Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Truth About the Green Book

The Travelers' Green Book covers from 1937, 1945, 1956, and 1961 by Victor H. Green & Co.

When the film The Green Book was in town a few weeks ago we almost didn't go see it. There was controversy over the accuracy of how the musician Don Shirley was portrayed and the criticism of yet another white redemption film was surfacing. It turned out to be a well-acted picture with a thought-provoking story, even if it was largely fictitious. It did strike me that there was very little about the actual Green Book, which was a guide for persons of colour who took the risk of travelling the expanding highway system of the United States in the period when segregation was still a dangerous reality.

According to a 99% Invisible article:

Some African-American tourists would drive all night instead of trying to find lodging in an unfamiliar and possibly dangerous town. They would pack picnics so they could avoid stopping at restaurants that might refuse to serve them. Some people would even carry portable toilets in the trunks of their cars, knowing there was a good chance they would be turned away from roadside restrooms. But in 1936, a man named Victor Hugo Green started a travel guide to make life on the road easier and safer for black motorists.
green book index

Index and credits for the Green Book, 1961 edition

The guide listed, state by state, the restaurants, hotels, service stations, and other businesses that would welcome African-American travelers. Green called it The Negro Motorist Green Book, or “The Green Book,” for short.

It turns out that Yoruba Richen, an award-winning filmmaker has a new documentary, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, that tells the true story about black people and the Green Book. The press release about the doc offers:

The film tells the story of the rise the African American middle class in Detroit, journeys to the oasis of Idlewild (a vacation community in western Michigan where blacks were able to retreat to their “Black Eden” in peace) and the iconic A. G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama—a pivotal location in the civil rights movement. The story of The Green Book embodies a quintessential American contradiction—while its creation speaks to the horrors of racial injustices in our past, its success shows the resolve of African Americans to thrive in a world that seemed to root for their failure by means of discrimination, violence and ignominy.

Image result for the green book guide to freedom

Take a look at the trailer:

I figure that we need to learn as much as we can about an era which was of tremendous importance in the long, slow road toward racial equality. People of faith were very much part of that journey, although it is far from over. It's unfortunate that the Hollywood film took so many liberties yet received the Best Film Oscar on Sunday night. Perhaps Richens documentary will get the attention it deserves in setting the story straight.

Image result for the green book movie poster

Should a body of water have rights? Today's Groundling blog

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Protestants and the Crucifix

Cleaning Woman Washing a Crucifix 1938

 They crucified  my Lord,
 and he never said a mumbalin' word;
 they crucified my Lord,
  and he never said a mumbalin' word.
  Not a word, not a word, not a word.

African-American Spiritual -- Voices United 141

This photo floated into my consciousness on Twitter yesterday with the caption you see, but no other information and it fascinated me. Where was the photo taken? Did the priest/cleric of this church know what was happening on what appears to be the front steps? Why was so much "holy hardware" in need of cleaning, and in particular, why did the crucified Christ need to be hosed down? We'll never know.

This brought to mind a question from our son when he was a teen. He noticed that there were plenty of crosses in the large church in Halifax where I was a minister, yet not a single crucifix. It was a fair question and I think I gave him some Protestant blah, blah about our emphasis on the empty cross of resurrection. But I figure that it has more to do with Protestants not-like-them aversion to Roman Catholics for centuries. Yet Easter doesn't make much sense without Good Friday, something we Protestants seem to forget at times. Mainline denominations such as the United Church of Canada have plenty of cross and crucifixion hymns for Holy Week but who shows up to sing them? Image result for james quentin young barbed wire crucifix

Barbed Wire Crucifix -- James Quentin Young

I wonder if this Lent (next week is Ash Wednesday) we could all put up an image of the crucified Christ as one of the things we "take on" for the season rather than "give up?" They aren't hard to find in the age of the internet. Whether virtual or actual, the representation of Jesus on the cross speaks to us of God's saving grace and calls us to gratitude.

This Salvador Dali crucifixion is well known. A framed copy was given to my clergy father-in-law when he left a pastorate forty years ago. I recall that he didn't quite know what to make of it!

Glasgow's Salvador Dali painting of Christ's crucifixtion at centre of copyright battle

Christ of St John of the Cross -- Salvador Dali

Here comes the sun in today's Groundling blog

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Religious Freedom in Cuba

Image result for vote on constitution in cuba

For decades the United Church of Canada has maintained a cordial, supportive relationship with the Protestant church in Cuba. One year during a vacation we visited the seminary nearby in the city of Mantanzas. As well as providing theological education it has extensive vegetable gardens which grow food for the seminarians and the surrounding community. On a subsequent trip we took a suitcase of cloth and sewing thread and needles for a sewing collective which was church-run. Here in Canada congregations I served hosted pastors from Cuba who spoke about their congregational life and community work.

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View from the seminary grounds in Matanzas

Since the revolution in Cuba in 1959 the government has claimed that there is religious freedom in the country, yet Christians were cautious about what they said and did because any challenges to perceived human rights violations would be met with punishment in various forms. That repression of religion was relaxed during the past 25 years.  

I thought about this when I read that there was a vote on a new constitution during this past weekend which would establish the Cuban Communist Party officially as the "supreme guiding political force" in the state and society. There are no opposition parties in Cuba so church leaders, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have been the outspoken critics of what could lead to a new era of restrictions on religion. The RC bishops bishops have stated that "the free practice of religion is not merely the freedom to have religious beliefs but the freedom to live in conformity with one's faith and to express it publicly."

According to an NPR report a Baptist pastor has offered that "evangelism for me doesn't live just within the four walls of the church, Our faith doesn't just free us from the eternal consequences of sin. It also makes us free here on earth, and that brings us into conflict with a totalitarian regime that restricts our freedoms." The response by the Communist party to expressed concerns has been harsh and the pastor was told that he should stick with singing songs and teaching the bible inside the church.In recent weeks leading up to the constitutional referendum, Cuban religious leaders say they have come under intense pressure to urge their congregants to vote Yes.

More than a million Canadians visit Cuba annually, making up 40% of all tourists. While we go primarily for a holiday in the cold of winter we can't turn a blind eye to the rights of those who live there and want freedom of speech and religion. We can pray for those who are speaking out and for the work of local congregations within communities.

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Seminary vegetable gardens

Monday, February 25, 2019

Praise and the "Collaboration of Hearts"

Image result for syrian canadian children's choir

 Nai Syrian Children's Choir

1 When in our music God is glorified,
 and adoration leaves no room for pride,
 it is as though the whole creation cried

2 How often, making music, we have found
 a new dimension in the world of sound,
 as worship moved us to a more profound

When In Our Music -- Voices United 533

It is a delight to be part of the congregation our son serves as pastor and to sit with the family, including our two grandsons, when we attend worship. The 3 1/2 year-old has figured out that Granny can't support him in her arms for an entire hymn anymore so he slides over in the pew to me for lift-off. As I hold him he'll play with my beard, survey the congregation over my shoulder, and...sing-ish. He loves music and has a great sense of rhythm. While he doesn't read yet he watches my face intently and will repeat words at the end of lines. I find it all so pleasing.

There are many powerful aspects of "singing our faith" and the simple joy of doing so across generations is just one of them. I thought of this experience as I read this from the On Being Project:

Image result for abigail washburn bela fleck china

Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck

In this week’s show, musicians Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck discuss how music speaks to some truth that lives between all of us, and I keep thinking about one story that Washburn shares: Once, when touring China with her band, she met an erhu player before one of her shows (an erhu is a two-stringed instrument often nicknamed the Chinese violin). She says he looked unhappy and insisted that American and Chinese musicians simply could not play together because their musical traditions sound so different. Hearing this, Washburn asked if he’d play his erhu. She recalls:

“He started playing this breathtakingly gorgeous melody from Tibet. And the band, as we were listening, we just started to tune up our instruments and [play] along with him. And you could see that corner of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. That night, we performed that song that we created in that moment for 1,400 people in that town. At the end of the show, he came up to me, and he said: ‘Tonight, I discovered something. It’s not that Americans and Chinese can’t play music together. It’s just that music is actually the [collaboration] of hearts.’”

Maybe another part of music’s healing is how it allows us to connect histories that, as Nathalie Joachim reflects, we usually dismiss as disparate. This is the kind of hope the late Joe Carter experienced performing spirituals around the world: “I can sing ‘Motherless Child’ in Siberia [and] they know what it means,” he said. “They’ve been through hell. I can go to Scotland and Ireland and Wales and sing these. They understand the sentiment. The songs have become symbolic, I think, of that universal quest for freedom, that yearning for freedom, and that part of us that says, ‘I will not be defeated.’”

Stories like these nourish my hope in all the life thriving past the edges of language and the borders of nations — how, even when we refuse to listen to one another in conversation, we still manage to move each other in song.

I love the notion of the collaboration of hearts, which is what I figure we do as we sing our praise as Christ's people.


3 So has the church in liturgy and song,
 in faith and love, through centuries of wrong,
 borne witness to the truth in every tongue,

4 And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night
 when utmost evil strove against the light?
 Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight:

5 Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
 Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
 And may God give us faith to sing always

Read about the death and legacy of Grandmother Water Walker in today's Groundling blog

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Praying for the United Methodists

Related image

In the late 1980's the United Church of Canada was in turmoil as the denomination grappled with its stance on the welcome of gays and lesbians into the pews and in pulpits (the acronym LGBTQ didn't exist in those days). Of course they were already present, but did not necessarily feel welcome or accepted,

 It was a confusing time for the church with the General Council of 1988 making a landmark decision about inclusivity which ironically divided many congregations and caused thousands to leave the UCC. I had just begun a new pastorate and had to contend with angry people (only a few) I didn't yet know with limited information about what had actually transpired.

While ultimately this was a courageous decision by the United Church there was nothing easy about this for anyone. Although it was meant to be a step forward in inclusivity most LGBTQ persons, including those in ministry, were reluctant to be public about their orientation, knowing full well that a decision made by a group of well-intentioned commissioners at a national gathering wouldn't necessarily translate to immediate acceptance at the local congregational level. Some have argued that this was the beginning of serious decline for the United Church but we have seen similar trends for other mainline churches in Canada which have dithered for decades over their courses of action.

Image result for United Methodist Church  Debates LGBTQ Clergy And Same-Sex Weddings

All this comes to mind as the United Methodist church in the United States, a denomination not unlike the UCC in theology, is in the midst of a special multiday meeting to address significant changes to its polity. Nearly 900 from around world are debating and will likely vote on one of three proposals.

One would allow same-sex weddings and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy — while also giving church conferences outside the U.S. the power to prohibit these practices.
A third proposal would reorganize the church into three "values-based" groups and let each group make its own rules.

Amongst the UMC challenges are the conservatism of the denomination in other parts of the world and the threat of some large congregations in the US with departure if either of the first two proposals is adopted.

We can pray for the United Methodists in their deliberations and pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the denomination as it makes decisions.

Some thoughts on the Big Smoke and Sleeping Beauty in today's Groundling blog

Friday, February 22, 2019

Yada, Yada & Going to Hell

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Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time,
Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother
without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment:
and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca,
shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say,
Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Matthew 5:21-22

On Wednesday Premier Doug Ford sent MPP Randy Hillier to the party penalty box (suspension from caucus) for speaking gibberish. I would suggest that Hillier is an expert at gibberish but I would end up convicting myself with my own blog. It is purported that as a group of people  challenging the government's new autism support guidelines were leaving the legislature Hillier dismissively said "yada, yada, yada." Ford decided that this was crossing a line into inappropriate behaviour and suspended the controversial MPP for  his "disrespectful comments." Hillier admitted using the nonsense phrase but claimed it wasn't directed toward the protesters. It was so odd to see this as "breaking news" on Twitter and to read Hillier's formal response.  

Strangely, it got me thinking about Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Jesus says "sure murder is bad, but when you say "yada yada" to an adversary you're one step away from a deep dive into hell", or something along those lines. As with the other startling contrasts here in Matthew 5 Jesus is challenging our assumptions about violence, which includes words. It appears that contempt and verbal abuse are serious stuff to Jesus.

When I went looking for the passage I realized that the version I had in mind was the venerable King James, which I've never used regularly in my life. Yet the word "raca" stuck in my mind as the original for "fool" which is found in other translations and paraphrases ("idiot" in The Message.) Snooping around I discovered that raca, which is in the ancient Greek manuscript, is not a Greek word. The speculation is that is a reference to the Aramaic word reka, which literally means "empty one", but probably meant "empty headed," or "foolish."

Is Jesus really equating physical murder with mean-spirited speech? It's doubtful, but as Jesus concludes these thoughts he says, according to The Message paraphrase, "the simple moral fact is that words kill."

While the Hillier incident may prove to be a yada yada in a teacup, it is a good reminder about disrespectful comments and character assassination. It is so tempting to overstep the bounds of decency on social media and we know that many people are emboldened by anonymity. Apparently Canadians fit the stereotype of being nice folk, even on Twitter, but lots of us have a mean streak just the same.

Perhaps choosing to "mind your mouth" is an important spiritual practice and Christian witness which should be moved up the depth chart of all our lives and ...yada, yada, yada...

Linguistics experts Bryor Snefjella, Daniel Schmidtke, and Victor Kuperman
determined Twitter language mirrors Canadian and American national stereotypes
after analyzing nearly 40 million tweets. (JD Howell, McMaster University)

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me,
and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4

Thursday, February 21, 2019


Seven children dead in a house fire. This would be gut-wrenching news in any circumstance but perhaps even more poignant for those who have participated in sponsoring Syrian refugees in Canada. In almost all sponsorships a relationship develops between the newcomers and the welcomers which is life-changing and akin to family. This includes frustrations and misunderstandings and even some disappointments, but for the most part it is enriching and based in love. Those who are extending hospitality soon learn that they are receiving as well, often in the form of shared meals.

A couple of days ago we were faced with the impossibly sad news that the Barho family which has been in the Halifax area for less than two years lost all seven of their children to fire. The mother ran for help but the father tried to save the kids and is in critical condition with burns. The HEART Society (Hants East Assisting Refugee Team Society) expressed its sorrow on Facebook and I imagine that these folks are already working to support the parents in their loss.

When I look at the photos of the children I can't help but think of the dozen children who are members of the four families our Belleville faith coalition sponsored, beginning in 2015. These local children and young people are finding their way into Canadian society. The thought of losing even one is unimaginable and I find that I'm quite emotional about what has transpired despite the distance.  

God be in the hearts of the Barho parents and receive these precious ones into eternity. And God be with those HEART sponsors who feel as though they have lost family members.

It's important to "think locally" when it comes to Creation Care. Today's Groundling blog

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A "Clean Heart" Summit?

A crucifix and a stained glass window inside a Catholic church
1Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin...
 10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Psalm 51 NRSV

We are approaching the beginning of Lent and once again on Ash Wednesday we will hear the words of Psalm 51 which speaks of contrition and renewal and hopefully take them to heart. The "back story" of the psalm is that the arrogant King David has been humbled and recognizes his sinfulness before God.
Perhaps those words should be read tomorrow as a four-day summit will get underway in Rome with 200  senior bishops of the Catholic church. They will be discussing the grim reality of sexual abuse perpetrated against children and vulnerable adults for God know how long. While this is supposed to be a positive step, I am dubious.

For one thing, it has emerged after Pope Francis apologized for aggressively defending clerics in Chile who have now been exposed as abusers while dismissing the claims of victims. While he eventually expressed contrition for his response, it was one more indication that the RC church closes ranks around its clergy despite the evidence of criminal activity.

Another baffling reality of this summit is that it is supposed to educate bishops about the church's policies for addressing abuse. How can it possibly be that after decades of revelations anyone in authority could not know what the church expects? How seriously has this been addressed if education is still needed? Recently we've discovered that there have been cover-ups of the sexual abuse of nuns by priests around the world and that the church has secret guidelines for how to address the fathering of children by priests (there are probably tens of thousands.)

Finally, this summit will not include women who have been subjected to abuse, at least not directly, and this is appalling. Once again this will be a gathering of aging men in positions of hierarchical authority, many of whom may have been aware or should have been aware of what was happening in their areas of authority. One of the survivors wonders what could possibly be said during this carefully managed gathering that hasn't already been identified.

If my response seems harsh, I will note that I have worked collegially with priests in different settings through the years and appreciate the gifts they bring as servants of Christ. I have no doubt that the vast majority of Roman Catholic clerics are moral people and committed Christians. Still, the scope of this corruption and the slow response to it reminds us once again that the current structure of the church may be irredeemable. One Roman Catholic theologian suggests that this is the greatest challenge to the church since the Protestant Reformation.

Perhaps we all need to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which will lead to profound repentance and create clean hearts.

Did you catch my Groundling blog from yesterday about skiing and the Sabbath?

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Plain-speak About Blessings

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[Jesus]came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.

 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

 "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

 "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

 "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."

Luke 6: 17-26 NRSV

Brent Bill is an author I admire a great deal and I highly recommend his book Holy Silence, which years ago launched a deeper exploration of the subject for me. Today he tweeted a quote from a fine book by another author I appreciate, Barbara Brown Taylor.

"“…Pronouncing a blessing puts you as close to God as you can get. To learn to look with compassion on everything that is; to see past the terrifying demons outside to the bawling hearts within; to take the first move toward the other, however many times it takes to get close; to open your arms to what is instead of waiting until it is what it should be; to surrender the justice of your own cause for mercy; to surrender the priority of your own safety for love—this is to land at God’s breast.”

-Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

It is a reflection on the attitude and spiritual practice of blessing and blessedness. The lectionary gospel passage this past Sunday was from Luke's on-the-level version of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. It begins with blessings, but in plain-speak (pun intended) compared to Matthew. Luke throws in a few curses as well, aimed at those who figure keeping score with material wealth and food security and shallow distraction are the equivalent of the good life.  

Perhaps we'll all getter closer to Jesus today by somehow counting our blessings while avoiding the temptation to hoard them.

What are your blessings today?

Monday, February 18, 2019

Mrs. Doubtfire and the Family Ties that Bind

Image result for family day 2019

1 Would you bless our homes and families,
  Source of life who calls us here;
 in our world of stress and tension
  teach us love that conquers fear.
 Help us learn to love each other
  with a love that constant stays;
 teach us when we face our troubles,
  love's expressed in many ways.

2 When our way is undemanding,
  let us use the time that's ours
 to delight in simple pleasures,
  sharing joys in gentle hours.
 When our way is anxious walking
  and a heavy path we plod,
 teach us trust in one another
  and in you, our gracious God.

Would You Bless Our Homes and Families Voice United 556

On this Family Day holiday weekend in Ontario we've had the pleasure of spending time with our three adult children, their partners, and our three grandchildren. On Saturday there was a "sliding party" (how Canadian is that?) at the home of our older daughter, her husband and daughter, and the whole fam damily was present. The weather and snow cooperated and a good time was had by all.

When Ruth and I married a thousand years ago, essentially as kids, we had no way of predicting how life would unfold. We discovered we had different views on when we would have children, and how many, but it was sort of assumed we would eventually become parents. There was virtually no thought given to their sexual orientation as they grew up, or what they might choose in terms of relationships. Today, we are grateful that they find life meaningful and we delight in our grandchildren. God is good.

All this said, I got thinking about the nature of families during the last day. In the course of my lifetime the definition of a family -- usually a mom and pop nuclear family with children-- has certainly changed. In the 70's we became much more aware of single-parent families and the church figured out how not to be judgmental, although that is still a struggle in some expressions of the Body of Christ. In congregations I served there were adopted children from other cultures. We became more inclusive of children who lived with realities such as autism and Asperger's spectrum who might have been excluded from the church family in the past.

In the new millennium families have taken on different expressions, often with LGBTQ parents providing the loving shelter of family. Recently I heard a CBC Sunday Edition piece called The Mamas and the Papas about two couples, gay and lesbian, who have adopted together. It was a stretch for me, but I listened and learned. They sure sound like a loving family to me.
Image result for mrs doubtfire as TV host

Strangely, the film Mrs. Doubtfire came to mind as I pondered family life this weekend. Now 25 years old -could it be?- it starred the hilarious Robin Williams as a dad who learns to be a caring father by impersonating an aging woman. Ya, highly improbable, yet it was both funny and thought-provoking, if rather sentimental. There was a fair amount of criticism of the film at the time for different reasons but it did invite people to stretch the notion of family.

Near the end Daniel/Mrs. Doubtfire gets a job as a children's show host and becomes quite successful. During one show he/she responds  

Mrs. Doubtfire: [reading the letter] Dear Mrs. Doubtfire, two months ago, my mom and dad decided to separate. Now they live in different houses. My brother Andrew says that we aren't to be a family anymore. Is this true? Did I lose my family? Is there anything I can do to get my parents back together? Sincerely, Katie McCormick. 
Mrs.Doubtfire [responding on air]: Oh, my dear Katie. You know, some parents, when they're angry, they get along much better when they don't live together. They don't fight all the time, and they can become better people, and much better mummies and daddies for you. And sometimes they get back together. And sometimes they don't, dear. And if they don't, don't blame yourself. Just because they don't love each other anymore, doesn't mean that they don't love you.
There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country - and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months... even years at a time. But if there's love, dear... those are the ties that bind, and you'll have a family in your heart, forever. All my love to you poppet, you're going to be alright... bye bye.
Not bad, really. Happy Family Day, whatever shape your family has taken. May the love of Christ embrace you.
3 From the homes in which we're nurtured,
  with the love that shapes us there,
 teach us, God, to claim as family
  every one whose life we share.
 And through all that life may offer,
  may we in your love remain;
 may the love we share in families
  be alive to praise your name.

4 Let us reach beyond the boundaries
  of our daily thought and care
 till the family you have chosen
  spills its love out everywhere.
 Help us learn to love each other
  with a love that constant stays;
 teach us when we face our troubles
  love's expressed in many ways.

Would You Bless Our Homes and Families Voice United 556