True Liberation in God

January 18th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

There can be no outer freedom without some level of inner liberation. This is a universal truth, but a lesson that each of us must learn for ourselves. If we pursue freedom from a reactionary position, out of our own fear or anger, we are working on too small a scale. The path to full liberation always has its source in an Infinite God. My colleague Barbara Holmes puts it this way:

Although justice must be enacted in concrete ways, I agree with Václav Havel (1936–2011) [who] . . .  suggested that liberation is an awareness of connections to a reality “beyond our reach, a higher intention that is the source of all things, a higher memory recording everything, a higher authority to which we are all accountable in one way or another.” [1]

Barbara Holmes continues to explore this idea of God as the source of true and transcendent liberation through a creative, imagined conversation between civil rights icon Rosa Parks (1913–2005) and the Black mystic and theologian Howard Thurman (1899–1981). 

Parks First, don’t we have to redefine liberation? When I refused to get up from the bus seat, when Martin marched and Malcolm railed against the artificial constraints of segregation, it was not to grant a small sliver of freedom to earthbound people. It was the spiritual launch of a liberation too vast to be circumscribed by a single life. This is a liberation worth dying for, worth risking everything for. . . .

Thurman The power that is meaningful for future generations comes through the human spirit but emanates from a divine source. . . .

Parks Liberation requires individuals willing to stand when no one else will, to sit when others are threatening you with harm, to embrace an outsider in full view of an insider, to proclaim the wisdom of the ages and the already/not yet justice of God in the midst of horrific circumstances. We do this although we don’t know what the end will be, and we do this because liberation is the responsibility of each and every person. I know that the sacred heart of the liberation story lies in ordinary acts of obedience and resistance by ordinary people.

Thurman Thank you for that, Rosa. Liberation is not a goal or an event to be enjoyed. It is a series of events that draw us closer to true liberation in God. Liberation comes in the moment that we hear the leading of the Divine and follow. It is the freedom to unbind the shackled and to reunite with God and neighbor. Until we achieve that reunion, we move from liberation to liberation gathering seekers as we go, celebrating only long enough to encourage our spirits and then moving on to new struggles around old issues in different contexts. [2]  

Barbara Holmes’ ability to “listen in” to these conversations between “the ancestors” is a sign of her own spiritual freedom, which she shares so generously with the world.

A Journey to Freedom

In the Book of Exodus, Egypt is the place of slavery and the promised land is the place of freedom. The journey from Egypt to the promised land is a standing paradigm for the universal struggle from slavery to freedom—and thus for the spiritual journey as well. The story of Israel symbolically describes the experience of our own liberation by God, which is both an outer freedom and an inner freedom or it is not real liberation.

The word exodus means “the way out,” as scholar Allen Dwight Callahan explains:

A loanword from the Greek, exodus signifies the road of escape. The biblical drama of Exodus recounts the story of the escape of the ancient Israelites from Egypt and their formation as a new people in Canaan. The Lord had commanded that the Egyptians “let my son [Israel] go” (Exodus 4:23), and the imperative phrase “Let my people go” is repeated seven times in the drama that climaxes in the Israelites’ flight across the Red Sea. [1]

The liberation that Moses leads is first cemented in a “face to face” encounter with God. According to the book of Exodus, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a person speaks to a friend” (33:11). God gradually answers Moses’ many objections as to why he should not lead his people: 1) “Who am I?” 2) “Who are you?” 3) “What if they do not believe me?” 4) “I stutter” and 5) “Why not send someone else?” In each case, God patiently stays in the dialogue, answering Moses respectfully and even intimately, offering a promise of personal Presence and an ever-sustaining glimpse into who God is. God is Being Itself, Existence Itself, a nameless God beyond all names, a formless God previous to all forms, a liberator God who is utterly liberated from the limits culture and religion put on any Divinity. God asserts God’s ultimate freedom from human attempts to capture God in concepts and words by saying, “I AM who I AM” (Exodus 3:14). Over the course of his story, we see that Moses slowly absorbs this same daring freedom. Despite the failings and limitations Moses perceived in himself, he is liberated by God’s faith in him.

It is this same daring and unequivocal freedom that inspired many Black Americans when they read this text. Callahan again: “African Americans heard, read, and retold the story of the Exodus more than any other biblical narrative. In it they saw their own aspirations for liberation from bondage in the story of the ancient Hebrew slaves. . . . The Exodus signified God’s will that African Americans too would no longer be sold as bondspeople, that they too would go free.” [2]

In working for outer freedom, peace, and justice in the world we discover the even deeper inner freedom of our True Self in God.

A New Story to Replace the Old

January 14th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

In this time of unveiling, new stories need to be told about everything from ecology and faith to money and power, and they need to be told from many different perspectives. Only as we contemplate and engage new paradigms and visions can we discern where and how God is calling us to act. Author and educator Michael Nagler shares his version of a new story based on his decades-long commitment to the practice of nonviolence. He writes:

The new story [is] the term we use today for the new—to us—model of a universe of consciousness and purpose, of unity and sufficiency. . . .

The currently prevailing story—the old story [Richard: which is really only as old as the Enlightenment], that we live in a material, random universe, so that we, too, are primarily physical objects that need material things to be fulfilled—has led us to a permanent state of competition, not excluding violence. Whether you look at the story itself or its practical consequences, many—myself included—feel it’s radically wrong. We are body, mind, and spirit, and we’re embraced in what Martin Luther King famously called a single garment of destiny. [1] Life is not random, and we are not helpless to change it.

And right now the key change will be the change of the story itself.

Within the emerging new story . . . just about every social change that thoughtful people have long been yearning for—including the change to a sustainable planet—becomes more thinkable, and doable.

Take, for example, the acute inequality that has polarized our society (and, to a lesser extent, societies in other lands). What drives it is greed. The same greed that drives some to profit from war and armaments—the greed that is a nearly ubiquitous source of suffering for the many (and even for the few who seem to benefit financially). Is not greed, in turn, a function of the belief that we are primarily physical entities in competition with others? . . .

Greed is behind so many destructive processes; greed that’s reached unheard-of proportions today, creating an inequality that makes meaningful democracy impossible. But what is behind greed itself? It could not exist without the idea that a human being is material and separate from others, including the environment we live in.

Violence, inequality, war, the environment, and almost any aspect of society we can think of are rooted in the old story. . . .

In contrast to the old story—which held that the universe is primarily made of matter, has no discernable purpose, and scarcity, competition, and violence are inevitable—the new story sees the universe as primarily consciousness and the human being as body, mind, and spirit, able to locate and carry out their life’s purpose in a meaningful—indeed, fundamentally benevolent—universe.

Richard again: This new story is, of course, as old as incarnation itself! Somewhere along the line, we lost the thread of the true story of union, of wholeness, of God-with-us and us-for-each other.

Love Is the Protagonist

January 13th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

Like me, Brian McLaren has spent many decades “on the edge of the inside” of the institutional Church. Although he often critiques the stories told by Christian denominations, he has never tired of the Jesus story or failed to believe in its power to transform the world. Brian and Gareth Higgins write:
Jesus came to subvert all stories of violence and harm, not repeat them.
Instead of patriarchal stories of domination, he taught and embodied service, reconciliation, and self-giving.
Instead of stories of violent revolution or revenge on the one hand or compliant submission on the other, he taught and modeled transformative nonviolent resistance.
Instead of the purification stories of scapegoating or ethnic cleansing, he encountered and engaged the other with respect, welcome, neighborliness, and mutuality.
Instead of inhabiting a competitive story of accumulation, he advocated stewardship, generosity, sharing, and a vision of abundance for all.
Instead of advocating escapist stories of isolation, he sent his followers into the world to be agents of positive change, like salt, light, and yeast.
And instead of leaving the oppressed in stories of victimization, he empowered them with a vision of faith, hope, and love that could change the world. [1]
Richard again: One time after I spoke at a business breakfast about the Kingdom of God being a win-win world, a very successful man I knew came up to me and said, “You know, Richard, that story is not even interesting. How could I get my juices going in the morning without competition?” When we’re trapped in a narrative of winners and losers, especially if we think of ourselves as winners, the Jesus story really isn’t that interesting! Brian and Gareth put it this way:
The earlier six stories all claimed that the path to peace, security and happiness was about “winning” . . . but in the Seventh Story, the story of reconciliation, we still get to win, just not at anybody else’s expense.
In the Seventh Story, human beings are not the protagonists of the world. Love is. [2]
The hearts of more and more children, young people, adults, and senior citizens are yearning for a new story, a story of love rather than hate, of creativity rather than destruction, of win-win cooperation rather than win-lose competition, of peace-craft rather than war-craft.
They are waiting for a new story to explore, inhabit, and tell. [3]
We are all looking for a larger and more loving story in which to participate. This is what God gives us! Our ordinary lives are given an extraordinary significance when we accept that our lives are about something more meaningful than winning and succeeding inside of a very small plot line.

A Hopeful Story

January 12th, 2021 by Dave No comments »

Human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that . . . life had meaning and value. . . . [Story] is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it. —Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth

Nearly two decades ago, Brian McLaren began urging Christians to embrace a more healing, compassionate story by which to live. His words are just as relevant today: 

In these dangerous times, our whole planet now needs more than ever a good story to live in and to live by. There are a number of stories competing for the hearts and imaginations of humanity as we emerge together into this new century and millennium: the regressive stories of fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, or the progressive stories of secular “scientism” or American consumerism, for example. Once taken to the heart of human culture, each of these stories will produce its own kind of world. . . . The story we believe and live in today has a lot to do with the world we create for our children, our grandchildren, and our descendants one hundred thousand years from now (if?). [1]

I have to admit that twenty years ago most of us probably thought a hundred thousand years of human thriving sounded likely, but I’m afraid that it sounds almost fanciful to many of us today. Great and hopeful thinkers like Brian, Joanna Macy, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Ilia Delio and others give us the faith, scientific understanding, and courage to continue to do our small part. In one of his more recent books, Brian writes with his friend Gareth Higgins about a “Seventh Story.” It is a cosmic and all-inclusive story which, if believed and lived out, leads to a very different future, one of healing instead of conflict. 

Around the margins, another narrative has been taking shape during these most recent moments of . . . history. In this narrative, humans envision learning to live in harmony with one another and with the boundary conditions (or laws) of nature. We imagine seeing all our fellow humans—and all living things—as part of one family of relations, sharing in the same unfolding story or song of creation. We imagine ourselves creating conditions in which peace and well-being are not only possible but normal, and in which inevitable conflicts can be resolved through justice, kindness, wisdom, and love. . . .

As the amazing 13.8 billion-year story of the cosmos continues to unfold, in this little corner of the universe, we hope to tell a story of justice and joy, love and peace, for the benefit of future generations who will be born into the story that there is no [us and] them at all. [2] This is a cosmic and inclusive story that demands healing more than punishment.

A New Framing Story

January 11th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »
Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions popularized the term “paradigm shift.” [1] A paradigm is a set of beliefs, images, concepts, and structures that govern the way we think about something. Kuhn (1922–1996) said that paradigm change becomes necessary when the previous paradigm becomes so full of holes and patchwork “fixes” that a complete overhaul is necessary. The shift in thinking which might have felt threatening at one time now appears as the only way forward and as a real lifeline. I hope we are at one of these critical junctures again. Might we be willing to adopt a new set of beliefs, values, and systems that could change (and maybe even save) humanity and our world? My colleague Brian McLaren is a former English teacher and has much to teach us about the power of stories. He uses the language of a “framing story” to describe the same phenomenon Kuhn observed. Brian says a framing story “gives people direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for their lives. It tells them who they are, where they come from, where they are, what’s going on, where things are going, and what they should do.” [2] While we all have stories that answer those questions on a personal level, a “framing story” dictates the general beliefs of a culture, nation, religion, and even humanity as a whole. Brian writes convincingly that “our growing list of global crises [Richard: even before the COVID-19 pandemic], together with our inability to address them effectively, gives us strong evidence that our world’s dominant framing story is failing.” [3] He reflects: If it [our framing story] tells us that the purpose of life is for individuals or nations to accumulate an abundance of possessions and to experience the maximum amount of pleasure during the maximum number of minutes of our short lives, then we will have little reason to manage our consumption. If our framing story tells us that we are in life-and-death competition with each other . . . then we will have little reason to seek reconciliation and collaboration and nonviolent resolutions to our conflicts. . . . But if our framing story tells us that we are free and responsible creatures in a creation made by a good, wise, and loving God, and that our Creator wants us to pursue virtue, collaboration, peace, and mutual care for one another and all living creatures, and that our lives can have profound meaning if we align ourselves with God’s wisdom, character, and dreams for us . . . then our society will take a radically different direction, and our world will become a very different place. [4] As Christians, we have the opportunity to live the story that was given to us at the very beginning (Genesis 1), that creation is “good,” even “very good,” and that it is our vocation to nurture and grow such goodness wherever we can. Stories Are Essential It doesn’t matter how old we are; we all need stories to believe in. If there’s no storyline, no integrating images that define who we are or that give our lives meaning or direction, we just won’t be happy. It was probably Carl Jung (1875‒1961) and Joseph Campbell (1904‒1987) who most developed this idea for my generation of Western rationalists. Many of us had thought that myth meant “not true,” when in fact the older meaning of myth is precisely “always true”! Jungian analyst and story-teller Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes: Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives . . . [1]. I can’t imagine I’m alone in longing for us collectively to embrace a better story, one that has the power to change our hearts and minds and enliven our imaginations. Jung goes so far as to say that transformation only happens in the presence of story, myth, and image, not primarily through rational arguments. What fits (or does not fit) into your preexisting storyline?  For Christians, the map of Jesus’ life is the map of humanity: birth, everyday life, betrayal, abandonment, death, resurrection, and new life. In the end, it all comes full circle; we return where we started, though now transformed. Jung saw this basic pattern repeated in every human life, and he called it the Christ Archetype, an image “as good as perfect” that maps the whole journey of human transformation. [2] Jung’s notion of an Archetype or Ruling Image helps us understand the “Universal Stand-In” that Jesus was meant to be. Sadly, for most Christians Jesus ended up being an exclusive Savior for us to worship instead of an inclusive Savior with whom we are already joined at the hip. If we live in Europe or North or South America, there’s a good chance we’ve picked up this archetypal storyline, at least on some minimal level. We might not really believe it or surrender to it, yet if we could, we would be much happier people because the Christ map holds deep and unconscious integrating power for us as individuals and for society as a whole. A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts of our lives and others’ lives (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a cosmic myth—like the Gospel—gives us a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, a personal participation in it.

When Things Are Unveiled

January 8th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

I have read the scriptures since childhood and preached on them continually over the last fifty years in my role as a priest; but over the last year, I’ve found myself drawn to them in a different way. I have been looking, if not for answers, then for wisdom, solidarity, and always for needed inspiration. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this past year I have frequently returned to what we might call the “apocalyptic” readings found in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 24, Luke 21, Mark 13) and also in the entire Book of Revelation. Don’t be nervous! I’m not looking for signs of the “end times” or trying to predict anything. I’m simply trying to understand what is being “revealed” in all that is happening. Remember, the word “apocalyptic” simply means to “unveil.” It was never meant to be a synonym for bad news!

Apocalyptic literature “pulls back the curtain” to reveal what is real, what is true, and what is lasting. It’s never what we think it is! That is the gift of this literature and a time like the one we’re living through. It shocks us out of what we take for granted as normal so that we can redefine normal. It uses hyperbolic language and images, such as stars falling from the sky and the metaphor of the moon turning to blood to help us recognize that we’re not in my home state of Kansas anymore. It’s not that it’s the end of the world, but it helps us imagine the end of “our world” as we know it. That doesn’t mean life doesn’t go on, but that our lives won’t go on the way we thought they would, could, and even should. It allows us to see that what we thought was necessary and inevitable, simply isn’t, and that everything is eventually “Gone, gone, utterly gone!” as many Buddhists chant daily in the Diamond Sutra (scripture).

When things are “unveiled,” we stop taking things for granted. That’s what major events like the COVID-19 pandemic do for us. They reframe reality in a radical way and offer us an invitation to greater depth and breadth. If we trust the universal pattern, the wisdom of all times and all places, including the creation and evolution of the cosmos itself, we know that an ending is also the place for a new beginning. Death is followed by a new kind of life.

I invite you to continue practicing some form of contemplative prayer this year. Our problems begin when we fight reality, push it away, or insist that the way I “see” reality, from my own limited perspective, is the only valid reality. Any contemplative practice that serves to welcome life as it is will change us. We will dive into this “unveiled”—and even unpleasant—reality positively and preemptively, saying, “Come God, and teach me your good lessons.” We need such a practice to lessen our resistance to change and our tight grasp around things. Let us seek to pray this way for as long as it takes us to arrive at a full “Yes” to Reality. Only then can its lessons come through to us.

The True Patterns of the Universe

January 7th, 2021 by Dave No comments »

Truth is One. If something is spiritually true, then all disciplines and religions will somehow be looking at this “one truth” from different angles, goals, assumptions, and vocabulary. If it is the truth, it is true all the time and everywhere, and sincere lovers of truth will receive it from wherever it comes. CAC teacher Brian McLaren suggests how we might find truth revealed in the patterns of the universe. He writes:

It becomes more obvious the longer you live that all life is full of patterns. Reality is trying to tell us something. Life is speaking to us. There’s lots of mystery out there, to be sure, and no shortage of chaos and unpredictability. But there’s also lots of meaning . . . messages trying to find expression, music inviting us to listen and sing, patterns attracting our attention and interpretation. The chaos becomes a backdrop for the patterns, and the mysteries seem to beckon us to try to understand. . . .

But above and behind and beyond the sometimes confusing randomness of life, something is going on here. From a single molecule to a strand of DNA, from a bird in flight to an ocean current to a dancing galaxy, there’s a logic, a meaning, an unfolding pattern to it all.

Like wood, reality has a grain. Like a river, it has a current. Like a story, it has characters and setting and conflict and resolution. . . . Creation reveals wisdom through its patterns. It reveals wisdom about its source and purpose and about our quest to be alive . . . if we are paying attention.

Of course, we often struggle to know how to interpret those patterns. For example, if a tornado destroys our house, an enemy army drops bombs on our village, a disease takes away someone we love, we lose our job, someone we love breaks our heart, or our best friends betray us, what does that mean? Is the logic of the universe chaos or cruelty? Does might make right? Do violence and chaos rule? Is the Creator capricious, heartless, and evil? If we had only our worst experiences in life to guide us, that might be our conclusion.

We must honestly admit that we don’t always understand the seemingly random forces at play, but if we believe that the Risen Jesus is the full and trustworthy unveiling of the nature of God, then we live in a safe and love-filled universe. Brian continues:

[Genesis and the Gospel of John] dare us to believe that the universe runs by the logic of creativity, goodness, and love. The universe is God’s creative project, filled with beauty, opportunity, challenge, and meaning. It runs on the meaning or pattern we see embodied in the life of Jesus. In this story, pregnancy abounds. Newness multiplies. Freedom grows. Meaning expands. Wisdom flows. Healing happens. Goodness runs wild.

A Foundational Sense of Awe

January 6th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

Abandon hidden things, / Take up what is revealed!
—Ephrem the Syrian, Hymn 81

Healthy religion gives us a foundational sense of awe. It re-enchants an otherwise empty universe. It gives people a universal reverence toward all things. Only with such reverence do we find confidence and coherence. Only then does the world become a safe home. Then we can see the reflection of the divine image in the human, in the animal, in the entire natural world—which has now become inherently “supernatural.” CAC teacher Barbara Holmes describes this awakening so well and poetically:

When we are fully alert in spirit, mind, and body, we are more than we imagine and can accomplish more than we suppose. Moments of awareness occur as a dawning of meaning, when the familiar suddenly becomes infused with new insights or unfamiliar ideas merge with the wellspring of experiences and beliefs that pervade human consciousness. Such occasions feel like personal discoveries. While in the midst of an epiphany, folks inevitably apply the term “discovery” to lands, people, and ideas that have always been present. We use the language of strange and alien sightings when the more accurate statement would be, “Eureka! I have just awakened to a long-standing reality that an inner unveiling has finally allowed me to see.” . . .

An awakening is necessary to reconnect us to our origins and one another. [1]

Instead of nurturing awe, reconnection, and awakening, I’m sorry to say that today we have a lot of ideological hysteria and junk religion—on both the left and the right. Junk religion is similar to junk food because it only satisfies enough to gratify the momentary desire but does not really feed the intellect or the heart. Junk religion is usually characterized by fear of the present and fear of the future. What we experience when people have really met God is that there is no fear of the present because it is always full. There’s no fear of the future because a loving God is in charge. There’s no fear of the past because it has been healed and forgiven. Then people do not use God to avoid reality or to fabricate a private, self-serving reality. They let God lead them into the fullness of Reality; not away from dilemmas and paradoxes, but right onto the horns of the human dilemma!

Whatever reconstruction we’re going to do cannot be based on fear or on reaction. It has to be based on a positive and fully human experience of God as a loving Presence. True religion is ready to let God be God, and to let God lead us into a new future that we do not yet understand—and no longer even need to understand.

Unveiling Christianity

January 5th, 2021 by Dave No comments »

Another way to look at “unveiling” is as a sort of “recognition event,” where something we thought we knew reveals itself to be radically different than our long-held assumptions. Our friend and CAC teacher Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault explores how this is a gospel phenomenon, one that takes place repeatedly, especially for Jesus. When people are attuned and awake, reality is often “unveiled” for them. Cynthia suggests that this might be a necessary step for all Christians in the twenty-first century. We’ve become so used to the “story” of our faith that a veil has been pulled over our eyes and we no longer experience its power to change our lives. She writes:

Perhaps the most deadening aspect of our Christianity . . . is that we live it with twenty-twenty hindsight. We know the story. We know how the plot comes out. We know who the winners are. . . . The Bible contains the complete and divinely authorized biography of Jesus and furnishes the complete guide to what [we] should do to become his disciple. Everything needed for [our] personal salvation is right there. . . .

We’re living in an era right now which some would call a major paradigm shift, where there’s an opportunity as perhaps there hasn’t been before to really open up the core questions again and ask, “What is it that we mean by ‘Christianity’? What is this filter [or veil] that we’re looking through? Who is this Master that we profess and confess in our life as we call ourselves Christian?” . . .

When we approach the [Jesus] story with the attitude, “I’ve heard that already, I know what that means,” we fall asleep rather than allowing ourselves to be shocked awake. . . . For all such spiritual sleepwalking bypasses that crucial first step, that moment when the heart has to find its way not though external conditioning but through a raw immediacy of presence. Only there—in “the cave of the heart,” as the mystics are fond of calling it—does a person come in contact with his or her own direct knowingness. And only out of this direct knowingness is sovereignty born, one’s own inner authority.

Richard here: This is what Jesus offers people through his ministry—an experience of inner authority, powerful enough to heal them and set them free from whatever was keeping them trapped. Often it seems as if Jesus is simply “parting the veil” between them and God. Cynthia offers this quote from Father Bruno Barnhart:

As we accompany Jesus through the gospels, we are present at one dramatic meeting after another. One person after another experiences a mysterious power in Jesus that, from this moment, changes the course of his or her life. If we are fully present at the moment when we read such a narrative, we ourselves experience the liberating power of this awakening. [1]

The Prayer of Unveiling

January 4th, 2021 by JDVaughn No comments »

Week One: A Time of Unveiling

For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. —1 Corinthians 13:12

When we celebrate the beginning of a new year, we celebrate the rebirth of time. We wait for God to do new things. We wait for who we are. We wait for the coming of grace, for the revelation of God. We wait for the truth. We wait for the vision of the whole. But we cannot just wait. We must pray. We say that prayer is not primarily words. Yet prayer can be words, and if the words come out of that empty contemplative place, then we can trust that we really mean them.

Contemplative prayer is a form of unveiling, because it reveals what is going on beneath the polished and busy surfaces of our minds, our hearts, and our bodies. When we finally get still enough, contemplation can live within us in pure, open moments of right here, right now. This is enough, this is fullness. If it is not right here, right now, it doesn’t exist. If we don’t know God now, how would we know God later? The mystics say we won’t. We will not recognize God later if we cannot recognize God now. It is a matter of seeing God now through the shadow and the disguise.

Contemplative prayer lives in a spacious place, free of personal needs or meanings or even interpretations. Life does not care what I like or don’t like. It doesn’t matter a bit. If we stay in the world of preference, we keep ourselves as the reference point. Does it really matter what color I like best or what my current favorite movie is? It changes from moment to moment. No wonder people have identity crises. No wonder people have a fragile self-image; they have nothing solid to build on beyond changing opinions and feelings. If formerly we said, “I think therefore I am,” now it might be “I choose therefore I am.” That’s not a solid foundation to build on.

The real question is “What does this have to say to me?” Those who are totally converted come to every experience and ask not whether or not they liked it, but what does it have to teach them. “What’s the message or gift in this for me? How is God in this event? Where is God in this suffering?” This is a prayer of unveiling, asking that the cruciform shape of reality be revealed to us within the very shape and circumstances of our own lives.

Pulling Back the Veil

The future, however, is finer than any past. —Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind

If you are anything like me, there is some part of you that was relieved to turn the calendar over to 2021. The new year puts at least some symbolic distance between ourselves and 2020, a year that brought so much chaos, heartbreak, and uncertainty to so many people throughout the world. I dare say that no one lived through the past year without experiencing some level of disruption and loss of freedom, of health, of loved ones, and especially our cherished notions of how things “ought” to be.

The Daily Meditations theme for 2021 is “A Time of Unveiling.” I’m convinced we are living in such a time—when reality is being revealed as it is. Systems of evil have become both more brazen and banal, our sense of “normal” has been upended, and yet in the midst of it, God continues to invite us to deeper transformation. A few weeks into the pandemic, some people even began to use the word “apocalyptic” to describe what was taking place. Often, this word is used to scare people into some kind of fearful, exclusive, or reactionary behavior, all in expectation of the “end times.” But the word “apocalyptic,” from the Greek apokálupsis, really just means “unveiling.”

The beginning of the new year seems like a good time to pause, “pull back the veil,” and ask, “Where is this all going? What is the end goal for all of us, and—for that matter—for the cosmos itself?” Is our “late, great planet Earth” really headed toward Armageddon? In these fractious, unmoored, and disillusioned times, I can hardly think of more relevant concerns.

No matter what is going on around us, it’s important to remember that God keeps transforming creation into something both good and new. Instead of hurtling us towards catastrophe, God always wants to bring us somewhere even better. A helpful word here is “evolution.” God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the good. That might be hard to see sometimes in the moment, but it’s nevertheless true.

While more and more people seem to believe that that the universe has no form, direction, or final purpose, as Christians, we can be confident that the final goal does have shape and meaning. The biblical symbol of the Universal and Eternal Christ (Alpha and Omega) stands at both ends of cosmic time. This assures us that the clear and full trajectory of the world we know is an unfolding of consciousness with “all creation groaning in this one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22). Why do I think this is such an important image to remember? Frankly, because without it we become very impatient with ourselves and others, particularly when we encounter setbacks (both personal and communal). Humans and history both grow slowly.