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Steven S. Billings

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Thursday, October 27, 2005


One of the guys in my acting class is making a movie.  He's hooked up with an independent film company out of Chicago.  They are all from India, where the film industry produces more motion pictures than the U.S. and Great Britain combined.  The film is expected to be released in theaters all over India and in video stores all over the United States.  He wants me to play a part in it.

Apparently, it's a film about Indian immigrants to the U.S. and how they find their way to and in America, the struggles, internal and external, that they face.  His premise is that a life here can be made, a good one in fact, but it takes hard work and dedication to the goal to make it happen.  A great premise, I think.  It reflects a work ethic from which many native-born Americans could benefit.

Not only does he want me to act in this film, he wants to use some of my songs.  They're planning a promotional CD and eventually a soundtrack CD.  Imagine!  My music being played world-wide!  Sounds like the opportunity of a lifetime.

We sat and played through the demo's I've done to date, and there are several that he really likes.  But ...

He then begins to talk about changes.  "It's a secular movie," he says, "So lines about Jesus have to be re-written."  And so on it goes.  At first I thought: "Well, maybe a word or two here or there couldn't hurt."  But then, as I thought about it further, it began to really bug me.

I plan on speaking with him about this tonight.  I have two analogies which I believe accurately describe the trouble I'm having.  The first goes this way:

What if a big Hollywood producer came to him, telling him how much he loves his screenplay, and that he would love to finance the film.  The only thing is, he's not too knock-out by the whole India angle, so he wants to make the movie about immigrants from Canada instead.  Great opportunity?  Sure.  But it misses the whole point of the movie.  This movie is about the struggle that the writer himself has endured and is intended to be shared primarily with those he wishes to encourage in their own struggle.  To remove the India element is to tear the foundation and purpose out from under the film.  Which is exactly what would be done to my songs if we were to remove the Christian elements from them.

The second analogy is this: Imagine you've written a song for your wife.  It's a love song, a very personal song.  It hints at very intimate things about your wife that compel your love and devotion toward her.  Now imagine that she comes home one night and finds you singing the song to someone else.  I've written my songs about a love relationship I have with my Savior.  I can't now permit those songs to be changed and sung for some secular purpose.  It violates the relationship I have with God.

I don't know how he will react to this.  I plan on offering him some other songs, perhaps even to write some new songs for his movie.  And if he still wants to use my songs "as is" that's fine.  But I can't let them be used in some kind of spiritually neutered form.

Call me a fanatic.  Call me an idiologue.  Call me a fussy creative type.  But the truth is, it's not my ego that is at stake here.  It's my conscience.  And, with the celebration of the Reformation right around the corner, I believe it fitting to quote Martin Luther: "To go against conscience is neither right nor safe."

8:23 am edt

Saturday, October 22, 2005

I was sitting in my office before church last Sunday preparing for service, praying over the sermon, etc., as is my custom.  As I was praying, I was suddenly overcome by the desire to pray for my congregation.  Praying for my congregation, of course, is not unusual, but this sudden urge went beyond the norm.
I was struck by the feeling that I had lost my vision for our little church in Northwest Detroit.  Part of this was due to a struggle to maintain an active Sunday School.  We're down to one or two kids and even fewer teachers.  And our superintendent is just about burned completely out, trying to enlist both students and staff.  But I think this sensation was due also to the issues over which our congregation wrangled this Summer.  We seem to have survived it, but the question remains: Now what?
I was simply feeling as though I didn't know what to do next, where and how to lead the congregation.  I didn't have a vision for what God intended for this body of believers or what He intended for me as its pastor.
I say this because some pastors have very clear and specific goals in mind for the congregation they serve.  They want to lead them down very specific paths of ministry to clearly specified destinations.
Some want to mold and shape the worship life of the congregation to reflect something new and unique.  I don't believe my church should go down such a path.  I don't particularly believe that worship should be "new" and "unique."  I think that violates the very nature of what worship is supposed to be.  Jesus certainly didn't come to lead the congregations of His day to do something new and unique in terms of public worship.  If anything, He strove to remove the innovations and encroachments that had served to degrade the sanctity of His Father's house.
Some pastors have a vision to build a massive Sunday School with tons of children.  They even schedule their Sunday School during the worship service to accomodate parents who want to "streamline" their Sunday mornings.  I would love to have a huge Sunday School.  But I don't have the people to staff it.  It's hard to run a Sunday School with no teachers.  Nor do I think it appropriate to remove children from the Divine Service for such a purpose.
Some pastors have big ideas on running special programs at the church, such as singles groups, youth groups for various ages, and other "special interest" groups that meet the perceived needs of the community.  Two problems here: 1) lack of volunteers to run such groups; and 2) a transient neighborhood in which trying to assess the felt needs of the community is like trying to nail jello to the wall.
I'm one man trying to serve a small congregation to the best of my ability.  What can this one man do?
And then the thought hit me: What if it's not about special programs, unique worship styles or having the biggest Sunday School around?  Maybe it's not about dreaming big and twisting arms to get the help needed to impose my vision on these people.  Maybe it's simply doing what this one man can do better than he's ever done it before.  Maybe the place where I'm supposed to lead these people is the cross, to the feet of Jesus, to repentance and forgiveness, in as real and vibrant a way as I am able.  In other words, maybe it's all about Sunday.  Maybe it's all about the Mass, the Divine Service, that setting in which God has promised to meet us and change us, molding us into the image of His Son.
If that's true, I need to spend more time and energy ensuring that what happens on Sunday morning is the highest quality I, with God's help, can provide.  If it's all about Sunday, then Sunday must be as close to perfect as is humanly possible.  I've always considered myself to be a good preacher.  But I need to be a great preacher, if it's all about Sunday.  And this means more than the crafting of an excellent sermon.  It also means peak "performance" in the pulpit.  In the past I have read through my sermons a few times during the week, to make sure I have the words under my belt.  But if it's all about Sunday, then I need to do more than that.  I need to practice more in order to be able to preach the sermon without a hitch, timing every inflected tone, executing every pause, scripting every bodily movement, including hand gestures, facial expressions, and the like, in order to facilitate the full impact of the words God has given me to communicate to those entrusted to my care.  "Good enough" must never be good enough.  Nothing short of perfect, to the best of my ability, is to be accepted.
This is a challenge that I can meet.  I don't have to rely on a staff of volunteers or a particular number of attendees to pull this off.  All that is needed is my own dedication and commitment to the goal.  This is a specific goal that is attainable.  It is within my power to reach it, or at the very least, to strive for it.
And I do not intend to strive for such a goal in order that people will say of me: "My, what a wonderful job our pastor is doing."  For if I achieve perfection, or anything remotely close to it, real success will be seen in how little is actually noticed by my congregants.  For true perfection will mean that I become transparent and the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be in full view.  I want to preach in such a way that the words take "center stage" and the message rules the day.  I'm not looking for accolades.  I want the Word of God to have its full impact.  I want to remove the barriers, to clear the path, to plow the row, so to speak, for the Holy Spirit, and I don't think that happens without taking care to make sure that I am not getting in the way.  Every stutter, every missed timing, every flaw in emphasis adds another stumbling block.  I wish to remove as many as I can.  And that takes concerted effort.
In the long run, I see that I do have a vision for this congregation.  It's all about Sunday.  It's all about the Divine Service.  It's about showing Jesus to my people in the absolute best way I know how.  From the first words of the Invocation through the last words of the Benediction, this is my pledge, this is my commitment for Sunday and for every service of worship in my congregation.  May God grant me His grace to fulfill what He has appointed me to do in keeping with the vision He has given.
10:33 pm edt

Saturday, October 15, 2005

This may sound strange, but I really hate to get new computer equipment.  Don't misunderstand, I love having faster speeds, greater storgae capacity, and all the other bells and whistles that come with a new computer, but, man, what a pain to get everything switched over and reconfigured!
It all started a couple of weeks ago for me.  I was right in the middle of recording the vocals for a song called "I Give It All to You," in which I sing TONS of backing vocals.  This is the most ambitious vocal project I've done to date.  36 voices back-up the rather emotionally charged lead vocal.  It starts with four voices in the second half of the verse.  Two measures later it goes to eight.  Two measures after that it goes to 12.  By the time we get to the chorus, there is a 16-voice four-part choir of me. :)  In the second chorus there is a counter-melody added, consisting of 12 voices, for a total of 28.  In the third chorus another counter melody enters, adding yet 8 more voices!  In the end there are 37 "me's" all singing at once.
Well, in the midst of recording all this, the hard drive on my desktop computer just wouldn't process the files anymore.  It would simply stop playing and recording.  And it was making all kinds of noise.  So ...  I stopped what I was doing, and spent the next week or so backing up EVERYTHING on the hard drive to DVD-R, while the hard drive still worked.  Thank God, I salvaged everything.  In the meantime, I ordered a new computer.
It came a week ago yesterday, and I was so excited, but nothing worked right yet.  And, of course, by the time I figured out that I couldn't figure out how to get the software settings established on my own, it was too late to call tech support, so I had to wait until Monday.  Grrr!  So, last weekend I hated my new computer.  However ...
Monday I called tech support, got everything squared away in about 10 minutes, and away I went!  I finished the demo for "I Give It All to You," and then went on to finish yet another demo after that ... "The Puzzle Master."
"The Puzzle Master" is quite a bit simpler than "I Give It All to You."  The Puzzle Master has four voices TOTAL.  And I used absolutely NO processing AT ALL on the vocals.  No reverb, no chorus, no EQ ... nothing!  It is straight off the mic, as is.  Sounds pretty kewl.  Nice change of pace.
So, needless to say, I love my new computer now that everything is set-up and operating within normal parameters.  And ... side "1" of the album -- demo-wise -- is done!  I've added the transitions and placed everything in order so I can listen to the entire first-half sequence and hear what the overall impact will be like.  I am very please with it so far!
Next I will work on "Big Little Man," followed by "My Home Is You," followed by "At Least a Thousand Reasons."  All the instrumentals for these demos are ready for adding vocals.  After that, I have to write one more song, and the writing phase of the album will be complete.  Then it will just be a matter of getting these produced in the big studio.
So ... despite the temporary glitch in the process, the album marches ahead, and I am stepping closer and closer to fulfilling a life-long dream.  Thanks be to God!
10:20 pm edt

Friday, October 7, 2005

Apple pickin' with the Mann family.  Here Michael (a.k.a. Dad) helps little Clarisse contribute to the cause while Rozelle and Grace do their part to fill the quota.  Later we went on a hay-ride and the kids fed the animals.  The trip was capped-off with a visit to the donut-and-cider stand where we shared our goodies with the local yellow-jackets!  Pizza and a movie back at the house made for a pleasant conclusion to a very enjoyable day!
12:08 am edt

Thursday, October 6, 2005

It's time for me to post this one. The lyrics were posted back in June when the song was written, but, as we've begun work on this song in the studio, and it's been my practice to add a demo each month, it's T.G.I.F.'s turn to show up on the "Me" Stuff page.

You should hear how this is shaping up in the studio version! I can't wait to get back to work on it. In the meantime, I'm working on the new demos, with a brief-but-annoying interruption due to an impending hard-drive crash, resolved by the purchase of a new computer. Of, as you know, this involves back-ups, etc., etc., blah-blah-blah.

Anyways, the album is beginning to take shape. It's been a great deal of fun to work on. So, give T.G.I.F. a listen and enjoy!

11:52 pm edt

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For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
(Philippians 1:21)

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