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Friday, September 12, 2014

SongStories 37: Let Us Go to the Altar of God

Since I'm writing this on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I thought I'd share a song that reminds me of my conflicted heart whenever the winds of war start blowing, and politicians speak of evildoers, and the process of demonization begins. This song is more than that to me, of course, but in the way the life gradually exposes one's personal history as part of the story of the world, I connect it with the war with Iraq and all the ensuing trouble.

I wrote this song on a commission from the publisher, World Library Publications/J.S. Paluch. The company had offered a commission as a prize in a contest for parishes. The parish could choose the composer, and give some specifications about what kind of song they wanted to have. The parish was St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Columbus, Ohio, whose music director was Charlee Hathaway. This song appeared in the collection Christ the Icon, and I wrote a little about it already on that page, which is here.

The lyric came to me gradually as I walked through Citizens' Park and Barrington's back roads in 2004, and there were a lot of events that influenced its writing. As a way of getting into this, I think I'll write the lyrics a couple of verses at a time, and give some background as I go along. That's a different approach than I usually take, but it seems appropriate today.

Who will fight my fight
When the mob surrounds?
Who will be my light
When the sun goes down?
Who will be my song
When by death I’m bound?
I will go to the altar of God.

Who will find a way?
Who can rescue me,
Caught between the Pharaoh
And hungry sea?
Though I’m sick and broken,
Alone, unfree,
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, let us go,
To gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.

What I've done as the song starts out is say what's going on with me personally. In this case, I'm wondering about the process of scapegoating that arises from our violent nature, a motif that comes out of my spiritual reading of Rene Girard and James Alison. At the same time, I was dealing with a new reality in my life, a diagnosis of prostate cancer. I was writing this song in the late summer and early fall of 2004. In July, I had received the diagnosis, and we had set up surgery for December of that same year. This was a deeply felt, radically humanizing return-to-earth for me. Nothing quite disabuses one of any aspirations to immortality like a cancer diagnosis. But I felt it was all right to inject this into the text of a liturgical song. What I had discovered already was that I was not alone, and that people in my community were coming out of the woodwork in solidarity as cancer sufferers and survivors, surrounding me with the presence of Christ. "Sick, broken, alone, unfree" as I might feel, my community assures me that "alone," at least, was an illusion.

When the winds of war
Thru the land increase,
When they call your children
My enemies,
Where will I draw strength
To proclaim your peace?
I will go to the altar of God.

Though the fields of death
Lie the world about,
From the cross, Christ is breathing
His Spirit out,
Til the millions lost,
With the living, shout:
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, Let us go,
To gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.



Since 9/11/01, the United States had occupied Iraq and war there had been ongoing. Early in 2004, the CIA had admitted that there was in fact no evidence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, which had been the premise for going to war in the first place. Our emotions as a nation had run high after the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and perhaps an unsuccessful attempt at the Capitol. In a sense, battling an enemy without land, without a city, and with an incomprehensible (to us) ideology, our leadership had allowed itself to strike out blindly at clearer, if unrelated, targets. To me, as a Christian, the hubris and criminality of this seemed immense, especially with the accompanying civil rhetoric demonizing the opposition as "evildoers" with no admission of any national complicity in the problems that gave rise to al Qaeda and other anti-western movements. It's not that this emotional overreaction is unexpected. To me, it was just that it was a source of wonder that there wasn't a more moderated counter-reaction from my church, its leaders, and, I suppose, me. Christianity is hard enough. It's impossible if we don't stand together.

Send forth your light and your truth,
And lead us to your holy mountain.
O joy of our years and our youth,
O hear us, come near us,
And bring us to you!

And if I should stray
From all I hold dear,
And I’m left alone
With my shame and fear,
Where will sun shine warm,
Streams of hope run clear?
I will go to the altar of God.

Though I act in ways
I don’t understand,
Though my heart be dry
As the desert sand,
I’ll press on and sing,
Loving your command:
I will go to the altar of God.

Let us go, Let us go,
There to gather with friend and with foe.
On the mount ahead
There’s a banquet spread:
Let us go to the altar of God.

"Let Us Go to the Altar of God," by Rory Cooney. Lyrics copyright © 2005 World Library Publications, Franklin Park, IL.

At the end, after a prayer that harkens back to the first line's echo of Psalm 43, asking that God shine light on our wandering and lead us to the path to which we have all been called, I return to personal musing, aware that my inaction makes me as complicit as anyone else in the mess the world is in. It is a fine line between delusion and Marxian "opiate of the people" on the one hand, and hope for transformation through prayer, scripture, community, and solidarity on the other. But "escape" into the community of believers, gathered around the cross and the book, isn't escape at all. It might be retreat, or reinforcement, but we know that there is strength there, in the gathering, the story, and the shared meal. Starting with a "Kyrie eleison," we acknowledge the rule of the servant Christ, the crucified one, and seek the courage together to pursue the path that we cannot seem to take alone. The personal musing of "I will go..." again morphs into the "Let us go..." invitation. I hope that movement from "I" to "us" is psalmic, and brings you, and all of us, to a place where we can gather without fear, without violence, together with our enemies, and find common ground as we dine together on the Lord's mountain.


Click to audition or download the song Let Us Go to the Altar of God from the iTunes store.