Monday, August 11, 2014

God is here among us . . .

Gott ist Gegenwaertig - Gerhard Tersteegen Hymn

"God is here among us . . ." is the opening passage in a hymn I chose as worship leader a week ago. Call me obsessive about lines like that, but what exactly (or approximately) can it mean? Typically, the third party in the trinity, the Holy Ghost, is said to be this presence; his/her spirit "reality" is not bound by physical limitations. But such considerations don't really get at the essence of what's meant when we sing the lines, I would guess.

      It must have something to do with nearness, the comfort a child gets from knowing mother is "right here." It may have something to do with discipline: God reads your every thought; he's omniscient, so keep your attention on the sermon and nothing else. But in the English translation of the hymn God is even more than "among us;" he/she is also "within us" so that our soul shall, "in silence fear him."

      Written by Gerhard Tersteegen in 1729—in German—the hymn reflects awakening wonderment regarding humanity's relative position in the universe with the one, omnipotent creator/father. I don't know this, but Tersteegen must have had inkling about at least two tautologies: if the universe has meaning, it's one meaning, i.e.unity is mandatory to meaning, and second, if this universe is the work of a creative force, then that force is either everywhere or nowhere, either alive and ubiquitous or mortal and gone. Tersteegen's hymn falls on the side of faith in a living, omnipresent, omniscient creator, obviously. His hymn would never have been included in Hymnal Worship Book or Gesangbuch mit Noten otherwise.

      Even if Tersteegen's hymn accurately defines our relative position to God—and his/hers to us—the struggle to find a satisfying meaning when untimely and/or tragic death occurs, for instance, is tough. The insistence that God will take care of you, through every day, o'er all the way—as another hymn so confidently intones—is difficult to sing along with by someone who feels parented by a creator who could intervene . . . but is unable to or—worse yet—chooses not to.

     The most likely explanation for our schizophrenic, approach/avoidance, conflicted relationship with our stories about God is that we're building on faulty premises, the most glaring being that God is separate from us, that he/she lives in a mysterious, other place from which we are separated by a gulf dug by our sinfulness. Metaphorically, this paradigm can probably teach something, but interpreted as binding theology it's probably more confusing than enlightening, comparable to telling your child from birth that he/she is worthless, and inspiring (for instance) another hymn writer, Isaac Watts, to pen, "would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I."

            I like Tersteegan’s hymn because it hints at a better foundation on which to build a perception of what we mean when we invoke God. If he/she is “among us” and “within us”, then we not only have good reason to value each other properly, but human ears become receivers, human hands answerers of our prayers. 

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