Thursday, June 15, 2017

Benediction as Reverence for the Oppressed: A Meditation

The following essay is based upon a meditation I gave at the Eastertide Retreat of the Great Lakes Chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. As it finds its basis in the meditation, the goal is not a theologically argued essay but, rather, truly a meditation on Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and Reverence. 

My very first experience of Evensong and Benediction was at a Society of Catholic Priests conference held at Christ Church, New Haven. It was the first conference of the Society in North America, actually, the one that founded our province.

I remember that I was sitting towards the back of the church. I was so very new to all of this. I came into the Episcopal Church through the catholic stream of Anglicanism, but I came in as a former evangelical. I was drawn to the catholic stream, very fascinated by it all, but I didn't really know much of anything. And I was particularly curious about this benediction thing. 

If you've ever been at a worship at Christ Church New Haven, they know what they're doing. They do liturgy very well. It is the sort of liturgy that seems effortless to the worshipper, all the ministers simply going about their business, leading the congregation in worship. I remember sitting toward the back and watching the chancel slowly fill with smoke as the service progressed. 

It was like watching ballet. 

When people know where they're supposed to go and what they're supposed to do, it creates this exquisite sense of unity in the diverse movements. And it was like that. The thurifer went here and the deacon there. It wasn't fussy. It wasn't overdone or overwrought. It was just people doing what they should do and doing it with reverence. 

Then, they placed the sacrament in the monstrance and placed the monstrance upon the altar. All knelt for the time of adoration...  And it very much got me to my core. I found it very emotional and watched the incense swirl around the monstrance through the tears that poured for my eyes.

I would say that this first experience of Adoration and Benediction was one of the few times in my life that I had a very palpable sense of the presence of Christ. Not just that Christ was present in the sacrament, but that Christ was himself here in an even more palpable way, right there, through those clouds of smoke. Christ was not reaching toward me or pulling me in or anything like that, but just there. And I happened to be there, too. It seemed like a remarkable chance encounter, but one in which the person there at the other side of the room knows you intimately and deeply... loves you intimately and deeply.

They proceeded with the liturgy, did the Benediction, and then it was done. I recovered from it all. 

However, it impacted me deeply. 

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Later in my ministry, when I took a position at St. Paul's, K Street in Washington D.C. as an honorary priest associate, I got to officiate at evensong and benediction. Every time I did it brought me back to that first experience. So I treated those times of officiating with tremendous gratitude. But it wasn't ever quite the same.

There is this danger of priestly ministry that we all know. Once you learn the mechanics of the thing, it loses some of its magic. The magic can come back, but when you're learning the mechanics, you've got to focus on the mechanics. 

So I learned the mechanics -- it helps at St. Paul's, K Street because they have very well trained MCs. And the MCs are in charge of running the liturgy. Any priest could walk into that church with not a lick of sense and (as long as she or he will listen), that priest could officiate an evensong and benediction. As long as you can listen and as long as you can sing what is printed on the page, you'd be fine because the MC is directs you. "Okay, now you go here. Now we'll go to this spot. Then we'll bow. Then we'll go up. And then we'll go here." And so it was almost... effortless.

I got to see how the ballet happens and be guided gently through it. I remember the first time I officiated at Evensong and Benediction there, the first Adoration. I remember my forehead on the cold stone floor of the church, which was a powerful thing. 

One of the sadnesses I have about my ordinations is that in neither of them was I allowed to prostrate myself before ordination. Because I was ordained in rather broader, low-church contexts, I never got to do that full prostration, that full offering of myself. And so I felt like, as I put my head onto the ground, kneeling before the sacrament, that I was able to offer myself to Christ in a way I hadn't really been able to with my body. 

St. Paul's K Street also had a rather odd custom with this particular liturgy. The way that they do Evensong and Benediction there is that during one of the times of silent adoration, the priest speaks to Jesus with the people overhearing. There's silence and the priest says, "Lord Jesus Christ", then you talk to Christ, and then you end, "Amen" and everyone knows that's the end of it. You can't have any notes or anything. You just have to do it. It was helpful for me early in on my experience with Benediction because I'm not a natural contemplative. I'm very Kataphatic in my spirituality. I don't empty myself very well. I very much like talking and thinking and figuring things out. So it helped me work my through the silence to articulate things. And so I got very used to doing it that way and I really enjoyed it. 

But then, when I came to my current cure and I instituted Evensong and Benediction on Corpus Christi, I chose not to do the time of spoken meditation. Admittedly, that time was helpful for me getting into it. However, the more I thought about those two different experiences, the experience at Christ Church and the experience at St. Paul's, I decided the silence—though more uncomfortable—was actually a little better. It was likely because I had had such a powerful experience at Christ Church and I felt like hearing the priest all of the sudden bellow a meditation from the altar would interrupt that. 

I think that we do this as clergy. When people talk about clericalism in our churches, they talk as though it's about whether you wear clericals, whether you wear a collar or just regular clothes. "Do you do say father or mother or do you just call me by my first name?" People talk as though these are what make clericalism up. And it's not. 

Clericalism, I believe, is anytime our priestly ministry that inserts itself between the people and God as opposed to ministry which connects people to God. For me, what's very clerical is when at the altar, the priest is looking at me and grabbing my hand or saying my name. There are times that I want that and I will look at the celebrant or whoever is distributing communion and I'll want that connection. But I don't always. I shouldn't insert myself. 

I train the Eucharistic Ministers that way. They're sometimes ask me, "Shouldn't we say people's names? I was at a church and they did that." I will encourage them, "Well, no, because it's not about you. It's about that person and God. You just happen to be the person in the conduit place at that moment." Of course, some of the Eucharistic Ministers at my church still persist in the practice and I don't chide them for that. I simply have let them know the position but they try to honor their exercise of this ministry. 

But still, when people come to worship, they should be able to lose themselves in the reverent participation in Holy Communion. If you call them by name, unbidden and uninvited, you jerk them back from that possibility of communion. To be honest, I often feel like several modern traditions or practices can actually be a little disruptive to the worship experience. It is almost as though we are trying too hard. Clergy are often trying so hard to manufacture a spiritual experience as opposed to being willing to submit themselves to the ordo and to allow the Holy Spirit to work. 

So, if we return to the metaphor where we started, we will see this. Consider a ballet. This is a beautiful example of people doing their job well, but in such a way you can't tell that they're doing a job. They simply seem to be part of something greater. That they are taken over by the music, by the moment, by the story, in a way that the whole thing together creates an experience. To me that's what good liturgy does. It's that same work of creating that place, creating that experience. 

And this is why, when I began Benediction at St. Johns, I decided not to bellow from the altar, but instead to let people have the experience they were going to have with God, to work on creating that space.

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A few years into my ministry, I had an opportunity where I was called upon by someone who organizes our diocesan youth camp worship experiences, Judy Fleener. She asked me if I would come and celebrate Eucharist at youth camp. But she also asked if, at the time of the fraction, I would do an extended time of adoration and benediction. She hoped that I would also teach the children in advance what that exactly all that was. 

I naturally accepted the invitation with great enthusiasm. I came and talked with the kids about what it means to reverence something, what it means to reverence the sacrament and where that comes from. I talked about how it should shape us as people.

However, as sometimes happens, I wound up in the course of teaching them stumbling upon a rather important connection I had not made explicitly before. It sort of just came out of my mouth. I talked about how we reverence Christ present in the sacrament to teach us in advance how we should treat one another. That we reverence Christ in the sacrament so that when I encounter someone else, I know what it means to reverence Christ present in them. This means that if you can't show reverence for Christ when he's present in the very pure form of the blessed sacrament, you're probably not going to be very good at reverencing the present of Christ in other people. 

I taught the kids about this and then I celebrated Eucharist. At the fraction, during the silence, I placed the bread into the monstrance. I knelt with the children in front of the monstrance and we had some quiet time. After several minutes, I picked the monstrance up and I did the blessing over the children. Then, I proceeded with the liturgy and gave them communion. 

What stuck with me since then was that importance of the way we train ourselves to show reverence. After all, this is not something that comes naturally to many of us. We understand small bits of reverence, we know what it means to show love and care and respect for people and things that are important to us. Reverence, however, is so much more than that. And when we start practicing the discipline of reverence it should spill out into all areas of our life in ways that are very powerful and profound. 

It all comes around to the great quote from Bishop Frank Weston, "You have your tabernacles, you have your mass, you have your sacrament. Now go out and find Christ present in the poor and suffering and wash his feet." To me, this is what Anglo-Catholicism is all about at it's heart.

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There are two places where I think reverence is particularly essential to the Christian life.  

One is how the reverence we show for the sacrament trains us for the way that we engage with those who are oppressed. In the daily office reading for tonight, and I was preparing for the liturgies for today, and realized that we were getting the great "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me" reading that the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Shori liked so much, a piece of Scripture I like as well. When God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, he became incarnate first and foremost as someone who was in and among the oppressed, someone who was a voice of hope for them. 

In Anglo-Catholicism, in our life as priests in the church, one of the great dangers is when there's a disconnect between the reverence we have in worship and the reverence we have for the oppressed of the world. And I do mean a disconnect. I don't mean to say we have to focus on one or the other. Of course, the obvious disconnect is the Anglo-Catholic fussy worship, a worship wherein the community pays no attention to the concerns of the world. 

But a far more pressing and common disconnect I believe is the one we tend to see in the Episcopal Church in our own time. There will be an immense concern for the world, but in some places there seems to be no potent sense of reverence for the presence of Christ in worship and the sacrament. The reverence in worship is not driving us out in works of justice and mercy. We get the order entirely wrong.

And this truly is essential. Because when we move out in justice before beginning from a place of reverence for the sacrament, then we tend to move out much more paternalistically, as though we are going to come and give people the answer and fix the problems, as though we know exactly what they need. But when we begin from a place of reverence and then move out with that understanding that in the oppressed, that in the poor we find the presence of Christ, then we engage with people and issues very differently. 

Reverence is the willingness to be quiet, not to think that you're here to give the answer. In the same way that in benediction I decided not to bellow from the altar, but instead to be present and to receive that we have. It is first being willing to sit, be present, and receive before we begin to offer anything at all. We must not just do that because we want to be politically correct, but we instead because we believe that these people are able to incarnate Jesus to us in a very particular way that we cannot find anywhere else. When we do this, I think it becomes very powerful.

The second place I find the discipline of reverence as taught in Benediction helpful is in the area of those fellow Christians who drive me a bit... batty. It could be the Christian who aggravates you on Facebook, or the person in the parish who has hurt you, or the colleague or boss who has done something you truly and deeply disagree with. When I consider these people, I'm reminded of Saint Paul, how he talked about the weaker parts of the body or the more shameful parts of the body, depending on how you translate the Greek, how those are the ones to whom we should show the most honor.

So, I'm challenged that if I'm going to reverence Christ in the sacrament, I'm called to show a particular honor to those people who anger and frustrate and annoy me. That doesn't mean let them abuse me and that doesn't mean that I won't disagree with them when I believe they're wrong. It doesn't mean any of that. But it does mean that before I jump too quickly into anger or frustration or exhaustion or fatigue, that I pause. I remember, "Alleluia. Christ our passover is sacrificed for us." I remember that I am seeing that brokenness in a very particular way in this troublesome person. 

With both of these sorts of people, both with the oppressed and the offensive, you have to be willing to listen. You have to be willing to receive at least something first, before you start talking and engaging. You have to cling with faith to the idea that Christ is in that other person, no matter how much you might struggle to see it, and that Christ is trying to teach you something. 

With both of these sorts of people, by practicing a proper eucharistic spirituality, I think I am helped in the journey of seeking to be more authentic in my life. 

This is why I think benediction is an important discipline in the church and one that I hope will be recovered in our time. When benediction and adoration were seen as a substitute for reception of communion, that was clearly a problem. But in our day and age it is entirely different. In our day and age, people receive communion with great regularity—and often without any preparation at all. In a time when there is persistent conversation about how everyone should take communion, including the unbaptized, when all of this exists in the ethos of our church right now, it's time to try to cultivate reverence. It is important for us to be priests and people who know how to practice reverence for the sacrament. 

So the small things become very important. Small things, like the rubrical period of silence after the fraction anthem, one of the most often-ignored rubrics in the prayerbook, become tremendously important. In this day and age, we don't know how to shut up and be present with God, to be present with Christ. When Benediction was first explained to me at St. Paul's K Street so long ago, the priest said that it is a drawing out of that moment after the fraction. Eventually the sacrament will be consumed and go on because Christ does come into us. But before Christ comes into us, we've got to be willing to be present a little bit with the divine exteriorly to us. 

After all, what good is it to receive Christ in the sacrament if you don't know how to love Christ when you encounter him in worship, when you encounter him in the world?

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Terror after Pentecost, look to the martyrs of the church

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

This past Sunday, those Christian communities in our area who follow the church year observed the Feast of Pentecost. At liturgical churches, that likely meant red vestments (for the fire of the Holy Spirit) along with extra-special offerings like special music, chanting or incense.

At many churches, there was likely an offering in more than one language, commemorating that the gift of the Holy Spirit was the ability of the apostles to speak in the many languages of those gathered.

At my own faith community, St. John’s Episcopal, our 10 a.m. service was bilingual, drawing both liturgy and prayers both in the language of our English-speaking members and our growing Spanish-speaking members.

Yet, I know the minds of many Christians gathered to celebrate Pentecost was the increased news of terror over this past week. Indeed, this has likely been high on the minds of all in our community, regardless of their faith background or the worship practices of their community.

The terror attack in London was shocking to us all. Seven people have died and nearly 50 were injured when three men drove a van into people walking on the London bridge. After the horror of that attack, they then exited the van and starting stabbing people in the nearby Borough Market. The Amaq Agency claimed it was a detachment of fighters for the so-called Islamic State, but a direct link between the attack and Daesh (often known as ISIS) has not yet been identified.

This was not the first time in recent days our allies across the Atlantic have suffered at the hand of radical extremists. It’s not even the last time in the past three months.

On May 22, 22 adults and children were killed by a suicide bomber while nearly 60 more were injured. In March, five people were killed and at least 40 injured when a terrorist ran down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge and then also went on a stabbing spree. Prime Minister Theresa May has reported that five further “credible” terror plots have been disrupted since that first Westminster bridge attack.

Worldwide anxiety continues to increase as North Korea seems determined to secure nuclear weapons, and no one is sure what decisions the Trump administration will make in the face of the intransience of that regime. And now three Gulf countries (including Saudi Arabia) and Egypt have cut ties with Qatar over terrorism — a startling decision since Qatar also hosts the largest United States military base in the Middle East.

In some ways, the celebration of Pentecost and the resulting call to Christians to spread Christ’s message of love and mercy to all nations seems to sound a little hollow given the circumstances in which we find ourselves as a country and as an international community. What does it mean to celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church when we seem to be unable to stem the tide of terror, violence and prejudice all around us?

One of my favorite evangelical theologians, John Mark Hicks, has been posting quotes from the ancient fathers of the church over these past few weeks. One of his quotes in particular struck me, one from Origen, the great theologian of Alexandria. Origen’s father was a martyr and Origen himself died from wounds suffered by torture under the Decian persecution. In a time in which Christians regularly faced the possibility of death, Origen wrote, “In Christ and with Christ the martyrs disarm the principalities and powers and share in his triumph over them, for their share in Christ’s sufferings makes them sharers also in the mighty deeds those sufferings accomplished. What could more appropriately be called the day of salvation than the day of such a glorious departure from this world?”

We may be tempted, in the face of the terror of these days, to turn to a greater reliance on violence. We may be tempted to increased militarism, to turn against one another, to wall ourselves off from refugees and others who seek safety. Our president has taken this as an opportunity to attack the tone of the mayor of London (who is himself a Muslim). Many of my liberal friends have been distracted by Trump once more, seeing this as another opportunity to point out his failures in leadership.

All of these temptations, all of these choices, will do nothing to increase the cause of peace, justice and security in our world.

Instead, I would suggest that those of the Christian tradition might look to the martyrs of the church. In times of great violence and fear, they chose to love their enemies, to forgive those who persecuted them. They did this following the example of our Lord, who prayed that God would forgive those who crucified him.

Sharing in the sufferings of Christ means we do not allow the hate of others to turn us to our own hatred — whether that is hatred of terrorists held captive by a distorted understanding of Islam or whether that is hatred of whichever political party stands opposite of your own.

Instead of alarmist cries of fear, let the Christians who are heirs of that first Pentecost not be bowed by the terrorists. Instead, with a desire to work for the healing of this broken world, let us commit ourselves anew to dialogue with those we disagree and to the hard work of working together as an international community to protect those who are most vulnerable in the face of violence and fear.

By the Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist. He serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The deeper reason for reverence in worship

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

This week I spent some time away on an Eastertide retreat with other clergy. The focus of the retreat was Eucharistic Spirituality; that is, how the sacrament of Holy Communion shapes the spiritual lives of Christians.

No matter your views on sacraments, whether protestant or catholic, Holy Communion is one of the unifying aspects of Christianity. We may each celebrate it differently. Some of us may believe that it is a memorial to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross while others may believe that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the elements. For some Christians, it can be a daily practice at their local parish, and for others it can be something only done a few times a year.

Yes, there is a variety of approaches and practices, but communion — no matter the form, shape or belief — is an essential unifying key across Christianity. In Anglicanism, my own Christian tradition, there had been massive bloodshed during the Reformation between protestant and catholic views. It was Queen Elizabeth I who said that she didn’t believe we should try to make windows into people’s souls, figuring out what they believed about the sacrament. Instead, in Anglicanism, we find ourselves united in the practice of Communion, knowing that individual beliefs may vary.

No matter your own beliefs about communion, there is very likely a degree of reverence attached to this holy tradition. I was raised in a very strict protestant tradition. However, when the crackers and grape juice were passed down the pews, I had a sense, even as a child, that something special and holy was going on. Later, when I began attending the Episcopal Church, going up to an altar rail to receive the bread and wine heightened that sense of holiness and reverence.

Some in Anglicanism who affirm the catholic traditions of our church even practice Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction, spending time in quiet silence before the sacrament, reflecting upon a God who comes near to us in bread and wine. For those Christians, the blessing of Benediction, as the priest makes the sign of the cross with the Eucharistic host, is a blessing from Christ himself, present in the sacrament.

There are indeed a variety of practices around communion. It might be tempting to want to start talking about where we disagree, how one group doesn’t do it right, or how you disagree with another person’s experience and beliefs regarding the presence of Christ. It might be tempting to do that, but I think Queen Elizabeth I was wise in encouraging us not to make windows into people’s souls.

Instead, I would encourage us to note our common reverence for this holy tradition. We may express that reverence differently, with different theologies and worship practices. However, at the heart of it all is the truth that Christians, though divided by tradition and belief, can all believe that God is active in this tradition. We find the presence of the divine in simple bread and wine, whether in our memory or in the elements themselves.

But there is a reason for that. This was the topic of my own meditation to my fellow priests at our retreat: the goal of reverence in communion. In this, I find myself moved by the words of Frank Weston, bishop of Zanzibar, who said in 1923: “And it is folly — it is madness — to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.”

Bishop Weston sought to remind those gathered that our reverence for Christ in the sacrament must extend to Christ as he is present in our sister and brother Christians, and as he is present particularly in the poor and oppressed. I would suggest that this point rings true for Christians of all traditions. Our reverence for what Holy Communion means — no matter how our individual traditions might express it — is intended not only to bring us closer to Christ, but to propel us to see where Christ is present in the world around us. Reverence in worship should be training for reverence for the presence of God in others out in the world.

To have a deep reverence for God in worship and then to be cruel, or to hold onto anger, toward another Christian is a failure in reverence. For the Christ who is present in our worship is also present in the Body of Christ — particularly those parts of the body which might frustrate us the most. Our Christian reverence should encourage us, therefore, to give special care to those parts of Christ’s body we might find, um, troublesome. St. Paul exhorts us to this in the 12th chapter of Corinthians, where he reminds us that those members of the body we might find less honorable are the ones we are called to treat with special honor and care.

Further, to have a deep reverence for God in worship and then to participate in oppression of the poor and marginalized, to ignore the orphan, immigrant and widow, this is also a failure in reverence. After all, our Lord himself said in Matthew 25 that he is most present to us in the immigrant in need of welcome, the poor in need of clothing, the sick in need of care, and the prisoner in need of a visit that reminds him he is worthwhile as a child of God.

It is good that Christians have deep reverence for God in worship. We should encourage and cultivate this in our churches. But we must not stop there.

As Bishop Weston concluded his address nearly 100 years ago, “Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.”

By the Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist. He serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Standing with American Indians to protect our world from destruction

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

When I was a child, like many of my generation, I loved playing “Cowboys and Indians.” I grew up watching old John Wayne movies with my grandfather and reading western novels he passed on to me.

As I grew older, however, I learned that on my father’s side of the family, a love of American Indian culture had a deeper meaning. My grandmother’s grandmother was full-blooded Chippewa. She died long before I was born, but my father met her when he was about 5. At my generation, that means I am only 1/16th Chippewa, but it is the strongest single ethnicity present in my genealogy.

As I continued to mature in my appreciation for the small amount of American Indian in my heritage, I became more aware of the sad history of oppression and violence against the first people to live here in the Americas. Games like “Cowboys and Indians” lost their appeal, and I began to read western novels through a different lens. I developed a love for bow-hunting as a way of connecting with my ancestors and getting closer to my own food sources.

My great-great-grandmother lived on the Indian reservation in Mount Pleasant as a part of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan. Though the initial reservation for this tribe (the Isabella Indian Reservation) had 130,000 acres of land, this land was slowly swindled away as eager lumber merchants bought land at a fraction of the actual value. This was the only way those living in the reservation could feed their families and, after only 70 years, only a handful of the original tribal member allotments remained.

The reservation my great-great-grandmother lived on was a mere 500 acres. This was all that remained.

I would imagine you share my sadness at this story, knowing it is only a fraction of the great injustices done to American Indians over the nearly 400 years since Europeans first made contact with the first people living here. However, we would all be mistaken if we thought this was the end and injustice and oppression of American Indians is now only a tragic footnote in American history.

In North Dakota, more than a thousand American Indian activists have halted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipe Line (DAPL). The activists are protesting this pipeline because not only is it a clear example of environmental racism, it also would result in the degradation of sacred sites and burial grounds. The original construction plans ran north of Bismarck but were moved because of potential dangers to the drinking water there — no similar consideration was given to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. This is clear environmental racism.

The government has closed the main highway used by the Standing Rock nation, as well, creating a further economic sanction.

I am proud that my church is standing side-by-side with the protestors. The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota joined a statement of protest on Aug. 19 from the North Dakota Council of Indian Ministries of the diocese. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has joined his own voice supporting the protest, saying in an Aug. 25 statement, “The people of Standing Rock Sioux Reservation are calling us now to stand with Native peoples, not only for their sakes, but for the sake of God’s creation, for the sake of the entire human family, and for the children and generations of children yet unborn.”

An Episcopal Church deacon on the Standing Rock reservation said, “It’s not just a native thing. It’s not just an Indian issue. It’s a human issue.”

In our own State of Michigan, on Aug. 21, a group of American Indians in Marquette offered their own protest in solidarity with the North Dakota protestors. That group shares deep concern for danger to water in North Dakota. A saying in Sioux calls all of us to the truth that “mni wiconi,” or “water is life.” Those of us in Michigan, particularly in the Tri-Cities, blessed with an abundance of water, know this truth.

A similar environmental danger lurks close to home in the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline under the Mackinac Bridge. This 50-year old pipeline continues to pose a great risk to the Straits of Mackinac. Eight Michigan counties or municipalities have called for the retirement of this line. Though Enbridge claims it is safe, the company has had numerous other spills in Michigan, the latest in 2010 spilled more than 1 million gallons into Talmadge Creek, going from there into the Kalamazoo River.

The American Indian activists in Marquette will be protesting the continued use of the Line 5 pipeline in Mackinaw later in September.

It is not enough for us to regret the history of European immigrants hundreds of years ago. It is not enough to regret the history of oppression from the United States government or the economic and environmental racism and injustices in the generations since we first signed treaties with American Indian tribes. These tribes call us back to the importance of earth as a sacred creation. They call us back to our duty to care for it wisely.

We must stand with the American Indian activists in North Dakota, seeking to protect their water with the same care that those in authority are apparently happy to provide for the capital of North Dakota. We must stand with them as their sacred sites come under threat of destruction, despite treaties that date from the 19th century. And we must be inspired the activists in North Dakota and be vigilant to protect our own waters close to home.

The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and as dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Peace of Islam

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 
As we now enter the height of summer in the Tri-Cities, with guests descending upon the city to celebrate the U.S. Coast Guard, I’m having trouble focusing on the celebration at hand.

I’ve been shocked by the debate of the past several days. At the Democratic National Convention, Khizr Khan spoke powerfully of the great heritage of those who have served this country in the armed forces. Khan’s son, US Army Captain Humayun Khan, was killed while serving in Iraq, protecting his own unit through his brave and solitary confrontation of a suspicious vehicle. Khizr Khan criticized Republican nominee Donald Trump’s proposals for a ban of all Muslim immigrants, asking, “Have you ever been to Arlington cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities.”

Trump responded by attacking Khan, suggesting that his wife, Ghazala, who stood bravely at her husband’s side, was kept silent by her faith. Ghazala repudiated that suggestion, saying she can barely speak about her deceased son without breaking down. Many Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator John McCain, have distanced themselves from Trump, even rebuking the nominee for his attacks on Khan and his family. Several of those leaders have made clear that they do not share Trump’s views on Islam, the military, or Muslim immigrants.

While the presidential candidate of a major political party maligns the second-largest religion in the world, one that has 3,500 member serving faithfully in our armed forces (including, one would expect, the United States Coast Guard), a different story has been playing out on the other side of the Atlantic.

On July 26, two men who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State slit the throat of Father Jacques Hamel while he celebrated mass at his parish in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, France. Father Hamel was active in interfaith relations, serving on an interfaith committee with local imam Mohammed Karabila for the past year or so. His death was an act of hatred and violence made the more heartbreaking by its setting in a religious worship service.

Yet, one must be clear, the two men who murdered Father Hamel do not represent Islam. The supposed state they claim to support is not an Islamic state, no matter its name. Late last year almost 70,000 Muslim clerics came together to issue a fatwa against global terrorist organizations, including a particular denunciation of the so-called Islamic State. The clerics made it clear that these terror groups are not Islamic organizations.

And as the Republican nominee for president refuses to back down from his attacks on the Khan family or from his radical (and unconstitutional) views on Islam, there is a different response to the martyrdom of Father Hamel. All over France and in many parts of Europe this past weekend, Muslims chose to attend mass as a statement of solidarity. Outside of one church, a group of Muslims unfurled a banner, “Love for all. Hate for none.”

The root of the word “Islam” is the triconsonantal root “shin lamedh mem,” a root used not just in Arabic but in Hebrew as well. In Hebrew we are most familiar with this root’s use in the word shalom. This is a word that is generally translated as peace but means, more accurately, wholeness. In Arabic, that word is salaam, also translated often as “peace.” Islam is usually translated as submission, but it also means much more than that when you consider the triconsonantal root of the word. Islam is about seeing Allah as the source of all wholeness and peace (remembering that Allah is just the Arabic word for God and is, thus, the word Arabic speaking Christians also use.). Islam is about entrusting your peace and wholeness entirely to God.

Now, I naturally do not agree with the tenets of Islam. I am a devoted Christian, under sacred vows as a priest in Christ’s church. Believing that Jesus Christ was more than a prophet, that he was fully God, I seek to live my life as a daily sacrament of Christ’s love for this world. I do this imperfectly, grateful for God’s mercy and the mercy of those who walk this path with me.

But I can be a devoted Christian, being clear about where I disagree with Islam, and still affirm the points of wisdom I see in Islamic teaching. Indeed, I can be inspired by the Islamic understanding of submission to God and seek to submit more fully to Christ in my own life. Most importantly, as a Christian, I can affirm that Islam is not what Donald Trump makes it out to be any more than Islam is what ISIS makes it out to be. Neither of them have it right.

Peace is found in submission to God. Wholeness is achieved when all those who worship God seek the peace and wholeness of their neighbors. True Islam was on full display in the brave actions of Captain Khan when he laid his life on the line for peace. True Islam was on full display in the front pew of those churches across France this past week. Those of us who claim to follow the teachings of Christ should repudiate attacks on Islam. We should be inspired by Islam to submit ourselves further to God’s love as revealed in Christ and to seek the wholeness and peace of all people—regardless of their religion.

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

We need a broad coalition for responsible gun reform

Today's column in the Grand Haven Tribune, reprinted below. 

Ever since the tragedy in Orlando, my Facebook news feed has been filled with cries for action. Yet another mass shooting, the epidemic of gun violence seems to be an insurmountable tide threatening to engulf us.

And so, my friends on the left proclaim the need for rigorous gun control laws, while my friends on the right insist that this would not stem the tide of violence. Neither seems to listen much to the other — confident that their views on this question is the correct answer.

But we must break this logjam of political opinions, because the current state of the debate on gun control is doing just as much as anything else to leave open the possibility for greater danger and more loss of life.

I was raised in a family with guns. My father was a member of the National Rifle Association. My stepfather was a licensed gun dealer with a locked room in our home for the many and various firearms he owned. Both of them taught me from an early age to respect guns.

One of the first friends I made when I moved back to West Michigan is a gun enthusiast, his wife certified to teach concealed-carry classes. He helped me get back involved in hunting, as I learned to hunt rabbit, goose, duck, pheasant and deer. The past couple of years, I have not spent nearly as much time in the woods as I would like, the demands of life crowding out the time needed to hunt well, but I still cherish any time I am able to spend hunting.

A big reason I love hunting is that, done well, hunting teaches you the true value of life — a central concept for Christianity. For too many people in our society, food is an industrialized reality, and chicken and beef is something that simply appears pre-packaged in Meijer. Hunting reminds you the cost behind the meat you consume. Indeed, one of the reasons I started hunting was I felt that if I was going to continue to eat meat, I needed to be closer to where at least some of my meat actually came from.

So, in addition to my compound bow, I also own a shotgun and a rifle. I use all for hunting. Further, I have enjoyed the sport involved in the time I’ve shot handguns and other rifles with friends and family.

Yet, that does not mean I oppose gun control laws. I do oppose foolish political grandstanding that advocates for laws popular on the left but that will be unlikely to have an effect on gun violence.

Like the majority of Americans, I support sensible gun reform. Guns are a lethal product and so, like any lethal product, they should be regulated and licensed through a common-sense system.

For example, even though our Legislature has failed to act, an overwhelming majority of Americans (85 percent) support expanded background checks for firearms sold in private gun sales and at gun shows. With power of today’s internet-connected world, this system should not be cumbersome or difficult. That system should include people who are reported as a possible danger, either through terrorist watch lists or extreme mental illness. A clearinghouse needs to be created so that this information is centrally located, with a flag delaying the sale of the gun (without stating the reason) and enabling the person denied the sale to contact a central location for the reason their purchase was flagged and delayed and a process to appeal that flag.

While I do not believe a full ban on assault-style weapons would have the effect many seem to think, I do think that guns should be rated in terms of their lethality and that advanced license should be required to purchase the most lethal firearms. Those advanced licenses should involve deeper background checks along with required training. We require advanced training and licensing to drive a semi-truck because of the greater danger posed; we should do the same with any weapons that have a higher lethality.

And while I am comfortable with the idea that all guns should be registered and tracked in a federal database, I know that would be unlikely to gain support needed to occur. At the least, any firearm with advanced lethal capability should be registered and tracked.

The National Rifle Association should be encouraged by its members to return to its original ideals of promoting firearm competency and safety. It has only been involved in direct lobbying for and against legislation since 1975. Anyone who wants to own a gun should be required to go through a class teaching proper firearm use and safety, with the above-noted different classes for different levels of certification. The NRA could be a partner in this process if it would stop its reflexive opposition to any limit on firearms and once more become an advocate for safe and responsible gun ownership.

These ideas are not cumbersome. They do not violate the Constitution. Most are supported by wide margins of the American people. The only thing stopping them is big lobbying money — along with our continued fighting with each other.

Because the longer the left and right fight over the government taking away your guns versus the unlimited right of the individual to own as many and as lethal firearms as desired, more people will continue to die. And the lobbyists on both sides will just keep cashing their paychecks.

— By The Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist who serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.