March 26, 2008

Psalm 57

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

A reminder: I’ve prepared these psalms for our liturgy, trying to be as accurate in my translation as possible. The alternation between plain text and bold is for responsive reading. I invite feedback on the translation!

For the director.
Do not destroy.
By David.
When he fled from before Saul in the cave.

Be gracious to me, God!  Be gracious to me,
Because in you my soul sought refuge,
And in the shadow of your wings I will seek refuge
Until calamities have passed by.

I cry to God Most High,
To the Mighty One who avenges for me.
He will send from heaven and save me.
The one who pants reviles.  Selah.
God will send his loyalty and his trustworthiness.

My soul is in the midst of lions;
I will lie down among burning ones, sons of Adam.
Their teeth are spears and arrows,
And their tongue is a sharp sword.

Be exalted over the heavens, God,
Over all the earth your glory!

A net they have prepared for my footsteps;
My soul bows down.
They dug before me a pit.
They fell into the midst of it.  Selah.

Steadfast is my heart, God!  Steadfast is my heart!
I will sing and I will psalm!

Awake, my glory!
Awake, lute and harp!
I will awake the dawn.

I will thank you among the nations, Lord;
I will psalm to you among the peoples,
Because great unto the heavens is your loyalty,
And unto the clouds your trustworthiness.

Be exalted over the heavens, God,
Over all the earth your glory.

Some comments about this psalm:

(1) In line 8, the “one who pants” is the person who is pursuing David, panting after him, seeking to devour him.  See also Psalm 56:2 where this same term is used.

(2) In line 11, the “burning ones” may be people who are burning with anger, raging people, who are also, of course, the lions of line 10.

(3) In line 21, I have used the word “psalm” because the word here is the root verb of the noun “psalm” and refers not only to singing but also to the playing of instruments.  David is declaring that he will sing and play psalms in praise to God.  The same thing is true in line 26.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:19 pm | Discuss (0)

Face to Face

Category: Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

We were created to respond to voice, touch, and physical presence, yet our society is increasingly voiceless, faceless, and untouchable.  We can bank, shop, put gas in the car, buy groceries, and make business calls without once interacting with a live person.  Most of the time it’s convenient, many times it’s frustrating, but all of it contributes to the loss of human connection in daily life.

Societal structures are efficient but not always beneficial to the emotional and physical health of the people they are meant to serve.  Technological advances bring help, physical healing, and convenience, but they also invade our daily routines and patterns.  High-tech industries subtly change the way we think adn act until we have fewer and fewer opportunities for face-to-face human connection.  Mounting time pressures make it easier for us to be isolated and unaware of each other’s needs, resulting in a thread of loneliness and neglect that runs through our lives.

As the gap widens between family and community needs and the people who are available to meet those needs, we are left scrambling for substitutes.  We’ve entered the era of home meal replacements, domestic outsourcing, and outside care for our elders and children.  We are growing accustomed to writing a check for services that have historically been done out of love.  We are in danger of losing a vision for the creative, interdisciplinary, hands-on work of loving each other deeply.

We sometimes seem to have forgotten that though society is constantly shifting and adapting to new ways, it will always be filled with human beings who need personal care and attention.  We should carefully consider the difference between service that is motivated by love and concern for the individual, and service that is purchased from anonymous for-profit companies….  When we recognize that the work of caregiving is essential to human well-being, we take the first step toward easing the loneliness and neglect that characterizes so many lives today. — Andi Ashworth, Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring, pp. 9-10.

Ashworth’s book is the best thing I’ve read (all right, I’ll admit it: it’s probably about the only thing I’ve read) on the Christian calling of caregiving.  It’s an excellent book and one I’d highly recommend for pastors.  It’s changed the way I think about my ministry.

In connection with what Ashworth writes here, it strikes me that it might be valuable to forego the convenience of ATMs and the computer scanners at the grocery story or the library in order to stand face-to-face with and talk to real people at the bank, the checkout line, and so forth.

A waste of time?  Yes, maybe.  Sometimes we’re in a hurry and it’s important not to spend too long at the store.  But God has given pastors a certain amount of leisure time during the week precisely for the purpose of meeting people, getting to know them, building relationships with them.

In the couple of years that I’ve been in Medford, for instance, I have met and spent time chatting with ladies working in checkout lines, bank tellers, postal workers, and multitudes of baristas in coffeeshops.  They know that I’m a pastor because they see my clerical collar.  Sometimes they ask me about my church.  But what’s equally important is that they see the face of a pastor, which is the public face of the church, as well, and that they see that face as friendly.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:31 pm | Discuss (2)
March 24, 2008


Category: Politics :: Permalink

The candidates’ names are from the last election, but the point Doug Wilson makes here is still important:

In all cultures, at all times, a great deal can be learned by looking at what everyone assumes together — left wing, right wing, moderate, libertine, conservative, or anarchist. In our day, virtually everyone assumes the legitimacy of polling as a way of spot-checking what demos, the people, has to say at any given moment.

To make up an example, suppose we learn that three out of ten teenagers have had sex by the time they are fourteen. Conservatives descry it, liberals call for more sex ed, and our responses differ one from another. And sometimes these surface clashes can be quite sharp. Hannity and Colmes can go at it all they like, but underneath it all is what can only be described as profound agreement. Virtually no one says, “How could you know something like that? I don’t believe you.”

But this activity called polling serves a great didactic and manipulative purpose. For example, homosexual activists are still (successfully) circulating the Kinsey howler that ten percent of the population is homosexual, proving, yet again, Mark Twain’s dictum that “the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with the evidence that a truth is not hard to kill and that a lie told well is immortal.”

Polling is represented to us as a means of measuring what the god Demos is thinking, when in reality it is a powerful tool for manipulating what this figurehead Deity is going to do in the future.

Think about it. The basic assumption (question it and you’re an idiot) in modern political campaigns is that Kerry is down in the polls this week, and then Bush is down. The whole thing is treated as a horse race, in which one is ahead and then another, and then, into the backstretch! Neck and neck! Bush caught up! Whoa! Photo finish! We can see the strength of this assumption in this: if Bush were down in the polls by ten percent the week before the election, and then won the election by five percent, the ruling assumption would be that “Bush caught up” and not that the polls are “radically unreliable.”

Unlike a horse race, where one horse really is in front of the other one, as all can see, political polling consists of speculation grounded on very small “scientifically selected” sample sizes. In short, you talk to 2,000 Americans and purport tell us what 250 million Americans are thinking. The next week you talk to a different 2,000 Americans, and, son of a gun, there is a ten percent difference in the answers. Then you represent that as an instance of the 250 million changing their minds! Beautiful! Elegantly done! But bogus, of course.

But this speculation (for that is all it is), once accepted by the masses as scientific, is a great way to herd everybody along in the general direction you wish them to go. Polling is less a finely-tuned and calibrated instrument for measuring as it is a cattle prod to keep the voting public mooing contentedly.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:39 pm | Discuss (1)

Watching Bad Movies

Category: Literature,Movies :: Permalink

In the same interview I mentioned in my previous entry, Ray Bradbury mentions that when he was young, he saw every movie that came out: “When I was seventeen,” he says, “I was seeing as many as twelve to fourteen movies a week.”  That’s a lot of movies, including a lot that weren’t good, that is, that had weak plots, poor acting, flat characters, and so forth.  “But that’s good,” Bradbury says.

It’s a way of learning.  You’ve got to learn how not to do things.  Just seeing excellent films doesn’t educate you at all, because they’re mysterious.  A great film is mysterious.  There’s no way of solving it.  Why does Citizen Kane work?  Well, it just does.  It’s brilliant on every level, and there’s no way of putting your finger on any one thing that’s right.  It’s just all right.  But a bad film is immediately evident, and it can teach you more: “I’ll never do that, and I’ll never do that, and I’ll never do that” (Zen in the Art of Writing, p. 128).

I read this paragraph a week ago, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind from time to time ever since.  There’s a lot of truth to what Bradbury says here, I think.  Bad art (by which he and I mean poorly crafted art, not wicked art) can help you learn things that great art can’t, namely, what not to do.  But I suspect that it teaches that lesson only to those who love great art; the rest don’t recognize the mistakes in bad art as mistakes and end up emulating them.  Bad art teaches, it seems to me, only if you approach it in the right way.

Still, I think there’s more to be said, and so I invite you to interact with Bradbury on this point and to sharpen my own thinking.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:50 am | Discuss (7)
March 17, 2008

Bradbury on Film

Category: Literature,Movies :: Permalink

In the interview entitled “Shooting Haiku in a Barrel,” Ray Bradbury talks about working on the screenplay for Something Wicked This Way Comes.  He wrote the screenplay about two hours too long, and the director had him cut it again and again until it was the right length.  The interviewer asked whether it was dialogue or action that Bradbury cut, and here is Bradbury’s response, which sheds light on good filmmaking:

Everything.  The main thing is compression.  It isn’t really cutting so much as learning metaphor — and this is where my knowledge of poetry has been such a help to me.  There’s a relationship between the great poems of the world and the great screenplays: they both deal in compact images.  If you can find the right metaphor, the right image, and put it in a scene, it can replace four pages of dialogue (Zen in the Art of Writing, p. 127).

Bradbury goes on to talk about a particular scene in Lawrence of Arabia, but what immediately came to my mind was a scene in Kristof Kieslowski’s Red, which would take a lot longer to describe here than it takes to show.  The entire scene is this: the camera shows the girl, who is one of the main characters, having fun bowling with some friends, and then swings over a few lanes to linger for only a moment or two on a table at a bowling alley.  On the table is a cracked beer glass, an ashtray full of cigarettes, and a crumpled Marlboro package.

That’s it.  That’s the entire scene.  It means nothing to you, dear reader, because you didn’t see what led up to it.  But if you had watched the movie carefully up to this point, you would have understood immediately. Getting back to Bradbury’s point, what you would have understood from those few seconds would have taken a lesser director and writer many minutes of dialogue and action to convey to you.  Kieslowski does it in one image.

That’s one of the glories of film as a medium.  As Bradbury says, metaphor comes close to accomplishing the same thing in poetry and prose.  But only in film can you use sound, music, lighting, images, and so forth to get across what would take hundreds of words to explain.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:34 pm | Discuss (3)
March 14, 2008

Bradbury’s Astounding Memory

Category: Literature,Miscellaneous :: Permalink

Recently, I’ve been reading a collection of essays on writing and creativity by Ray Bradbury.  In one of these essays, which was first published as the introduction to Bradbury’s Collected Stories, he talks about his memory, which, it turns out, is far, far better than mine.  The context is a discussion of his short story “The Veldt,” and, to give you the rest of the background you need in order to see why this comment astounded me so much, this particular essay was written in 1980 and Bradbury was born in 1920:

The lions in that room, where did they come from?

From the lions I found in the books in the town library when I was ten.  From the lions I saw in the real circuses when I was five.  From the lion that prowled in Lon Chaney’s film He Who Gets Slapped in 1924!

In 1924! you say, with immense doubt.  Yes, 1924.  I didn’t see the Chaney film again until a year ago.  As soon as it flashed on the screen I knew that that was where my lions in “The Veldt” came from.  They had been hiding out, waiting, given shelter by my intuitive self, all these years.

For I am that special freak, the man with the child inside who remembers all.  I remember the day and the hour I was born.  I remember being circumcised on the fourth day after my birth.  I remember suckling at my mother’s breast.  Years later I asked my mother about the circumcision.  I had information that couldn’t have been told to me, there would be no reason to tell a child, especially in those still-Victorian times.  Was I circumcised somewhere away from the lying-in hospital?  I was.  My father took me to the doctor’s office.  I remember the doctor.  I remember the scalpel. — Ray Bradbury, “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle,” Zen in the Art of Writing, pp. 53-54.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:45 pm | Discuss (3)
March 10, 2008


Category: Family :: Permalink

Vance 0051.jpg

Posted by John Barach @ 3:10 pm | Discuss (4)
March 6, 2008

Sacred Harp

Category: Music :: Permalink

My first introduction to what is known as “sacred harp” or “shape note singing” was a few years back, when I picked up a CD called Goostly Psalmes, which Canon Press sold, and then eventually tracked down the companion CD of psalm and hymn tunes by William Billings, A Land of Pure Delight.  Some of these tunes I learned to sing when I visited Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and some of them are included in the Cantus Christi hymnal.

At the time, I suppose I thought that this hymnal was resurrecting these tunes and this style of singing, as it was doing for the Becker Psalter of Heinrich Schutz.  It turns out that I was wrong.

Today, on Jeffrey Overstreet’s Looking Closer blog, I came across a review of a recent documentary on shape note singing.  What’s interesting is that this musical style, which goes back to the earliest years of the United States and beyond that to Great Britain, is not dead nor has it been preserved only by academic musicologists.  It’s still alive and kicking in many churches, particularly in the southern states.

The documentary is entitled Awake, My Soul, and here is the review that alerted me to it.  The documentary has its own webpage, as well, where you can hear some of the music.  The first seven minutes of the documentary are online here.

My wife commented that there was something tribal about this singing.  Only later did I discover on the documentary’s website a reference to this as a “Lost Tonal Tribe.”  Exactly right.  There is something tribal about this sort of vigorous singing together, and that’s a good thing.

In Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, James Jordan talks about how the church functions as a tribe, and part of what cements the tribe together is vigorous communal singing.  History progresses through phases as tribes give way to kingdoms and kingdoms to empires, which then get so large that people begin to form new tribes within the empire to which they give their chief allegience.  At such a time as this, the tribal aspects of the church, including communal singing,   are exactly what the world needs.

I repeat the word “vigorous” here for a reason.  Dirgelike singing doesn’t change the world.  At least, not for the better.  It doesn’t draw people either.  Our Reformed forefathers sang the psalms, but they didn’t intone them slowly as if they were marching reluctantly to their funerals.  They sang them with vigor and strength, as soldiers marching to war.

The quotation on the documentary website from Joe Dempsey at the Washington City Paper puts it well: “Get enough people singing weird harmonies at the top of their voices and you start feeling a little sorry for the devil.”

Give this shape note singing a listen and maybe even pick up the documentary.  This may not be exactly (and certainly not only) what we ought to be doing ourselves.  I don’t believe, for instance, that every song ought to be sung in four-part harmony or that everyone in the church ought to be able to sing in four-part harmony.  But this documentary gives us an opportunity to watch and to learn from a community, a living tradition, that gets some things right.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:18 pm | Discuss (0)
March 1, 2008

Baby Boy

Category: Family :: Permalink

Moriah and I are pleased to announce the birth of our baby boy.  He arrived at 5:12 on Friday afternoon, weighing 9 lbs 4 oz. and measuring 21 inches long.  He appears to have inherited my chubby cheeks.  Mother and baby (and father!) are doing well, and Aletheia, the big sister, is thrilled to have a baby brother.

We’ve named him John Vance Barach, which is also my name and my father’s name, but we’ll call him by his middle name: Vance.  We’ve taken some pictures but don’t have them ready to post online yet.

God has been very good to us, and we’re thankful.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:38 pm | Discuss (10)