Thursday, November 2, 2017

Custom countdown video generation (the ... complicated way)

At Providence Baptist Church, where I serve on staff as Worship Leader and Technology Coordinator, we occasionally employ countdown videos ahead of our worship service start times.  Now, a countdown video is little more than a video clip that shows a "minutes:seconds" countdown, usually overlaying some subtle motion graphic loop or still image.  You can buy these things from media sites (such as Worship House Media) for a nominal fee, often as part of a collection of videos which bear a common visual theme — a countdown video, a few motion loop videos without any overlaid text, etc.  But sometimes I want a countdown video that I can't purchase, perhaps because I don't like the font, font size, positioning, or background motion loop of what is available for purchase.

Now, I'm sure that expensive video editing software can generate these things willy-nilly with full customization.  But I'm not really an expensive-video-editing-software kind of guy.  I'm familiar with a handful of less-expensive (or free) options, though, and many of these offer the promise of a workaround for my itch to design custom countdown loops.  So tonight, I decided to see what I could work out using my current favorite of these editors, VideoPad.

Like many other timeline-based video editors, VideoPad allows you to create text objects which can overlay another video track.  I figured that if I could create a VideoPad project with a whole track full of 1-second text objects, each of which showed the countdown text I wanted ("4:59", "4:58", "4:57", and so on), I could use this as a template for various specific countdown timers in the future.  I'd simply swap out the still frame or motion loop video that served as the background, and re-render as needed.  But it only took me a few minutes to realize that I really didn't want to manually create and sequence 300 of these frames (5 minutes x 60 seconds per minute).

So I took a slight detour.  What if I could reverse-engineer the VideoPad project file format?  Was that possible?  It only took a few minutes to realize that VideoPad project files are simple text files with Unix line endings and URI-query-encoded lines of data.  Unfortunately, while I could make sense of much of what I saw in my sample project file, I failed to successfully edit it to affect a simple change — the addition of one more countdown text object properly sequenced.

I was about to give up hope, when I remembered that VideoPad also supported the use of PNG image overlays — with full alpha-channel support!  If I could generate 300 PNGs, each one a transparent rectangle with the countdown timer text rendered in the frame, then VideoPad would let me import those as an image sequence (much like the "create a slideshow" feature of other editors) and then I could layer that whole sequence atop the background still/video of my choosing!  Finally, I was in familiar territory.

After about a half-hour of hacking around with Python and Pillow (née the Python Imaging Library), I had something that worked for my purposes!  I quickly generated the 300 image files, successfully imported them into VideoPad, shoved another motion loop video underneath them, and rendered my first custom countdown video!  And since my wife and kids were away from home, I then spent another hour polishing up my script a bit more, allowing it to be driven with various options (controlling the size of the generated frames, the font specifications of the countdown text, and the rough positioning of the text), adding some error-checking and documentation, and published the result to Github as gen-countdown-frames.

To those with oddball interests and similar needs:  you're welcome!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Parenting by the Sixes

I suspect that at some point every Christian parenting seminar, magazine, or discussion eventually finds a way to bring up the opening verses of Ephesians 6:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
[Ephesians 6:1-4 ESV]
And to be sure, this is not a bad thing.  The author and apostle Paul does a good — if concise — job here of addressing both "sides" of the oft-opposed factions within a household.

But I was surprised and enlightened this morning when I found conviction and instruction for the parent as I read the opening of not Ephesians 6, but Galatians 6:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.  [Galatians 6:1-3 ESV]
I can't tell you how many times I've admonished my children for some behavioral shortcoming only to find myself succumbing a similar (or identical!) issue shortly thereafter.  So while Paul may not in this second passage be addressing parents and children specifically, I think the prescription applies nonetheless.  As a father, my supreme aim for my children is that they increase in holiness.  But I need to offer guidance to that effect in love, with gentleness, and in all humility as I openly confess my own failures, my insufficiency, and my outright dependency on the grace of God as He works out holiness in me.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

WOBO Wallet Review

Prompted by a follow-up email request to review the WOBO wallet I recently purchased for myself, I composed the following review:

I bought the WOBO wallet for three reasons:  (1) I tire of replacing cracked drivers' licenses, banking and loyalty cards, (2) my previous (trifold) wallet was a giant lump in my pocket, stuffed so full with such cards that cash bills had to be literally crammed in, and (3) I know the WOBO wallet's designer personally.   
Now, let's face it -- there are other solutions for reasons #1 and #2, and #3 is not a product-based reason at all.  As such, my expectations were moderately high, but tempered by prior attempts at solving my wallet problems.  It is with pleasure, then, that I can report here that my expectations were met and exceeded. 
This is a solid product, well-conceived and well-constructed.  The 15-17 cards I carry around (including freshly replaced, now-crack-free NCDL and debit cards) are securely held and easy to access.  The whole package is about the same size as a small flipphone (which means I can comfortably and more safely carry it in my front pocket), and it's easy to slip bills in and out of the elastic strap.  And when I run into the WOBO designer around town I can continue to greet him with a smile and the promise of word-of-mouth marketing for his product. 
So my three reasons for giving the WOBO a shot are now three reasons to give it a shout-out.  That's a successful experiment in my book. 
(Though, I confess I was disappointed to learn from the designer that "WOBO" didn't stand for "Working Our Butts Off" as I had supposed...)
 A couple of additional thoughts for the WOBO folks to consider:

  • Closing the wallet can be a challenge if the "top-most" card in the stack isn't smooth-faced (for example, if it has raised/embossed letters and numbers).  Consider providing a smooth, clear, plastic card that folks can put on the top of the stack if they really want a "bumpy" card to be the first one they see upon opening the wallet.
  • While the video instructions are great, a paper-set of illustrated open/close instructions wouldn't hurt.  (I wonder if the IKEA folks outsource their artists...)

Friday, July 15, 2016


One of my favorite smartphone apps is the Voice Recorder.  These days I feel like I can barely remember anything, so I use it whenever a piece of musical inspiration strikes.  Over time, pieces and segments of song ideas get refined into something whole that's perhaps worth keeping, and I'll usually take the time then to record something of higher quality as a memento/demo.  Eventually I'll delete the original Voice Recorder files that no longer serve as songs-in-progress.

Earlier this week while performing just such a cleaning-out, I stumbled across a recording that I made back in January of a single song section.  The theme of the verse (as it later came to be) was about heavenly homesickness.  I recall picking up this theme from C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.  Here's a relevant section of his text:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same. 
Of course, the notion of Christians having the citizenship right in heaven rather than in the material world is more directly biblical.  Philippians 3:18-21 reads like so:
For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
I spent some time churning on this notion and on my little song baby, and was motivated to fully mature it into something worthy of a demo recording (lyrics follow):

And here's the lyrical content:

On this road I walk along,
Seasons dim and seasons dawn
And the years keep rambling on.
They ramble on.
I know well this world I see,
Shared with friends and family,
But a voice keeps telling me
I'm sick for home.

Jesus, only You can satisfy.
You alone make all things new.
You're the Way, the Truth, the Life and I'm,
Oh I'm, coming home to You.

The rugged cross that Jesus bore
Draws my thoughts towards Heaven's shore
Where the One I'm living for
Prepares my home.
Lord, the beauty of your grace
And the promise of your face
Bid me make this world a better place
Until I'm home.

Jesus, only You can satisfy.
You alone make all things new.
You're the Way, the Truth, the Life and I'm,
Oh I'm, coming home to You.
Lord, I'm coming home to You.

When my final day is done
And this earthly race is run,
I will bow before the One
Who calls me home.
Yes I'll bow before the One
Who calls me home.
© 2016 C. Michael Pilato. Available for use under the cc-by-3.0 license.
I hope you enjoy the listen.  Leave feedback if you feel so motivated.

UPDATE(9/4/2016): Due to the rather personal perspective of this song, I never dreamed it would have a life beyond this crummy little demo recording.  But as it turns out, we had a rare revival-like sermon today on "The Preciousness of Heaven" presented by Rev. Rody Carland at my church, and he allowed me to share the song as a musical special ahead of the sermon.  Thus, a song that nearly fell through the cracks and was unlikely to ever be publicly performed is now being considered by some as the best thing I've even written.  I'm continually surprised by how God works stuff out sometimes...

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bibles, copyright, and restrictive licensing

One Wednesday evening as Pastor John Cashwell wrapped up his sermon, I found myself staring at the binding of a pew Bible. "Holman Christian Standard Bible" … and then that big ol' ® (registered trademark) symbol. Recalling that in the past I'd read the New International Version (NIV) licensing statement, I flipped open the cover of the HCSB to read its own, and found stuff pretty similar to what I remembered the NIV's to be. You can quote the text, but not more than 250 verses, not quoting a whole book, and not using the quotes as more than 20% of the body of work in which you are embedding the verses.

Why do modern Bible translations carry restrictive licenses?

How can a publisher restrict the free distribution of a work that is, by its very definition, just a remix of some other, written-before-there-were-even-copyrights, text?

I Googled around a bit for some answers. My first hit was a FAQ entry on, which talks—among other things—about the cost and effort involved in creating an accurate Bible translation. It contains the following wrap-up summary:

To sum up, Bible versions are copyrighted to make sure that translators are fairly reimbursed for their hard work. Most copyrighted Bible versions have relatively lenient quoting rules that should cover most common situations. But if for whatever reason the copyright rules prevent you from using the Bible as you like, you're free to use a non-copyrighted Bible version.

The article also states that "there is nothing stopping you from creating your own Bible translation—there are online projects dedicated to doing just that!" This intrigued me. I'd never considered the idea of crowd-sourcing a Bible translation before, so I Googled again for "crowd-sourced Bible translation". This led me to a project called The Seed Company ( Initially, I was excited, but as I read on, I didn't see many obvious differences between the Seed Company and other traditional translation methods such as those employed by its sister company, Wycliffe Bible Translators. Some digging around further led me to a well-written set of blog posts which somewhat echoed much of what I was thinking (plus a bunch of stuff I'd not considered).

Dissatisfied, I tried a different search: " wikipedia style Bible translation".

Finally, I landed on something promising! The WikiProject Wiki Bible ( is the project that I found myself wishing into existence.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

"Precious Lord"

A few weeks ago, I challenged myself to write a song that was a bit more closely tied to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than to the goodness of God generally, and especially to target lyrics that carried a bit more emotion than my typical fare.

The result was a song called "Precious Lord", which I was blessed to be able to share with my church family recently in a performance with my wife and two sons.

Here are the lyrics:
"Precious Lord"

Son comes up.  Blood flows down.
Word made flesh; Truth made jest; curse made crown.
Sun goes dark. Love's work done.
Landscapes shake; strongholds quake; Love has won.

Precious Lord, please forgive.
Draw me close; help me live for you.

Precious Lord. Here I stand, no defense.
Stained by sin, scrubbing crimson fingerprints.
Then Son comes up. Day breaks new.
Life beats Death; Christ breathes breath; Love breaks through.

Precious Lord, please forgive.
Draw me close; help me live for you.
And one day, let my reward
Be the sight of my Precious Lord.
© 2015 C. Michael Pilato. Available for use under the cc-by-3.0 license.
I was also able to convince Amy to track her vocal part in a demo recording of the song.  The mix is a bit vocal-heavy, and the lead guitar part pretty sloppy.  But it will serve, at a minimum, as an audible snapshot of this moment in my artistic development.  I hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

In Spirit and in Truth

For a few weeks, the topic of worship has been hot, hot, hot around Providence. For some, that’s made for a great opportunity to think about how we as leaders can facilitate a more active and purposeful worship in our services. For others, it’s been a source of confusion and even hurt feelings.

"Does the Bible require that I sing in church?"
"Does raising my hands make me a better worshipper?"
"Why does the pastor invite folks to come forward and pray at the front of the church, anyway?"

These are just some of the questions I and others at the church have been asked in recent weeks.  But while there are surely some specific answers to those questions that could be given, I'd like instead to explore from a more high-level perspective what the Bible teaches about worship that is acceptable to God.  I genuinely believe that when we understand the big picture of acceptable worship, these more specific questions will fall away as less interesting.

Framing the Question

John 4 tells us of a unique encounter that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman he meets at a well.  He impresses this woman with His supernatural perception and insight into her personal life and failures.  So she does what many of us would do:  she tries to change the topic away from her own sin and onto something else — in this case, she chooses some religious debate the Jews and Samaritans have been having.
We’ll pick up the text in verse 19.
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

What’s going on here?  Jesus is deflecting the woman’s question by indicating that it’s essentially no longer relevant.  He’s saying that the old questions about worship style no longer apply — a new worship paradigm has been introduced.

Worship in Jesus' day was, at its core, much the same as it had been since the days of Moses:  as proscribed by Mosaic Law.  This worship was primarily about specifically prescribed activities at specific geographical locations — sacrifices, festivals, ritual cleanliness, at the Tabernacle, Tent of Meeting, Holy of Holies, etc.)  Jesus’ own family would have been bound to these same rituals.  (Luke 2 tells us how Mary and Joseph had to go to Jerusalem to offer the prescribed sacrifice for a first-born son.)

Our text describes a move away from Mosaic worship and into something else. Moreover, Jesus indicates that this transition “is coming and has now come”.  Well, if the change has now come, what ushered in the change?  What happened in the world that would permit worship to deviate from the strict patterns of Mosaic Law?  Put simply, Jesus happened.  He’s the difference.  Jesus changes the game.  Elsewhere in the Bible we are taught that He is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices; the High Priest to eliminate the need for all other high priests; and that the body of the believer is the new temple of the Holy Spirit.  Worship as prescribed by Mosaic law appears to have received an update.

So what’s the new worship paradigm?  If it’s no longer about being at the right place at the right time with the right ritual, then what is it about?  According to the text, it’s about worship "in the Spirit and in truth".

In Truth

Worship that honors God must be true.  This worship must be educated and informed, and must not behave contrary to what it knows to be true.  True worship is:
  • true to Who God is and what He's done (and doing).
  • true to who God designed you to be.
  • true to the Gospel, grateful for the gift of Jesus (“the Way, the Truth, and the Life…”).
In true worship, there is no room for anything artificial, manufactured, manipulated, or fake.  There is no room for anything that’s uninformed and unbiblical.  We are compelled, then, to grow in our knowledge of and relationship with God.  In doing so, our worship can more fully align with His truth.  Without that, our worship will always fall short.

In the Spirit

John 3:16 is arguably the most popular verse in the Bible, but do you know the context in which it appears?  In John 3, a prominent religious leader named Nicodemus is visiting Jesus under cover of night to question the Rabbi about His teachings.  They enjoy an almost comical (if understandable) exchange in which Jesus coins the phrase "born again" and Nicodemus misses the metaphor.  But then Jesus explains this second birth in verse 6:
6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

As Christians, we are (re)born of the Spirit, therefore we have a spirit component to our existence.  The life of our spirit flows from God's Spirit.  Our entire identity is rewritten in light of God becoming our spiritual Father.

We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit at the time of salvation.  The Holy Spirit’s jobs are many:  to act as our Counselor, our Guide, our Comforter; to help us understand God’s Word and His revelation (past and present, written or otherwise); etc.  These are all very real-time activities.  The Holy Spirit is a person, alive within us, actively working right now to help us make sense of God and His Word and the world He created.

So this new worship is not just physical — right place, right time, right ritual.  It flows from the Spirit, which means:
  • it can only be embraced by those born of the Spirit (Christians).
  • it involves our whole re-born being.
  • it carries the characteristics of the Holy spirit — it’s alive and interactive.

    Missing Pieces: Where Things Go Wrong

    Worship in the Spirit and in truth is the recipe Jesus gives for successful worship approved by the Father (God).  But like most recipes, things go wrong when we are missing an ingredient.

    Worship that is sincere but not guided by the living, interactive Holy Spirit is incomplete and dry.  It removes the interactive element provided by the Holy Spirit’s on-the-fly, in-the-moment communication and revelation about the things of God.  As such, it tends to be emotionless, focused on rituals and patterns that run the same course regardless of what's happening in the worship environment.  This is very much like Mosaic worship.  It may not involve animal sacrifice, but the major components of Mosaic worship are still there.  This kind of worship tends to happen only in certain environments (such as a church building) and at certain times (such as on Sunday mornings), performing the same rituals every time (such as singing songs and listening to sermons without any genuine emotional or spiritual response to them).

    On the other hand, if you have worship that's emotional and interactive but lacks truth and sincerity, you have mere emotionalism.  Emotionalism in worship is, when it comes down to it, the result of making the hunt for a good feeling the point of worship.  Sadly, this is all too common in churches where worship is all about having “an experience”.  Don't be deceived!  Feelings and emotions are easy to manipulate.  I can feel joy, sorrow, excitement, anxiety, and a whole range of other emotions simply listening to instrumental classical music or opera in a foreign language.   (Actually, I can't tolerate opera music, so I mostly feel only pain and irritation when I listen to that!)  The service and retail industries have known for years how to use music to manipulate consumers.  You cannot have “an experience” with the Holy Spirit and the only effect be that you “feel better” for an hour or so.  Our God is a Universe-authoring God!  Nothing He touches remains the same!  If your worship leaves you with little more than an emotional high, is that anything more than you could pick up at a concert or a ball game?

    Worship in the Spirit and in Truth — How?

    Moving beyond ritualistic worship and into Spirit-led, interactive worship can be a challenge due to many reasons:  social pressures, ignorance, fear, doubt, and so on.  Certainly, it's much easier to just keep going with the flow, doing what you do, and not rocking the boat.  But that's pretty much never the course God calls us to take.  So how can we start to move past those challenges and into the fullness of the worship that God actually desires?

    First, we must be born of God’s Spirit.  You cannot worship God fully and completely and in a fashion that He will accept if you don't have a relationship with Him. You must be born again, in and of the Spirit.

    Secondly, we need to understand the relationship between obedience and faith — namely, that they go hand in hand.  Without obedience, there is no faith.  Faith without obedience is called "dead" in the Scripture.  I can say that I believe that God is worthy to be praised by all of my being, but if I withhold part of myself in worship (my emotions, my natural physical expressions, my vulnerability), then my actions tell the sad-but-true story of what I truly believe.  God's word is absolutely full of worship-related instructions, from prayer and fasting to singing and shouting and even various postures of worship.  When we ask God for faith regarding things he's already told us to do, his response is often, "My child, just obey me.  When you see how it all works out, faith won't be an issue for you".

    We also benefit from the support of our church family.  The first time we break from our established, ritualized worship patterns in public is always the hardest time.  We’re probably convinced that everyone is noticing that we’re doing something different and judging our sincerity.  This kind of free exploration of Spirit-led worship is so, so much easier when we’re surrounded by folks who we know are not judging us because they love us.  (This is also why we are often more free in our worship when we attend Christian conferences or concerts — we figure that the random folks we sit near in those venues and who we'll likely never see again aren't judging us, either.)

    Finally, I strongly suggest and beg (beseech!) you to take all of this and process it in your private worship time.  If you don’t have a private worship time, get one.   It will revolutionize your relationship with God.  In your private worship time, read your Bible, pray, sit silent and listen, “try out” the various biblical postures of worship, paint a picture inspired by Scripture, write a poem or a song.  It doesn't so much matter what you do specifically.  The idea is simply to commune with God, to expand the scope of what you consider "worship", and to learn to follow His lead regarding how He wants to spend that specific time with you.

    This post was adapted from a lesson I developed and taught to the Impact Student Ministry of Providence Baptist Church in Harrisburg, NC.  And, uh, my apologies to all the parents of teens that I irritated that night by running 30 minutes over my allotted speaking time.