Saturday, December 23, 2023

Namaste, Emmanuel

Emmanuel, Emmanuel,
His name is called Emmanuel.
God with us, revealed in us,
His name is called Emmanuel

I have sung this simple song in church countless times since it came out in 1976. It was written that year by Robert McGee, who at the time was an associate pastor at The King's Temple Church in Seattle, Washington.

It is used in churches of various theological persuasions, but I wonder if people pause to consider the theological message of the words. The author is clearly referring to the prophecy mentioned in Christmas story of the Gospel of Matthew. What is unique about this song is the author’s interpretation of the name Emmanuel.

Everyone agrees that it means “God with us,” but McGee takes it a step further. He says that it also means “God revealed in us.” It is one thing to say that God is revealed in Jesus Christ. It is another to say that God is revealed in you and me. This revolutionary part of the song often goes unnoticed.

Emmanuel is more than a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus or a theological statement about Jesus. It is saying that the God who was in Jesus is also revealed in people singing about Jesus.  God is revealed in us. Think about that for a moment.

How is God revealed in us? No qualifications are mentioned in the song. It does not say that God is only revealed in Christians who believe a certain set of doctrines or attend a certain type of church. It does not say that God is revealed in certain rituals, words or actions. It simply says that God is “revealed in us.” Unconditionally, it would seem.

This is another way of expressing the idea of Imago Dei - that all people are made in the image of God. When we see a human, we are seeing the face of God.

There is another song often sung this time of year entitled “Mary, Did You Know?” The lyrics were written by Mark Lowry in 1984 and set to music by Buddy Greene in 1991. The song wonders what was in the heart and mind of Mary on the day Jesus was born. One of the stanzas says:

Mary, did you know

That … when you kiss your little baby

You kissed the face of God?”

 The final stanza says:

“Did you know

That … this sleeping child you're holding

Is the Great I Am?

 When we ponder the Christ child in the light of Emmanuel, we realize that when we kiss any baby’s face, we kiss the face of God. Every child – and adult – is the “Great I Am” revealed in human flesh. 

In India people greet each other by folding their hands as if in prayer and bowing to each other. It is usually accompanied with the word “Namaste,” which (according to the Hindu American Foundation) literally means, “The Divine within me bows to the same Divine within you.” It is a way of acknowledging the presence of God in the other person. That is Emmanuel. God with us, revealed in us. 

I do not know what was in the mind or heart of Robert McGee when he was inspired to write the lyrics to Emmanuel. But like all poetry the meaning of verse is more than the intent of the author. It is equally in the heart of the hearer. To this hearer Emmanuel is an invitation to see God in the other and in the depths of our own hearts. As the beautiful Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” puts it: 

O holy Child of Bethlehem,

descend to us, we pray;

cast out our sin and enter in;

be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels,

the great glad tidings tell;

O come to us, abide with us,

our Lord Emmanuel!


Monday, December 18, 2023

The Immortal and Nameless Centre

Every Advent I read W. H. Auden’s poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” My practice of reading this work at Christmastime began about forty years ago when a friend lent me her old hardback copy. That first year I found the poem difficult to understand, but in time I grew to love it. Now Christmas would not be the same without it. Some people watch It’s a Wonderful Life, The Sound of Music or Elf every Christmas. I read For the Time Being.

The poem was written during the Second World War and is long: 1,500 lines and over 50 pages.  It was designed to be set to music, but as far as I know the music was never completed. The poem consists of a series of monologues that are spoken by characters, choruses, and a narrator. Each year a different part of the poem catches my attention. This year it was Part V in the section entitled “Advent.”

O where is that immortal and nameless Centre from which our points of

Definition and death are all equi-distant? Where

The well of our wish to wander, the everlasting fountain

Of the waters of joy that our sorrow uses for tears?

O where is the garden of Being that is only known in Existence

As the command to be never there, the sentence by which

Alephs of throbbing fact have been banished into position,

The clock that dismisses the moment into the turbine of time? 

The first line hooked me: “O where is that immortal and nameless Centre from which our points of definition and death are all equidistant?” That is exactly how I experience God. God is the Center of existence. Christmas may be the time for most Christians to swoon over the divine Baby in a manger, but I contemplate the immortal and nameless Center.

This Center is nameless because the true God cannot be named. That is the testimony of scripture. When Moses asked God’s name at the Burning Bush, God evaded the question. When pressed, God simply responded, “I am that I am.” A decade ago I translated the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching into Christian language for my book, The Tao of Christ, and I put it this way:

The God who can be described

is not the true God.

The Name that can be spoken

is not the Name of God. 

God is unnamable.

Naming God is the beginning of religion.

Let go, and you find God.

Hold on, and you get theology.

God is the immortal and unnamable Center “from which our points of definition and death are all equidistant.” I hear Auden saying that we spend most of our lives on the circumference of life, tinkering with the details. Everything that distinguishes us from everyone and everything else is on the edge of existence. True Life is at the Center, in “the Garden of Being” where all comes together in One. If you want to know God, look in the Center.

In traditional Nativity scenes, the Christ Child is the center of attention. All eyes are directed toward the manger. The other characters in the Christmas story – parents, animals, shepherds, magi and angels - occupy ever-widening circles around this Child, like the nine spheres of heaven in Dante’s Paradiso. To locate Christ, you look to the center. To find God in our lives, we look to the Center, the Home of God.

“Where is that immortal and nameless Centre?” Auden asks. Jesus answered that question. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” That is where we find Christ during this Christmas season. The apostle John’s Christmas poem (the prologue of his gospel) says, “The Word (the Eternal Christ) became flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally the Greek text says that the Word dwells IN us. Christ is the Center. Take time this Christmas to get off the periphery of life and see for yourself.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Real Emmanuel

“Emmanuel, Emmanuel. His name is called Emmanuel.” That popular chorus is heard in many churches this time of year. My favorite Advent hymn is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The Advent season doesn’t really begin for me until I sing it in worship. There is something about the minor key and the tempo that opens my heart to God. 

The idea that Jesus was Emmanuel (alternately spelled Immanuel) comes from the Gospel of Matthew where the gospel writer sees the birth of Jesus as fulfilling a prophecy spoken by the prophet Isaiah. After recounting the virgin birth, the Gospel writer says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).”

That is as far as most Christians get. They never pause to reflect on the fact that Christ was named Jesus, not Emmanuel. They never look up the reference in the Book of Isaiah. They do not realize how controversial this scripture verse is. I first learned about the controversy surrounding this text in seminary. The problem began with the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which translated the Hebrew word “almah” in Isaiah 7:14 as “a young woman” rather than “virgin.”

All hell broke loose. Translators were accused of heresy. Fundamentalists burned the RSV. The truth is the translators were rendering the Hebrew word faithfully. The Hebrew word does not mean virgin. That interpretation began when the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) translated it using the word “parthenos,” which means virgin. That is where the author of the Gospel of Matthew got it. He thought it fit in well with the story of a virgin birth.

When we look at the original prophecy of Isaiah, we see it has nothing to do with a supernatural birth or the Messiah. The prophet was addressing a political situation in his day. Syria had entered into an alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel against Judah. Isaiah prophesied that soon a child would be born and be given the symbolic name Emmanuel. He writes:

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

The prophet was predicting an end to the military threat against Jerusalem, which would happen before this child “knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.” Most would say this happens around age twelve, using Jesus’ visit to the temple at that age as a guideline. Others use the Jewish bar mitzva as the standard, saying it is age 13. 

In either case, events unfolded in the eighth century BC just as the prophet predicted. The nations of Israel and Syria were destroyed by the invading Assyrian army, saving Jerusalem and Judah. The ten northern tribes of Israel were lost to history.

So the original meaning of the name Emmanuel had to do with war in the Holy Land. Emmanuel was a sign of Divine judgment on Israel and a promise of salvation for Judah. It was a warning to trust in God rather than political alliances. Inspired by the same Spirit Jesus, the new Emmanuel, predicted God’s judgment upon Jerusalem in his Olivet Discourse, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

It seems like these things are still hidden. This Christmas we are seeing war in the Holy Land. This year we have seen a horrendous attack upon Israeli civilians by Hamas. We have also seen devastating retaliation by Israel against Gaza. This conflict has spurred both anti-Semitic and anti-Palestinian attacks in our country. There is no lasting peace in sight.

“Where is God in all this?” The sign of Emmanuel is relevant during this Advent season. “God is with us” in times like these – both in judgment and salvation. God is still present in the Holy Land. Seeing exactly how God’s judgment and salvation is present in this war is a matter of spiritual discernment. I suspect that time will tell.

In any case it is important to remember that originally the sign of Emmanuel had nothing to do with the Messiah. Nevertheless the Gospel writer used this prophecy in his story of the birth of the Prince of Peace. That is significant. The peace of God is with us in Jesus. Jesus himself said, “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.” God is with us. It is simply a matter of opening ourselves to the ever-present Emmanuel.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Not To Oppose Evil Is Itself Evil

American Baptist minister Nathaniel Manderson (whose podcast is humorously entitled “The Beached White Male”) recently wrote an opinion piece for Salon in which he confesses to believing in a literal devil. He says, “Now, to be clear, as a minister who believes in God, I am compelled to believe in the devil. But I see him much more at home within the evangelical movement than in most liberal causes.”

After giving a list of historic church-sponsored terrorism (“the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the history of American slavery, the attempted genocide against Native Americans and the oppression of women”) he says: “All these evils are or were firmly backed by biblical theology — at least, as many Christians understand it — and, in my opinion, are all fully endorsed by the devil himself. This is now true of the evangelical political movement, which I believe is led by the devil and his followers.”

Wow! Why not tell us what you really think, Nate? The truth is I have been thinking along the same lines recently. It seems clear to me that Evangelicalism no longer follows Jesus. Yet I am not ready to say that its complicity with anti-democratic authoritarianism rises to the level of evil. But I can see how it could lead to evil. Evil never looks like evil when it is starting out. This is how good people are drawn into evil. At the beginning evil appears as good.

That is how the serpent sold Eve on the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He said the fruit was good, and it looked good to Adam and Eve. The apostle Paul said that the devil comes disguised as a messenger of light, and false apostles masquerade as apostles of Christ.  Religion does not help the matter. As Steven Weinberg said, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion.”

The Salon article caused me to consider anew what we mean by the word evil. It is a concept that is misused and misunderstood. Some see evil as a personal force in the universe, in the form of the devil and his demons, which are understood to be real entities. That is how Reverend Manderson experiences evil. Others see evil as simply the absence of good.

I see both good and evil as aspects of the dualistic realm of human existence. Yin and yang. Before the universe existed there was no evil. Indeed there was no good either. There cannot be good without something to contrast it with, namely evil. There was only Nondual Reality, which for want of a better term we call God. There is still only this Nondual Reality now for those with eyes to see.

God is beyond good and evil. Yet we call God good and not evil. We equate God with light and not darkness. That is because we have no adequate word for the unicity that transcends and includes duality.

Good and evil came into existence with humans. Christian mythology says it began earlier with a fallen angel named Lucifer, who became known as Satan. But who made the angel? The Creator did, of course! The buck stops at the Boss’s desk. As the Lord says in the Book of Isaiah, “I form the light, and create darkness. I make peace, and create evil. I the LORD do all these things.”

Regardless of the origin of evil, we cannot avoid moral choices in this human lifetime any more than we can avoid light and darkness, pain and pleasure, high and low, right and left. Even when we become conscious of our unconditioned Source, we still live in the human condition. Every day we choose between right and wrong, good and evil. To decide not to choose is itself a choice. Inaction has as many consequences as action.

I wish it were not so. I wish I could wash my hands of the whole matter and deal only with spiritual matters. Not vote, not opine, not think of these matters. I wish I could transcend the dualism of the political and moral landscape and remain blissfully neutral. But neutrality is an illusion. There is no such thing. If we decide not to be involved in political or social causes, that choice has consequences. When neutrality benefits evil, then neutrality is evil.

Life is messy. According to Genesis even the Creator got dirty when he knelt in the soil of the Garden and formed humans from humus. As much as we wish it were otherwise, we cannot remain on the sidelines. Not even by retreating to a monastery. Hence the monk Thomas Merton named his book, “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”

That reality is what led clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer to join the German resistance movement against Hitler. He became part of the plot to assassinate the F├╝hrer. He concluded: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” 

Not to oppose evil is itself evil. But the action must be done from that divine Presence that is beyond good and evil. That is how I approach social ethics from the perspective of Christian nonduality.


Friday, December 1, 2023

Christmas Tree Meditation

I put up my Christmas tree the other day, just in time for Advent. I remember when it used to be a real chore. When our children were growing up we used to go to a friend’s tree farm as a family, hunt for exactly the right tree, saw it down, load it on top of our station wagon, and haul it to our house. Then the real challenge began: getting the tree securely mounted on a stand and erected in our living room. Then the decorating would begin. It was an all-day undertaking.

Nowadays I need travel no further than the shed in our backyard, where my miniature artificial tree has been waiting patiently since last Christmas. It used to be the topmost part of a full-size artificial tree. Now this small portion is all I use. It stands about two and a half feet high. The job involves nothing more than making sure it is securely in its base, putting on one string of lights, and placing it on the shelf in our bay window. Voila! A beautiful – and more importantly, an easy – Christmas tree.

I like my tiny tree. Especially as night falls. As I write this, it is dusk. The tree lights are just beginning to shine against the dark background of green boughs. It prompts me to remember the symbolism of Christmas tree lights. They are said to represent the stars that shone in the sky on the night that Jesus was born. The words of the apostle John’s Christmas poem come to mind, “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

That is the type of reassurance I need these days. These are dark days. Authoritarianism is growing in our country in the guise of Christian Nationalism. A Christianized form of Sharia law is being promoted by the far right. The history of our country is being rewritten to marginalize democracy and deny the equality of all people. Science is being undermined. Intellectual inquiry is discouraged in favor of indoctrination.

It is a dark time in our nation. It feels like we might be approaching an American “Dark Ages.” A year from now we will know better just how dark, after we learn the results of the 2024 election, and whether they are accepted by the states, the courts, and the people. Right now it is dusk in our land. By next Christmas it may be night. In any case the darkness now feels deep to me. For that reason I look for light in the darkness.

Eighteenth century poet William Cowper wrote a number of well-known hymns. One is entitled “Light Shining out of Darkness.” The opening stanzas say: “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.  / Deep in unfathomable mines, Of never-failing skill, He treasures up his bright designs, And works his sov'reign will. / Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread, Are big with mercy, and shall break, In blessings on your head.”

There is a storm coming. I suspect the upcoming presidential election will be the leading edge of the storm, not the end of it. As it approaches I will be looking for God riding upon the storm and working his sovereign will in the midst of it. I look forward to seeing the mercy breaking forth from that storm in divine blessings. I have faith that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.