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.

Spiritual Albedo

Dave Brisbin 7.7.24
Very few of us know the word albedo, yet we use it every day, and it’s a huge factor in climate change. From the Latin word for white (think albino), albedo is the amount of light reflected off any surface. We all know that light colors reflect sunlight, a cooling effect like those impossibly white houses on seacliffs in Greece. Dark colors absorb, storing heat, so the amount of snow, glaciers, and sand versus dark forests, ocean, and urban sprawl greatly determines the temperature of our planet.

Jesus tells us that we’ll know the quality of prophets—and by extension anyone—by their fruit. You can’t get figs from thorn bushes. Good trees produce good fruit and bad ones bad, so looking at the fruit gets at the heart of a person. But he also says that not everyone who calls out in his name will enter the kingdom of God, and when they protest that they prophesied and cast out demons, performed miracles and built 24/7 satellite networks, he’d simply say depart from me, I never knew you. If prophecy and miracles aren’t good enough fruit to be known by God, what is Jesus talking about?

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Jesus is constantly trying to get us to graduate from accomplishment and reward as motivation. It’s not that our accomplishments, however motivated, aren’t good in that they can benefit others, but that they are meaningless in terms of gaining what can’t be acquired—a connection as primal as the air we freely breathe. Though God would never banish us because we haven’t yet graduated, the more we work to distinguish ourselves to gain approval, the more we believe the illusion of our own separation, banishing ourselves. How do we know we’re living a life that is graduating? By our own fruit, of course. Not our accomplishments, but our spiritual albedo…total reflectivity. With God as spiritual sunshine, how much are we reflecting? With God as connection itself, how much connection do we leave in our wake? Are we leaving people better than we found them? Are our closest relationships intimate? Knowing God is the only criteria Jesus gives. To know God is to reflect God, and until that is our only motivation, we can’t do either.

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Growing Down

Dave Brisbin 6.30.24
Ever wondered what Jesus would have been like growing up? People have been wondering that ever since the generation who grew up with him died out. One of the many gospels that didn’t make it into the bible, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, assumes Jesus had all his powers from birth, but had to grow into them.

Portrayed at age five as a child who could be hot tempered, a boy bumps into him running by…Jesus calls out angrily, and the boy falls down dead. Days later, he is playing on a roof with other children when a boy falls off and is killed. Accused of pushing him, Jesus raises the boy from the dead asking him to tell his accusers the truth. But by age eight, we see him helping his carpenter father by pulling a board cut too short to the proper length, healing his brother James who was bitten by a viper, and raising his dead cousin back to life to ease his family’s suffering. Obviously, these stories are not to be taken seriously, but their point remains: Jesus had to grow up into a devoted member of his family and an empathic healer.

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Jesus grew up, yet spends his entire ministry telling us to live like children, that if we can’t be childlike, we will never enter God’s presence. In his wilderness experience, Jesus learns to be a child again, bringing his grown-up empathy with him as he grows back down into his Father’s childlike presence. In overcoming the three symbolic temptations—to be relevant, powerful, spectacular—he learns that we are not great because of our accomplishments, we are great when present to God’s presence. But we can’t be present as long as we’re seeking great accomplishment as prerequisite for meaning in life and approval by God.

Those who didn’t grow up with Jesus, imagined him powerful from birth, having to grow up into those powers. But those who did grow up with Jesus were amazed to see he had grown back down into childlikeness, into the apparent powerlessness of servanthood. They resisted the growing down, and we do too.

A child is pre-egoic; doesn’t know it’s naked. Until we grow back down into such spiritual unknowing, we’ll never trust the greatness in Presence.


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Road Not Taken

Dave Brisbin 6.23.24
When we were kids, my sister did a paint-by-number of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. You know, where the image is preprinted as numbered areas you fill in with the matching-numbered paint. It looked ok squinting at it from across the room, but imagine the difference between painting by numbers and the original master, creating and mixing his own paints and working from the depths of his experience as a human.

Jesus is trying to take us from painting by numbers to true spiritual expression. The Pharisees of his day had created a numbered approach to God, matching behavior to legal codes that, squinting from a distance, looked like righteousness…but Jesus knew better. The gospels show him systematically dismantling that system, but every generation, left to its own devices, goes Pharisee, devolves to a paint-by-number mentality because it feels controllable. Risk-free behavior and reward. Jesus is practically shouting to all of us that our behavior has nothing to do with God’s love.

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Nothing we do or don’t do can change what God is—oneness, love itself. But our behavior has everything to do with whether we will experience the oneness of God’s love. It’s inside out, like the artist’s way. Creative expression can’t be numbered. It flows from the whole of the artist’s being onto the canvas. It’s undefended, unhindered, vulnerably transparent, or it won’t connect with others. Not now, certainly not centuries later. You can’t obey your way to a masterpiece. You allow its flow. How many of us risk that permission?

When Jesus says the road to destruction is broad and the road to life is narrow and few find it, we imagine he’s talking about heaven and hell. But do we really think God created most of us for eternal torment? Is that the God Jesus says is good news? Critically, his context, Hebrew context, is always here and now. Few people are willing to risk the unknowns of the artist’s way of vulnerable transparency to find an experience of oneness, God’s love and good news, in their lives right herenow.

The road less traveled may seem risky—why it’s most often not taken. But it makes all the difference.

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Clinging Not

Dave Brisbin 6.2.24
One of the most cinematic scenes in the gospels is at John 20 where Mary Magdalene is sobbing by the empty tomb, and the risen Jesus asks why she is weeping. She whirls to confront the voice but not until he calls her name does she recognize. She calls out to him, and Jesus immediately replies, stop clinging to me. We don’t need to be told that she runs to him, falls down sobbing and clasping his feet in the ancient eastern custom. Our minds connect those dots. We see it all on our inner screens.

Why would Jesus break off such a human response? Under the circumstances, to say it’s a cold reply is a world-class understatement. But like any good film, nothing is presented in the gospels without purpose—the real estate is far too precious. Jesus is hammering that though his love for Mary hasn’t changed, the nature of their relationship is now radically different. Just as Moses couldn’t enter the promised land because the people had begun relying on him rather than God, Jesus told his friends that he needed to leave them so they could experience God’s presence directly and graduate from vicariously clinging to becoming as one with Presence as he was.

Painfully, that process begins with a loss. It always does.

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Is there anything Jesus would tell us to stop clinging to? He’s pretty clear. He says flat out that anyone unwilling to give up all they have can’t go where he is going. What part of everything don’t we understand? This may sound pathological, but he’s exposing a reality of life. Since the moment our primary needs as humans were first frustrated in early childhood, we’ve been building unconscious programs for happiness and survival that we don’t even know exist. We become addicted to our intelligence, talent, family, career, mission, theology, politics, wealth, as essential elements of control over uncertainty.

But anything on which we rely short of pure Presence, even Moses or our image of Jesus, is limiting us, blocking us from that Presence. When Jesus says stop clinging, he is saying that holding on to what has sustained us, or at least soothed us to date, is now keeping us from what sets us free.


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Release and Catch

Dave Brisbin 5.26.24
Carl Jung said that the first half of life is dedicated to forming a healthy ego; second half is going inward and letting go of it. We spend our first half looking for meaning, purpose, identity through accomplishment and acquisition—outward performances that mean less and less over time. We enter our second half when we realize that true meaning comes from a completely different direction. Jesus said that kingdom, his shorthand for second half spirituality, will never be found out there somewhere. It’s already within us.

Authentic spirituality isn’t acquired. It’s relinquished.

All the meaning and purpose we can stand is already within us, along with our true identities. It’s like ground water, deep and inexhaustible, always there, but not at the surface. You dig your well through layers of accrued illusions and patterns of thought and behavior. When Jesus says no one can follow him who doesn’t give up all they have; when he tells of men who find treasure in a field or at the market and run off to sell all they own to buy it, he is saying the same. Until we become willing to relinquish all we have gathered and count as our egoic identity, we’ll never find who we are not, so we can begin to know who we really are.

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It’s an inside-out gospel that’s easy to miss because we want to miss it. Most churches are more concerned with finding power in God that will vanquish enemies, fix circumstances, right wrongs, armor against vulnerability, create prosperity… Jesus’ descent, letting go, powerlessness, vulnerability, invisibility of servanthood is not attractive.

Fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, meaning that the means we use to communicate affects us more than the content itself. Jesus poured his message into the medium of a personal experience of perfect oneness—truth that would make us free once all illusion of separation was removed. The effect of that experience was recorded in the gospels, which we read and claim is true. But ink on paper is not truth, it’s a different medium. It becomes true once poured back into its original medium—the experience of our own lives.


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The Whole in the Part

Dave Brisbin 5.19.24

So easy to lose the forest in the trees. Especially with scripture. We dig deep into the weeds of each verse, pull it apart, imagine meaning that may not have anything to do with the larger passage or chapter, let alone the whole book.

A famous writer says unless you can describe the whole of your book in one sentence, you won’t write convincingly. You’ll meander, each part not contributing to the whole. The bible is actually sixty-six books, an anthology. Even harder to pull back enough to see a single line capturing its meaning—each verse revealing more of the whole. I’ve heard said that the bible is a love letter from God. A bit overly simplistic and sentimental for me, but on the right track. Maybe this: the bible traces the nature, development, and realization of our relationship with God. And if God is love, and love is identification with the beloved, then what we’re realizing is the oneness at the core of all our relationships.

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The gospels are all about this oneness. Jesus is one with the Father and the Way to the Father. He calls his Way kingdom, the quality of a life lived in full presence and connection…oneness. Everything he teaches relates back to kingdom and kingdom to the oneness at the heart of relationship. He tells us not to worry—focusing on the future destroys presence. He tells us not to judge—objectifying others destroys connection.

When he tells us not to give what is holy to dogs or pearls of wisdom teaching to pigs because they will trample it or turn and tear us to pieces, it sounds condescending and has been used to exclude those not of our “faith.” But is that an interpretation consistent with the whole of Matthew’s gospel, with Jesus, the whole book? If we know the whole, we can reverse engineer the part, fine tune our interpretation of any part by never losing sight of the whole.

Jesus is one with the whole, never excludes, accepts everyone where they are, never judging where they should be. Takes the time presence requires to first establish connection before healing or instruction. If we seek kingdom first—presence and connection—the whole will always be in the part.

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Both Sides Now

Dave Brisbin 5.12.24
It’s heartbreaking that many women in the second halves of their lives would be expressing remorse, but after dedicating their first halves to child and home, they find no concrete way to calculate the value of their life’s work. No degrees or trophies, certainly no pensions or even social security payouts.

Our society doesn’t reward the most important contributions we make to our children and each other, those made from the traditionally feminine traits of acceptance, compassion, vulnerability. We’re all over the traditionally masculine ones—performance, accomplishment, acquisition—and though our churches may praise vulnerability and acceptance, they still reward the performers, male or female. All institutions do. Performers make the material world go round.

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Church is where we should be balancing the material and spiritual, masculine and feminine…especially when it comes to our notion of God. Yet God is almost exclusively portrayed as Father, with the implication of maleness, emphasis on roles of judge, jury, executioner. Though God is called Father in Judeo-Christian scripture, there is much more going on under the hood. Spirit and kingdom are feminine words in Hebrew, making spirit, “she” and kingdom, queendom. Wisdom is personified as female, and God anthropomorphized as a loving mother over and over. Jews understood God as the perfect balance, the perfect parent—knowledge balanced with wisdom, accomplishment with relationship. Jesus did too, calling Father God abba, underscoring intimate relationship, and always leading with mother before father at every human encounter.

We can only be healthy and balanced in Jesus’ order: mother before father, compassion before justice, acceptance before performance. Our minds are the repository for all the loss and fear that makes us believe we’re not worthy, so as long as God remains in our minds alone, he remains “he”—a distant father. Experiencing God as mother folds her into our embrace.

Until we experience God from both sides, we are loved and lost at the same time—never knowing how we’re loved and never valuing what hasn’t earned degree or pension.


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Savior Complex

Dave Brisbin 5.5.24
Do we ever change another person? Save them?

Sometimes people thank me or our community for saving them, placing them on a lifesaving path.  It’s wonderful to be recognized as part of their journey, and I thank them, but if the conversation goes on long enough, I’ll remind that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. That if they changed directions, it was because they were ready to change, and I was the millionth guy over their bridge, winning the prize of being present when the miracle occurred. They were a change waiting to happen, and if I hadn’t shown up, someone else would have.

This is not an attempt at false humility, but the realization that being saved is not the passive waiting for a savior, but the willingness to participate in the saving change our lives require. Important distinction for both saviors and save-ees. Must be careful about developing savior complexes. We can help people, help change circumstances, but all we can provide is support and information—no change until acted upon. The most important things in life can’t be transferred; they must be experienced.

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You’re thinking we can give love? In those five love languages, we can give loving words, service, gifts, time, and touch…more support and information until we experience them as coming from love over time. Even Jesus never said he changed or saved anyone. He was careful, “Your faith has made you whole.” We pray for God to save us, but if God changed us unilaterally, violated free will, love would no longer be real—not God’s, not ours. Love is not love if not freely chosen, and God’s perfect love makes us perfectly free or it’s not perfect. God cannot make us love him and be love at the same time.

We can help create an environment for change, but we are no one’s savior. And no one is our savior, passively understood. If we’re waiting for a savior, we’re not ready to be saved, for the teacher to appear. Salvation is not God’s decision about us…that choice has always been made in our favor. Salvation is our decision about God. Whether to trust enough, risk the steps needed to experience the love that is already ours.


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Judging Not

Dave Brisbin 4.28.24
When Jesus says do not judge so you won’t be judged, that your way of judging will be used on you, we modern Westerners hear that in predictable ways. First, we think of judging in the sense of condemning or criticizing others, and we think of it punitively—that if we do wrong (judge), someone (God) will wrong us back as punishment. We also imagine our punishment happening sometime in the future, most likely after death. But thinking like this misses the essential point Jesus is making.

The reality we believe is the reality we endure.

Understanding that we live in a thought-world of our own creation is key to a life of meaning, purpose, and sense of identity. Unconscious beliefs programmed into us from earliest childhood form the way we think, our “judgment” of reality. As Jesus says, if our “eye” (way of seeing in Aramaic) is clear (not coloring reality) then we are full of light (harmony and clarity) but if not, we are “judged” by our own way of seeing. It all happens simultaneously. The limitations set by the whole of our belief system are already imposed on us before we ever try to impose them on anyone/thing else.

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God isn’t judging us at some point in the future as retribution for our judgments now. We are doing it to ourselves unawares. Our judgments define our reality, which if our eye is not clear, can be a personal hell. Jesus is doing some cognitive behavioral therapy with us, helping us become aware of our judgments—thoughts and behavior—how they affect our experience and relationships, and how to begin clearing our eyes to see what is true.

When Jesus says do not worry or judge, he is pointing us to the symptoms of our belief systems. The judgments we make on others, conditions, and moments, are the consequence of unresolved fears that are really judging us, creating a world separated from the only place we’ll ever know the truth…that love, not fear, is the basis of life. Fear causes us to chase the horizons of past and future as substitute for meaning, but this moment right herenow is the only place we’ll ever meet the truth of God’s presence.

If we’re judging it, we’re not here. Not now.

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Transparent World

Dave Brisbin 4.21.24

When Thomas Merton gave a final address to his monastic community before retiring to a hermitage in 1965, he was famous worldwide for his spiritual writings. His speech was recorded on audio tape, and I ran across a short clip in which he was talking about the fact that we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, that God is always shining through. God is in everything and everyone, every event, and it’s impossible to be without God. Ever.

We don’t see this fact because we make the world opaque by becoming attached to, preoccupied with things we regard as individual objects—analyzing them as if unwrapping packages, layers of opaque paper, all while missing the larger transparent world. We get to bottom of the pile of paper, only to find nothing there; we were only unwrapping our own thoughts about something, not the thing itself. It’s not until we loosen our grip and lose ourselves in the experience of something that we can stop thinking of it as a thing in isolation and see it as part of the whole of creation, and all of creation, God, shining through its transparency.

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Our attachments keep us from seeing the whole in all the parts. Constantly taking thought keeps our world opaque and hides the truth…no coincidence that taking thought is the literal meaning of the word translated as worry in a series of Jesus’ sayings. He tells us not to take thought, to worry about our lives, what we will eat, drink, or wear. He points to birds who work constantly but don’t store in barns, staying rooted in the present moment without taking thought.

To worry is to live in fear. Fear creates the obsessive need to acquire. In telling us that if we want life that is eternally alive we need to sell everything we own, Jesus is telling us we need to sever our attachments to individual objects in order to see the whole transparent world at once. No matter how essential a thing may seem, if we’re unwrapping it, the world is opaque. An ancient elder said that he sold the book—his treasured bible—that told him to sell everything and give to the poor.

When we can do that, God can shine through our transparent world.

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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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