“I want [people] everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer…” (I Timothy 2:8a NIV).

It was never our intent to encourage a worship service.

We were just two people, celebrating Bill’s birthday at Elaine’s, a popular dueling piano bar in the basement of Asheville’s Grove Park Inn.

The pianists were talented, no doubt. Upon receiving requests, they’d take turns studying the songs, especially if one was unfamiliar, while the other played and sang with gusto. And that’s how the evening went, until…

“What song should we request?” Bill asked me.

I pondered my options, songs that had not yet been played. “Well, they’ve done a lot of the popular Christmas songs, like Jingle Bells,” I said. After a moment’s consideration, “What about a more traditional Christmas carol, like Silent Night?” I suggested. “Think they’d do that one?”

That’s when Bill said, “What about God of This City?”

God of This City?

I stared at him for a moment. “Really?”

“Why not?” He began writing his request down, then continued, “The worst thing that can happen is he’ll say he doesn’t know it and won’t do it. He’ll either give us our money back or play something else, right?”

That was true. We’d seen it a couple times already in the hour and a half we’d been there. Someone requested a song that the pianists didn’t know and didn’t feel could be learned in adequate time. They’d either play something else, something similar in theme, or give the money back.

Still, I was uncertain. “But it’s an overtly Christian song.”

Undeterred, Bill finished writing, then stood to slip the request and our money on the baby grand.

Within moments, the pianist stuck the money in the tip jar and read what Bill wrote. We could see his lips moving, his wheels turning. Finally, he turned toward us and spoke rather loudly, to be heard over Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.

“I don’t know this one,” he shouted. “I’ll listen to it a couple times and let you know if I can do it.”

Bill nodded, mouthing, “That’s fine.” Turning to me, “Well, let’s see what he can do.”

The satirical song about grandma ended, and it was our pianist’s turn to perform the next tune in his lineup. He struck the first note, then began—Garth Brook’s I’ve Got Friends in Low Places.

“That’s quite a contrast to ours,” I chuckled, and Bill and I sang along, adding our voices to the throng of others in the cramped piano bar.

When it was finished, the other man began to play once more, and we noticed our guy replace his ear buds to listen again to the song we’d requested. He was intent, listening. Occasionally, he’d make an interesting facial gesture, as if the words struck a chord.

After a few minutes, just as the other song was ending, he leaned toward us. “I’ll give it one more run-through after this next song. It’s not one I’ve heard before, so we’ll see.”

Again, Bill nodded, and I did too, though my heart beat a bit faster. Why did I feel a rising sense of… what was it? Nervousness? Fear even? Excitement?

Our guy began playing Billy Joel’s Piano Man, and I nudged Bill. “Ironic, huh?”

Once more, we sang along. The energy in the room was intense, despite the late hour, and I noticed more people had entered and were standing along the walls in the back.

“It’s packed,” I said. “Look at all those newcomers.”

The song ended, and we knew this was it. As the other pianist played, ours would determine whether or not he could learn and perform our request. Again, I felt butterflies..

We Are the Champions was clearly a favorite, but finally it, too, came to a close. After whoops and applause, the room grew quiet.

“Well, what’s it gonna be?” Bill shifted in his chair.

Our piano man adjusted his position on the bench, and he kind of rolled his shoulders, his eyes closed, as if preparing himself. Sitting upright, his fingers hovered over ivory. The anticipation in the room was palpable.

He played the opening note, then stopped and shook his head. I held my breathe.

“Come on. You can do this,” we heard him say.

Was he nervous to play a worship song in a bar? Or was he nervous to play a song he didn’t know, had just learned and in less than 20-minutes? Perhaps both?

Again, he struck the first note, and then his voice spilled out.

You’re the God of this city
You’re the King of these people
You’re the Lord of this nation
You are

You’re the light in this darkness
You’re the hope to the hopeless
You’re the peace to the restless
You are

There is no one like our God
There is no one like our God

For greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done in this city
Greater things have yet to come
And greater things are still to be done in this city

(Lyrics quoted with permission)

The audience, except for a few who knew the song and sang along, was quiet—listening. Several, we noticed, looked at one another, confusion on their faces. This wasn’t the typical piano bar tune, and some were taken aback.

Our piano man, rallying cheers from the crowd gathered in Elaine’s.

With each verse, our piano man played with more fervor, sang with more confidence. Although he’d just learned them, he closed his eyes and bellowed out the words, as if they came from a deeper, more personal place.

Finally, the song neared its end. Our player, his head bowed, held out the last note, his finger remaining on the final key, his foot pressing the sustaining pedal for a moment, even after all sound had ceased.

One could hear a pin drop.

Then the room erupted in applause. Several across the bar, men and women who were clearly intoxicated, clapped feverishly, whooping their approval. I wiped tears.

The other piano player shouted to ours, “What was that song? And who wrote it?”

“It’s called God of This City—by Chris Tomlin.”

And the one who’d asked repeated, “Chris Tomlin? Hmm…” and then began to play Sweet Caroline.

Our pianist wiped his brow (Was it just his brow?) before moving on to read his next request. Bill and I stayed for a few more tunes, sang along to Don’t Stop Believin’ and God Bless the USA, then rose to leave.

As we walked up the steps toward the exit, we looked back at the stage. That’s when our eyes met.

Our pianist was looking directly at us. “Thank you,” he mouthed. “Thank you.”

We nodded our affirmation, understanding that his thank you wasn’t merely regarding the tip we’d given but was mostly about the song we’d requested–about its meaning. Clearly, it meant more to him than we’d probably ever know, having touched something deep inside.

But there’s even more to this story—

…Things very few may know about this beautiful praise melody. And though it was sung over a somewhat motley crowd in a piano bar in Asheville, NC, it originated a world away—in a much darker, more desperate place. In fact, it was written miraculously through the Holy Spirit’s enabling power, breathed in and through a man named Aaron Boyd.

Picture from Pixabay

Indeed, God is God of this city, and He’s God of every city. He’s even God in a brothel in Pattaya, Thailand, where prostitutes and pimps are perishing.

There’s no one like our God, and greater things are still to be done.

***(The backstory of God of This City in Part 2, coming soon!)***

Jesus, You are God of this city, King of all people, Lord of our nation–You are! There is no one like You. Help us live and love like You, no matter where we might find ourselves. Amen.