24 July 2011

Further Praise and Praise Music

The post of 22 July concerning praise music excited a touch of comment. Mostly, it was verbal and opinions were mixed. That’s a good thing. If there were only one available opinion and one available set of important or relevant facts, we would only need one blog and that would hardly constitute a thoughtful discussion at all.

So let me continue a more interactive version of these Dispatches. Perhaps this, too, will be another beaker on the burner in the laboratory of human behavior.

Take one of my customary detours, let me note that on some topics we bring strong feelings. Strong feelings and strong opinions are neither inherently good nor inherently bad except insofar as they prove that one cares and is showing interest. There’s one intellectual challenge similar to what you go through reading good fiction, which requires a willing suspension of disbelief. In discussing the controversial subject or for that matter anything where there are a number of viewpoints, it is helpful to be able to willingly suspend judgment until you have “downloaded” to your mind the information or even opinions offered. Of course, then we have to analyze what we have heard.

By the way, the best jury theory I know (and the one that I practice) is based upon the presumption that jurors do not suspend judgment until all the information is imparted. One great teacher of trial lawyers, Herb Stern, tells students that in the trial, you “hit them the firstest with the mostest,” thereby getting the jury on your side and prone to listen to the remainder the evidence while rooting for you.

Mere words about music don’t work well or tell us much. Neither do mere words describing art or nature. The words are not the reality, and the words can only feebly describe the reality. So we have to take the time actually to look at the music performed.

So, let me offer a YouTube audio/video of the untitled hymn by Chris Rice commonly referred to as “Come to Jesus,” to which I referred on the 22nd:


A short & sweet commentary: The purity of Rice’s voice strikes me. For that matter, when the musical worship leaders at our church perform this, the purity of their voices strikes me, too. The range of the song is fairly broad. And the lyrics, beautiful: “Come to Jesus… Dance with Jesus… Fly to Jesus.” These generate a response in me.

Another example:


What excitement and what joy these performers and listeners alike have. Those lyrics don’t say a whole lot to me and the music doesn’t get in the stir me at least the extent of those in that video. Do they need to? Is it enough that it stir someone and add to their faith experience?

A nonmusical (or at least non-melodic) example:


This, to me, is ultimate cutesy. It doesn’t speak to me, mostly because I lack a lot of the modern cultural references. But as you can see in this live performance, a lot of the audience does react strongly. I’m going to refrain from much discussion about the content. I think I get the message that modern cultural references are not nearly so important as “timeless values.” But I’ve never talked to the author of this one minute sermon, and she may have another point entirely.

Which is yet another point about worship styles and methodologies. Does it matter what the intent or detailed theology of the creator of the work might be if it produces a positive result? And that, my friends, is not an expression of an opinion, it’s a legitimate question.

And finally:


My commentary? None. And that’s the point of this little essay – you listen, you decide. If it brings you closer to your faith, my opinion really doesn’t matter as much as either the vice presidency or a warm pitcher of spit, to quote John Nance Garner. Pick one.

I do know that I enjoy music, but I don’t know why. How do tones, vibrations in the air really, from different devices which create those tones bring me pleasure? I don’t know why verbal material presented at various differing frequencies and in various patterns give me pleasure or inspiration or even information. Is this is purely a learned behavior? After all, we can quickly recognize the music of other cultures because sometimes it sounds strange or even cacaphonous to us. And the rules of how these tones are arranged and what devices/instruments are used are very detailed and yet from this learned behavior somewhat common knowledge to the point that we can remember lots and lots of different patterns (musical pieces) or even styles. For some odd reason, I can usually pick out Russian orchestral music. What is the common feature of that music that makes it recognizable to my brain? Go figure. How is it that these things create an emotional response? Honestly, I do not understand it.

Perhaps there’s something instinctive about all this. Parents know that strange phenomenon of sleeping through all kinds of noises and yet when your baby makes a noise, even a soft one, you snap awake immediately. What is the filtering process that goes on in the mind?

Other sounds bring associations. To me, hearing dispatch radio tones brings a strong association and I’m always up for that sweet blast of mechanical siren. Those are my associations. Others find them confusing or even annoying.

Were trying to find beauty here. I don’t know how.

Can anyone help me out?

Pippa passes.


22 July 2011

Praise Music: An Amateur Deacon Ruminates

There is a collection of church music commonly called “praise music.” I can’t call it a “school” of music even though it may be such to those who really know what they’re talking about nor can I define any boundaries of where it is or where it isn’t. Praise Music doesn’t appear in most hymnals, that’s about the best way I can describe it.

My dear friend and brother Parson Jim N. just published a fascinating blog post on his reaction to praise music as being something other than admirable Christian music. I would note at the outset that appreciating this Dispatch From No. 3 requires that you follow the link and read Parson Jim’s post. I may reprise it just a bit, but it’s well worth the effort to see what Jim says:


A quick detour – in a comment to my immediate past post, on open carry of firearms, a commentor (who disagreed with most of my opinions) reminded me that it is most convenient to post the link when I’m discussing someone else’s work. A lesson: Always mine the opinions and comments of others for good ideas. Ignoring someone’s good idea someone because she disagrees with you on other things Not Very Bright.

Okay, have you read Parson Jim’s post? No, really – read it. I’ll wait. I’m not in a big hurry.

To me, the heart of his opinion is in the fourth paragraph:

Except for one of these songs in this category I can recall singing, they are all about an unholy trinity of “Me, Myself and I.” It almost seems as if we imagine by singing such words that God is so pleased at the sound of our melodic flattery that the Divine Being surely must bless us with some sort of special or chosen status for our feel-good blather.

And so, his observations center around the lyrics as has his and my conversations on the subject.

The entire “Me, Myself and I” school of preaching is, I find, a touch annoying. My gradual return to a church life began through the “Red Letter” process. In some editions of the Bible, the quotations ascribed to Jesus Christ are printed in red. This, it would seem, would be the central part of Jesus’ teaching and, thus, his church. I’ll stay away from the entire yes-he-said-it-no-he-didn’t-history-says-doesn’t-say-whatever mud pit. I don’t really connect with a lot of the early church interpretation scholarship, probably because I know so little about it. I largely put the history on the back burner as I look for divine inspiration, and consider the words themselves. They make sense to me. They speak to me. I hope they speak to you. But if they don’t, there’s not a great deal I can do about it, we all have to row our own boats.

Another little detour – to the half a dozen people who get annoyed at the “ascribed” thing: Get as annoyed as you want, I can live with it. The one thing I’m certain of is that Jesus never said “No man comes to the father except by me,” or any of the other things ascribed to him in those words in the English language. Nor in the language of 17th century England (the King James version). Nor in Latin (e.g., the Vulgate). And I doubt if he said these things in Greek, although I could be wrong. Assuming for the moment that he expressed the quoted thoughts, it was likely in Aramaic. I have no clue what Aramaic syntax is like, but I doubt if it is a word-for-word translation. And so, back I go to reading the words in the only language I really know and listening for their inherent Truth to me.

I am inclined to doubt that my prayers induce the Lord to buy me things, give me great (and probably undeserved) health or lead him to smite my enemies. (There, I remember the “weather prayer” recited by George C. Scott in the movie Patton.) Usually, the best I hope for is understanding or, failing that, patience and acceptance. I find that placing a purchase order with God or giving him a to-do list is pretty cheeky. Sorry, Joel Oesteen, I won’t be there next Sunday or the Sunday after that or the Sunday after that.

Song lyrics range from the deeply meaningful to the idiotic. Much of the music of my youth, around 1970, contains lyrics which are excellent poetry. Simon & Garfunkel (and others who wrote the songs they performed) were pretty good poets. Ditto James Taylor. Ditto Carly Simon on a good day. Okay, a really good day. Some of this poetry set to music conjures up images and, as importantly to me, feelings of well-being or energy or excitement.

A lot of the old hymns have good poetry although sometimes gets lost in period vernacular or obscure references. “Amazing Grace” is a widely sung hymn particularly favored by folk bands and by police and fire department funeral bagpipers. So the lines are quite familiar:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.
Putting it in some historical context helps out a lot. That central lyric, “saved a wretch like me” is the key to the hymn. That line was written by the captain of a slave ship who reformed and repented of the terrible things he had done – – thus, his gratitude and even surprise that God saved “a wretch like me.” One of my favorite hymns, “It Is Well With My Soul” also becomes a little clearer in context. It was written by Horatio Spafford, a lawyer in Chicago at the time of the great Chicago fire. His family escaped harm in the fire but his extensive property was largely destroyed. He sent his family on a trip to Europe while he took care of his business affairs. Their ship sank in mid-ocean, killing all aboard. He took another ship to Europe and when the captain of that vessel informed him that they were passing the spot where his family perished, he retired to his cabin to pen words which I find beautiful and thoroughly Christian, that even when things are extremely bad, nevertheless I am given peace and “It is well with my soul.”

Other lyrics speak to me at times, both within and without a religious context, although with often with a spiritual one. Right now I am thinking of “My Home Among the Hills,” which is a lyrical journey about the hills of West Virginia:

"There autumn hills sides are bright with scarlet leaves,
and in the spring, the robins sing,
and apple blossoms whisper in the breeze,”
and so forth.

Certainly, that lyric and a beautiful yet hard-to-sing melody moves me.

But the music itself also creates a mood, creates an emotional or even physical reaction, a “filling of the Spirit” or a spell of just feeling good. You don’t have to have good lyrics nor even lyrics which make sense. There is the old traditional spiritual “Kum-bay-yah,” now heard more as a punchline to jokes than as a song. For every stanza, you get five syllables (e.g., “someone’s singing, Lord”) and a lot of the nonsense words “Kum-bay-yah.” Once I heard that it that was some sort of diminutive of “come by here,” but when you sing the song it’s just a repetitive chant. Babble-babble, chant-chant, feel good. Other lyrics may be utter nonsense, may fit the music and yet be utter nonsense which means nothing:

“One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble,”


get a job.”

The ballad form can be pure but even there we may indulge in some lyrical obscurity. The “Via Dolorosa,” popularized by modern day Christian artist Sandi Patty is an information-light story of Christ’s journey to the Place of Skulls. (Nickel knowledge: Actually, it was the town dump.) I think it was written in English, but part of it is been transliterated to be sung in Spanish. Well, if you want to add a little bit of the exotic to a song, throw in some language that your listeners don’t speak.

When I start to talk about the music itself, I’m going way out on a limb, because I really don’t know a hell of a lot about music. I confess that I have the rich envy of a person with a merely-adequate voice for those with true musical gifts. Some months ago, I had a really fascinating conversation with the organist of our church, a professional musician, about how good “elite” (my word, not his) musicians really have to be. And there is a gulf between the willing singing parishioner and the true musician that I, for one, will not bridge.

The problem I encounter with praise music in church is not so much the lyrics, because I don’t listen to the lyrics as closely as I do the ballads in using my youth. For one thing, I have much less exposure to each bit of praise music. Where I encounter problems is that the music has been written by really talented musicians to match their really high-level abilities. On the rare occasions that the music is printed, I have a really tough time following it. And even if I can follow it, the darn stuff is hard to sing without a really good voice. One of the really pretty pieces of modern Christian music I enjoy is an untitled hymn sung by Chris Rice commonly known as “Come to Jesus.” The lyrics are beautiful, the music is beautiful and it all speaks to me. And if I could put the music into a key that straddles my limited range, I might be able to sing it halfway decently, but only if I could do away with the key changes that confuse the hell out of me. And there, I think, is something that has led to the acceptance of some of the old hymns, fairly average voices can (mostly) sing along.

On the other hand, my brother Dave’s dad’s funeral a couple of weeks ago was at a Methodist church. Oh, I do find that modern Methodism must be theologically sound. I conclude that because the hymnal did not burn my fingers when I opened it. God talks to me that way, you know. But when they did “Amazing Grace,” I found that whoever arranged the song for the Methodists wrote a bass part that I could not have followed with a compass and a troop of Boy Scouts.

Oh, well – I’ praise God my way anyway and just try to get by.

And so, I’m neither I neither strongly support Parson Jim and everything he says nor strongly dissent. I find his opinions thought-provoking. In matters of faith, I cannot ask for any more than that.

Thank you, Jim.

Pippa passes.

09 July 2011

Open Carry of Handguns: Just Dumb?

We visit again that peculiarly American issue, the possession and use of firearms.

Today, the focus is upon “open carry,” the practice of “strapping on a hog leg” (to use the parlance of the nonexistent old West) or putting a hand gun in a holster and wearing it when you go about your daily business in public.

Like all formulaic essays, let me begin this one with a very dear thesis statement: Strapping on a hog leg and walking down the street is a really, really bad idea.

“Walking down the street” – that’s important. In rural areas, in the woods, I still regard it wise and perfectly normal to carry firearms.

What prompts today’s pique is news of a “civil rights” lawsuit filed in the Northern District (Federal) Court in West Virginia. A lawyer and his father went into the local Kentucky Fried Chicken for a meal and the lawyer was toting a holstered pistol. (This gentleman is not listed in the bar in West Virginia, but is a trial lawyer practicing elsewhere.) Presumably, someone in the restaurant took note of this singular occurrence and, after a Wheeling (WV) police officer appeared. The officer requested identification from the gun-toting fellow, took the weapon from him and ran the serial numbers through his dispatcher. The gun-toting lawyer says that he was de facto detained and at least insofar as he wanted his pistol back, that’s pretty obviously true.

After finding that the weapon’s history was “clean,” the officer offered the weapon back to its owner. According to the press report, the owner demanded that the police officer return it the way he got it, and that the police officer personally replace the firearm into the owner’s holster. (A gun owner also complains that the police officer did not handle the weapon skillfully, including hanging up a round when he cleared it.) As a result of this event, the owner has filed suit in federal District Court where he seeks money damages for his suffering (Inconvenience? Annoyance? Persnicketiness?), an order that the police be given mandatory training on how to interact with (ignore?) persons lawfully carrying firearms, and that he’d be awarded his attorneys fees, courtesy of the taxpayers of West Virginia.

Chief Robert Matheny of Wheeling (a decent fellow and a good lawman) has responded to the publicity sharply. He says that until some Court orders otherwise, his officers are still going to stop people openly carrying firearms to make an inquiry about their business. The Chief terms the act of carrying a hog leg “unnatural and uncommon.”

Why do people carry firearms? “Because I can” certainly is one answer commonly heard, which is a variation on “Mind your own damn business.”

The law regarding firearms is peculiarly American. It is based first on the Second Amendment:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

The United States Supreme Court was long loathe to touch Second Amendment issues. Over the years, regulations and limitations increased steadily, although nowhere nearly to the extent sought by people who oppose firearms in civilian hands. Under current law, occasional private sales between individuals are unregulated. Commercial sales may only be done by persons who have a Federal Firearms License, which places upon dealers strict record-keeping requirements and penalties for selling firearms other than provided by law. A buyer from a dealer must present identification and must be cleared in a telephone background check. Convicted felons, those convicted of domestic violence offenses, persons with dishonorable military discharges, persons addicted to drugs or alcohol, and persons adjudged mentally incompetent may not possess a firearm. Some states impose a waiting period between beginning to purchase a firearm and acquiring it and others fiddle with regulations which approach the level of out and out bans. The United States Supreme Court barred the District of Columbia from enforcing a complete gun ban in the Heller decision in 2008, and in the 2010 case McDonald vs. City of Chicago, the United States Supreme Court declared that the Second Amendment creates a personal right which is extended to all state action through the 14th amendment. Thus, the right to possess a firearm joins free speech, free exercise of religion, free assembly and so forth as individual rights. (I am aware of the interesting discussion under the 9th amendment that the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are not exclusive but set out rather by way of limitation on the power of government.) There will be more to come from the federal courts as they build on the McDonald decision and respond to the ways that state and local governments are now regulating firearms. For example, the City of Chicago has placed such extreme limitations on firearms ownership that we must wonder if it is equivalent to another ban.

In West Virginia, firearms have both constitutional protection and traditional respect. The West Virginia Constitution provides:

A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and state, and for lawful hunting and recreational use.

Under legislation in West Virginia, one may carry a firearm openly and if one meets a training requirement, the Sheriff of each county will issue a permit to carry a concealed pistol.

The status of firearms ownership is a tradition extremely well-established in West Virginia. There is a “frontier tradition” which is ever present. The State seal depicts a farmer with his ax and miner with his pick and before them are crossed long rifles upon which lays a Phrygian cap. West Virginia is still reasonably wooded, and hunting and other shooting sports are popular. And the concept of personal armaments for personal defense is well ingrained.

But carrying openly? Bad, bad idea.

Let’s face it, strapping on the old hog leg is indeed “unnatural and uncommon,” and just inherently suspicious. We do not need to put our common sense on hold here. When one openly displays a weapon, one is doing the equivalent of being that guy going to the gym wearing a “muscle shirt,” which gives everybody the message, “I’m a tough, baaaaad man.”

Proponents say, correctly, that open carry is lawful in West Virginia. They add that the rest of us had better just get used to it. Does that mean we have to park our brains at the door when we go into a restaurant? How about when dirtbags carry openly rather than (illegally) concealed? This is not to say that only the polo shirt crowd can be trusted with a firearm. For that matter, some of the polo shirt crowd look quite rustic on the weekends. There are simply people who will be carrying firearms for criminal acts. Moreover, the ones who are intelligent and continue to do so the way they always have, in a concealed manner.

My biggest problem with open carry is that it is ineffective. Look at the purposes of going armed as set out in West Virginia Constitution. We use firearms for hunting, for sport. There is a small community of ultra-high precision shooters for whom long-range accuracy is a self sustaining, no-other-purpose passion. Fine with me. By the way, I’m not one of them, I must confess my own marksmanship is fairly average on a good day.

For all of the sporting uses, when one talks about handguns, one is talking about a weapon intended primarily for use against people. And, frankly, some gun proponents shy away from talking about the primary anti-personnel purpose of a pistol, and that is so patently obvious it weakens their otherwise justified position.

Carrying a firearm openly does not promote personal protection. The open-carrier says to the threatening world, “Shoot me first, take me out of the fight.” Perhaps carrying a concealed weapon makes for an “unfair fight,” but if one is in a fight which is just, why in the hell would one want it to be fair? There is, after all, darn little future in a fair fight.

So what’s the other side of the coin? What’s a good reason to carry openly? Well, by God, it’s my constitutional right. Perhaps, proponents would urge that the conversation ends there. But in any thinking, reasoning and rational society, our discussions and our individual decisions should be reasoned rather than knee-jerk. Simply “it’s my right!,” carries with it a refreshing and manic defiance, the “I am a free man!” approach. (Here, I picture the open opening sequence of the 1960s cult television series The Prisoner. Also, I must note that the defiance literature and tradition seems predominantly male in American culture. Ladies, please pardon me if I follow that convention for a bit.)

Another point supporting the idea of an act of defiance is that we are “raising awareness” of the right openly carry a firearm. This argument is the old paper tiger. Do we really need to raise awareness of weapons? Hardly. The awareness we may indeed want to raise is that the criminal element cannot tell who are the “unwise targets,” who have the capacity for violence which will come as an unpleasant surprise. Defiance to “raise awareness” simply prompts counter defiance, and the discussion degenerates to a “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah!” quality which virtually guarantees that we’re not going to come to synthesis or resolution or, God help us, synergy.

In the Wheeling case, I am willing to criticize the police in one respect. I think it was a significant mistake to cater to the gun owner’s demand to put the weapon back in the holster. In doing so, the police catered to the gun owner’s petulant control game and succumbed to a bit role in the owner’s ridiculous Kabuki theater. “Here is your firearm, do you want it back?” And if the owner didn’t want it back from the officer’s hands, screw it, he wanted to make a point more than he wanted his property.

In a broad sense, we have seen political changes and policy changes. One challenge is channeling change in a way that we adapt to needs without sacrificing principles. The siren call of extremism in the firearms debate beckons us to abandon reason. Responsible policy development does not happen on the streets or in parades. Not even on the front pages of newspapers or in lawsuits. Changing growth happens in the back rooms. And in the front rooms, and the hallways, and wherever people – not “activists” – gather together and abide by the dictates of the Book of Isaiah: Come now, let us reason together.

Honest and reasoned discussion does not get the headlines. But I’ll take it as the method of responsible citizenship every time.

Note reference the old West: I was reading an interesting notion by Historian David McCullough in Mornings on Horseback, a biography of the early life of Theodore Roosevelt. He credits the writings of Eastern Ivy educated elite with magnifying the small segment of Western society from the west central and southwestern United States to full-blown myth status. He singles out The Virginian, by Owen Wister, and the accounts of ranch life, by Theodore Roosevelt.


01 July 2011

The Passing of a Man's Man

This morning, Donald Born of Pleasant Valley was called Home. Mr. Born (we always called him that) was 83.

Mr. Born was our Brother, Judge David Born’s Dad, as well as Dad to my friends Don Born and Doug Born. Dave’s wife Beverly and Don’s wife Liz were loving daughters to Mr. Born, and cared for him lovingly in his last illness.

Mr. Born was an engineer; an outdoorsman; a Navy veteran; a man of God and of Family. He worked hard all his life and kept working hard well into retirement. Up until a couple of years ago, he and his buddy still went into the national forest to do volunteer trail maintenance.

We know of no greater appellation: There was a Man’s Man.