Deconstructing Scripture

The ancient sacred writings of of the Hebrews and early Jewish followers of Jesus do not immediately convey their original meaning to Western readers–ancient or modern. By the fourth century, church doctrine and law was being formulated on a Western and more literal understanding of the text, and as time has passed, it has become only harder for us to understand Jesus’ original message. These podcasts break down–deconstruct–the literal meaning of our English translations to put them back into their original context, language, and worldview–essential to understanding what the writers were originally trying to communicate.

Power to Choose

Dave Brisbin 9.24.23
Co-facilitating a debrief for a medical team that was emotionally stressed by a case in which a baby died after drowning in his bathtub. And if that wasn’t traumatic enough, the mother was charged for leaving her baby alone in the tub while under the influence of drugs. As the staff is caring for the baby, the police are in the hospital room arresting the mother, cuffing her, taking her into custody. The medical staff know the baby will not make it and confront the police, asking that the mother be allowed to stay as long as her baby is alive. The police relent, but stand guard in the room and won’t uncuff the mother. She backs against the bed…trying to touch her baby.

It’s a classic clash of cultures between law enforcement and medical care. It’s not that the medical staff doesn’t know or care what the mother did; they are horrified. But where law enforcement sees the mother as offender and the room as a crime scene, the medical staff sees the offender as a mother and the room as a place of care. More broadly, it’s a clash between justice and mercy, macro and micro where neither side is wrong nor fully right in each other’s contexts. This mother must face the law and what justice demands, but as one nurse said, in that moment we needed to let her grieve over her baby.

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The medical team was in moral distress. Being constrained from doing what they believed was ethical at the bedside, they were outraged at the action of law enforcement, who were also constrained by the law, whatever they may have been feeling. But if we can understand the necessary shift between macro law and micro compassion, the need for both, we can more easily understand the actions of those working in a different context. In Matthew 5, Jesus shifts us from macro law to micro compassion over and over, showing us how we can live well between the two, fulfilling both.

Even as we accept macro constraints, we can still choose the character of our micro life—compassion, connection, respect. How we live under the law is always our choice. Jesus is giving us back the awareness of our own power to choose. No one can take that from us.

Mercy and Justice

Dave Brisbin 9.17.23
Years ago, first time visiting an inmate at men’s central jail, I was surprised by the attitudes of the other visitors. There wasn’t the melancholy or tears I was expecting, but a lightness, almost celebratory atmosphere. Young women made up and dressed up, parents, grandparents laughing and talking. Big Hispanic man loudly encouraging and praying, two women beside me speed talking, effortlessly gliding between English and Spanish. Family and friends doing what family and friends do. Was a forty-five-minute wait at my assigned window; time to take it all in.

Swinging around on my bolted-down metal stool, a young woman at the opposite bank of windows is talking on the handset to a young man on the other side of the glass. Orange jumpsuit. I see her from an angle, leaned forward and intent—free hand in the air, tone of voice, smile—she could have been sitting across white tablecloth and candlelight. She saw no orange jumpsuit, no offense, only the man she loved. I thought of the prodigal…in an orange jumpsuit…and I realized that she and the father of the prodigal were orange colorblind. Saw no offenses or punishments, only the beloved.

Is that fair? What about the offense, the victims? What about justice? Isn’t God just?

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We humans live between heaven and earth. Between mercy and justice, between micro, one-on-one relationships where mercy and compassion are the highest good, and the macro groups to which we belong, where justice and law must prevail. To miss the fact that love must look like justice in our groups and compassion for each individual within those groups is to miss learning how to love in the ever-shifting context of our between-ness.

God is justice in the macro, when viewed where three or more are gathered. But when God views us—it is always micro, as if we are the only person living between heaven and earth. God is orange colorblind too. Sees through our faults like x-ray vision or a young woman at central jail. While we are still beholden to macro laws and the punishments they assign, between God and us, there are only and will only ever be white tablecloths and candlelight.


Love is the Law

Dave Brisbin 9.10.23
The purpose of a fish trap is to catch a fish. Once the fish is caught, the trap is forgotten.
The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch a rabbit. Once the rabbit is caught, the snare is forgotten.
The purpose of words is to convey ideas. Once the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten.
Show me a person who has forgotten words. That’s the one I want to talk to.

Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, wrote this three hundred years before Jesus, but it speaks to a timeless part of human nature. We are always getting means and ends confused. Missing the forest for the trees—missing the intent of a process by getting lost in its details, letting those details become an end in themselves, more important than the purpose for which they were put in place. This phenomenon of putting carts before horses is probably most clearly seen in religious practice.

An old joke: Why don’t Baptists allow premarital sex? Because it leads to dancing…

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When it comes to law, religious or civil, we have often followed the practice of prohibiting behavior that may lead to larger offenses. But what happens when prohibiting the gateway behavior becomes more important than the unlawful behavior itself? Or when the code of the law itself becomes more important than the community it was meant to protect?

This is what both Chuang Tzu and Jesus are confronting. The religious laws of the Hebrew bible existed to preserve the life of the community and promote the awareness of God’s presence…not as a test of righteousness. The Hebrew word we translate as law really means instruction or guidance, which means that the rules are not goodness in themselves; they can only point us in that direction—a means of personal formation, of assuming the values of the law’s intent. Expressed in scripture as writing the law on our hearts, law is only needed until we learn to love, then the law can disappear.

We have learned to follow rules as the proof of our goodness and acceptance, but… The purpose of the law is to catch God’s goodness. Once goodness is caught, the law can be forgotten. Show me a person who has forgotten law. That’s the one I want to obey.


Salt and Light

There’s a great story, apparently from Mexico, in which an old mule falls into the farmer’s dry well. Poor animal is braying down there miserably, but the farmer can’t think of a way to get it out. And the mule is old and he’d been meaning to fill in that dry well, so he decides to put the mule out of its misery, bury it, and fill in the well all at once. First shovels full hit the mule, and it’s panic-braying, but after a few more, it goes silent. Farmer looks down to see that with every shovel full of dirt that hits its back, the mule shakes it off and steps up. Shakes it off and steps up, until he simply steps up over the edge of the well itself and trots off.

This story is usually used to illustrate how we can face adversity by shaking if off and stepping up. Nail hit on head. But when Jesus says the effect of our taking on God’s attributes as we grow spiritually is to become light in the world, we’re left thinking of straight rays of visible light as opposed to darkness, the absence of light. Or we may be thinking of light and dark as symbols for good versus evil—ever opposed. But ancient Hebrews understood light, nuhra, as straight lines of order, harmony, clarity function—and darkness, heshuka, as curved energies of mystery, obscurity, chaos, unfunction…not dysfunction, because darkness is not bad, just not directly usable, as we’d like.

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At the bottom of our wells, in the chaotic uncertainty that life always delivers, we want straight, clear lines beamed down to pull us up into the light. But that’s not how enlightenment works. Straight rays can’t bend and reach around the curved space of heshuka. Rational thinking, can’t reach around the paradox that spirit represents.

Enlightenment is really endarkenment.

It’s not a direct beaming down of straight rays of understanding that lights our darkness, but an indirect layering up of experience that lifts us into the light. The intense experiences of love and suffering that life shovels onto our backs, if we shake them off and step up, keep vulnerably showing up to life, enlighten by slowly removing what obscures. It’s the only way.


Poor and Blessed

Dave Brisbin 8.27.23
Talking to a man going through a devastating life transition. Now in his sixties, he’d always been a man who could make things happen through sheer intellect and effort: built businesses from the ground up and rose to top leadership in church and ministry. He derived his identity primarily from those two focuses—from ironclad beliefs that were both anchor and compass.

But a series of disillusioning events at the church drove a deconstruction of his faith and beliefs that cast him adrift, a down-spiral that included alcohol and a bad fall that incapacitated him long enough to lose his business and nearly his family as well. Four years later, he’s saying he wishes he could go back to the days when life made sense, that he’s not contributing anymore, doesn’t feel value to life. Thinks maybe he should move to a larger city where he’d have opportunities to volunteer, maybe write a book, start a new business.

I so resonate with this man.

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I know that true identity never comes from temporary accomplishment and recognition, but from a silent place within that no one will ever see or applaud. That experiencing this deeper identity infuses meaning from inside out, rather than trying to extract it, vampire-like, from another source. And yet I still feel the pull to do something others will see as significant, leave a legacy that will outlive, a mark on the world like carving into a tree that I was here.

I know that in two generations, no one will remember me. Two generations. That’s it. Even if I leave a book or legacy, my products may be remembered, but not me. If I can’t find value right now, typing these words careless of whether anyone reads them, I won’t find it anywhere else. When Jesus says we’re blessed when we’re poor in spirit, he’s saying just that: to have an attitude of poverty even if we’re rich, admit complete dependence, realize we don’t exist individually but only in connection with each other, is the only meaning that is permanent. We’re blessed—whole and complete—the moment we can stop striving to be different to be remembered, laying back into the grateful anonymity of oneness with all that is.


Outside the Box

Dave Brisbin 8.13.23
Ever heard of the nine dots puzzle? Nine dots arranged in a square, three equal rows of three, like tic tac toe. Challenge is to connect all dots using only four straight lines and without lifting pen off paper or retracing any lines. After snapping a couple of pencils and throwing up your hands, you find the solution looks like an arrowhead with its head on a corner and wings extending beyond the box of dots. We naturally assume the solution must be contained inside the box. There is no solution inside the box.

Puzzle imitating life.

We naturally assume every challenge we face must be solved inside the box—the scope of our life experience—because we can’t conceive of anything outside our box. You cannot speak of ocean to a well-frog, the creature of a narrower sphere, the philosopher said. As with the frog, the sneakiest part is: we don’t even know we have a box. It’s just life. Our lives. The laws of society, religion, physics, the dynamics of our family of origin, our traumas and training…all we know and have decided to believe, forms the walls of our box.

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I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that everything Jesus does in the gospels is creating leverage to get us outside our box. The good news he’s telling of a degreeless and indiscriminant love can never be found inside our box. By definition, it violates any box we can imagine. Thoughts, words, logic, experience we’d use to try to understand and express it, were born in our box and can only describe its walls, never something outside. You must be born again; sell all you possess; you can’t see the wind or know where it goes; you must hate your father and mother, children, even your own life; pick up your cross daily; drop your nets at the shore, come and see, follow me.

Jesus leaves nothing on the table in a single-minded drive to break us out of the prison of our box. Boxes limit and contain. That’s their functional beauty. But the love and life Jesus is living can’t be contained and remain themselves. Only when we’re willing to get out of control, out of our minds, will the first glimpse of vast ocean come into view. Outside the box.

Saved from Shame

Dave Brisbin 8.6.23
Thirty-some years ago, I was at retreat with a group that booked the same weekend every year. I’d just go, get a room, and participate in whatever was going on. Or not. This weekend was a large group of older men, and the retreat director, a Chinese-American Franciscan priest, was leading the session. I mention Chinese, not because he was first generation or could write beautiful Chinese script, but because he stood squarely between East and West in his approach to life and faith in a way that changed everything.

He was increasingly frustrated with this crusty old group, finally asking why they thought Jesus came to us humans. Hands went up and answers came right out of the Baltimore catechism: he came to die for our sins. The director let out a near wail of a no…clapping his big hands over his shaved head as if to hold it together. What kind of father sends his son to die? He sent him to live, to show us perfect love. He then said something like, if you are going to come here year after year and never change—next year, just stay home.

It took years for the full significance of that exchange to sink in.

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About the same time, another priest introduced me to Brennan Manning’s new book, The Ragamuffin Gospel. Here was another Franciscan, now lapsed and married, a struggling alcoholic writing about grace and love in a way I’d never heard or experienced. Brennan was open about the shame he collected as an abused child, his drinking, failings, inconsistencies, and yet he never ceased to see himself as God’s beloved.

All these years later, if I were to raise my hand, I’d say, Jesus didn’t come to save us from our sins. He came to save us from our shame.

Saving from sins is legal, a transaction that leaves us unchanged. Saving from shame is relational, the experience of a love we can never lose. It’s a longer way home, but to lose shame is to lose the fear of disconnection that makes all our sinful behavior necessary. Only unlosable love overcomes fear. To know we’re beloved not because we’re lovable, but because we keep showing up to Unlosable Love is all the salvation we’ll ever get. Or need.

Patches and Skins

Dave Brisbin 7.30.23
Fasting is the body’s natural reaction to loss and longing. Have you ever thought of it that way? When you’re grieving a loss, longing for the return of that loss, you’re probably not thinking about food. Associated with grief and heightened awareness, ritualized for religious purposes, fasting has always been with us. Ancient Jews ritually fasted twice a week personally, four times a year nationally, and to obtain or avoid things longed for or feared. In other words, fasting is not associated with celebration.

When Jesus is criticized for not making his followers fast, he replies that they can’t fast as long as the bridegroom is with them. Any Jew hearing that response would instantly know he’s talking about the Jewish wedding tradition, a seven day festival where loss and longing are held at bay for that precious week, celebrating with groom and bride. This little saying gives us a window on Jesus, how he views life—always celebrating, laughing, eating, drinking, experiencing abundance rather than loss, enoughness rather than longing.

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Then in a seeming non sequitur, Jesus pivots and says no one puts an unshrunk patch on an old garment. First time you wash it, the patch will shrink and make a bigger tear. And no one puts new wine in old wineskins. New wine was not yet fermented, and wineskins were literal animal skins or bladders that could stretch with the fermentation unless they had already been stretched before, bursting and losing everything. Jesus is hammering right on the same point.

The old garment and wineskins represent a static, unyielding mindset stuck on the humorless, legal severity of working to become worthy of connection, on loss and longing, the fear of disconnection. New wine and unshrunk cloth represent the flow of changing circumstance, the willingness to flow with it, bubbling outward with new life and growth. Only minds free to be herenow, rooted in tradition as a tool for guidance, not a prison cell, can see their connection everywhere, celebrate all the moments of life: the times of fasting, those when the bridegroom is still present, and all the little ones in between.


A Hole in the Roof

Dave Brisbin 7.23.23
Over sixteen years at theeffect, we’ve only had to ask two people to leave a gathering. We want everyone who wants to be with us to be with us, unless they can’t maintain themselves enough to allow others to have their own experiences. Years ago a woman living on the streets would come on Sundays from time to time, usually under the influence. We and the donuts didn’t mind, until one Sunday she was acting so violently, we had to escort her out. But at the end of the gathering as we were all mingling, she came back and made a beeline for me.

I stiffened, wondering what was coming—may have actually taken a step back, but gave her direct eye contact, listening while she speed-talked about things I can’t remember. On full alert, I was ready for anything, all sensors tuned to signs of distress, but the more she talked, the more it seemed her difficult moment had passed. Then she stopped, and after a beat said, I guess I just need a hug. Didn’t see that coming, hope I had the presence of mind to smile, sure that I hesitated, but moved in for the embrace.

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You know about first hugs…head and shoulders, arms and hands. I was still thinking through it all, waited what seemed right number of seconds, then relaxed my grip to back away. She maintained pressure, not letting go. Oh, ok…I re-engaged and waited what again seemed right lapse of time, relaxed, but she still held on, saying in my ear but not necessarily to me: sometimes it’s hard to get a good hug. The human condition in eight words. And as my humanity recognized hers, all the categories in which I’d placed her, all my interior boundaries, my tension, fell to the floor. I reeled her back in and held on until I finally felt her relax.

Jesus always seems out of order. Touches a leper and calls a paralytic his son before healing them. Loves before forgiveness. For Jesus, even when our need is lowered through a hole in the roof, the touch and forgiveness of family are the healing itself. Physical healing is almost an afterthought. And for all our focus on miracles, I think Jesus is trying to redirect us. Get us to see that sometimes a good hug is hard to find.

Breaking Boundaries

Dave Brisbin 7.16.23
Thirty years ago, three men, Catholic priests, gave me some of their time, became key figures, teachers in my life. I didn’t see it then—it takes time to see trajectories being established, the paths that remain. One of the three I only met once, but I still remember his name and the names on all the book covers he pointed out at the bookstore that afternoon. The other two I knew longer, a period of years. They counseled me and challenged me and then they were gone. I always thought we’d reconnect, but two of them died years ago, and we never did.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. They came into my life exactly when I was ready to receive them, gave me what they had become, and though they left again before I was ready, I still remember their names.

The hardest part of being a pastor is watching people go. Letting those who have become friends go their way, sometimes never knowing if you really helped, never hearing the rest of the story. But like teachers and parents, for most of the relationships we engage, at some point the nest empties. Life takes them in and out of focus and proximity. We assume and want to believe that all our relationships will last a lifetime, but whether they do or not, they are only ever experienced as moments of connection.

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I’ve looked at life from both sides now. And though it can still hurt, I can finally see the way of it, the necessity of it. When we’re ready, a person appears, and we let down our defenses and let them in…show up, break boundaries, connect, give all we’ve become, and when it’s time, let go. If we can’t let go, the strings attached show us how it was much more about meeting our own needs than a gift freely given, the simple flow of who we’d become.

Jesus healed ten lepers one day. Sent them off to the temple to be restored to their families. Only one came back to thank him. That didn’t stop Jesus from doing the very same thing the very next day. Our moments of connection define us. There is no outcome or legacy, no rest of the story. Just the willingness to break a boundary and make all you’ve become available to whomever you’re with.


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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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