2020 Archives

Third Day of Christmas

Dave Brisbin 12.27.20
It’s the Third Day of Christmas. What does that mean? Three French hens immediately comes to mind from the song. But what are the Twelve Days of Christmas for that matter? The ancient liturgies of Christianity dating back hundreds and sometimes thousands of years have created a yearly cycle of seasons and celebrations that have defined and bonded communities through their common cultural festivals and traditions. We have lost a common liturgical language and practice in the modern West. Strike one, because liturgy is the way a people respond and participate in public and communal worship, and there’s no less need for that now than ever.

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Strike two is that our culture celebrates the extremes: the biggest, fastest, youngest, first, last, most spectacular or most spectacular failure. Whatever is between those extremes is flyover country, like Kansas or Nebraska—something only on the way to something else, something important. This is the Third Day of Christmas. Like a middle child, not the first or the baby. What value can it possibly represent? Avoiding strike three is figuring out how the third day is just as sacred as the first or last or any other, and is the task of anyone who really wants to follow Jesus. Learning to love and value the consistency of showing up every day, day in and out, just as presently and energetically as if it were the only day is what constitutes the anawim heart. The heart of one who has learned to live humbly: in the vulnerability, dependence, and gratitude of one who fully relies on God’s presence and provision. Every day.

Genius of the Magi

Dave Brisbin 12.13.20
How in the world could anyone have seen in a helpless infant, born to dirt-poor parents living in the back of beyond, all that Jesus was and would become? When you think about those who first recognized Jesus—Mary, Joseph, shepherds—the commonality is obvious. They are all as poor and invisible to the rest of the world as the infant in the manger. They have learned to be wholly reliant on God because in their lives, there has been no other constant. But there was one more group who recognized Jesus that at first glance couldn’t have been more different than these. Powerful, educated, wealthy, the Magi were all that these poor Galilean and Judean peasants were not, and yet there they are shoulder to shoulder with the rest in front of the child.

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Jesus said it would be harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. By Kingdom, Jesus meant the quality and consciousness of a life lived wholly reliant on God, aware of God’s presence and gifting in every moment. When life conspires to harshly force you to the reality of God as the only constant in life, it is amazing enough to retain your humility and gratitude without descending into resentment and bitterness. But what does it take for a rich person to let go of their illusions of control and security, to find that deep down they are just as dependent and wholly reliant on God as well? It is the genius of the Magi that they had taken just such an internal journey to their poverty of spirit before they could ever take the external journey to Jesus. And though we may look poor in comparison to the power and prestige of the Magi, we are rich beyond comprehension to everyone else who gathered around the infant Jesus that first Christmas. We need the genius of the Magi to show us the way to the way toward recognizing our unassuming God in the most unexpected places—each moment of our lives.

Starting Small

Dave Brisbin 12.6.20
If you want to find something hidden by a child, how do you do it? After you’ve searched all over the house, you get on your knees, lower your point of view to three feet off the ground and see all the spaces you won’t see from standing height. And if you want to find the truth hidden in Christmas? Even from standing height, all the details of Christmas point to Jesus starting small. Not just a helpless infant like any other, but also an abjectly poor one, invisible to those fixated on the big and powerful. There are no random details in scripture. Every detail is there on purpose, and if we want to know what was hidden in Christmas by the infant Jesus, we need to get on our knees, lower our point of view to see the truth that can guide us through every moment of our lives.

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And the truth is, as in all the metaphors Jesus used to point to Kingdom—his overall metaphor for the quality of life and consciousness that is full connection with God’s spirit—small things can have huge effects. The mustard seed buried in the soil, the leaven hidden in the flour, the gardener who shows up to unseen work each day with no control over the seeds themselves, the child, the Hebrew bride—all point to humble, vulnerable, unremarkable beginnings of the largest and most critical parts of life. Jesus and all of scripture are pointing us to this truth. If we want to live the quality of Kingdom, we need to be willing to start small, but even as we grow, never lose the quality of smallness because Jesus’ Kingdom can only and ever be lived from three feet off the ground. Jesus started small, born a child who never outgrew the childlikeness that allowed him to create Kingdom wherever he went. Jesus never grew out of his smallness. We need to grow back in. That’s a Christmas story we can live every day.

Living and Active

Dave Brisbin 11.29.20
Book of Hebrews tells us that our scriptures are living and active. What does that mean? It means the bible is more than ink on a page. More than the sum of the words. If it’s living, then something happens in the interaction with a reader…when the reader’s heart, author’s heart, God’s heart mix together. If it’s active, it means the words are a catalyst, but that there must be a readiness and willingness in the reader to partner with the words. It means it’s about us as engaged readers as much as God as inspirer. After all, if the message is love, then there must be a beloved.

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It’s the same with all our human communication. Any sharing is only as effective as the receiving. I used to think my job as pastor was to make others care as much as I did on any given topic. Now I know all I can do is arrange the meeting. Like a matchmaker, what happens after the meeting is entirely up to others. It’s a hard blow to our egos to admit such powerlessness: that like the gardener who works to bring seed, soil, and water together, the real miracles happen while we sleep. Once we accept that we can’t make miracles happen; we can only create the perfect environment for them to happen, everything changes. We can relax, liberated from things we can’t control. We can work just as hard, but instead of our efforts producing entitlement for an outcome, they produce only gratitude, because the real gift is one we can never give ourselves. In other words, we become living and active—more than the sum of our words and actions: the uncontrollable, untamed fruit of a true human exchange.

Mixing Metaphors

Dave Brisbin 11.22.20
We’ve always been taught not to mix our metaphors. We lose impact and don’t make sense if we say something like, “not the sharpest cookie in the jar.” Yet Jesus made a ministry out of mixing metaphors…ok, well, he wasn’t exactly mixing them…more layering them, piling them one on top of another. If your message is spiritual, you have no choice. Spirit can’t be quantified in words, only pointed toward. Metaphor is the language of spirit, and Jesus is masterfully fluent. His central and most expansive metaphor is the kingdom of heaven—his way of pointing to a state of consciousness, a quality of life as seen through the Father’s eyes where all things are one thing, completely connected. But knowing we would misunderstand, both then and now, he uses dozens of other metaphors to point to what it means and feels like to live that quality of life, approach it, sustain it. He piles them up and leaves it to us to sort through, to follow where they lead.

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Jesus may not have mixed his metaphors, but we must absolutely mix them into our quest for the quality of kingdom in our own lives. It’s not one metaphor alone, but all of them working together that paint the fullest picture of a life well lived. When Jesus speaks back-to-back of kingdom being like a mustard seed that grows uncontrollably into a huge tree, and also like leaven that leaves no part of the flour untouched, he’s making the same point: that kingdom is both tiny and hidden and huge and unavoidable—both right now and not yet, always here and always coming and becoming. When we take that metaphor and mix it with his metaphors of the child, the bride, and the gardener, we begin to see where he’s pointing…and the next indicated steps along his Way.

War of Attrition

Dave Brisbin 11.15.20
Last line of one of the great rock songs of all time: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave… Just as Hotel California was referring to a state of mind, 2020 has become a metaphor as well. A state of mind, an attitude toward life that even if different for each of us, is now etched into our psyches, and will not just leave as we check out on New Year’s eve. The continuous losses of 2020: Covid infections, lockdowns, social unrest, never-ending elections, have become a virtual war of attrition—a war fought not to win, but to wear down the opponent through continuous loss of resources. Who wins a war of attrition? The one with the most resources. Or the ability to renew their resources.

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We’ve all been worn down by this year, sometimes devastated in our loss of spiritual presence, emotional regulation, psychological balance, sense of humor. For Jesus, renewal of these resources is contained in another metaphor he uses over and over when he talks about gardeners and their plants. And in a most telling parable, renewal happens only while the gardener is fast asleep. He knows nothing about how it works, can’t make it happen, just shows up day after day making soil ready for the possibility of growth. The gardener has come to terms with his utter dependence on forces he can’t control, and at the mercy of sun, wind, and rain, he finds his own humility and vulnerability, an interior soil now prepared to receive the possibility of grace. As a society, we haven’t been gardeners for a long time, and if we fight this 2020 war of attrition as we typically do—as warriors—we’ve already lost. 2020 is now a state of mind, a metaphor. If you want to leave, change your metaphor. From warriors to gardeners, as we beat our swords into plowshares, we find the resources to outlast any war of attrition.

Overachievers and Dropouts

Dave Brisbin 11.1.20
What happens to children growing up in a house with parents who hold such high standards that they are essentially impossible to please? How do children respond when the only acceptance and approval they know seem wholly based on their performance? When they can never know whether their performance will be enough? Faced with a graceless environment, they can either keep trying to earn acceptance and approval or stop—overachievers and dropouts. Of course, these are not hard categories; we move along a continuum between striving for lofty goals and giving up, but one is generally favored. And what is true for children and parents remains true for all of us in our relationship with God.

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Graceless churches and theologies produce a continuum from those who follow law, doctrine, and practice as perfectly as possible to be “right” with God, to those who eventually give up the fight. In one of the most vivid stories in the gospels, Jesus is placed squarely between the entitlement of an overachiever and the shame of a dropout. And it is Jesus’ grace, in fact, just the promise of his grace that carries the dropout through the barrier of her shame, off the continuum of a legal, contractual relationship with God, to find that grace is a real thing, even for her. The question Jesus is asking all of us is whether we’re ready get off the hamster wheel of the continuum…whether we’re ready to take an unmerited leap through the paper barrier of our shame and into an acceptance and approval that exists without condition.

Off the Continuum

Dave Brisbin 10.25.20
Continuing with the theme of grace—the unmerited favor, unconditional love without which there is no gospel at all—we focus on why it is so hard for us to grasp and begin to trust in a way that changes our attitudes and experience of life. The opposite of the concept of unmerited favor is a legal understanding of our relationship with God. Reward from obedience to law is merited, earned, and kills grace because it places us in continuum thinking, seeing ourselves on a continuum or spectrum from good to evil, working toward the point at which we are acceptable to God. Continuum thinking is generally a better way to look at human relationships than categorical thinking that puts people in categories or boxes that can quickly become stereotypes and prejudices. But when it comes to God and God’s love, the continuum breaks down in the face of the infinite nature of spirit. To begin to trust a love that can’t be merited, earned, won, or lost is to take a leap off the continuum.

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All of Jesus’ teaching, the model of his life, the scriptures, are like the training on the ground for a skydive, which gets you all the way to an open door miles in the sky…but you won’t know skydiving or be convinced of the grace of a parachute until you jump. And you won’t be convinced of God’s grace, no matter how much you know about it, until you jump off the continuum where the impossible becomes suddenly possible. Even something as impossible as amazing grace.

Grace: The Path to Peace

Frank Billman 10.18.20
Grace is one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith. It is a concept that we all celebrate and eagerly accept because we all know that we need God’s grace desperately. The challenge comes in taking grace from a mental construct and making it experiential – moving it from our heads to our hearts. At the root of our difficulty is the nagging question of worthiness. Does God really love us unconditionally? Can the Good News really be this good? The message today will walk through the obstacles to accepting God’s grace and explore part of the process that takes us there because without grace there is no peace.

Nothing More to Ask

Dave Brisbin 10.11.20
A conversation with a friend who was just diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer rivets me. From stomach pain to hearing a doctor say that the metastasis was so extensive that she had maybe two weeks or two months with chemo, all in the space of one Covid-empty emergency room visit… Her twin sister flies in and takes her home cross-country to Pennsylvania where family surrounds. Best place she could be, but she tells me of the anger and depression. Wants to know what she did to deserve to die so young? She fears death and wants at least to make it through the holidays and see her nephew’s baby. She’s angry with God. Feels abandoned, and no amount of prayer brings a sense of his presence. I just listen, asking questions here and there, but mostly waiting for any cue or clue as to how I could possibly help besides just being on the other end of the line. Then she begins talking about her family—her sister and her sister’s children, how much she loves them and they her. Her nephew who is expecting a first child in two months, an aunt who is like her mother and how they spend every moment they can with her. Then she tells me that her sister wants to sleep with her in bed every night so she won’t miss a moment, not even the moment of her death. And that image of her sister’s love is a turning point in our conversation.

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I ask what she is expecting God’s love to feel like, and she doesn’t know. I gently suggest she’s already swimming in God’s love but she hasn’t seen it because she’s been looking up instead of across at her sister and her family. It seemed to register with her, and I thought I heard her relax a bit even over the phone. Teresa of Avila said that we are God’s hands and feet in this world, that he has no body here but ours. God’s love is shown through each of us or it isn’t shown at all, and any prayer for connection with God is answered the moment we become present enough to see God in each other. We can’t ask any more than this of God or of life. There isn’t any more to ask.

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