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.

Training Wheels

Dave Brisbin 2.11.24
What churches and religion inevitably forget—as does every human group—is that their laws, doctrine, and practice are not ends, truth in themselves, but pointers, guides to non-rational truth that must be personally experienced, never bestowed.

Thomas Huxley said that new ideas begin as heresy, advance to orthodoxy, and end in superstition. Belief systems practiced for a length of time follow this curve, and Christian thought is no exception. The practices that Jesus taught and his followers called the Way, heretical to most, were understood as a way of life that prepared individuals to experience the paradoxical truth of God’s love. But as the movement matured and institutionalized, life practice became ritualized, and the theological ideas that had grown around them were legalized into orthodoxy. Eventually, law and ritual were believed to have supernatural power, ends in themselves rather than pointers to spiritual experience.

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The original Hebrew meaning of law—torah—was instruction, guidance, like training wheels on a bike. But that in no way diminishes its importance. Jesus said he was not abolishing the law, but fulfilling it—that even the smallest letter and stroke would remain until heaven and earth pass away, which in Aramaic means to cross a boundary. We need the guidance, restriction, and discipline of law and ritual until the oneness of heaven merges with the individuality of life on earth in our own hearts. When heaven and earth merge in us, we no longer need law and ritual as training wheels, but will live them from the inside out as expressions of the love we have experienced along the Way.

Jesus is teaching us that law is not fulfilled in obedience or righteousness in ritual practice. Legal compliance and ritual observance mean nothing in themselves, but everything when they have become the deepest purpose of a transformed heart. To believe otherwise is to miss the Way entirely, remain focused on conformance rather than transformance…as if training wheels are permanent, the highest expression of riding a bike, and not a limitation—the outward badge of an inward inability to fly.

 

Radical Forgiveness

Dave Brisbin 2.4.24
Some things are too big to grasp all at once. Like those Nazca lines in Peru…geoglyphs laid down on a windless plateau around the time of Christ—so big you can only see them from the air. Other things are too big to grasp within the limits of rational thought. You need greater perspective to see, not altitude, but a step outside conscious thought to the wordless awareness of pure presence. You still can’t grasp the thing intellectually, but you can experience its reality.

God’s radical, degreeless, indiscriminate love is just such a thing. This is why Jesus doesn’t give us a theology. More things to think about. We can understand the words that describe perfect love, but not its reality from words alone. So Jesus gives us a Way of living, the only way to experience the reality of a love so alien that it can’t be rationally understood. Alien. I hope that word is uncomfortable. Only if we are experiencing something uncomfortably unfamiliar at first, or even frightening or amoral according to our sense of justice, are we even in the neighborhood of God’s radical love.

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Nowhere is this paradox more apparent than with the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is greatly misunderstood. We equate forgiveness with condoning the past, making restitution, even reconciliation, but it has nothing to do with any of these. Neither does it have anything to do with the person who hurt us…we can forgive the dead. In Aramaic, forgiveness descends from the same root word as freedom. To those who wrote the gospels, to be forgiven is to be set free from any victimization or unbalance that has occurred, to be restored to our original state.

This is a completely interior process that only we can do for ourselves. No one, not even God can do it for us. God doesn’t forgive; God is forgiveness as much as God is love. God can’t withhold his own nature; it self exists. All we will ever get from God is love and forgiveness, but we will never know this reality until we live the Way, until we love and forgive those who haven’t earned it. Then we’ll know how real it is, how it had to first be given to us before we could ever give it away.

 

Teach Us to Pray

Dave Brisbin 1.28.24
Familiarity breeds contempt usually means that the more we know people, the more we can lose respect and judge more harshly. If contempt seems too strong a word, at least the more familiar things become, the more they blend into the wallpaper until we don’t even see them anymore. And when those things are religious scripture and doctrine, we may be so saturated that we believe we know things we have never considered on our own: accepted as children or under group pressure, such teachings became familiar before ever teaching us how to live spiritual lives in a physical world.

And what is more familiar than the Lord’s Prayer? Even those not steeped in Christian tradition are familiar with it. We learned it as kids, recited it—but what is this wallpaper saying? Is there anything to learn beyond mere recitation? We know the words: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, as in heaven, so on earth…

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But when Jesus’ friends asked him to teach them to pray, he would have said something like, abwoon d’bwashmaya, nethqadash shmakh, teytey malkuthakh, nehwey sebyanach, akanna d’bwashmaya aph b’arha. Transliteration alone gives a sense of the unfamiliar otherness of a teaching from as far out of modern Western experience as humanly possible. But beyond mere translation, when we put these Aramaic words back in their ancient Eastern context, we discover this “prayer” is actually a blueprint for living a spiritually aware life.

The five lines of the prayer form the steps of a process that starts with becoming unfamiliar again with everything we think we know. Clearing an interior space allows us to see the reality of the sacred in the ordinary details of life and begin to match our values to God’s, only knowable when our sense of separate self is lost in present action. Released from that sense of separateness, the victimhood of the past, we realize a new connection, always herenow.

If we can become unfamiliar again, see these words again for the first time, we can stop reciting them and start living the path they describe. Or better, recite them as a reminder to really live.

 

Growing Up

Dave Brisbin 1.21.24
Disciples of a spiritual master come to his home only to find him on hands and knees in the front yard. He tells them he lost something of great importance, so they fall in to help search, hands and knees, eyes straining. After some time, they ask where he had it last, where he might have lost it. Oh, he says, that was inside the house. Then why are we searching out here? Because the light is so much better…

We laugh, but as crazy as that sounds, isn’t this exactly what we do spiritually? The master is trying to teach his students that we all want to conduct our existential search where it’s comfortable…how it’s comfortable. In our strong suit, under conditions where the light is good, and we can hold on to the illusion of control. We want to dictate the terms of the search, and even the nature of the thing searched for. Much safer to search for a god we imagine we understand.

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In our need for absolute answers, we construct questions in the light of our dualistic worldview, setting up straw man opposites so we can knock one down as false and say we’re certain the other is true. Our human insecurity requires this manufactured certainty, but we’re setting up opposites in a world that Jesus says is one—a oneness that can only be seen once we’re searching in the house, where we can’t control the light and must trust a process and spiritual muscles that we can’t see.

In his famous love chapter, Paul said when he was a child, he acted and reasoned like a child, but when he became a man, he put away childish things. He places this metaphor against the fact that we can only see spiritual reality dimly, but when the “perfect” comes, face to face. We think he’s talking about heaven, but Jewish context is always this life herenow. When the perfect comes is any moment our house of cards, our world of opposites collapses, and for an instant we see the oneness, the sole substance behind our opposites.

For Paul and Jesus that substance is what we call love, the ultimate reality we’ll never find until we grow up and out of the need for certainty—willing to search in mystery where the light is not so good.

 

Engaged Contemplation

Dave Brisbin 1.14.24
Dualism is a sneaky worldview. Worldviews themselves are sneaky. We don’t often realize we have one, that we experience life through cultural and self-imposed filters—it’s just reality as we’ve come to believe it is. Dualism divides our view of reality into opposed and contrasted aspects. The most obvious is mind and body or material and immaterial. But once you have drunk the dualist Kool-Aid, you see duality everywhere: right/wrong, male/female, now/not yet, secular/spiritual, heaven/earth. As if everything we experience is reducible to two opposing aspects.

Since we are focused on contemplation as a primary tool for spiritual growth and Jesus as a Hebrew contemplative—working interiorly to step away from cognitive and emotional distractions in order to experience pure presence—another dualism presents. Contemplation and action. If we’re focused inwardly, using silence, solitude, stillness, and simplicity to quiet our minds, hearts, and the world around us, how are we of any use in our relationships and communities?

Our world is falling apart, and we’re meditating in the corner? Inactive? Uncaring?

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One of the main benefits of contemplative practice is to strip away our preconceptions, both conscious and unconscious, to see reality as it really is. See past our worldview’s filter, past imagined dualities to the unity beyond. Life is not about either/or. It’s both/and. Contemplation is the preparation we must go through in order to see what is really needed, what love requires in our relationships and communities so that our action is appropriate and part of a true solution. Not just an expression of what our egos and unresolved traumas need.

Paul appears to uphold inaction toward slavery and subjugation of women in his biblical letters, but I see him trying to help people prioritize. To fight the interior revolution first, prepare hearts and minds before we strike off to fight the exterior revolution. Contemplation and action together. In that order. We train before we compete, wipe windshields before we drive. Must see reality as it is before we engage action that is clearly our duty to perform.

 

Following the Star

Dave Brisbin 12.17.23
We think we know Christmas. Bed-sheeted children reenact the details every year, so it’s shocking to go back to the gospels and see how little is there and how much is merely tradition. All we know about Jesus’ birth from Luke is that he was wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. All we get from Matthew is the story of Herod and the magi, wise men from the east following a star.

Reading closely, there weren’t three wise men, and they weren’t kings. With some word study, there was no inn—the word refers to the living space of a first century Judean home. And historically, Jesus couldn’t have been born December 25th—Judean shepherds did not keep their flocks out at night during cold winter months—or in year 1 CE, since Herod died in 4 BCE. Most likely date was either in spring or summer between 7 and 5 BCE.

And what about that star?

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Matthew tells us magi saw the star in the east, that it went before them, guiding them west, then stood over the place of Jesus’ birth. No star could do this. Are we looking for a miraculous star with non-physical properties? Scholars have offered comets, supernovas, planetary conjunctions as explanation, but none of these fit Matthew’s details, and there’s no astronomical evidence either. But in the ancient world, astronomy and astrology were one and the same, and amazingly, there is astrological evidence for the magi’s star. From April 17 to December 19, 6 BCE, Jupiter obeyed all Matthew’s details in its apparent motion, astrologically speaking…making Jesus’ birthday April 17, 6 BCE.

Is this true? Can’t know. Important? Only in considering the magi. Probably descendants of Jewish exiles searching the stars across centuries, longing for signs of their promised king. The devotion and discipline, willingness to risk life and reputation following a star only they could see, humility to surrender their treasures to an impoverished child. What is the temperature of our desire? Hot enough to persevere? To search the stars, risk following the star we find, surrender preconceptions blinding us to the truth our star reveals? That’s important.

Preparing to See

Dave Brisbin 12.10.23
What do we really know about the birth of Jesus? There’s so little information in the gospels, just a few scant paragraphs in Matthew and Luke. Only Luke gives us details of the birth itself and the shepherds’ vision and visit, while Matthew tells of the Magi after Jesus’ birth. All we’re told of Jesus’ birth is that he was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn. That’s it.

Early Christians didn’t consider Jesus’ birth very important compared to his death and resurrection; it would be over 800 years before Christmas was widely celebrated in the church. Probably why the gospels didn’t record much, but the details that survive are important because they emphasize an absolutely ordinary and unremarkable first century birth. The relatives or friends with whom Joseph and Mary stayed in Bethlehem didn’t even make room for them in the living space of their home—the word inn is a mistranslation here—they had to stay in the part of the house reserved for the animals.

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Ordinary? Unremarkable? You’re thinking the shepherds and Magi saw something pretty spectacular, right? Yes, but why are they the only ones recorded as having a significant experience with this birth? Why didn’t the people in the same house as Mary and Joseph see anything special? Why didn’t king Herod or his court see the star? Jesus was born as any poor Galilean: washed, rubbed with salt, tightly wrapped in spare strips of cloth, but also laid in a livestock feeding trough because no room was made for him in the house.

We say seeing is believing, but some things must be believed to be seen. The deep truth the gospels are telling about this birth is that only those who were prepared to see beyond their expectations could see the significance of what was right before their eyes. True then, true now. Our God is an unassuming God. Humble, vulnerable, unremarkable to those set on power and wealth. Only when we become humble and vulnerable enough, begin to reflect and value what God values, will we see that God really is Immanuel—with us, right here and now, perfect love in human form. And always has been.

 

Give with the Wind

Dave Brisbin 12.3.23
Amid the holidays, ‘tis the season for giving. Expectation and requests bombard from every form of media and family and cultural traditions. Trying to come up with perfect gifts for family, friends, clients, prospects, bosses, those who matter in your life, those who can give back, those who can’t—how much feels like obligation and how much freely blows like wind into the shopping, decorating, cooking, planning?

Giving shouldn’t be complicated, but it can be…tied up with many conflicts of interest. Ancient Jews considered charitable giving one of three measures of a person’s righteousness, along with prayer and fasting. The rabbinic tradition, with its typically legal perspective, had defined giving to death with numbers and percentages, reduced it to rules and obligations. And with all that emphasis at stake, those following the rules naturally wanted everyone to know just how righteously giving they were.

Jesus lays his ax right at the root of these conflicts.

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In religious circles we often hear that we can’t out-give God or that our tithes and offerings will come back to us 100-fold. True as that may be spiritually, if that is our intent, then our giving has become mere investment. And as soon as we put a number or percentage on a gift, it’s just a tax. Jesus teaches us to give so that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing—preserving the anonymity of the giver and the dignity of the receiver, removing the conflicts that make giving not a gift.

It’s a first step in chipping away at the God-complex we have about giving: the need to be in the superior, controlled position of the giver rather than the vulnerable dependence of the receiver. Until we have received, what do we have to give? Until we recognize that all we have of any lasting value is a free gift we could never give ourselves, how will we ever know the vulnerability and gratitude that animates all true giving? The difference between a gift and an investment or tax, is the fear of not knowing that we’re merely caretakers, constantly receiving, and all we can ever do is regift what has already been given. Freely and secretly.

 

The Path to Grateful

Dave Brisbin 11.19.23
Important government official comes to a renowned Zen master and says, “Teach me the ways of Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” It’s more command than request. The master smiles, saying, “Let’s discuss it over tea.” When the tea is ready, he pours for his guest, and pours until the cup begins to overflow, creeping across the table until it runs off onto the man’s robes. He jumps up, “Stop! Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master smiles again, “You are like this cup. So full, nothing can be added. Come back when your cup is empty. Come back with an empty mind.”

As modern, Western people, our cups are now so full, overflowing with digital data, that a study has shown our attention spans have dropped from twelve seconds in 2000 before the mobile revolution to eight seconds today. Considering that goldfish have demonstrated attention spans of nine seconds, we have fallen below goldfish in our ability to hold the moment, to simply be present to what is rather than what projects on our screens and our minds.

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Why does this matter and what does it have to do with gratitude? Gratitude is more than mere thankfulness. It begins there, but journeys on to a life altering attitude and way of living connected to gifts we could never give ourselves. Gratitude is dependent upon presence, the ability to get all our preconceptions out of the way, clear our minds of distracting thoughts by immersing in what is right before us.

We can’t create gratitude, seek it directly or count blessings into it. Gratitude is what happens when we let go of the complexity in our minds in favor of the simplicity of an instant. It’s an umbrella term that covers all the positive emotions and excludes the rest. You can’t be grateful and anything negative at the same time. It’s a physical, mental, emotional impossibility. Maybe gratitude isn’t a thing itself, but the absence of anything that distracts from the ongoing gift—what it feels like to let the moment we’re in be enough for us, realize that anything added or taken away would only diminish.

Gratitude is what we call what we feel when we empty our cup and graduate from goldfish.

 

Fearing Not

Dave Brisbin 11.12.23
You can understand much of human behavior by remembering that we are fragile little creatures living under a death sentence trying to survive and somehow thrive. Fear makes us crave certainty and control, which don’t exist in life but drive our thoughts and behavior in predictable directions, including our religious obsession with prophecy and end times speculation. All enthusiastically doomed to frustration.

So how do we do it? Survive and thrive under such conditions? Since human experience never changes, we can look to the ancients, not for what we can know with certainty, but for how we can live in uncertainty without fear. Throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures, there is one overarching metaphor for life lived here between heaven and earth—the Hebrew wedding tradition…from the bride’s point of view. Seems strange at first, but consider that a Hebrew girl was betrothed to a man she may have never met in a ceremony called the kiddushin. Her groom would then leave her to build the chadar, their apartment at his father’s house where they would consummate and live out their marriage. He could be gone a year or more, returning without notice, surprising the bride to carry her home for the nissu’in, the wedding ceremony.

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Imagine the bride living between kiddushin and nissu’in…excited anticipation of her new life deepening the awareness that she must leave everything she’s ever known and loved, all while knowing that at any moment everything could change. All human history and life are lived in the uncertainty between betrothal and consummation, promise and fulfillment, birth and death. The bride is living the paradox of balancing now and not yet—anticipating the excitement of new life, working toward change without ever losing immersion in the moment and relationships now.

Immersion now, even as we anticipate not yet, teaches us that all moments are equally sacred. That all moments, now and not yet, are the same moment once entered, and the uncertainty we fear resolves only and always now in the connection we make and maintain—the only certainty we’ll ever experience with the power to cast out fear.

 

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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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