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.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2015

    "Restore Us (Prayer For Unity)"

    Last year, I heard a few sermons in seemingly short succession which dealt with the topic of interpersonal struggles within the local church.  While my own church has, by God's grace, been largely shielded from the kind of nagging and backbiting that has utterly destroyed other local congregations throughout history, we are not yet a perfected people.  Should God remove His hand of protection, today's respectful disagreement is tomorrow's church split and that's that.  Given Jesus' indication that it is through the unity of the believers that the unbelieving world will come to know God's love, it seems like a fairly important goal to shoot for.

    Well, I'm no theologian.  But I do write the occasional song, and this topic of unity -- and restoration where unity has failed -- was inspirational.  I wrote the song "Restore Us (Prayer For Unity)" near the end of Summer 2014.  I tracked all the parts myself originally, but then asked drummer and friend Evan Smith if he'd care to re-track the drum parts.  Evan obliged, and the song was instantly better!  I intended back then to have my wife replace my vocal leads with her much more lovely voice.  But life, busy-ness, priorities, distractions, ... you know the routine.  It just never happened.  Even now as I think about it -- me with a head cold and her with a sinus infection and the boys running around the house noisily and the baby girl singing her own song that apparently has something to do with cheesy crackers -- I just shake my head and wonder how anything ever gets done at all.

    Anyway, here's the song as it stands today.
    "Restore Us (Prayer For Unity)"

    When we fracture; when we fragment;
    When we fall apart.
    When forgiveness seems so distant
    From every injured heart.

    Even though breath is fleeting,
    Even though hearts may fail,
    You are our strength forever.
    Restore us. (Ps. 73:26)

    In the season of disagreement
    When we all fall short
    Unify us in Christ Jesus
    To glorify our Lord (John 17:20-23)

    Even though breath is fleeting
    Even though hearts may fail
    You are our strength forever
    You restore us
    You restore us

    It bears all things.
    Believes all things.
    Hopes all things.
    Love endures. (1 Cor. 13:7)
    © 2014 C. Michael Pilato. Available for use under the cc-by-3.0 license.

    Thursday, May 15, 2014

    Family music moment: "How Great Thou Art"

    This week, I worked up a modified arrangement of the wonderful old hymn "How Great Thou Art" for use in Sunday's services at Providence Baptist Church.  I wanted to record a reference track for the worship band to listen and practice to (since it's a bit late in the week to be introducing music ... ahem ...), so I knew that was on my agenda for tonight.

    Our church has been going through a home-based study of the topic of "Worship" (see if you're interested in the materials), and one of the key components of the study is worshiping in the home together as a family.  There are many ways to do this, of course, but I'm blessed with a family that loves music, and loves to make music.  So I gathered the family together, distributed chord charts, and setup the recording gear.  What resulted was a solid (if imperfect) reference track for the worship band to use, but more important, a digital treasure for the Pilato family, remembering a time we lifted our voices and instruments together in praise.

    Amy Lyn Pilato - lead vocals
    C. Michael Pilato - fingerstyle guitar, bass guitar, vocals
    Gavin Pilato - rhythm guitar
    Aidan Pilato - cajon (percussion)

    * Kaelyn was sleeping at the time, else she surely would have provided her own slobber-coated contribution to the track.  Maybe next time, Sweetheart...

    Sunday, January 12, 2014

    A closer look at Psalm 108

    Tomorrow (or today ... gosh, it's late) my church will sing the song "I Will Sing To You", which is a worship song I composed nearly a year ago from the text of Psalm 108. Actually, I didn't use all of Psalm 108. I only used the first five verses. In fact, the whole reason that Psalm 108 is on my mind right now is because I wanted to remind myself what the rest of that chapter said — the part I didn't use in my song. Suffice it to say that having read Psalm 108:6-13 again, I'm reminded why I didn't use it in the song. There's nothing wrong with the text, of course. It just didn't lend itself so easily to being reworked as a modern song of praise. (What rhymes with "Moab is God's restroom"?)

    But this whole detour got me looking into the chapter in more depth. By perusing my Bible, multiple commentaries, and Wikipedia, I realized some things I didn't previous know about Psalm 108.

    First, the psalm is a remix! The entirety of this psalm is constructed from pieces of other psalms. Psalm 108:1-5 is pulled from Psalm 57:7-11; the rest of the psalm comes from Psalm 60:5-12. These two original psalms each had their own individual tunes: Psalm 57 was written "to the tune of 'Do Not Destroy'" and Psalm 60 "to the tune of 'The Lily of the Covenant'" (whatever those tunes are). Wah-lah — remix. That would make my song a remix of a remix. A second-order remix. Remix². (Shall I continue?)

    David asks in the psalm, "Who will bring me to the fortified city? Who will lead me to Edom?" and petitions God for aid in a military campaign. Fortunately, we get to know how that story ended. 2 Samuel 8:13-14 says that David became famous after his military victory over Edom, that Edom was fully subdued, and — further — that "the LORD gave David victory wherever he went."

    Unfortunately, there seems to be some confusion about the details about this particular victory. The 2 Samuel passage credits David with the slaying of 18,000 men in Edom (though some translations refer instead to a region called "Aram"). A parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 18 names Abishai — who was one of the captains of David's army — as the victor over those 18,000. And the header for Psalm 60 credits Joab — Abishai's brother and another of David's captains — with the victory, though only over 12,000 men. In any case, it was ultimately David's army or a portion thereof led by his subordinate that won the day.

    Thursday, January 9, 2014

    "At Calvary", reenvisioned

    As a worship leader in the 21st century, I have the interesting challenge of trying to select music that jives with the likes and dislikes of folks of all ages and musical preferences. At this task, perfect success is not attainable. You really can't please 100% of the people 100% of the time. But that doesn't mean that it ain't worth trying!

    One way we do this at my church is to select music from many different eras of relatively modern Christendom (the last 150 years or so), and mix those up from week to week. Ancient hymns, praise choruses from the 80s and 90s, and contemporary worship songs all enjoy representation in our weekly worship services. But one of the things I really like to do is to take a good old hymn and rework it with an ear for performance using modern-day rock instrumentation. Some hymns naturally lend themselves to this exercise.  Some do not.

    "At Calvary" is a song that I've long wished to transform and update in this way, but had failed at several times in the past. See, for me, one big goal is to preserve, as best as possible, the original melody of the song. That allows folks who (like me) have been singing the hymn since their youth to pipe in with what they know on the first listen of the revised version without missing a beat. Or a note. Or a word.

    Well, I recently decided to sacrifice the melody of about 1 1/2 lines of the song in the interest of reshaping the tune for a modern ear, and that was all the concession required to set me off on a full reworking. I swapped the third and fourth stanzas, added a new bridge part, and made one tiny wording tweak[*]. And that was that!
    I Am Free (At Calvary)
    Words: Will­iam R. New­ell, 1895; C. Michael Pilato, 2014
    Music: Dan­iel B. Town­er, C. Michael Pilato

    Years I spent in vanity and pride
    Caring not my Lord was crucified
    Knowing not it was for me He died
    On Calvary.

    By God's Word at last my sin I learned
    Then I trembled at the law I'd spurned
    Till my guilty soul imploring turned
    To Calvary

    Mercy there was great and grace was free
    Pardon there was multiplied to me
    There my burdened soul found liberty
    At Calvary

    Oh the love that drew salvation's plan
    Oh the grace that brought it down to man
    Oh the mighty gulf that God did span
    At Calvary.

    Mercy there was great and grace was free
    Pardon there was multiplied to me
    There my burdened soul found liberty
    At Calvary

    I am free.
    I am free.
    By the mercy of God's great grace, I am free.
    I am free. (I'm forgiven)
    I am free. (I am living...)
    By the mercy of God's great grace, I am free.

    Now I give to Jesus everything
    Now I gladly own Him as my King
    Now my raptured soul can only sing
    Of Calvary.

    Mercy there was great and grace was free
    Pardon there was multiplied to me
    There my burdened soul found liberty
    At Calvary.
    Tonight, I spent a few hours tracking a quicky demo of the idea. Hope you enjoy it!

    [*] The original song's third verse says, "Now I've given to Jesus everything." As I approached this song, I had to come to terms with the fact that that's not true for me.  The surrender process — the process of giving everything to Jesus — is not yet complete in my life. So I went with "Now I give to Jesus everything", which has the added benefit of a little more parallelism with the preceding lyric.