Dave Brisbin 10.2.22
Remember the Karate Kid movie? Has to be the original from 1984. Kid asks the master to teach him karate, and the master tells him to wax his cars. But with this exact movement—wax on, wax off. When that’s done, sand the floor, paint the fence, all with very specific movements. After weeks, the kid is fed up with slave labor, screams at the master, and turns to leave. Then there’s this great moment where the master puts all those movements into context with the punches he throws, the kid deftly blocking each one with muscles hardened by the memory of each defensive motion.
Why didn’t the master tell the kid what he was really doing while he was doing all that work? Because the kid would have brought all he thought he knew about karate into the process and messed it all up. Only way to learn a pure motion is to separate the motion from the desired outcome, and only way to a desired outcome is to learn the pure motion. What a metaphor for life. What are we really doing when we do the things we do all day long? What really matters? What lasts?
Like the kid, if we focus too soon on the outcome we think really matters, we won’t practice pure movements long enough to build character and container for real meaning. But if we don’t eventually question the meaning of our movements, we’ll never learn that they are just containers for a deeper task—the one that shows us who we really are.
Dave Brisbin 9.25.22
From the desert monastic communities of Egypt and Judea in the 4th century: a young monk asks his elder how he can come closer to God. Elder tells him to go to the cemetery and insult the dead. Dutifully he goes, and upon return the elder asks: did you go to the cemetery? Yes. Did you insult the dead? Yes. Did they respond to you? No. Now go back and praise the dead. Upon return: did they respond to you? No. When you can respond to the insults and praises of men the way the dead do, you will be closer to God.
The early church understood the value of unoffendability and unflatterability. Of learning that contentment, meaning, purpose, identity don’t depend on external opinion or circumstance, but a deep interior connection. Today, such values are not only lost, but our culture, both secular and religious, is built on noise, social approval, compulsive activity, and complexity. Re-establishing the deep interior connection Jesus calls being one with the Father means living salmon-like, swimming against the stream of our culture and our own minds
Bringing these four states of being into our daily routine changes our fundamental relationship with life and each other in ways we can’t fully anticipate—only experience. Stepping away from internal and external noise, the need for activity, accomplishment, and possessions to show us who we are, builds a quiet confidence and humility, the ability to hear the utter silence of God’s voice.
Dave Brisbin 9.18.22
A nurse, retiring after 44 years while also moving out of the home in which she raised her children, was feeling the anxiety of losing much of what had identified her entire adult life. I was telling her how important it would be to jump into the deep end of her new hometown, engage in community and really connect, when she flashed on her mother-in-law who had retired to Las Vegas seven years before. She had recently died, and the nurse was astounded by how many people attended the funeral…hundreds, including local store clerks and food servers.
In seven years, in a city the size of Las Vegas, imagine the kind of impression she must have made with even the most casual encounters. How she broke through the daily noise of life to leave people feeling seen, heard, validated, encouraged, loved. I wish I’d known her. I want to be her when I grow up.
We can be aware of something without thinking about it. Without attaching words, naming it in our heads. To think about something separates us as from a picture in a frame. To be fully aware is to become what we are aware of. At first, most of us will need to consciously practice not thinking about our thoughts, but until we graduate mere consciousness, awareness always remains just around the corner. Awareness is not something we consciously do, it’s the state of being connected, a wordless presence that can’t be mistaken for anything less, even by store clerks and food servers in the midst of their busy days.
Dave Brisbin 9.11.22
How many people do you know who seem satisfied with their lives? Are you? Every ad and commercial you see is betting that you’re not. Betting they can get between you and your money by hammering your dissatisfaction with your haves or have nots, your looks, your health, your work, your ride, and a million other issues.
What does it even mean to be satisfied with your life? Should you be satisfied? Isn’t there always something to work for, something that needs fixing, a hole that needs filling? Wouldn’t life be meaningless, purposeless, boring if we were satisfied with the way things are? I read an article that compared our lives to trees that shed their leaves in the fall, changing their priorities for the winter by deciding what to protect. Leaves take a lot of energy to maintain, and in the winter when energy is scarce, there’s only enough to protect the tree’s inner essence, to survive until spring. The tree is a lesson in choosing what to protect.
Being satisfied with life is not complacency. It is the successful balance of now and not yet: working hard to build what needs building and fix what needs fixing, but never at the expense of protecting our essence, which can only be experienced now, this moment. Realizing the most productive our work will ever be is when, disregarding outcome, we fully allow the working moment to be enough, an end in itself. Seeing significance in the smallest of things, and seeing our deepest identity apart from the leaves of our roles and accomplishments.
To allow a moment to be enough for us, to love it for itself while still amid the scaffolding of work undone makes us look a lot like trees.
Jesus’ Way, the practice of presence, of stepping away from the verbal use and abuse of the mind, is impossible to put into words. Since we are putting words aside in order to experience real presence, words can never detail what we find there. At least not directly. One of the best attempts to describe a transcendent, contemplative experience is a poem of course, A Great Wagon by Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic. It’s the one with the famous line: Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
Though that line gets all the attention, each line and metaphor points toward a going beyond everything we think holds life in place. Beyond law, morality, ethics, logic, theology, doctrine, material possessions, even the laws of physics and any illusion of certainty, there is a field. When we lie down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense. As humans, even after having such an experience of being, we will still wake the next day empty and afraid. But if we don’t fly back to our words, if we keep playing the music, even the breeze at dawn has secrets to tell. The poet then warns us three times: don’t go back to sleep.
Waking up is a slow process, and we all go back to sleep at one point or another. Life is too traumatic at times to always keep eyes open. But to lie in the grass of that field out-beyond even once, is to have found the awareness and desire to wake again, eyes open longer each time we do.
Dave Brisbin 8.28.22
Ever been frustrated by Jesus’ communication style? Get in line because even his first followers throw their hands up in the gospels and ask why he doesn’t just speak plainly. Why always in parables and figures of speech. Jesus is a poet. One of the best. He knows he can’t express spiritual truths directly, but only through stories and metaphors that point without limiting.
I’m sure this is a big part of the allure of Buddhism in the West: Buddha is more engineer than poet, giving us Three Universal Truths, Four Noble Truths, an Eight Fold Path, all interconnected and breaking down into further sublists. Something to hold on to. Jesus never gives us lists or interlocking structure. He points toward the experience of top-level concepts and principles, what it feels like to live them. Frustrating, because he is always challenging embedded thought, always introducing paradox and mystery, attempting to take us beyond. Beyond where we are, beyond where we think we can go, even beyond what we think proper.
Our codes and beliefs, our need for certainty, our conscious minds are hardened targets. They have to be to sustain us through the fears of physical life. But Jesus is taking us beyond physical life, to the life that exists beyond our fears. Like Abraham, asked to kill his miracle son and promise, Jesus is taking us beyond all the defenses we build around what we believe will save us…to experience that we already are.
Dave Brisbin 8.21.22
Suffering is evil and wrong, isn’t it? The price we’ve been paying since Adam blew it in the garden? A sign of God’s disapproval, that something is wrong in our lives, that we need to repent and pray for God’s relief. How we view suffering has a lot to do with how much it hurts. I was taught to view suffering as evil, but what if I was misinformed?
Jesus makes a cryptic statement that you don’t hear many pastors or priests discussing these days. When people were asking Jesus for a sign to prove his power came from God, he tells them they will get no sign but the Sign of Jonah. How to understand? Jonah is the Hebrew prophet swallowed by a big fish while trying to escape God’s command to save a city and people he hated as enemies of Israel. After three days and nights in the fish, Jonah reluctantly goes to them. The people repent, saving the city, but Jonah sulks outside the city walls praying for death. The story ends with God asking whether Jonah is doing well to be angry, and why shouldn’t God—and he—pity these people who “do not know their right hand from their left?”
Suffering a death to everything we think keeps us safely in control is the necessary suffering that precedes our ability to begin to love as God loves—even those we don’t like, the enemy. If we allow, suffering leads to greater love, just as love always leads back to suffering. Suffering is half of the only Way to the Father.
We don’t get to see Jonah’s response, so God’s question remains open to him and all of us down through the millennia. Will we accept the necessary suffering life presents to open us to a love we won’t see until we do?
Dave Brisbin 8.14.22
Most of us have heard the phrase, “ugly duckling,” but most of us no longer know the story from which it comes. We may think it refers to a face only a mother could love, but The Ugly Duckling was a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale published in 1843. After a mother duck’s eggs hatch, there is one duckling unlike all the rest, who is verbally and physically abused because of his looks. He goes through a series of isolating and humiliating incidents until, when fully grown, throws himself into a flock of swans preferring death to further rejection. He’s amazed that he is fully accepted until he sees his reflection in the water and realizes he’s been a swan all along.
When Andersen was asked if he’d ever write his autobiography, he said it was already done. A tall, ugly boy with a big nose and feet, he was cruelly mocked and teased, but in addition to his musical and writing talents, there was evidence he was the illegitimate son of the king of Denmark. The swan was not just metaphor for inner beauty and talent, but also for royal blood.
That we’re all swans. The slipper fits. We’re knights, secret royalty. That the journey Jesus took to truth is a journey we can all take. That when Jesus says “you will do the things you see me do,” he means that whenever we wish, we can take up the human task of realizing that though we don’t yet see it in ourselves, as children of our Father, the king, royal blood flows in us as well. That even in the admission of our powerlessness, this good news alone can wake us from the slavery of our fears.
Dave Brisbin 8.7.22
What’s your first reaction to the words religious ritual? Positive? Negative? Typically, it’s a one-two punch of negatives: religion and ritual—both of which many people now denigrate, ridicule, as empty, meaningless, even cultish. Those criticisms are valid if ritual is performed thoughtlessly, without knowing the meaning of the symbols involved, as mere obedience or conformance to a group, to gain approval or status…but what if it isn’t any of those things?
A sacrament is a religious ritual that we define as the outward expression of an inward transformation. When a person offers a transformed heart, with understanding of how the ritual expresses their transformation to the community, it’s filled with meaning—a shared experience and celebration that binds people together. We need ritual, but we need to expand it beyond the confines of church. In my twenties, as some point I realized that I always fell into deep depression on Sunday afternoons. Like clockwork. Not until my thirties when I had started going to a church again, did I realize the depression was gone. Growing up, my family went to mass every Sunday. Got up, dressed up, drove on the same streets to church, pancakes after at Paris’ restaurant every time.
Routine may feel like a four letter word, but it gives us the time and times we need to connect and bond with life. Even so, routine is also meaningless if done thoughtlessly with no understanding of what it symbolizes in our lives. But routine becomes ritual if we bring our awareness and fully participate, and it becomes sacramental the moment our transformed hearts can see the deeper implications of our presence meeting God’s presence in the connection it creates.
Dave Brisbin 7.31.22
I was recently asked why we don’t do altar calls at our church. It’s not that we don’t do them, but we don’t do them publicly. As de facto sacraments, altar calls have become every Sunday rituals at many Evangelical churches in the past hundred and fifty years. Named from the practice of calling people to the front/altar of a church to declare their conversion, the ritual has become encapsulated in saying the “sinners prayer,” which includes admission of sin, request for forgiveness, statement of orthodoxy, and intention of repentance.
It’s a beautiful first step of vulnerability and intention, but which over time has culturally become the proof of salvation itself. If the saying of a prayer made of words, no matter how beautiful, could trigger the flow of God’s grace and approval where it was previously withheld, as Marcus Borg said, it would be “salvation by syllables.” Mere superstition—in the way carrying a rabbit’s foot brings good luck.
Doesn’t mean we stop doing altar calls, but any sacrament is an outward expression of an inward transformation. The ritual itself is meaningless. A transformed heart is what brings meaning to the ritual, and the ritual conveys that meaning to the community and binds us together in shared experience. We need that. But salvation is less an event and more a process of becoming, punctuated by events like our first admission of willingness to submit to a power greater than ourselves. Both are absolutely necessary. It’s a question of emphasis—which means we all have to decide, individually and communally, how best to keep that balance.