Just one of those coincidences, I guess. This past Sunday, as a post-gospel reflection on the cost of following God's way, about being prophetic and all, I had programmed my song "We Will Serve the Lord" to be sung during the preparation of the gifts. Of course, I do all of that weeks in advance. But I just happened to be at daily mass on Saturday morning that week, and what was the first reading, but most of Joshua 24, the reading and renewal of the covenant at Shechem as the Hebrews entered the "promised land," followed by a brief summary of the death of Joshua at the ripe old age of 110.
I was trying to think about the mix of emotions the Israelites must have felt in that story. Most of those who had come out of Egypt, forty years before, as the story goes, would probably have been buried in the desert along the way. They had endured the ravages of hunger, thirst, and homelessness, been attacked by marauders, scorpions, and snakes, eaten whatever the desert offered them, including quail and the miraculously delivered manna, all for the dream and promise of "a land flowing with milk and honey." They drifted in and out of faithfulness to God and Moses. And here, they arrive in the land flowing with milk and honey, and not only does it look a lot like the desert they just came out of, it's already occupied by people none too willing to leave it. Some things, apparently, never change.
And yet, in that moment of arrival, with the stress and memory of freedom gained and family lost behind them, they listen to the challenge of Joshua, and with eyes opened to the local tribes and their gods, choose to continue to follow the God of Moses and the covenant that had been offered to them. Nothing is going to be easy, at least for a few centuries before the first kings come onto the scene, and it goes downhill pretty quickly after that again, in a matter of three or four generations. We really know how to tell a story.
In my last job at St. Jerome in Phoenix, I played at least as much guitar as I did piano, or at least a lot more guitar than I do now, which amounts to sitting in my living room on those rare occasions when some of my kids or musical friends are over and we get into singing like hippies or canaries or other endangered species. However, not long after I put out my first recording, I think I was feeling that I was trying to do too much musically with my limited musical knowledge, that my songs were getting too complicated for my ability and certainly for everyone else's taste. I felt that my strength was more in the simplicity of songs like "Psalm 40: Here I Am" and "Yours Today" than in the more complicated pieces I was trying to write. So I intentionally went to the guitar, which forced me into simplicity, because I was even a more terrible guitar player than pianist.
There's no doubt in my mind that either preparing for or reacting to the Joshua pericope that pops up in year B of the lectionary at the end of the John 6 irruption of late summer. That verse, "Choose for yourself this day whom you shall serve.... As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Jos. 24:15) Though we don't have to choose among the Baals and their various sacrificial demands and rites in our own time, we still do have to choose which god we will serve. There are a lot of gods competing for our allegiance: nationalism, wealth, corporate success, perpetual youth, the sports industry, immersion in technology, hedonism. Lots of gods. And the One who keeps inviting us into covenant, into the "glory" that is presence to one another, the "glory" that is mutual respect, interdependence, and non-violence, keeps calling us home like the scent of fresh bread baking in a nearby kitchen.
That's the God who is at the heart of "We Will Serve the Lord." I confess that I would probably write the lyric a little differently at 61 than I did at 35 or so, and that maybe the language is a little too purple and hyperbolic and the music a little too martial than I have a taste for today. I just hope that the faith it contains is more transparent, and since it's not the only song in the hymnal, it might still have a place, or at least not lead anyone too far off the path. Sometimes simplicity cuts too many corners and becomes oversimplification. I don't know. They tell me no one listens to the words anyway!
There are four different versions of this song on iTunes now. Ours is from the recording Change Our Hearts, made in 2000, remaking the anthologized songs from the first three NALR albums after the company was bought by Oregon Catholic Press, now OCP. My friend, evangelist, and fellow composer Tom Booth did a wonderful version on his popular CD Find Us Ready, and there are a couple of other versions recorded by other artists as well. Check them out below in the iTunes window.
The post on the album Do Not Fear to Hope has more information on the production and performances. "We Will Serve the Lord" has appeared in all the editions of Gather since Gather Comprehensive was introduced in the mid-1990s, and in some youth-targeted hymnals as well. Thanks for reading. More again soon!