2021 Archives

Christmas Morning

Dave Brisbin 12.5.21
What are you trained to see that others miss? If you’re trained in art and art history, when you look at a painting you can see color, palette, composition, technique down to the brushstrokes. You can place a painting in its genre and era, maybe assess its importance and value as others pass by without a second glance. If you’re trained in architecture, you see a building very differently from others. If trained in music, sports, mathematics, fashion, horses, dogs, cats…if you choose to spend enough time with another person, when someone asks what you see in that guy, it’s obviously something others have missed.

We’ve all heard the adage that seeing is believing, but the truth is that we can all look at the same thing and see or believe different things about it. Or not see it at all. Some things need to be believed before they can be seen—we have to be prepared to see them, the real significance of them.

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Billions of us raised in the Christian tradition have the Christmas story imprinted down to our bones—often imagining ourselves with the magi in awe at the foot of the manger. But the real question Christmas poses is whether we would have joined the magi at all. Would we have seen what they saw? Historically, there were no inns in ancient Bethlehem. The word translated as inn really points to the living space, the platform or second floor where a family slept. So Joseph, trying to lodge at the home of friends or extended family, had to bunk with the animals because there was no room in the living space. Which means that those in that house, those closest to Joseph and Mary saw nothing significant about them. Didn’t make room for them. Didn’t sit with them. Missed what the magi set out to see. Those who saw something more than a poor infant lying with the household animals, were those who were prepared to see their heart’s desire in a place they least expected. It is always this way. We will always find our God as a child, as the not-fully-formed promise of something more. Are we prepared to see? Every time we set out to meet our God is Christmas morning. The babe is in the manger. The star is in the east. And we are the magi.

Too Big to Grasp

Dave Brisbin 11.21.21
Some ideas are just too big to fit into our minds all at once. We can understand the meaning of the words, but not the significance. The number trillion is thrown about these days the way a billion was a few years ago, the way a million was a generation ago. You can count a million seconds in twelve days, but counting to a billion would take thirty-two years. Breathtaking, until you learn that counting to a trillion would take thirty-two thousand years…

Jesus’ concept of kingdom is like this: contradicts our worldview and experience of life so deeply that even understanding the words, the reality remains out of reach until we take the first tentative steps toward experiencing it. As encapsulated in the Lord’s Prayer—not a prayer to be recited but an expression of the intention to live life prayerfully—we are being asked to release everything we have used to save ourselves in order to be saved by what we’ve not yet considered. That kind of vulnerability and the trust it implies are too big to grasp with our minds and must seep into our hearts by another way.

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Every concept Jesus teaches is an exercise in letting go of the small container of our minds and the limitations they represent. He tells us that our Father won’t forgive us until we forgive our brother who we should forgive seventy times seven times—a Hebrew expression of forever. Are we to practice unconditional forgiveness when our Father does not? The part that is too big to grasp until experienced is that all things are one, that forgiving and being forgiven are one and the same. We will only experience being forgiven the moment we free ourselves from our own unforgiveness. This is what makes kingdom so big. That God has already chosen to forgive us and love us since before time began, and nothing can change that fact. Because God is love, forgiveness, and salvation, and can’t be anything else, God’s action is complete. Against the backdrop of absolute being, our action is the only question left. Once we’ve grasped that, the waiting is over, and kingdom is here.

Teach Us to Pray

Dave Brisbin 11.14.21
There was something different about the way Jesus prayed. His friends watched him, watched other religious leaders. They saw their Jewish teachers praying in the marketplace or temple court in full view of the people, saw gentiles praying loud and long, entreating their gods over and over with petitions. Then they saw Jesus, after a grueling day teaching and healing, disappear into the hills sometimes for days, or wake to find him already gone, returning later with the energy and enthusiasm for another grueling day.

The difference was so stark, it finally pushed them to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” What is it you do out there in the wilderness for hours or days on end? What is it you do that brings you back to us restored? He tells them not to make a show, to retreat into their secret place, to use few words since the Father knows what they need before they ask. Then he gives them five simple lines. How does that work? How do five lines of prayer take us deep into the secret space of our wilderness and occupy us for hours or days on end?

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We have come to view prayer as made of words. We approach God through our minds, which can only understand something by contrasting it with something else, measuring its value against our needs and desires. But Jesus gives his friends a prayer that is more of a blueprint than a prayer. A way of approaching life that changes the way we see, what we can see, and occupies not just hours or days, but entire lives. Five simple lines, five steps along a path to connection with unseen spirit. These five lines are possibly the most familiar lines in Western culture, yet we don’t know what they mean. Our Father, kingdom come, daily bread, forgiven debt, temptation and deliverance…in Jesus’ Aramaic, they become a process of clearing an interior space for God’s purpose to take hold,  allowing us to find all we need in each lived moment, healing from past trauma and remaining undiverted, repeating the process over a lifetime of becoming. Jesus’ five lines are not a prayer to recite, but an intention to live life itself as a prayer.

Giving Like Wind

Dave Brisbin 11.7.21
How do you measure your own righteousness? Kind of loaded word. Maybe “rightness” is better. Do you even think about your rightness spiritually? How you measure up, how you’re progressing, what God thinks of you? The religious authorities of Jesus’ day had it all worked out. They measured their righteousness in three ways: how much money they gave to the temple treasury, how much they prayed, and how often they fasted.

Of course, they made sure everyone knew how much they were giving, praying, and fasting by making a show of every act of ritual righteousness. After all, what good was being righteous if no one knew about it? If it couldn’t benefit you in some way? For a religious leader to act and teach this way naturally puts him or her squarely in Jesus’ crosshairs as he works to redefine how we see our rightness with God.

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Some days Jesus would just hang out at the temple, sit and people watch. It’s easy to think of Jesus always on a mission, but a little verse in Mark describes him sitting opposite one of the collection boxes watching the activity. He sees all the big gifts going in, “sounding the trumpet” with their reverberating impact, then a poor widow dropping in two small coins completely unnoticed except by him. In pointing out her willingness to give to others even in the uncertainty of her poverty, Jesus is showing us the real nature of rightness in giving. Once a gift is defined as a specific amount or percentage, it’s no longer a gift, but a tax. And once a gift is understood as proof of rightness to a God who will reward, it’s also no longer a gift, but an investment. The reward of God is the intimate connection that occurs when we lose our sense of ourselves as separate beings in the flow between us and another. God’s spirit is like the wind: always moving and never seen. God’s reward is the same, always flowing and as unseen as God and spirit. When we can give as the widow gave, in a moment of flow to the need of the moment, we will know just how right we are with God—the reward no one else will ever see.

Rising Sun Falling Rain

Dave Brisbin 10.31.21
Most of us realize we’re imperfect. Some of us are even willing to admit it. When Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, some of us are immediately off trying to follow every rule…perfectly. Some give up after a while, and others don’t even try. But if we’re going to take Jesus seriously, how can we be imperfect and perfect at the same time?

Right before he tells us to be perfect, he tells us to love our enemies, because our Father causes the sun to rise and rain to fall on those who are good or not, righteous or not. In the way of the poet, Jesus doesn’t spell it out—layering image on image to bring us to an inevitable conclusion. The way the Father is perfect is that he causes the sun to rise and rain to fall on everyone because they are here breathing and for no other reason. Before we can be imperfect and perfect at the same time, we need to learn to love and hate at the same time.

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Seems the hardest thing to do in life is to love what we don’t like, what we hate. Scripture gives us a clue: love our neighbor as ourselves. How do we love ourselves? We don’t generally feel any affection for ourselves, may not even like ourselves, but we feed ourselves and clothe ourselves, shelter, educate, entertain ourselves. When we can see our neighbor as ourselves, a fellow fragile human, even with no loving feeling, loving as we love ourselves becomes possible. But is our enemy our neighbor? Jesus answered with the story of the good Samaritan—whoever is in our path is our neighbor, even if our enemy at the same time. To love and hate at the same time is to see the deeper connection that makes us all the same. The Father’s perfection is to see us all as one, as those on whom sun rises and rain falls. His perfection is an indiscriminate love, unaware of boundaries or borders, and any moment in which we lose ourselves in a connection so deep our learned boundaries fall away, is a perfect moment. Imperfect people having perfect moments, able to love what we don’t understand or even like. In the moment we can love and hate at the same time, we are imperfectly perfect as well.

The Second Mile

Jesus is not here to make us safe. Jesus is here to make us free. We can’t have both at the same time because freedom and security are inversely proportional—as one goes up, the other goes down. We give up freedom to feel safe, and the freer we are, the more exposed and vulnerable. Without Jesus’ priorities deeply set, we willfully miss his message in our obsessive desire for security.

Jesus is always exposing and deconstructing the legal walls we build for security at the expense of the freedom to simply relate to each other in love. As barbaric as an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth may sound to us today, it still makes us feel safe because it promises that any breach in the walls of our safety will be repaid in kind, that mutually assured destruction will be a deterrent to those who would threaten our security.

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But Jesus says not to rise up against an evil person. If someone strikes you on your right cheek, offer the left; if sued you for your shirt, give your coat as well; if required to go one mile, go two; give and lend to anyone asks. These directives make no common sense and assault our sense of fairness and security. But Jesus as poet is not speaking literally. He’s figuratively pulling us kicking and screaming from behind the imagined security of our walls. When put back into cultural context, he’s talking about maintaining a willingness to remain vulnerably free to give in our relationships regardless of the insult, infringement, obligation, or burden placed on us. In Jesus’ culture, the first mile was the mile of legal obligation, of coercion. There is no freedom in the first mile. Nothing of value happens in the first mile—only the security of obeying law. But the second mile releases obligation, and once free, we can choose to remain unfree, bound by law, or exercise the freedom to give what is no longer required. We can’t have both. We can either choose security or the breathless freedom to do the unthinkable: to love beyond law. It’s all about the second mile.

Deconstructing Walls

Dave Brisbin 10.17.21
Is texting OMG—shorthand for oh my God—taking the Lord’s name in vain? Blasphemous, unlawful? Many Christians will answer yes and yes. But a group of Jewish high school students said they just use it instead of an exclamation point and don’t feel God is involved at all, that OMG stands for oh my gosh anyway. Now gosh and golly have been polite euphemisms for God since the 1700s—can’t expect high school students to know that.

Those who answer yes and yes will say that OMG breaks the third commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. (Use of King James for scary emphasis.) But the context of the commandment points to legal contracts, which at the time were “signed,” sworn with their highest authority—God’s  name. To break such an agreement was taking the Lord’s name in vain, making it worthless, and no society can survive losing respect for its highest authority. But Jesus takes this a step further, saying swear no oath at all, that yes or no is sufficient, recognizing that for an honest person no oath is necessary, and for a dishonest person, no oath is enough.  Be honest, decent, true to your word, and law has already been fulfilled.

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Is Jesus literally saying never make an oath? Quakers and Mennonites have believed so, refusing to testify in court or serve in the military where an oath is required. But Jesus is not forbidding all oaths. He’s forbidding vain oaths—those we don’t intend to honor. It’s a condition of the heart Jesus is after. Is texting OMG forbidden? Following rules to the letter makes us feel safe, that controlling our behavior can control our outcomes. But Jesus is deconstructing the legal walls we use to make us feel safe and justified. Jesus is not here to make us safe. He’s here to make us free. And to be fully free is to be fully at risk, vulnerable. To be fully free is to stop hiding behind defensive walls that also limit and imprison: to come out and make peace with our vulnerability, knowing that only in vulnerability are we connected, and only in connection is it possible to be  in love—free to be in Kingdom.

When Two are One

Dave Brisbin 10.10.21

Nearly thirty years ago, my fiancé and I asked our Pastor if he would marry us. I can only imagine how our faces looked when he said no because we’d both been married before, and he didn’t know that we had the biblical justification for our divorces. The church’s reading of Jesus’ sayings on divorce and remarriage was that the only legitimate reason for divorce was adultery, without which any remarriage was an act of adultery as well.

Already in church leadership and pastoral training, he further told me that a leader in the church had to be the husband of just one wife, which they interpreted from Paul’s sayings as being in a series rather than all at once. I remember wondering just when they planned on telling me all this. Having seen pastors send wives back into abusive relationships, which seemed risky and wrong, I’d rationalized it as making every attempt to save marriages. I didn’t realize how deep the scriptural rabbit hole went until I fell in myself.

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The shock morphed into a full court press of study to find out whether Jesus really said such things, because how valuable is a faith devoid of common sense and the ability to protect those most at risk? I found a book on Christian divorce and remarriage in which four scholars commenting on the same scriptural passages, came to four different conclusions within the same cover. The light went on above my head that scriptural interpretation was at best an educated opinion, not a mandate from God. It was a hinge moment from which the entire trajectory of my faith has proceeded. Ancient scripture was not written for us. It was written for those into whose eyes the authors looked. Those who lived a common culture and language. We’re reading their mail, and the burden is on us to step into their world, especially if we are giving these passages the authority to govern vulnerable lives. When we put Jesus’ sayings back into their ancient context, they make perfect common sense, always protect the vulnerable, and always point to the Father’s love. I can follow that for the rest of my life.

Rule Breaker

Dave Brisbin 10.03.21
Stepping off stage after speaking, a woman leads another young woman by the hand who sees only the floor in front of her feet as they approach. The first asks if I would speak to her friend. Without meeting my eyes, she slowly tells of a friend since childhood who married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism, then after a long depression had just committed suicide. She loved her friend very much and was afraid she was now in hell. Rejecting Christianity, committing suicide—two third strikes in a row. When she finally did look at me, the pain was heartbreaking, pleading for an alternative, a way of doing the math that didn’t add up to the answer she feared.

How would you have answered?

A question like this is only difficult from a legal perspective where breaking certain rules requires God’s eternal indifference. Indifference. After all, even God can’t stay mad forever, can he? Jesus literally killed himself showing us his new math: the sum of a relationship that never rests on law plus the sum of a law that never rests on rules—a quality of heart that rules could help form, but only lovingkindness beyond any sense of duty could fulfill.

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Converting to Judaism was one young woman’s way of loving her husband, of finding unity in her home among future children, maybe an expression of codependence and fear, but not a rejection of God. In the altered state of her pain, suicide seemed the only way forward, but she didn’t want to die; she wanted the hurting to stop. If I can understand these distinctions and find compassion, what does it say of a god who cannot? We all break the rules, but do we really break God’s heart? Jesus is showing us that rules are not absolute. They are temporary guides to hold us in place long enough—like a jello mold—until they are no longer needed for the shape of our hearts. Jesus broke the rules of his day to show us how lovingkindness was the only rule that mattered, that sometimes you had to break the rules in order to fulfill the law. Our God is a rule breaker. Always breaking in our favor when we deserve it least.

Beyond Justice

Dave Brisbin 9.26.21
Desperate for a different outcome, a mother asks me to visit her son in county jail on a drug charge. Visiting an inmate is much like the movies: huge sterile waiting space, walls an unnamable yellowish beige green, bolted down metal benches, stenciled black numbers over an endless wall of doors. Waiting. Lots of waiting. A flat male voice calling my name and two numbers. One for the door, one for the window. Through the door, long corridor with windows on both sides, bolted stools before each with small acoustic panels between that give a bit of break between visitors but no privacy. All the voices of all the conversations ringing through the corridor.

I sit before my window waiting again, struck by the energy in the rows. Women dressed their best—hair, eyes, makeup—parents, grandparents, children as if at family dinner on my side of the glass, all orange jumpsuits on the other. Laughter, pitched voices, Spanish, English, hands not holding the handset waving with the words. I catch a young woman leaning forward almost to the glass. The intensity, tone of voice, soft laughter…she was sitting across white tablecloth and candlelight with her man. Leaning right past window and handset, there was no offense, no charges, just her man. At that moment, she was completely orange colorblind.

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Like the elder brother of the prodigal, coming home in disgrace to his father’s open arms, we can cry foul, unfair, unjust. What about the charges, the victims of his offense? It seems God is orange colorblind too—doesn’t see faults. Only love. But isn’t God supposed to be just? He is, in the macro, in groups where love has to look like justice, resolving conflict with the least amount of damage. But God doesn’t love us as a group. Past the group, to the one beloved, where there is no victim, love has to look like mercy and compassion, unbalancing the scales of justice always in favor of the beloved. We can criticize, even ridicule the young woman. Say she is co-dependent, enabling, a doormat. And maybe she was. But I’d give anything to have my beloved look at me that way. Past the glass. Past my orange jumpsuit.

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