The high ground

Every now and then I run across an interesting old movie that I’ve not only never seen but never even heard of. This afternoon, I watched the last two-thirds of “Take the High Ground!,” a 1953 movie with Richard Widmark and Karl Malden. I don’t know why I stopped to watch it — I generally don’t enjoy movies from the 1950s. The 50s were a period when Hollywood was forced to change the long-standing studio system and was losing some of its traditional patronage to television. The studio visionaries of the 1930s and 1940s were gone, retiring or in decline, and while there were certainly some good movies during the decade I don’t think of it as a golden age.

The first actor I recognized in “Take the High Ground!” was Steve Forrest, and while he’s good parodying himself in movies like “Spies Like Us,” he’s typical of the dull, iron-jawed 1950’s leading man.

But “Take the High Ground!” was surprisingly good. It’s an Army basic training movie, featuring Widmark as a drill instructor whipping the raw recruits into shape. In fact, one poster on IMDb compared its plot to Jack Webb’s “The D.I.,” which came along four years later, and found them surprisingly similar. Widmark and Malden have different approaches for dealing with the recruits — Widmark is all blood and guts, while Malden is a little more sympathetic, and this eventually puts the two of them at odds.

I guess it’s sort of predictable, but I still found it entertaining and well-acted, particularly by Widmark, who manages to make his character sympathetic and worthy of respect.

God and mammon

There’s a business that advertises on cable TV locally (I want to say it’s a car dealership but I may be wrong) which ends its ads with an evangelistic message — literally. “… and if you’ve tried everything else in life, why not try Jesus?”

I don’t know anything about the business in question; I will certainly give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is an honest expression of faith and not a calculated attempt to appeal to Bible Belt sensibilities. But the placement of the message seems jarring. A hurried sentence about Jesus at the end of a hard-sell TV commercial may not be the best approach — then again, at least they’re doing something to share their faith, which is more than most of us can say.

Meanwhile, a convenience store I sometimes patronize stocks a brand of potato chips called “Uncle Ray’s.” Each bag of the chips bears a folksy little autobiographical essay by the founder, and those essays end with scripture verses. In this context, the Bible verses tie right in with the product’s family image.

And they’re good chips, too.

Buzz cut

I have very thick hair — a gift from my mother — and it was always a sort of unruly, ugly mop until 2003. That year, I had my sister cut it short because I was playing a sailor in a community theatre production of “Mister Roberts.” As it turns out, my hair was shorter than most of the rest of the cast.

Anyway, I decided I enjoyed having it that short. It’s not stylish, necessarily, but it’s far less ugly than the old look. One reason I like it is that I can cut it myself. I use the shortest clipper guard (#1) during warm weather, and the next-to-shortest clipper guard (#2) during the winter.

The weather has been a little strange here — we had snow on St. Patrick’s Day, with a dusting on the ground an a half an inch on cars and roofs — but spring officially started today, and so I cut my hair with clipper #1. I like the bristly feel of it — I find myself running my hand over it the first day or two after I cut it. Is that wrong?

Gospel fake book

The Praise & Worship Fake BookThe Sunday before Easter is sometimes a conundrum for churches. Most churches observe Palm Sunday, marking Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. But some churches, especially if they aren’t going to have a well-attended Good Friday service, observe “Passion Sunday,” talking about the arrest and even the crucifixion of Jesus in preparation for next Sunday’s resurrection story.

Even though First UMC will have Maundy Thursday services and will participate in a community-wide Good Friday event, our pastor took the latter approach this morning.

Our choir director at First UMC, Jon Brock, sang the beautiful song “The Day He Wore My Crown” at early service. It had been years since I’d heard it, and I wanted to quote a snippet of the lyrics for you. I searched for them — song lyrics are usually easy to find online — but most of what I came up with were listings for songbooks that contained the song.

There were also a lot of listings for “fake books.” A “fake book,” I discovered a few years ago, is a book that shows the melody line and chord changes for a particular song.

It was still strange to see listings for “The Contemporary Christian Fake Book” or “The Gospel Fake Book.” There’s got to be a sermon illustration in there somewhere; I’ll have to file it away until my next layspeaking assignment.

Into all the world

It was a long and tiring week at work, and it ended on a stressful and upsetting note. So I was secretly wishing that I hadn’t made a commitment to attend the Tennessee Conference United Methodist missions fair today in Brentwood.

I’m glad I went ahead and attended. I rode to Brentwood with Kay Bartley, who chairs our outreach committee at church. The program was engaging and informative, with a worship service and a series of breakout sessions about various United Methodist-related mission programs.

Today was my first time to hear our new bishop, the Rev. Dick Wills, speak, and he was terrific, telling the story about how he thought he was signing up for a mission trip to Tahiti and ended up on one to South Africa! I was pleased to hear that Bishop Wills has a true heart for international missions.

At lunch, I sat next to a delightful woman who once served as a long-term missionary in Kenya. Billy Hester from the Mountain T.O.P. office was at the fair manning Mountain T.O.P.’s display and leading a breakout session about the ministry. I pointed Billy out to my lunch companion and told her about his self-taught skills in Swahili (he did it as a personal challenge and has never been to Africa). Billy later told me that she’d walked up to him in the hall and began speaking Swahili to him! (“She’s a lot better at it than I am,” he said.)

I particularly enjoyed the breakout session about Russia. A group from the host church, Brentwood UMC, has been working to turn a former bakery into a Methodist church. Because of the dominance of the Eastern Orthodox church, and because some of the first groups to enter Russia after the fall of Communism were cults and sects, it’s particularly important for churches in Russia to have permanent buildings — it gives them credibility and helps distinguish them from the sects.

The Risks of Regime Change

Derek Hoffman, in Christianity Today, offers a startling but believable analysis: in the Middle East, Christian minorities are less likely to be persecuted in dictatorships than democracies. A dictator, even if Muslim, is likely to be concerned with keeping the peace and won’t tolerate individual acts of mob violence.

Hoffman isn’t defending totalitarianism, of course; he’s merely pointing out the risk Christians face anywhere in the Middle East, and helping us to understand the relationship between the Christian minority and the Muslim majority there.

Jambo Kenya

Now that the Times-Gazette web site is including full text stories, I have indulged myself a little bit and posted to the T-G site my five-part series from September of last year about my Kenya mission trip. That means I can now link to it here.

Those of you who contributed to the trip have already seen these stories, because they were included on the CD-ROM I sent you.

Symphony page

I guess this is one of my chattier nights.

The symphony page has been fixed, somewhat, and it turns out that Dreamweaver had been letting me down a little bit. A couple of floating CSS boxes didn’t display correctly in the wysi(supposedly)wyg mode of my version of Dreamweaver. When I tried “preview in browser,” on the other hand, they worked fine.