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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Songstories 39: Do Not Fear to Hope (1986, NALR)

We just happen to be in between a couple of Sundays here on which I've chosen to use one of my older songs that people really seem to connect with, "Do Not Fear to Hope," from our 1991 CD Change Our Hearts. DNFTH was first recorded on our second album, on vinyl and cassette, in 1986, and was the title song of that recording.

"Do Not Fear to Hope" appeared first in Glory and Praise Volume 4, and then in the first edition of Gather Comprehensive.

Almost from the time we started introducing it in our concerts, generally with Terry singing the verses solo and Gary and I and intrepid audience members singing the refrains, DNFTH was a crowd pleaser that people wanted to hear whenever we were able to do a concert. In later years, it has become one of our go-to encore songs, like "Walk in the Reign," because of its popularity with the people who know and love our music.

I think that this is because over the years people have appropriated it to all kinds of events in their personal and communal lives. At times of sickness, transition, closing parishes and religious houses, even the events of 9/11, "Do Not Fear to Hope" was a part of some people's prayer, helping them, thanks be to God, get through crises with its message of trust and vision of hope. For all of that, like any songwriter, I'm extremely grateful and humbled that something I wrote could be of service to us.

The title of the song was taken from an article ("Fear to Hope") in the Christian Century, a magazine I used to subscribe to for its scriptural and theological acumen and take on contemporary life. That article was about a malaise in European churches, still in an extended existential funk from the postwar period, but sharpened by the Reagan era deployment of submarine-based nuclear missiles that portended to make Europe the battleground of World War III. With the end of the USSR still nearly a decade away and Russian tanks so recently busy in eastern Europe, the specter of annihilation was so real that Christian Century described the situation as a crisis of hope, one that the church seemed ill-equipped to address. Thus the song, "Do Not Fear to Hope," was born as a response to this political reality.

But the double-edged sword of religious language made it possible, alas, for the message of intrepid hope in the face of the arrogance of armament to fall bright upon the ears of us who at least enable the armorers, who elect the people with the fingers on the buttons of more than half of the destructive power of Armageddon. Like the privileged congregations who imagine, in Tom Conry's dystopian ecclesial memory, that when we sing "The Cry of the Poor" that the psalmist is thinking of them, and not the truly oppressed and needy, we came to sing "Do Not Fear to Hope" from a strangely dissonant place of the purveyors of despair.

And yet, there is poetic justification, once we remove ourselves from the macroworld of international politics and economics, for a reading of any number of oppressive realities as the life- and hope-sapping pressures on everyone: sickness, death, financial worry, changing realities in our lives over which we have no control. These affect in real ways our ability to function constructively and holistically as members of the body of Christ. I only wish I would have been more aware of this as I crafted the text in those days, to have been able to express the subtleties of social sin as our own weakness, whether caused by external forces or inattention to our choices, impacts and exacerbates the weakness of others, debilitating the world.


I would have written the song differently, with a different attitude and vocabulary particularly in the verses, if I had written it twenty or thirty years later. As I mentioned in the post cited above that covers the entire album, I would have written it and other songs with fewer command verbs. In the four verses, there are no fewer than nine or ten such imperatives! Also spracht Zarathustra, I guess, in my more pseudo-messianic phase. If nothing else, I wasn't short on self-confidence. I would now use less "power and might" language, and try to express hope as a function of God's presence in the midst of our fear and powerlessness as God's solidarity, God's choice to be with us with life and meaning when things get bad. I would try to express hope in resurrected life that isn't oblivious to current pain, death, and the two days in the tomb. The second and fourth stanzas of the song get closer to this than the first and third, which may have been my instinct in using them on the recording. And the bridge comes very close to articulating this reality in a meaningful way.

And I used to have a recurring nightmare about this song that I hear it on the radio, with Whitney Houston singing it, and realize in the dream that I must have stolen the entire melody and arrangement from an early power ballad that she sang. Luckily, this has never happened in real life, though it may be a reason that I don't listen to oldies radio much, and don't have a Whitney Houston album in my iTunes collection.

So yes, we still will sing this song on Sunday, and still sing it in concert, but I always wish it were a little better, a little subtler, a little more on point with my feelings now. But it's impossible to be the same person that we were in our (relative) youth, and so we keep writing "a new song" unto the Lord, not fearing to hope that somehow the Holy Spirit will take our awkward vocabulary and clumsy shadow-thoughts about God and make them into something better, move them, as it were, from Babel to Pentecost.

Do Not Fear to Hope
music and lyrics by Rory Cooney

Do not fear to hope though the wicked rage and rise.
Our God sees not as we see,
Success is not the prize.
Do not fear to hope, for though the night be long,
The race shall not be to the swift,
The fight not to the strong.

1. Look to God when you are sure
Your sin is greater than grace.
Look to God whose love is gift.
Believe, and you will behold him face to face.

2. Look to God when victory
Seems out of justice’s sight.
Look to God whose mighty hand
Brought forth the day from
The chaos of the night.

3. Look to God when cynics say
Our planet's doom is sealed.
Look to God by whose great power
The dead were raise and the lepers were healed.

4. Look to God when reason fails
And terror reigns in the night.
Look upon the crucified
And see beyond into Easter’s dawning light.

Hope is for a pilgrim people
Searching for a promised land.
Hope is like a rose in winter,
Or an open hand.
It celebrates the light of morning
While working in the dark and cold
It gathers us together
To share what we’ve been told.

Oh, do not fear to hope though the wicked rage and rise.
Our God sees not as we see,
Success is not the prize.
Do not fear to hope, for though the night be long,
The race shall not be to the swift,
The fight not to the strong.

© 1986 North American Liturgy Resources, published by OCP, Portland, OR.


"Do Not Fear to Hope" is the final track on the CD Change Our Hearts.