Over the past month, the Student Pastor at our church (and a dear friend) Evan Smith has been filling the pulpit on Sunday mornings as our senior pastor enjoys some much-deserved vacation time. (You might have noticed, but 2020 was a rather hard year for folks, and perhaps especially pastors.) Evan chose to deliver a cohesive, four-part sermon series, and settled a couple of months ago on the theme of God's presence. Over the four weeks, he planned to illuminate the thread of God's desire to dwell with His people that runs through the whole of Scripture: from Eden (where God walked with Adam and Eve), through the Exodus (where God "tabernacled" with the Israelites), to the Embodiment (or Incarnation, where Jesus — the Word who both was with God and was God — became flesh and dwelt among us), and into the promise of Eternity (where the people of God will enjoy the immediate presence of God forever). And if you were paying close attention, you noticed that those four waypoints were alliterative — such a good Baptist pastor! But between the lines of this story runs the equally deep and powerful truth of God's nature as both perfectly holy — such that imperfection in His presence runs the risk of eradication — and immensely gracious.
These were some of the many thoughts swimming around in my head on July 4, 2021. I was hiking alone the Robbins Branch Loop Trail in the Uwharrie National Forest, and trying to enjoy a calmness of mind. Irritatingly, though, my brain just seemed frantic — jumping from thought to thought across all the various roles I play (husband, parent, employee, worship leader, etc.). At one point, I actually yelled aloud in the forest in frustration, "Why is it so noisy in here?!" And then a strange thing happened. In what seemed like no time at all, the melody and opening words of the chorus of a new song were in my head, coalescing around the themes of Evan's sermon series. I spent the next several hours (and about 8 miles of hiking) developing the skeleton of the song. I was super-grateful to be alone in the woods, not least because it's really embarrassing to be tripping over tree roots whenever I turned my attention to my phone's voice recorder app or tried to type into it some lyric ideas!
Once home, I spent the next week or so putting meat on the song skeleton. Friends I shared the concept with seemed more supportive of this song than usual, so it felt like effort well-invested. And this past Sunday, Amy and I — along with other members of our church's worship team — shared the song with our church family. God be praised for using such an unworthy vessel to encourage His Church in song. Gracious and holy He truly is.
"Gracious and Holy" You made the Earth and the heavens. Spoke words to form them and fill them. So all that we have is by Your hand. Gracious and holy You are. You gave us freedom and purpose. We chose rebellion and curses. But hope lingered under the surface. Gracious and holy You are. Gracious and holy You are. You are here, always with me, Nearer than sacred to naked should be. You speak promises over my shame. I know that I'll never be the same. You came to dwell with Your people; Strengthen the downcast and feeble; And rescue us from every evil. Gracious and holy You are. Humbly you gave Your life for us. Hope is reversing our curses, Restoring our freedom and purpose. Gracious and holy You are. Gracious and holy You are. You are here, always with me. Nearer than righteous to wretched should be. You speak promises over my shame. I know that I'll never be the same. Now you are seated in Heaven, So, by the Spirit You've given, We will proclaim, "Christ is risen!" Gracious and holy You are. Gracious and holy You are. You are here, always with me, Nearer forever than failure could be. You poured righteousness over my shame. Called me Your child and then gave me Your name. You are here, always with me, Nearer forever than failure could be. You poured righteousness over my shame. I know that I'll never be the same. I know that I'll never be the same. ©2021 C. Michael Pilato; License: CC-BY-3.0
Here also is a demo recording that I made as a reference for our worship team (with many thanks to my son Aidan for lending his percussive skills):
Finally, you can get lead sheets (including the source MuseScore file) for the song from my GitHub repository.