ones hopes and dreams and pension fund. This only reaffirms my belief that The Economy is not a controllable machine like a well-designed steam engine, but a wild animal that can be poked and prodded with sticks or occasionally tempted by a carrot, but which most of the time does what it pleases. What rough beast slouches towards Wall Street? I think the 50s sci-fi Blob is probably as accurate a picture of The Economy as any.

For The Economy is far from a single unified entity, but a chaotic system built up, sad to say, from the very worst in human nature: primarily greed and fear. These primitive emotions are not limited to Wall Street, but are well established on Main Street too; they find a place in every home and heart.

Which brings me to John McCain’s beef with Barack Obama’s “redistribution of wealth” proposal, correctly (to a small extent) but disingenuously identified as “socialism.” Needless to say — or maybe not, since McCain has been surprisingly successful in his wool-over-the-eyes manoeuver — our economic system has been based on a redistribution of wealth model since the days we first introduced progressive income taxation, in which those with more give more proportionately. From an ethical position, Obama recognizes that generosity is a good thing, but that it can’t be counted on in a pinch. Those who have will for the most part, if left to themselves, try to keep what they have. It doesn’t trickle down, either; it stays in the deep pockets of those with custom-designed trousers, or it goes overseas, funneled off to places where workers are eager for whatever scraps fall from our abundantly provisioned tables, and are willing to work for less in places where that less is worth more than it would be here. Obama is calling on those with more to sacrifice a bit more, and includes himself in that category. This seems to be an ethical thing to do.

McCain, on the other hand, is not going to redistribute wealth, he claims he is going to create wealth. The problem is, I doubt universal wealth can be created, even if that is McCain’s real intention. If Obama is peddling socialism, McCain is peddling the snake-oil of a shadow version of communism, in which everyone will be happy and wealthy (but is really just more of the “let the rich keep their money to create jobs so everyone will benefit.”) It won’t work in part for the non-trickling reason cited above. But there is something more serious at work, which brings me back to my initial point.

Haller’s Theory of Universal Slight Dissatisfaction (one of my two Economic Theories) is that a state of pure equilibrium in which everyone is wealthy is impossible. It is even impossible to have a non-trivial society where everyone is satisfied. This is because of human nature, and the role that fear and greed and self-interest play in it. (Some might note the connection with Original Sin.) People for the most part want more than they have — and are only content when they have more than they need. Yet the wealth that exists, the Gross Value of Everything, is finite, though it can grow (it usually inflates more than actually growing). The end result is that the best you can do (if your value system would consider it “best”) is to have a society in which everyone had slightly less than they wanted. People might agree to this out of commitment to a cause: the East Germans prided themselves on their commitment to the solidarity of suffering, as did the early church (communism being a common notion for them both) but it is hard to see it catching on universally. Even these experiments by ideologically committed folks proved unsustainable. Entropy rules, though islands of order (in this context, read wealth) can arise in certain circumstances. But no-how, no-way, is it possible to have a sufficiently large society in which everyone is “wealthy” — for the very definition of wealth itself will slip away beyond your grasp even as you reach after it.

So McCain’s proposal is the same old tired promise of Rumpelstiltskin: give me your child and I’ll spin straw into gold. His proposal is, in every sense of the word, mean.

I pray this nation will have the good sense to reject McCain’s fairy tale magic, and empty promise. The next generation will indeed pay dearly if we fall prey to the seductive promise that wealth can be universal, and cost no one anything. Rather let us ask more of those who have more, and redistribute the wealth that actually exists. That, we know, can work. And it does have the imprimatur of the Gospel in its favor.

Tobias Haller BSG


October 28, 2008

Knowledge and Love

One of the things that Mary Clara and I spoke about over lunch this weekend was the use of mystical systems of various sorts to give structure to a world. The coming of the Scientific Age offered a false promise, or at least a misunderstanding: that if we could only detail our knowledge of how the world works we would then come to know why the world works. But Science can never really tell us the why — and is even limited in the extent to which it can uncover the how.

This is where, in part, the difference between knowledge and wisdom comes in, or, as Roddenberry would have it, Data and Lore. One of the reasons Data was unable to become “human” was the same flaw that undercuts many efforts at AI: there is more to ones life than the abundance of information, and one can have catalogued all of the facts of the world without developing anything resembling a true “self.”

The Scientific Age, and its disciples, have added to our catalogue of facts, but the facts themselves have done little to nourish our souls, which require food that facts alone can not provide. This is not to say that facts do not have their place, and an important place it is. But they will not answer the plaintive question, Why? The atheist may say there is no answer; the agnostic acknowledge an answer may exist, but we do not know it.

I take the Christian answer to be true, as Julian of Norwich put it: “‘Love’ was his answer.” Or as Pascal, a scientist who was also a Christian, said, “L’amour a des raisons que la raison ignore” — Love has reasons of which reason is ignorant. Even a major contributor to the Scientific Age could see that much, I wager.

Tobias Haller BSG


Thought for 10.28.08

Lay Presidency and the Cultural Revolution:
— compare and contrast.

Tobias Haller BSG

Scooped by Gumbo Grannie!

Well, I'd hoped to report on my visit to Baltimore, complete with photos sent to me by fellow blogger Mary Clara, who lives in that metropolis and found her way to Saint James Parkton this last Sunday, but the indomitable Grandmère Mimi has beat me to the punch, or the punch-bowl, and spilled the proverbial beans -- whether zaydeco vert or the red ones that go with rice, I know not.

So hie thee hence to the nest of The Wounded Bird who has been getting a good bit of press herself lately, courtesy of the Huffington people.

Meanwhile, just let me add that the Baltimore and Parkton experience was delightful, and it was a joy to spend some time with the congregation and its leadership, and to put a face to a virtual friend from the Internet.

Tobias Haller BSG

October 27, 2008

Futureworld in Sydneyland

The Sydney Synod has approved in principle the ideas of diaconal and lay presidency at the Holy Communion, suggesting a delay in implementation for laity but a sooner licensing for deacons, including women deacons. This has created, as perhaps an unintentional consequence, some concern among the more catholic conservative allies with Sydney against the liberal-trending spectrum of the Anglican Communion.

I have no difficulty understanding the extreme protestant position on this score — it has been well spelled out in terms of the priesthood of all believers, the lack of scriptural clarity on the subject, the fact that deacons can baptize so why can’t they celebrate, and so on and so forth. I also have no difficulty understanding the practical implications, and the needs of isolated or small communities. On neither of these do I find the arguments persuasive, but I do find them comprehensible.

What I find hard to understand is how any who so pride themselves in the 1662 BCP and Ordinal and Articles of Religion can adopt a position so at odds with the limpid clarity of their requirements, and what they present as a model for what it means to “minister in the Church.” The Articles demand that no one minister without being called; and the calling of a deacon is well spelled out to be (at most) an assistant in the ministrations limited to priests — also clearly listed in the order for making them. To read, as the current move has it, assists in as presides at seems to be an example of eisegesis at its most wishful and contrary. And this doesn’t even get into the murkiness of what it means for a lay person to “minister” (in the fulsome sense in which the classical documents use the term) — since as Richard Norris once said, a lay person authorized by a bishop to preside at the eucharist is properly called “a priest.”

So the issue for me — quite apart from my opposition to the move on other grounds — is the logical inconsistency of taking steps so at odds with sources of authority that are brandished in other controversies as touchstones of stability for the emerging Anglican Communion 2.0.

Perhaps this is just the beta.

Tobias Haller BSG


Update: See further at More on Sydney

October 22, 2008

Saint James of Jerusalem

I wrote this icon of Saint James of Jerusalem this past year, for Saint James Church, Parkton Maryland, which is observing this patronal feast on Sunday. The icon will be blessed at that liturgy, and I will have the honor to preach.

James is an interesting character -- called "the Brother of the Lord" in the tradition, and I followed that cue in giving him features that suggest a family resemblance, though not to the blond, blue-eyed variety of Jesus. This is a Jewish James, but also the first Christian bishop of Jerusalem -- a Jew who became a follower of his brother in more ways than one. It was his audacious conclusion to the Jerusalem Council that made it possible for us Gentiles to join in that ever-expanding family, as Jesus' kin, too.

James also followed his brother in death in Jerusalem, being thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple when he was brought there to call out to the crowds to forsake the new Way. The Temple is dimly visible in the background of the icon.

James of Jerusalem was and is an unlikely hero of the faith. He was among the relatives who came with Mary to restrain Jesus from his crazy ministry; yet he ended his life in testimony to what he later came to understand Jesus to be. May we all, whatever our wrong turns, early or late, find in Jesus our brother and our Lord.

Tobias Haller BSG


UPDATE: Here is the text of the sermon

Being Jesus’ Kin

St James Parkton • St James of Jerusalem • Tobias Haller BSG

Acts 15:12-22a; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Matthew 13:54-58

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?+

First of all let me say what a pleasure it is to be here at Saint James Church Parkton, and to bring the icon of your patron saint to be dedicated as a reminder and — I hope — inspiration to all of you, an inspiration and a reminder to stand fast in witness to the Gospel come what may.

I will get to the import of that Gospel in a moment, but first want to reflect with you about something a bit more prosaic. I’m not going to try to settle the historic question about exactly what people meant or understood by calling James, “the brother of the Lord.” Whether that meant he was Jesus’ full younger brother (as a later child of Mary and Joseph); or older half-brother (as a child of Joseph by a former marriage); or, as some think, a cousin or other more distant relation — in the long run it doesn’t matter what the exact relationship was. Because whatever it was, the people of his hometown compared Jesus to his relatives, standing him up against his relations, calling out some of them, including James, by name.

+ + +

What they were doing was saying, “Well, the rest of his family is no great shakes, so where does Jesus get it?” Think what it would have been like if people had known Billy Carter before they ever heard of Jimmy — two men who, though brothers, could hardly be more different from each other in terms of temperament or talent. But that was the crowd’s experience in Jesus’ home town — they saw him through the lens of the kin they knew, and that made it impossible for them to see how extraordinary Jesus was. Familiarity didn’t just breed contempt, but made it impossible for him to work many deeds of power there, as disbelief based on familiarity undermined the foundation of faith.

There is, of course, another side to the comparison: the side of Jesus’ relatives. I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced it, but I’m sure you can imagine what it’s like to have a famous relative. It can be a strain, as people come to expect, once they find out your sister or brother is a famous author or athlete or performer, that you must have a similar gift — and they put you on the spot with their unreasonable expectations. I think of the presidential campaigns towards the end of which we now (at last!) find ourselves, and try to imagine how all of the candidates’ relatives must feel about being put into the spotlight of public perusal, placed under the microscope — or in front of the microphone — as if they and not their spouse or brother or sister was the one running for office.

So you can imagine what it must have felt like for James, and Mary and all the others. They were small-town folks who most of the time minded their business and kept out of the doings of their brother and son, making a name for himself throughout the countryside. You may recall that the one time they tried to intervene in Jesus’ ministry, came about because people were beginning to say he was crazy, and they mounted a half-hearted intervention.

And it was at that point that Jesus suddenly expanded his family, turning from the merely biological to the spiritual. For he asked the crowds, “Who is my mother and my brother?” And he told the crowds, “Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sister.” And that, my friends, includes us, even us, in the here and now. We are Jesus’ kin.

+ + +

But back to James, who whether brother, half-brother, or cousin, was kin of some sort in the then and there of Jesus’ own lifetime. As we know, he joined his family who thought Jesus had a screw loose, and tried to help his mother and the rest of the family get him under control. And yet, after Jesus’ death, he shows up as an important leader in the church, clearly, as the reading from Acts shows us, the spokesperson for the assembly, the one who reaches the conclusion — a real “decider” — and on the strength of whose summing-up the Apostles accept the decision that the Gentiles are not to be bound by the Law of Moses.

We hear that rather matter-of-factly, with the retrospect of the rest of Acts and two thousand years of church history — but at the time it was an audacious move — and not everyone in the early church was happy with it. Some continued the pressure to require circumcision and obedience to the Law of Moses for all Gentile Christian converts. As Paul’s letters attest, this was a major bone of contention for decades to come.

Still, at that gathering, James took that bold step, and acted as the principle authority, as the first bishop of Jerusalem, a guardian of the unity of the church which was about to be compromised by the new tension placed upon it: the tension created by admitting Gentiles to its fellowship.

James was also among the earliest martyrs for the Christian faith — according to early church historians, thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple (which you can see in the background of the icon) and beaten to death in the court below, when he would not dissuade the people from accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

What a difference! Clearly something happened to James between the time he thought his brother was crazy and the time we see him as a leader of the church, and hear of him as a martyr to the faith.

Historians differ as to when the change in James came about, but we know that it did come. Was it during Jesus’ preaching ministry? Was he perhaps converted by hearing some golden teaching from his brother’s lips, to be as astounded as the crowds from his hometown were at first, suddenly struck with the challenging question, “Where did he get this wisdom?” and recognizing that it could only come from above?

Was it from hearing of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem, of how he endured the way of the cross, and bore its weight, and perished on that green hill far away? Or was it from hearing the word brought by the women to the others — the word that death had not conquered after all, and that Jesus was risen from the dead?

Or was it in that more personal experience, that first-hand experience, the one Paul wrote of, when Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection, and, like Thomas and the others, James came to believe because he had seen the risen Lord, not simply his brother now, but his Lord and his God?

+ + +

Whatever the time and place and circumstance, James entered into a new relationship with Jesus at that point. Although a relative by flesh and blood, he became a brother of Christ in Spirit, when he became a Christian.

In doing this he became part of that larger family that includes us too — for all of us here are brothers and sisters of Jesus, by adoption, through the waters of baptism. I can tell you from personal experience as a pastor that many people come to Christ kicking and screaming, and I’ve wrestled with a few! Some of you may be such cradle Christians; others may have come to faith in youth or adolescence, or even in adulthood.

But all of us who did not walk with Christ, like Paul himself, are untimely born; and though untimely born, still we are born indeed — born again through water and the Spirit, into our new family of faith. And yes, it is a matter of flesh and blood as well — for in the Eucharist we partake of our dear Lord Jesus’ Body and Blood, as a reminder and a realization that he is in us, and we in him. We are no longer orphans, no longer strangers and foreigners — but through the work of the Holy Spirit that led James and the other Apostles to see that salvation was open to us Gentiles — we have been adopted into kinship with Jesus. We have made Parkton his hometown as well as Nazareth, by inviting him into our hearts even as he invites us to this table. We have listened to his teaching in the Scripture, and unlike the folks of that far off time and place, we do not challenge or disbelieve him on the basis of our knowledge of ourselves and each other as less than perfect people — as if to say, God wouldn’t be caught dead among that sort.

Rather we give thanks that through grace and grace alone we have been saved, and brought into that great family that spans the globe and fills all time —— and what a grand family reunion we will one day share!

Let no one dismiss or challenge us, seek to put us down or demean us by comparison, for however humble our birth, however far we may have fallen through our own wanderings and mischance, Christ our Lord has raised us up, and will raise us higher still. For Jesus is our kin, our brother and our savior, our Lord and our God. O come, let us adore him.+


October 19, 2008

That Pesky Commandment

When I arrived at church this morning there was some mail from yesterday, including a packet from a group calling themselves "The Judeo-Christian View" which consisted of an all-out video (two DVDs were enclosed) and paper attack on Senator Obama. Not only is the claim to represent the Judeo-Christian view overly ambitious, but these folks also scandalously misrepresent Obama's views on the two things they say are of "paramount importance" in the upcoming election: same-sex marriage (which they put in scare-quotes) and "child sacrifice" -- which is how they see abortion -- apparently all abortion, but with special emphasis on partial birth abortion, which they claim Obama "supports."

Perhaps these folks are just so hot under the collar that they can't distinguish between "supports it" and "does not support criminalizing it." Maybe they are so ignorant of the Christian tradition that they don't know that the idea that all abortion -- from conception on -- is to be considered the equivalent of murder is a relatively recent Christian development, and is not part of the Jewish legal tradition. After all Numbers 5 describes a procedure to induce an abortion in a woman suspected of adultery. And Mishnah Oholot 7.6 describes something not unlike partial birth abortion:

If a woman is in difficult labor, the child must be cut up while it is in the womb and brought out limb by limb, since the life of the mother has priority; but if the greater part has emerged, it may not be touched, since the claim of one life cannot override the claim of another life.

So there is no real "Judeo-Christian" view on the subject of abortion -- in fact there is a very wide range of positions in these traditions, and to suggest that Obama is "pro-abortion" because he is "pro-choice" is little short of mendacity and false witness. In the debate last week, Obama articulated a very pastoral and comprehensible view of the tragedy of abortion, taking a position identical to that of the Episcopal Church. John McCain literally sneered at the concept of concern for the "health" of the mother because it is so elastic a term.

There can be no elasticity for the absolute position of no abortion at any time for any reason whatsoever, even in the case of rape or incest. Obviously if you think a zygote is fully human and should have all the rights of a human being, you will see abortion as the equivalent of murder. That's a position anyone is free to adopt -- but to call it the Judeo-Christian position is a misrepresentation, since not all Jews and Christians -- as attested in Scripture and the tradition -- support this position. And to claim that Obama favors abortion is a deliberate lie.

The colorful document from the self-styled JDV also goes on to say that if the US supports same-sex marriage (which Obama doesn't, though he supports civil unions) the US will just be giving more ammunition to those crazy Muslim terrorists to attack us as infidels. There are also images of idols (with a "cute" suggestion that Obama is the latest) and further intemperate analyses. The second DVD was about the threat Islam poses to civilization as we know it, and I confess I did not pop it into the DVD player.

This packet apparently went out to parishes far and wide -- I can't imagine I am the only priest to have received a copy. But my copy, including the DVDs, when straight to where I deposit all rubbish. I am all for an intelligent discussion of the difficult issues of abortion and same-sex marriage -- or even the engagement of Islam with the rest of the world -- but this document does not represent that kind of intelligence, but rather fear, slander, and falsehood. Those who violate the commandment not to bear false witness have no place wrapping themselves in the mantle of "Judeo-Christian" values. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt that they just don't understand Obama (or the real Judeo-Christian tradition, or rather, range of traditions; or Islam for that matter) they are dangerously misleading others. Please join me in rejecting this slander and falsehood, which adds nothing to a legitimate debate on difficult issues.

Tobias Haller BSG


October 17, 2008

No on Prop 8


O.K., so the Mac/PC Genre is getting a little thin about now, and this is far from the cleverest use of it; but the issue is so important I encourage others to link to this simple message from friends in California.

An Elevator Named Desire

Note: It seems this is the month for memoirs. Inspired, and encouraged, by Grandmère Mimi, whom I teased somewhat by hinting at this story, I here record a tale from my early actor’s life, a tale I’ve told many times but commit to writing now for the first.

It was the late 1970s and I was living in what we affectionately called the Young Actors’ Home — Manhattan Plaza, a subsidized housing facility for creative artists, a portion of whom were so successful that they paid full market rent. Among those who did so was playwright Tennessee Williams, who lived on one of the upper floors. I say all this by way of setting the scene.

One late afternoon I was at home doing I can’t remember what, when the phone rang. It was the front desk, who handed the receiver to my good friend, Dennis O’Keefe, who was down in the lobby. Dennis and I had been in college together studying theater — although Dennis by this time had primarily become interested in a career as a playwright. I knew that that day, Dennis, who had been experiencing some strange neurological symptoms over the previous weeks, had gone in for an exam and a spinal tap. When I heard his voice on the phone I scarcely recognized it; he was moaning with pain. “Tobe — can you come down please and help me get up to my apartment. I can hardly walk. My head is going to explode.” So, I quickly went downstairs to the lobby; and there was Dennis, doubled over and moaning quietly as he leaned against the wall outside the elevators. I hustled him on board the next elevator — just the two of us — and pressed the button for the top floor, which is where Dennis lived. As the elevator boosted itself and then again when it slowed to a stop at the second floor, Dennis moaned in agony from the movement. At the second floor, where the health club and swimming pool were located, the door slid open. There stood a dapper little gentleman with a thin mustache, wearing a bathrobe, bathing cap, and flip-flops. It was Tennessee Williams. I was speechless, and Dennis was still moaning from the recent stop of the elevator. In spite of living in the same large building neither of us had crossed paths with the famous playwright prior to this.

Now, you have to picture what struck the eyes of the man considered by many to be one of our greatest (at that time) living playwrights. As the door slid open he beheld this short blonde juvenile (a technical term for an actor well into his 20s still playing teenagers) standing beside a very thin and very tall young man with a mop of long brown hair, bent over double and moaning miserably. Before Tennessee stepped onto the elevator I noticed a very slight hesitation and raising of the eyebrows.

He pressed the button for his floor — one floor below Dennis’s. This meant we were in for a long ride. As the doors closed and the elevator took off again, Dennis moaned deeply. But this was New York, and Tennessee was a Southern Gentleman, so neither he nor I said anything. The elevator was not a fast elevator. Moments passed as Tennessee and I studiously examined different portions of the wall and ceiling, and Dennis’s moans subsided somewhat.

When I could bear the tension no more, I turned to Mr. Williams, and with what I now realize was an almost perfect Jack Benny delivery, shrugged, and said, “Spinal tap.” As if this was the most normal sort of thing to happen in midtown.

Tennessee raised his eyebrows and gave a knowing “a ha” look, though I detected a certain amount of suspicion and doubt in and around his eyes. I just kept nodding and smiling, perhaps a bit more now like Woody Allen than Jack Benny. And the seconds ticked by. Finally the elevator reached his floor and the doors slid open. Mr. Williams stepped through, turned, and said, with some very real kindness — you know, the kind reserved for strangers — and a knowing nod — though what he knew I know not — “I hope your friend feels better soon.”

The doors slid closed. And with a swift succession of lurches and moans we reached Dennis’s floor. As we got off the elevator and approached his apartment, Dennis the aspiring playwright asked, “Was that Tennessee Williams?” I could not tell a lie. And Dennis moaned the deepest moan he had moaned that day.

Dennis and Tennessee are both gone now; but I hope they have found a comfortable spot in a café off the Elysian Fields in the heavenly New Orleans, enjoying the recollection of the time their paths crossed in an elevator in Manhattan.

Tobias Haller BSG


October 16, 2008

Low Point

Am I the only one who heard what sounded like a gasp from the generally well-behaved crowd at Hofstra, for the third debate, when John McCain said,

I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications...

This, in response to a question about litmus tests. If this isn't a backhanded way of imposing a litmus test, I don't know my acids from my bases. Then too, his dismissive and sarcastic reference to the "health of the mother" stands in stark opposition to Obama's well articulated position, which just happens to coincide almost verbatim with that of The Episcopal Church. And McCain's the Episcopalian.

Tobias Haller BSG

October 14, 2008

Signs of the Times

Seen in Half Moon Bay, California.

Greater precision would inspire more confidence...

Tobias

October 10, 2008

Secretary of the Usury

One of my first jobs ("between engagements" as a budding New York actor, back in the early 70s) was working as a "pit clerk" in the NY Mercantile Exchange. These were the primitive days of slips of paper and chalkboards, with one lonely video monitor in the corner. As pit clerk, I would stand in the hole in the center of the table, and when a sale in a futures item (Argentinian Beef and April Potatoes were big, I recall) the broker would scrawl it on a slip of paper, and I would grab it and time-punch it, and hand it to another clerk outside the table to post on the blackboards. The point, as I soon learned, was that no one really wanted to end up with the Argentinian Beef or the April Potatoes. They were dealing in futures, not the actual cattle or spuds; they wanted to make a profit on the potential commodities, and had no interest in getting stuck as butchers or greengrocers, to say nothing of making a stew of things. Of course, someone always did end up holding the actual product. But this was a market driven entirely by expectations, not realities. This is where I formed most of what I believe about economic theory. I say all of this just to lay my cards on the table, as having no other expertise in the matter.

O.K. So we're in a big economic meltdown. I, for one, am not surprised. And although I remain optimistic for the long haul, I am skeptical that any of the proposed Bail Out Plans or other efforts at manipulation will be of any help in settling the churning waters of the world economy. I say this for several reasons.

First of all there is the general idea that lending money at interest is bad. It used to be called usury, and was considered a very serious crime, and what's more, sin. Eventually, through the work of folks such as Adam Smith, it came to be seen that lending money to people to produce goods and services actually contributed to the "wealth of nations." So far, so good. The problems really started to arise, in the present instance, with mortgages: the idea that people should borrow money to buy a house. Unlike a factory or farm that actually produces goods or services -- and so contributes to the actual net real value of things -- a house is a house, and it will only increase in value due to extraneous factors, such as the neighborhood "improving" or the resident actually adding a dormer or a deck. In fact, left to itself, the average house actually begins to lose its value due to accumulating damage. The purported value increase is due to inflation, not a real increase in value. Even Baileys' Savings and Loan bought into this "increasing value" myth, and I suppose as long as it was small scale and operating as a cooperative venture for mutual small-scale benefit in a limited population, it could work.

But human nature being what it is -- which is to say, fallen -- greed steps in, and some are not happy enough to say "my money is in Joe's house" but want to make money out of money. You may remember Mr. Potter. They are not in it for the cooperation, but the profit. But there can be no real profit when there is no real increase in value. So this is where the Ponzi Scheme that is our modern economic world begins. We move from a goods market to a credit market: it isn't even about what money represents anymore (goods and services), it isn't even really about money simplex, but about the virtual money called "credit." And so we develop more and more virtual — and less and less real — vehicles for investment: futures, options, indexes; and then futures on indexes and options, and all sorts of other self-referential mechanisms further and further removed from any real value based on either labor or product. The juggler keeps adding to the number of things in the air all at once.

As the chaos scientists assure us, self-referential systems are prone to chaotic fluctuation, and small inputs can produce paradoxically large outcomes -- and vice versa. Such systems become literally uncontrollable: so all of the efforts to pump money into the most chaotic part of the system (mortgages and credit) may have little or no effect on our present or future situation — or too much, or contradictory.

I am no economist, but even I can see when things have gotten far out of hand. We need a major attitude adjustment. As with the whole insurance business (another area where the machinery is now geared to profit and the maintenance of a top-heavy institutional structure rather than the mutual sharing of burdens) we need a radical overhaul, to get away from the notion of making money by lending money, unless that money is used actually to produce some goods or services. We need to shut down trading in ephemera, and get back to reality.

I realize this radical proposal has all the chances of the proverbial snowball in Sheol; but I offer it nonetheless. I have stood in the Pit, and seen how and when it went wrong.

Tobias Haller BSG

October 8, 2008

Not that One

I rarely wander into even the outer reaches of the political arena, and do so now with all the usual caveats: I speak for myself, not my parish, community, diocese or denomination.

I watched the "town hall" last night, and I continue to be concerned about John McCain — not by his policies (which, given his tendency to include just about every option, including contradictory ones, in his rapid fire synopses, are hard to categorize), but by him. The election is about the candidate, what kind of a person he is: the power to implement policies is conditioned by other factors beyond the control of any president. But what the president can do, for example, as commander-in-chief, is important. And I don't want to see someone as erratic and angry as John McCain in a position with that kind of power.

I cannot help but note the affect of the two candidates: Obama serious but at ease, diplomatic even when disagreeing; tending to the pompous or the vapid, but still showing some real heart now and again. McCain on the other hand reminded me of the sort of person parents warn their children to stay away from, tottering about the arena like an eccentric in his front yard, muttering the occasional non sequitur, clearly unhappy to have to be in the same space as his opponent, and with body language declaring that his opponent isn't even there; apparently angry that he should have to debate this upstart whippersnapper, smiling like a shark when he smiles at all, and a look of hunger and fear behind his eyes.

Then came "that one" — already analyzed for all it's worth; but all I thought was, "What a strange thing to say!" Had he referred to himself as "this one" instead of as "me" I might not have taken notice. But "that one" smacks too much of "one of them" (with a wink and a nod, literally) to sit too comfortably.

Perhaps I make too much of this quirkiness. But I suppose that is my right, as it is of others to disagree. Whatever else, I do not think that McCain is the one I want to see in the Oval Office. I prefer the other one.

Tobias Haller BSG

The Deacon and His Bishop

Convent of St Helena Vails Gate • October 3 2008
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
First Meditation for the Diocese of New York Deacons’ Retreat

A Bedtime Story before Compline

Once upon a time, and a very long time ago it was — something over 1400 years ago — there was a good deacon named Honoratus. Actually he was an archdeacon, but in those days only deacons could be archdeacons. He served the diocese of Salona in Dalmatia well and faithfully, but he ran into a bit of trouble with his bishop, whose name was Natalis. The bishop was a convivial man who enjoyed being bishop — in fact, he enjoyed it too much. He was fond of giving lavish parties and entertaining his relatives. He was even said to have given away some of the church’s sacred vessels and vestments to a few of his favorite relatives. As these goods were the concern of the dutiful archdeacon, he raised more than his eyebrows and complained to the bishop that such behavior might bring embarrassment and scandal to the church.

The bishop was not amused. But being a very clever bishop he thought of a way of addressing the problem that would silence the deacon without in any way giving him cause to complain. The bishop ordained him to the priesthood.

Now, as I said, this was a very long time ago, and in those days deacons were free to travel about on the business of the church. Indeed, this formed a very important part of their ministry. But priests of those days were forbidden to travel outside their own parish jurisdictions without the bishop’s permission. And so, the clever Bishop Natalis sought to curtail the deacon who had given him so much trouble by making him a priest. This may be one of the first instances of what the business world calls kicking someone upstairs. It has been a common fate of whistle-blowers ever since.

Unfortunately, Deacon Honoratus didn’t want to be a priest. He was perfectly happy in his ministry as archdeacon, with the exception of his disagreements with the bishop. The bishop, for his part, apparently didn’t know the old saying — old to us, for in the bishop’s day it hadn’t yet been said and wouldn’t be for another 1200 years — that the pen is mightier than the sword. And taking pen in hand the now-priest Honoratus wrote to the pope. He laid the situation out in black and white and the pope responded. He wrote to Natalis and said how strange it was to charge a person with poor performance and then promote him. The pope also instructed the bishop to restore Honoratus to the diaconate.

You see, the church was still young, and the fussy notion of indelible orders hadn’t yet fully developed. That’s the kind of thing that later ecclesiastics and systematic theologians with an interest in Aristotle would get worked up about in another six hundred years or so. But in those simpler days of the sixth century the three ministries of deacon, priest, and bishop were still understood rather differently than people came to think of them later. For one thing, the emphasis was on the ministry rather than the minister. More importantly, the pope was wise enough to see the game that Natalis was playing, not only replacing the deacon with someone more to his liking as archdeacon, but removing his capacity to travel about to check up on the diocesan property without permission.

Still, the pope was aging and unwell, and had more important things to think about than a fairly minor dispute between a bishop and one of his deacons, and the situation remained unresolved at his death. He was succeeded as pope by one of the seven deacons of Rome, whose name was Gregory — the first of that name. Gregory was of an abstemious bent and a spiritual heart — he had become a monk after retiring from the civil service — and never expected to be a deacon, much less pope. But he also had a practical side, and was a shrewd judge of character. He had served as his predecessor’s ambassador and had traveled quite a bit, more than most people of that era — remember, that was part of a deacon’s job back then, and Gregory was a very serious deacon indeed. As such, Gregory had been around the block a few times and had also heard reports concerning bishop Natalis. So Gregory wrote to the bishop, asking him to explain his actions, and why he hadn’t yet responded to his papal predecessor’s demand to restore Honoratus to the diaconate.

Natalis responded with some shock — real or pretended I cannot say, though I imagine it was rather like the shock that Captain Renault expressed on finding gambling at Rick’s. The bishop admitted that he was fond of playing the host and entertaining his guests well, but defended himself on biblical grounds that he, like Abraham, might be entertaining angels unawares. Gregory wrote back to him in an equally convivial style and said, “We would not blame your Blessedness for feasting, if we knew that you were entertaining angels.”

Meanwhile Honoratus the deacon was still in limbo — or the presbyterate, take your pick. And Gregory reminded him that if any vessels or vestments should go missing he would be in part accountable — as I said, one of the archdeacon’s tasks was caring for the fabric of diocesan property — or in the case of vestments, the property of diocesan fabrics. And as I also noted, in the meantime Natalis had appointed someone else more congenial to his way of seeing things as archdeacon. Dare I say this made it somewhat easier for chalices, vestments and the odd tapestry to go walking.

So Gregory, finding that Natalis had not changed his ways nor provided an accounting for the missing vessels and vestments, wrote a very stern letter to him and all the bishops of his province. In it, he not only threatened to remove the pallium — that fancy version of the stole that popes gave to certain bishops as a sign of their authority — but also to remove him from office and finally to excommunicate him if he didn’t mend his ways.

Well, unlike certain other bishops of more recent vintage threatened with deposition, Natalis took the hint, and said he would straighten things out — although he died before he could actually restore Honoratus to his position. In the ensuing episcopal election, Honoratus — favored by Gregory — contended with Maximus. Maximus had the backing of the soldiers and most of the laity, and in spite of papal support, Maximus became the bishop.

The moral of this story is, You can take the deacon out of the presbyterate, you can try to put the deacon into the episcopate; but in the long run the laity will have the last word.

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I tell this story because it highlights some of the concerns that you have as deacons, and that I have as a long-time supporter of this distinctive ministry. I say “long-time” with the full awareness that the contemporary revival of the diaconate has not been going on for a long time. We are still very much in the process of working out not only the details but even the broad sweep of things. And I know how that feels. As we see from the current political campaigns, the word “change” can have lots of different meanings, and realities. The problem in the case of the diaconate is that there are at least five historical eras or models for diaconal ministry — and each of them has its own peculiar take on what it means to be a deacon.

The deacons of the first two eras — the apostolic church and the church of the first few centuries — seem to have a good bit in common, if we are to judge from Gregory’s evidence. Deacons were a distinctive order of ministry, responsible for the nuts and bolts of the church, the physical property and the day-to-day operation of the institution, in particular the property, relief and outreach programs. Even as late as Thomas Becket, who was Archdeacon of Canterbury before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, deacons functioned as the main workforce of the diocese, with the archdeacon almost like a chief administrative officer.

In the third phase — that scholastical era when the hot topic of sacramental theology came to a boil — the diaconate seems to get lost in the shuffle, seen primarily as a stepping-stone towards the priesthood. This was when Aristotle came in, with the shift in focus to the “character” of the minister rather than the activities of the ministry, and the priestly office came to take up more and more responsibility — it developed a kind of Middle Ages spread. It was all about priests then: the diaconate came to be seen as preparation for priesthood, and the episcopate not as a separate order at all, but as a kind of senior class of priesthood. This was back when they all had subdeacons to kick around — and the three orders of ministry were subdeacon, deacon and priest (which included the bishop as a kind of “high priest”).

Then we come to the Anglican era, when things were restored a bit to the older model by teasing apart the order of priest and bishop, and the subdeacon faded into memory. To give a distinctive flavor to the diaconate, there emerged the perpetual deacon — a very Episcopalian office which in many places came to be a kind of permanent senior warden, unlike the ancient deacons very much attached to the parish, and in many cases the bane of any new rector. I can recall the rector of my own parish, Father Basil Law of blessed memory, saying to me in the mid-70s, when the diaconate began to be revived in this diocese: “Oh, Tobias, they’re bringing back the deacons. We had one once — you can’t get rid of them!” It is sad that a once noble ministry had come to be seen like some kind of recalcitrant mildew.

This was the early phase of our own time’s effort to revive a diaconal order and ministry that recovers some of the freedom and responsibility that the office entails — that graceful capacity for change to meet emerging needs that gives a title to this retreat. It has not always been an easy ride — I mean, we all know that most Episcopalians think the motto of the church is “Change is Bad.” So it has been a bumpy course in rather unchartered waters, from the early resistance of those who, like Father Basil, remembered the immovable perpetual deacons of yesteryear — to the practical difficulties we still see when parish priests don’t know enough about the diaconate to be of help in discernment or deployment.

Another part of our present difficulty lies in coming once again to see the diaconate as relating chiefly to the diocese rather than to the parish. This introduces tension, as with a call to the priesthood, when a person is discerned by a community of faith to be a valuable minister, only to be told, for all practical terms, to take their ministry elsewhere. This is, of course, a significant change from the nineteenth century model of perpetual deacons that is still soaked into the woodwork of many of our parishes, for, as I noted before, deacons were meant to be more mobile from the beginning. However, it is no good pretending that we still live in the nineteenth century any more than the second or the sixth — or even the twentieth! Even presbyters don’t stay put for as long as they used to, on average. The world has changed and very few people are born, live their whole lives, and die in the same village — or the same parish. Like it or not, we live in a time and a world in which transition and change are very much a part of all of our lives. Those who will minister for 30 or 40 years in the same place will be rare indeed — whether deacon, priest, or bishop.

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This presents us — all of us, whatever our order or ministry — with challenges and opportunities. Times of transition — liminal times, boundary times — can be painful and disorienting, but they can also open us up to new possibilities that we didn’t perceive before. And I would say that this is something for which the diaconate is particularly well suited. For the deacon stands at the pivot point, the fulcrum point, the point at which a small pressure here or wise word there can shape what follows.

As you know, in the eastern liturgy the deacon stands in the door to the inner sanctuary and communicates with the laity gathered outside the iconostasis as well as addressing prayers and exhortations to the inside — to the presbyters and bishop. The deacon communicates. As our own liturgy for the ordination of deacons says,“You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” In this the deacon is sensational — the deacon is the sense organ for the church, the one who perceives the needs of the world; and is also the voice of the church to the church — communicating those needs to the church: the whole church assembled. This is also one of the reasons that the rubrics assign first choice for leading the prayers of the people to the deacon, explicitly so in four out of the seven forms provided (including the form in Rite I).

This is why the deacon needs to be free to roam while at the same time being connected to the congregation that the deacon serves; and a major part of that service consists in bringing to that congregation’s attention not only its own needs but the needs of those outside. The deacon is like the fisherman who casts the net out into the sea beyond and draws it back — full of needs, concerns and hopes, into the vessel of the church. And this can, of course, leave you feeling like a stretched out rubber band, ready to snap.

The only enduring solution to this tension lies in a simple motto: It’s not about you. This is, ultimately, the motto of any really good servant, of any good minister — and let’s remember that both minister and servant are translations of the Greek word diakonos. A good servant or minister — a good deacon — by focusing on the task at hand and the needs of others can become forgetful of self — the prideful self, the judging self, the hungry and needy self sometimes (for we all have needs). This motto applies to all kinds ministries, of course — not just to deacons. So while I’m talking to you deacons I’m also listening to myself: and the advice applies to a busy priest and a busy bishop as well as to a busy deacon or busy layperson. Service means a posture geared towards others — to their needs. And it contains in itself the precious seed of self-forgetfulness, which, if we will allow it, will, by dying, bring forth fruit in abundance.

There is a story told of psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who was asked what people should do in a case of nervous anxiety. Menninger offered this prescription: “Go home, dress for work, leave your house and lock the door behind you; go to the poor part of town across the tracks, find someone who really needs help, and then help them!” Part of the wisdom of Saint Benedict was the awareness that work can be a wonderful way to take your focus off yourself. Service isn’t about you, but about those you serve — and the more focused you are on them, the ones you serve, the less you will find yourself an obstacle to your own ministry.

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The good news, when I say it’s not all about you, lies in another function of the deacon. I reminded you that the deacon is responsible for that sensational function — bringing the church’s attention to the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. The deacon also gets to have the last word in our liturgy — go do it! The deacon gets to tell everybody else, “It’s not about you” — we are all in this together, and it isn’t that you the deacon has to solve all the problems of the world — what you do is tell the church about them and then say, Church: let’s get to work, in the power of the Spirit. For you are part of that church as much as the people whom you dismiss, as much as the priest of the parish, as much as the bishop of the diocese. The whole body of the church, equipped with all these various organs doing their own functions, working together, but not obsessed with themselves or each other, can get about the work of God, to help serve a suffering world. By setting our selves aside, losing ourselves, we not only gain the world, but serve it.

I’ll speak a bit more tomorrow about this ministry of service, and how by keeping our focus on those we serve we can help reduce the tension in our own lives, a tension misdirected to our own wants and needs. Such service is paradoxically liberating — but then, you know that too, for we all serve the one who came to serve us, and whose service is perfect freedom.

And they lived happily ever after.


October 6, 2008

Francis and the Naked Truth

Sermon for the Feast of St Francis of Assisi
Tobias Haller BSG
Convent of Saint Helena, Vails Gate
Ecclesiasticus 50:1-7 + Psalm 37:24-33 + Galatians 6:14-18 + Matthew 16:24-27

It is somewhat ironic that at the deacons’ retreat and on the feast of St. Francis the deacon we should hear a reading about Simon the high priest — which goes on to wax enthusiastic in its description of how absolutely fabulous he was in his high priestly vestments. This is especially ironic in light of Francis’ literal rejection of such finery, but I suppose the intent was to focus on Francis as a restorer of the church. You will recall that Francis had a vision in which the figure of Christ on the cross charged him to rebuild his church — and Francis took this literally at first and started to rebuild the ruined chapel. Only later would it become clear to Francis and to others that his task went far beyond historic building preservation!

But Francis would have shunned the finery of the high priest, and it is in his character as someone who sat lightly with the things of this world, someone committed to radical poverty, that I want to look at Francis the deacon and friar. He knew the naked truth that if you have nothing to hold you down you can be free to fly, to move with the Spirit as the Spirit wills, and gracefully to change to suit the needs and circumstances into which God leads you. Francis’ life was one of fairly constant but always graceful — that is, grace-filled — change, but always with one goal, and he went through many phases in his pursuit of his single-minded effort to become like Christ.

He began life as a well-off young man named Giovanni, but soon got the nickname Francis — Frenchy — which makes him sound like a refugee from the cast of “Happy Days”; the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, his head full of visions of being a war hero — finding the hard reality of war another thing altogether; then falling ill and having a conversion — much to the embarrassment of his family.

You know the rest of the story — you may even have seen the movie! But the thing that drove that story, that guided Francis along, was his pursuit of likeness with Christ. As you know, this pursuit ended with his being marked in his own body with the wounds of Christ — the stigmata. Our epistle and gospel today attest to this particular aspect of his life — his self-identification with Christ, losing himself in Christ, and his embrace of the cross and the wounds Christ bore upon it. That fits in well with the theme I have stressed in my other reflections: the motto, “it’s not about you.” Francis lost his life in order to find it.

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Francis came to be known by the title “alter Christus” — another Christ — a phrase that has in the popular mind become more associated with the priest, especially as celebrant of the Holy Eucharist. But Francis was known by that title for centuries, and Pope Pius XI made it official. It is good to be reminded that, in spite of the common application of this title to priests, there is also a very ancient tradition that reserves it for the deacon: in the early fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions the bishop is analogized with God the Father, the presbyters with the apostles, but it is the deacon who is seen in the likeness of Christ — remember how the deacon would stand in the door between the congregation and the sanctuary? and how in those early days the deacon was sent hither and yon into the world about the work of the church as the bishop’s agent? And how the deacon sends the congregation out on their apostolic mission? It is the deacon who stands for “another Christ” at work in the church and the world.

What I want to focus on is the manner in which the deacon Francis did that, how he went about his work, how he changed in himself but also brought about change in others — gracefully, and more importantly, in the manner of Christ. For Christ was a master both of the eloquent story and powerful words, but perhaps more importantly of the boldly acted gesture — the dramatic and striking action. And so was Francis of Assisi. He performed many such dramatic acts in his life, but I want to cite just one.

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It was at the very beginning of his call, the time young Frenchy’s father threatened to disinherit him. And Francis, standing in the public square with the bishop looking on — the bishop his father had called on to talk some sense into the boy — performed the dramatic gesture of disinheriting himself, stripping off even his clothing, that embarrassment of riches, to become a new creation. I am reminded of a Renaissance painting of this incident in which the kindly bishop has draped his cope over the naked young Francis. This was in the days before Safe Church Workshops. But you may also recall how Franco Zeffirelli’s film made a particular point of this stripping of clothing — Francis’ father being a cloth merchant. Throughout that film the clothing of the clerics and the citizens imprisons them, and only Francis is free — born again in his birthday suit.

Francis performed a dramatic gesture, and among other things it convinced everyone that he really meant it. He was telling the truth, the naked truth, about what he meant to do. That is important — being disinherited in the 12th century when you had no other visible means of support was no easy choice. Francis, however, had invisible means of support — he was eager to follow in the footsteps of his Lord and Savior, and he was clothed from above in the garment of grace, the Emperor’s new clothes: not of the Holy Roman Emperor but of God the Emperor of the Universe, of Christ the King, and Christ the Servant. He was already beginning to take up the only ornament that mattered: the cross of responsibility and dedication day by day. He had come to see that gaining the whole world — or even keeping his inheritance — would cost him his true life, the true life he knew he was called to live with God. He could not live that life bound and swathed in the clothing that represented all that was old, the outward and visible sign of his old life, the clothing that had come to feel like a mummy’s wrappings or a shroud. He was ready to lose everything that he might boast of nothing but the cross of Jesus.

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I said I was going to recount just one incident — but there is a sequel to this story of Francis’ divestiture in the town square, from the very end of Francis’ life, another dramatic gesture that not only echoes and bookends the first, but which continues the theme of naked truthfulness — of absolute authenticity and radical poverty. Like the first it was as much an instruction to those who stood by as it was for Francis himself.

As Francis was dying, he asked his brothers to remove his habit and lay him on the ground, so he could die, strictly speaking, without owning anything, as naked as the day he was born — or born again. They did so briefly, but couldn’t bear it for long, seeing their beloved brother sick and shivering on the ground. They pressed him to resume the tunic and cowl he had worn so long. Eventually he agreed he would do so, but on the sole condition that they understand he was only borrowing it. Even at that, he insisted that as Sister Death finally came for him, they strip off even this borrowed clothing, so that he could pass into the life of the world to come unburdened by any earthly property, and completely free. The dramatic gesture continued to the end — as much for them, and for us, as for himself.

For we come into this world with nothing, we leave with nothing. All we have is ourselves — our souls and bodies. We can choose to seek ourselves, to satisfy ourselves, to preserve ourselves — or we can choose to offer ourselves, as reasonable, holy and living offering for the good of others and the good of the world God loved so much that he gave himself up for it — for us. We who bear his name should not be afraid to do as he did. We can strip ourselves of all that encumbers us, all that disguises us even from ourselves, changing ourselves back to our birthday suit — to find the naked truth of our authentic self, the self that we save only by losing it in service to others. This was the path that Francis the deacon chose, following in the way of the cross his Lord had gone before. This is the path we are called to follow, and should we ever be doubtful of the way, the signpost is plain for all of us to see.

It is the cross, and Christ upon it.+