Monday, August 14, 2017

On Charlottesville: The Need for Renewed Repentance and Clear Action

I remember the first time I realized I was complicit in racism.

I was an undergraduate student at Rochester College, doing a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies, and one of my professors had assigned Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Specifically, this section cut me to the quick,
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Though this letter was written decades before I was born, I recognized the impulses of the "white moderate" in my own life and thinking, not just when it comes to questions of race. I recognized how those impulses had led me to mitigate support for the full role of women in the ministry of the church in which I was raised. I recognized how easy it was for me, as a straight white male, to take a "moderate" position on the question of freedom for another human being... and how sin-saturated that position truly was.

I repented then and I have sought to renew that repentance regularly.

The events in Charlottesville, VA, this past weekend have been remarkably unsettling to see. The idea that so many people could gather in support of something like white supremacy, something so many of us thought had been finally pushed far to the edges of our society... this idea is shocking to me.

The fact that this idea is shocking to me, though, simply highlights how my own white privilege functions. It is shocking to me because I am largely insulated from the experiences of people of color in our country. It is shocking to me because I do not experience what they experience.

It is shocking to me because the fracturing of community, the societal resistance to movements like Black Lives Matter, all of this is something in which I am complicit... unless I choose specifically to do something different.

I think that perhaps I am experiencing Charlottesville differently because of my own parish's work in Latino ministry. Working with the Latino people here in Northwest Ottawa county has opened my eyes to the experiences with which they have to contend on a regular basis.

A little over a week ago, someone who is unaffiliated at our church—but was here for another event—angrily told one of our Latino members to "go back to where you came from." A couple other people who were at the other event complained that our Latino members should really speak English if they want to be here. These people are not members of our church, they were not even visitors to our church's worship. They were people in the community here because of another ministry we host... but they said these words in our church building.

That happened here. This happened only steps from the comfortable office in which I sit and write.

And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the membership of our church absolutely repudiates these statements. I have spoken with the person above and made it clear that some things are going to have to happen for him to make this situation right before he is welcome in our church again. I know all of this...

But my heart aches for the pain that this caused members of my church, including a devoted volunteer in our church's ministry who found herself singed by the crossfire and cultural conflict.

And my conscience is singed because I know that we, all of us who live in the Tri-Cities, have allowed segregation to continue unchecked in Ottawa county for decades. We have acknowledged it but we have done little to stop it. It is a fundamental reason for our Latino ministry—we didn't start this ministry because of the masses of Latinos, but because there was nothing—NOTHING—year round as a worshipping opportunity for those who speak Spanish. Our Latino ministry has, at its core, the hope that creating a small worshipping community in Spanish will hep break down walls of segregation and division.

So we're doing that now, at least in our church, but we have done so little before now. And still, all of us who live in the Tri-Cities, have continued to enable our own local segregation to continue. When people have said they don't want to go to Muskegon because it is dangerous or they don't like how Holland has "changed"... when these things are said and we don't say anything in response, we don't push back against the assumptions in this language, we have become silently complicit.

When the current Secretary of Education champions so-called "school choice," a policy that in her own hometown has massively increased segregation in the local schools, and we do not vigorously fight a policy that segregates white kids away from minority kids, then we have become complicit in this problem.

So my heart aches because I know that the sins we all denounce in Charlottesville are also creeping around the edges of our own congregations, our own souls. We all need to do self-examination and penance.

And my heart aches at the pain so many are experiencing as they watch what happened in Charlottesville. Make no mistake, this is not a one-off or odd event. What happened in Charlottesville is the result of a cultural movement that has been growing for a while. When a black person is 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person, and then society tells black people they should not be protesting this reality, or they should not be protesting the way they are protesting, when society says that "Black Lives Matter" is part of the problem... this has only increased the power of the movements for division, hate, and the refusal to stand up and acknowledge the very real problem or racism—both intended and unintended—in our society.

I am reminded of another section from Dr. King's letter, when he responds to charges that his work is precipitating violence,
In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn't this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn't this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God's will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.
There is work to be done, children of God. Our society is in a place of deep unfaithfulness. We are no longer protecting the robbed and punishing the robber. Those who are danger from the implications of racist, misogynistic, and homophobic language are trying to stand up and sound the alarm. The answer cannot be a moderate response, one that seeks compromise.

There is no compromise with racism that does not become complicit in that sin, that does not sit quietly by while scared parents tell their kids exactly how to respond to police so they won't get shot... and when even "the conversation" is not a guarantee of safety.

There is no compromise with misogyny that does not become complicit in that sin, that does not enable men to use violent words and actions toward women, that does not demean the whole other half of the human race—the half of the human race who, through the Blessed Virgin Mary, gave human flesh to the incarnation of God.

There is no compromise with homophobia that does not become complicit in that sin, that does not encourage a society where a couple can go for the joyous experience of buying a cake for their wedding only to be turned away—while so many other couples who actually do have all manner of sin in their relationships are offered cakes readily, simply because they are opposite-sex.

There is no compromise with any sin that dehumanizes a person.

Dr. King was worried about the future of Christianity, given the resistance so many in the church of his own day had toward the Civil Rights movement. He insisted,
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Don't get me wrong, the reason for repentance and protest in Christianity today is not to grow the church. It is not to get young people—any people who no longer trust the institution to do what is needed—in the doors to prove that we're worth their time.

That's not why.

That said, every time the church fails in authentically and faithfully making manifest the Good News of Jesus Christ, that in his riven flesh a divided humanity has been reunited and we have, by virtue of our baptism, been consecrated as agents of that reconciliation... overtime we fail in that we will also fail in our mission of evangelism and incorporation.

We can do better as a church. We must do better as a church.

What will that look like, this better action? Part of it is denouncing racism in the clearest terms, but it is so much more. It is the majority being quiet and listening when the minority is speaking up. It is not wagging your finger at a protest you don't understand, but instead seeking to find the pain within it. It is doing the simple work of reaching out to the marginalized in your own community of faith, making it clear that they are valued and important, raising them up to positions of leadership, where their voices can be heard.

And it is showing up when there is a march or a protest—just like so many clergy and laity did in Charlottesville, singing "This Little Light of Mine" in the face of militias holding semi-automatic weapons.

It is showing up and saying that any diminishment of my sister or brother in Christ is unacceptable, it is an anathema. I will not sit quietly by. I will speak.

This is our task and our time.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Health care solutions are better than winning

My most recent column in the Grand Haven Tribune:

The collapse of Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is due to a variety of factors.

For eight years the Republican Party far too often defined itself by what it was against instead it was for, resulting in a party with deep ideological fissures. Despite Republican opposition to the process that resulted in the Affordable Care Act, current approaches to health care reform seem to have been even more partisan and closed off, with no significant work done in bipartisan committees, no hearings, and an explicit refusal to receive input from the Democratic Party.

And, of course, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was already an approach to health care reform that sought to incorporate conservative values. It contained many ideas proposed by the Republican Party in the early 1990s in a bill that included co-sponsors such as Bob Dole, Charles Grassley and Orrin Hatch. That Republican plan included the creation of purchasing pools with standardized benefits, a ban on denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, vouchers for the poor to purchase insurance and — believe it or not — an individual mandate.

It also differed from the modern ACA (it did not include Medicare reform and did include medical malpractice tort reform), but the point is that it demonstrates that a market-driven approach to health care is, at its core, a conservative approach.

If the ACA had been purely liberal invention, it would have been a move to entirely government-provided health care through taxes and regulation (the approach in almost every other developed country). If it had been a blend of liberal and conservative approaches, it would have included a public option, a government-run plan that would have been sold alongside private plans on the marketplace. But instead, many of the pillars of the ACA come from conservative answers to health care reform.

We are now seeing the results of this reality as the Republican Party has entirely failed to articulate (and, more importantly, legislate) a more authentically conservative approach to health care — particularly an approach that would have any popularity among the American people. The conservative ideas from the 1990s (pools with standardized benefits, ban on pre-existing conditions, etc.) remain the most popular concepts of health care reform. The only exception is the individual mandate — but economics is pretty clear that without an individual mandate, a purely market-driven approach will not produce significant cost savings.

So it should be easy, it really should, for Republicans and Democrats to come together and fix the ACA. The Brookings Institute has identified several actions that could be taken in a bipartisan approach: eliminate or improve the employer mandate, eliminate the excise tax on “Cadillac plans,” and instead change rules regarding health care and taxable income for those above certain thresholds, make it crystal clear that the federal government will stand behind Medicaid expansion, eliminate the unpopular Independent Payment Advisory Board, and expand assistance for low-income Americans struggling to pay for insurance.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party spent the better part of a decade fighting to repeal the ACA and replace it with something better.

The Trump administration is now threatening to hold the American people hostage, refusing to pay insurance companies the assistance required by the current law knowing that this would do tremendous damage to the marketplace. But that damage would not, of course, be borne by the Trump administration. It would be borne by the average American, who would see premiums skyrocket and who would have to pay those premiums until Congress came up with a better health care plan. And given the success of Congress so far, that cost will be likely borne by the American people for quite a while.

This is not governance. This is a battle plan.

And this is the key problem facing us as a country: Far too many people on both the right and the left are far more interested in winning than they are on making our country a better place. Obama’s legacy must be upended at all costs. Trump must be opposed at all costs. This kind of politics is quickly becoming a sort of mutually assured destruction.

If the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress is smart, they will start focusing on a bipartisan reform of health care. Indeed, several Republicans have argued that this is the approach that should be taken. True, they will lose votes on the right wing of their party, those who only know how to fight for repeal and replace. But the votes they could gain from independents and moderate Democrats would mean we could finally see real change that actually helps the average American. If even including the words “repeal” in the title enables Republicans to pass it, but the content is indeed better for the American people, moderate Democrats should still support it. They shouldn’t fear that it will make it look like they have lost.

After all, if bipartisan health care reform is not passed in this current administration, I have a hunch of what will come next. Costs will continue to increase — maybe even at unprecedented rates if the administration truly does undermine the ACA. This will give the Democrats the increased political power they will need to introduce a public-option to the marketplace or, perhaps, begin the move to universal health care.

Personally, I would love to see that happen. I think it would be the right move for our country and would finally begin to reign in costs (as is the case in countries that already follow these approaches). The leadership of the Republican Party would likely fight this with every ounce of their being. But if they do not get to work fixing the ACA, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Celebrating freedom as a Christian in America

My most recent column in the Grand Haven Tribune:

The Fourth of July is an interesting holiday for an Anglican clergyman, like myself, to celebrate.

The Episcopal Church, my faith community, finds its roots in our mother church, the Church of England. During the Revolutionary War, our own church found itself divided on the question of independence. Fifty-seven percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were Anglicans, over twice as many as any other Christian tradition (the next highest were Congregationalists and Presbyterians, with 23 percent and 21 percent, respectively.)

However, the majority of Anglicans in the United States supported the British side in the war, and by the war’s end many clergy and laity had fled to England, abandoning church buildings. The declining numbers caused by the revolution meant that, by 1820, the Congregationalists and Presbyterians surpassed Anglicans in numbers.

The reason many in our church were loyalist likely came from the established nature of the Church of England. In the prayer book used in worship, we prayed regularly for the English monarch. Our clergy, at their ordination, made an oath of allegiance to the monarch. The state and the church were seen as one united entity, each with different purpose, but allegiance to one necessarily required allegiance to the other.

Those Anglicans who remained in the newly formed United States, however, founded a church here that was very different from the one at home. It would not be united to the government. Instead, freedom of religion was a fundamental tenet of the Revolution.

The Episcopal Church was structured to give voice to the laity, with clergy and laity together choosing their bishops instead of them being appointed by the government or ecclesial hierarchy. And when one-time loyalist Samuel Seabury, who argued against Revolution, was sent to England to be consecrated as our first bishop, they would not consecrate him because, despite his loyalist background, he would not swear allegiance to the monarch. Instead, he wound up consecrated in Scotland before coming home.

Now, what does all this have to do with the celebration of Independence Day yesterday?

Quite a lot, I think.

The concept of “Freedom of Religion,” so dear to the founding of our country, has been manipulated and contorted to mean the opposite of its original intent. Under the guise of supposed “Freedom of Religion,” we now have Christian bodies demanding the government only fund organizations that align with their religious principles. We have businesses making religious decisions for their employees when it comes to health care and family planning. We even have Christians refusing to bake cakes for same-sex weddings — as though they have not been buying cakes from gay couples for years!

Freedom of the individual to practice her or his religion freely has been overrun by the idea that individuals and businesses should have the freedom to dictate to others how to practice their religion. And so, for those whose religion permits abortion in certain circumstances, access to that is being denied because of the religious convictions of others.

Women who work in Catholic hospitals are not allowed to have equal access to birth control. No one is making Catholic leaders use birth control; their freedom of religion is intact. But the law has been manipulated to allow an employer to make a decision about what an employee may or may not do with a benefit. And the Christian baker may very soon proudly refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding (depending on what the Supreme Court decides when they hear the baker’s appeal), even though that same baker would likely never dream that faithfulness requires he find out what other possibly sinful behaviors are present in the hundreds of straight weddings for which he bakes cakes.

If you believe abortion is wrong in all circumstances, don’t have an abortion. If you believe contraception is wrong, don’t use contraception. If you believe homosexuality is wrong, don’t have gay sex. If you believe these things, preach about them. Encourage the adherents of your religion to follow those beliefs faithfully. Evangelize and invite others into your faith community. If you come to my parish, you will hear me preach and teach about the sanctity of life and the tragedy of abortion — but you won’t find me telling the government to make others follow my beliefs.

But please, I beg my sisters and brothers in Christ, stop insisting on finding ways for the law and the government to force others to follow your views or to make it harder for others to practice their religion freely. As St. Paul said in Romans, when it came to fierce controversy in the first century over eating meat, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. … Those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

In some ways, it is almost like some Christians in our country today long for the church to be established once more. They want the government to fund their ministries and for those who make laws and sit in our courts to ensure businesses owned by Christians can discriminate against another person’s freedom to practice religion.

That’s not Christianity. And that’s not America.

Trust me, as a clergyman in a church whose mother church remains established by the government: Established religion always results in oppression of the minority.

Absolutely, let’s celebrate the rich freedom we have as Christians to practice our religion freely. Let’s celebrate that this fall I get to officiate at the marriage of my closest friend from my teenage years at Grand Haven High and his partner. Let’s celebrate that those ministers who don’t believe that is OK don’t have to celebrate those marriages. Let’s celebrate our freedoms — and let’s also be on guard that we seek always to support the freedoms of our fellow citizens, as well.

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.


†           †           †

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.


†           †           †

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.