contemplative way

The contemplative way of spirituality is the way of stepping aside from anything and everything we think or feel that would distract us from what is present right here and now–the conscious awareness of God’s presence.

Still Small Voice

Dave Brisbin 3.6.22
One of the world’s top psychiatry journals published a study on the source of emotional disorders, and the takeaway was that “depression and anxiety are linked to an intolerance of uncertainty.” Intolerance of uncertainty. Says it all. Don’t know if we needed a study for that, but good to know the science validates common sense. We can’t even know tomorrow’s weather with certainty: uncertainty creates fear, and inability to accept fear as part of life causes us either to seek more and more information to answer endless questions or just pretend the questions are already answered—both of which create emotional disorder.

Irony is, as we’re working to eradicate uncertainty from life, it is uncertainty that is the engine of spiritual and psychological growth. It is only at the end of logic, the precipice of rational thought when one more step takes us into complete unknown that a quantum leap, spiritual awakening, radical change is possible. Buddhists call this the “great doubt,” the point of complete surrender to something entirely new, the breakthrough to “beginner’s mind,” seeing everything as if for the first time.

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To come to doubt everything we think we know, the very assumptions we accept as reality, is what Jesus calls his Way, the only way to Father/Truth. Jesus is cultivating great doubt when he tells us to sell everything, pick up our cross daily and deny ourselves, hate father and mother and all familiar conventions of life, let the dead bury the dead—all images of that one step beyond the precipice, the surrender to something old wineskins could never contain.

Every person of faith described in scripture takes this same necessary step into uncertainty: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Paul, Peter, Elijah. Only after Elijah runs from the spectacular certainty of Mt. Carmel into the great doubt of the wilderness of Mt. Sinai, does he recognize God in a still, small voice. Beyond the certainty of wind, fire, and earthquake, there is an utter difference only utter silence can describe. Only those reborn as utterly unknowing and uncertain as they were the first time, will hear.


Between Knowing and Loving

Dave Brisbin 8.15.21
Some six hundred years ago, in what has become a classic of Western spirituality, the anonymous English author of The Cloud of Unknowing is trying to show us the only way we can approach God: “No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with knowledge, but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.” This love, understood as pure presence and connection, can only be experienced in the silence beneath words and the rational thought that speaks them.

But even this pure experience must still take place within the context of scripture, ethics, and the needs of our own human relationships so that our experience of love doesn’t become so subjective and inward that it actually becomes abusive. It’s a balance between knowing and loving that takes us to God’s presence, a balance between the concepts and teachings that limit error, and the love-as-presence that is unlimited enough to embrace God as God really is.

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Jesus as poet and teacher shows us this balance especially clearly in his Sermon on the Mount. At the same time he’s using the tools of poetry: metaphor, hyperbole, figures of speech, imagery, humor to evoke the experience of presence, he’s also laying out concrete commands that ground us in human relationship: how to pray, loving the enemy, letting go of judgment and worry. It’s the balance between knowing and loving in a poetic package aimed at an audience with no real ability to write. The Sermon is poetry meant to be easily remembered in its original language—to be repeatedly spoken or sung out loud, memorized and passed on in an oral tradition like the Songlines of Australia’s Aborigines. A portable spirituality that we can never lose because we ourselves have become the book. Poetry aimed at the ear and not the eye, at hands and feet rather than head balances us between passive thought and love in action—between love as free and immersive as the air we breathe, and the desire to steadily work our Way to the vulnerability and gratitude that are the only Way to embrace an unseen gift as it really is.

Contemplative Poetry

Dave Brisbin 8.8.21
Have you ever thought of Jesus of Nazareth as a poet? I just asked a roomful of attendees on Sunday morning and got no takers. Truth is, we were not taught and don’t think of Jesus as poet. Jesus remains more or less an extension of ourselves: sharing enough of our values, attributes, and worldview to be comfortable. Truth is, Jesus was outrageously uncomfortable to his own people; how much more should he be to us?

The Sermon on the Mount, probably used as a catechism for the early church, reads almost as if in code to our ears. Illogical nonsense. Why? Because the Sermon is poetry and doesn’t play by literal, logical rules. And even if it’s not technically poetry, it functions as poetry just the same. Metaphor, symbolism, hyperbole, imagery, story, parable, unresolved paradox… Jesus is speaking as poet with the same mission as a poet: to point toward truth that can’t be directly uttered, to recreate sensations, evoke responses, and elicit the desire to engage our own experience, build our own conviction.

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When we say that Jesus was a contemplative and a mystic—one who approaches God primarily through presence and not intellect—where can we find that recorded in the gospels? You won’t find the word contemplation anywhere in the bible, but it is evoked everywhere. When Jesus points to birds in the air or a child at play, the almost frenetic activity completely focused only on the moment at hand is the mindfulness of contemplation, and the lesson not to worry, take thought of tomorrow because this day is sufficient, brings the stillness of contentment home. When prayer is moved out of the marketplace into solitude, out of words and into silence, when we pray for the simplicity of the bread of our need this day, we are called to all that contemplation is. Jesus as poet frees us from our minds to become poets ourselves, if not in word, in deed and attitude. Until we start to read Jesus as a poet, we will miss the core of his teaching in a fog of literalism. And miss seeing the world through his Father’s eyes.

Lizards and the Way

Dave Brisbin 1.17.21
Ever looked up to realize you’ve driven miles past your exit with no idea how you got there? Who was doing the driving just then? Ever done or said something before you were even aware another choice was possible, cringing afterward? Paul bemoans the same thing at Romans 7 saying, the things he hates are the things he finds himself doing. Says he’s not in control, that the sin living in him is driving. Two thousand years later, neuroscientists believe there are three parts of our brain, but only one is conscious and not always driving. The first one, often called the lizard brain is responsible for our most primitive survival instincts and procedural memory—the things we do over and over, like driving cars. The second, the limbic system controls our emotions and specific memories. What is programmed into our lizard and limbic brains over the course of a lifetime doesn’t just change on a dime because our conscious brain, the neocortex, has an epiphany, a conversion, or even just a desire to change.

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This is why Jesus’ first followers called themselves Followers of the Way—not followers of Jesus. They understood that what they thought they knew and believed only showed them the door, but could not take them to the transformation they sought. Jesus says this over and over, that only when we ourselves do what he has done, will we be made free. It’s not enough to believe Jesus with our minds, to understand theology or church doctrine. Those conscious activities don’t get down to the lizard brain where our compulsions and fears really live. Only the daily practice of Jesus’ Way of love and symbolic rituals that bring us back to connection can deprogram what we can’t touch with our conscious minds. The lizard brain doesn’t know the difference between a symbolic act and a real one, so if we create a rich, daily practice of real and symbolic action always in the direction of connection, we will find we’re gradually experiencing the transformation Jesus intends.

Direction of Connection

Dave Brisbin 1.3.21
Our little dog was attacked by an owl in our backyard a few nights ago—an owl, can you believe it? She came running back in screaming and bleeding and now won’t go back out into the yard. She now sees the backyard as a scary place, even if daytime with no owls in sight. Are we much different? Looking to a new year with hope for change, are we looking with eyes capable of seeing change? This last year of loss has been so profound, and the first week of the new year not much better, that we’ve been programmed into a fearful mindset, a way of seeing that won’t change with the calendar.

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Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. And if the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.” It’s that last line that signals to us in English that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. But in Aramaic, Jesus’ native language with its layers of simultaneous meaning, the metaphorical meaning is also literal. He is telling us that until the eye, the view, opinion, mindset with which we look at life is clear, simple, sincere, straight, true—even the light we see, the order and balance in our moments, will appear dark—chaotic, disordered. Scary. With no owl in sight. To rise above the programming of the loss of a year or a lifetime takes an eye clear enough to always choose in the direction of connection with each other and everything in our moments. The change to a new year is a great milestone, but changing the eye of our mindset is what really makes the year new.

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.

Mistaken Identity

Dave Brisbin 9.6.20
I have been talking with people, so many lately, who have suffered tremendous loss. Seems almost like a flood of loss floating on top of the collective loss we’ve all been experiencing this year. Loss of parents and children to death, overdose, loss of jobs, careers and vocations due to Covid and financial downturns. Losses that fundamentally change the ground of a person’s life. Losses that ask a common question of all of us: who are we when we lose a defining part of our lives? We naturally see our identity in terms of the roles we play, the accomplishments we achieve, and the attributes we display as humans, but anything that can be taken from us is not our identity, and everything it means to be human is taken at death, which is why we fear it—who are we then? If you think about it, all our fears in life stem from the basic fear of loss of identity. When we assume we are the voice that talks to us in our heads, the egoic mind, the “false” self or small self of Thomas Merton, we are continually defining and defending ourselves. But it’s a case of mistaken identity.

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There is a deeper self that resides beneath our ability to describe or even think about. We can’t find it directly, because that would involve the mechanics of our minds, our small selves that limit such experience. Our true selves cannot be thought about, only experienced—because it’s only in the flow of present experience that we will connect with the ultimate reality we most often call God that reflects back who we really are. It all comes back to practicing presence. When we are truly present, the small self is finally silent, and in that silence we will find all we need to come home.

Present Prayer

Dave Brisbin 8.30.20
I was asked this week by someone who said he always asks this question of someone he’s meeting for first time: what is the most important thing you’ve learned in life? My answer was immediate. Presence. He was surprised and said that no one has ever answered that way before. I asked how most people answered, and he said either love or virtue. My spiritual journey has been many things over the years from truth to salvation to serenity and peace to love and joy, but at this point it’s all about presence. Without presence first, we won’t find anything else along the way. Presence is the foundation and the way to love—can’t have one without the other. But then, what is the way to presence? Prayer is the way to presence, but only prayer understood in the way Jesus actually taught and lived it. Jesus tells us not to make a show, not to use words, and not even to bring our needs to the table. To retreat to a secret place both interiorly and exteriorly and connect with a Father who knows what we need before we ask.

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David in 32nd psalm tells us to find God when he may be found, which is not in the midst of a flood of thoughts and activity. Jesus tells us to pray in his name, his shema in Aramaic, which means his essence and character. The essence of Jesus and by extension, his Father, is pure presence and love. To pray from that attitude and posture is to stand before God as Elijah did—a Hebraism for prayer itself—to stand in a place of spiritual perfection experienced as lacking nothing at that moment. What do you pray for when you feel no sense of need? Presence is the definition of answered prayer as it brings us face to face with the nonverbal Answer to everything.

Uncarved Wood

Dave Brisbin 7.12.20
A friend makes the comment that being a Christian is really hard. I ask why. He says it’s hard to meet moral and ethical standards, understand theological and doctrinal concepts, and live the precepts of the church. Well, he doesn’t put it that way, but more or less what he means. He also says it’s hard to put up with the bias he sees in our media and culture and encounters in his own life. Is it hard to be a Christian, or more on point, to be a follower of Jesus? We’ve made our faith so complex in legal and theological terms: created rules upon rules and dense theological arguments trying to describe spiritual realities that cannot be described in words. We’ve tied our faith to the politics and levers of power in each age and generation to better impose and legislate our worldview on others, earning their enmity and prejudice against us. This all makes Christianity hard to be. But does any of this have anything to do with Jesus and his teaching?

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Jesus couldn’t be clearer: loving God and loving each other—two ways of looking at the same thing—are the twin commandments that contain all the rest. And loving each other in the manner Jesus loves us is the only way we will be known as his followers. Not complicated. While the hardest thing we will ever do is empty ourselves of everything we think we know and hold on to for support, once we do, the kind of love Jesus is modeling follows as night follows day. The Chinese symbol for simplicity literally means “uncarved wood,” the natural state of something before we work it into complexity. If we can’t find the simplicity on the far side of our own complexity, our faith will remain hard, and the freedom Jesus promises, elusive.

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Embedded in the fun and laughter of each of our gatherings and events is the connection and accountability as well as the structure, discipline, and opportunity for service that authentic community is all about. We help create programs for physical support, emotional recovery, and spiritual formation that can meet any person’s needs. Such programs work at two levels: first to address a person’s physical and emotional stability—clinical, financial, relational,professional—anything that distracts from working on the second level: true spiritual formation centered around the contemplative way of life defined by an original Hebrew understanding of the message of Jesus.

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