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.
Dave Brisbin 11.20.22
Do you know how many creation stories there are in the bible? Two… Surprised? How many flood stories? Two. There are many “doublets” or repetitions of stories in the bible that scholars attribute to a near literary certainty that, apart from the epistles of the New Testament, the books of the bible weren’t written as an author would write a novel, but compiled as a film documentary would compile sources to weave a story.
These ancient Hebrews books as we’ve come to know them, comprise various sources that scholars have reconstructed using internal clues: the specific name of God being used, language dating from different periods, discrepancies in details. In the Genesis creation story, the two traditions are simply laid side by side with no attempt to harmonize; the differing details weren’t meant to be harmonized. Six days or one day, God hovering over chaos or starting with land and mist, man created last and all at once as a race or first with just one man and woman. We want to resolve these differences into one true story, but the differences themselves tell the truth of the story.
We think only one thing can be true at a time. The ancients knew better. That life is a paradox of seeming contradiction that tells a whole truth. Until we can embrace the mystery at the heart of life, we can’t follow the Way of Jesus, the vulnerable relinquishing in the second half of life that leads us back to the Source. Our first home. In the garden.
Dave Brisbin 11.6.22
William Shatner, Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, flew to space on a private suborbital flight a year ago, and like many astronauts, had a profound, worldview-shattering experience. Space was “unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth—deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Everything I had thought was wrong, everything I had expected to see was wrong.” Leaving the spacecraft after landing, he wept, and it took him some time to realize that he “was in grief for the Earth.”
He saw Earth as we can never see it from the surface: an isolated, fragile spot of warmth and life set against vast darkness. On the surface, if we don’t like one spot, we can move to another, assume inexhaustible resources, distract ourselves, and take our home for granted. But from space, the realization that all we have and are, all human history and experience, love and life exists in just one spot, on one little ball hanging in a vacuum, reveals…there is no backup.
The Teacher, from his shattering realization, wrote that God has set eternity in our hearts. The unremembered awareness that all time, all at once everything and everywhen exist within us and are only ever accessible now and here. Searching anywhere else is striving after the wind. Shatner said, “I hope I never recover from this.” That will be his choice. It is always ours as well.
Dave Brisbin 10.30.22
It doesn’t take a prophet or a genius to see that the world is on a collision course with something out there. That everything can’t continue at this speed indefinitely. It’s a scary realization, and when we get scared, we start looking for something certain on which to stand. Which means I’ve been getting questions again on whether we are in the end times, whether the scriptures that describe them are true and when they will play out.
Short answer: I don’t know. Longer answer: no one can possibly know, no matter their years of study or absolute certainty. Jesus tells us flat out that no one knows the day or hour when such end times will occur—not the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. Couldn’t be more blunt, but Jesus gives a clue here that can help us make sense of apocalyptic passages. Fear drives us to imagine certainty, some illusion of control, missing that the purpose of these passages is not what—the certainty we crave—but how to live in uncertain times. Prophetic books tell us how to live to avert disaster; apocalyptic books tell us how to live after the disaster has occurred with continued hope and faith.
Both Israel and the church have always seen themselves as brides of God—all human history and each individual life lived between betrothal at birth and consummation at death, between heaven and earth, now and not yet. We can’t know when or what, and that terrifies us, but we have been given how. How to live without fear. It’s all we can know with certainty, but with trust it’s all we need.
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 8.7.22
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.
Dave Brisbin 7.17.22
We are fixated on answers. Our collective intolerance of uncertainty feeds a deep need to find absolute answers to all our questions, to be right while pointing out those who are wrong, to pretend that life can be made risk-free if we just know enough of the right stuff. Our minds become the tip of the spear that we believe will save us from our fears. This may work well for the physical sciences and train schedules, but when it comes to matters of spirit, we need to think again.
Do you know how many questions Jesus asks in the gospels? It’s amazing that people actually count these things, but nice that we can look them up. Jesus asks 307 questions. More importantly, 183 questions are asked of him. Of those 183, he directly answers…three. Just three. For every question Jesus answers directly, he literally asks a hundred. He answers every question of course, but most often with another question. Sometimes with a story or an object lesson. But every answer is geared to stop questioners in their tracks, stop the logical flow to which they are addicted by challenging the often unconscious assumptions that drive the questions themselves.
Every indirect answer Jesus gives, every story and non-sequitur, every question-as-answer is an opportunity to see into a world based on love instead of logic, where the rules of our assumptions about life are exposed as roadblocks to the life we long to live. Even when Jesus is simply asked where he is staying for the night, his answer, come and see, is an invitation to experience what can never be expressed in an answer made of words.
Dave Brisbin 7.10.22
What is the goal of our spiritual journeys? How would you answer for yours? Peace, love, enlightenment, wisdom, salvation? It’s unfortunate that we haven’t been clearer about Jesus’ answer to the question: that following his Way to the Father allows us to know the truth, and that truth will make us free. Freedom is the ultimate goal, because without freedom from the fear that is part of human nature, we will never risk dropping all our defenses—the only way to experience Father, love without degrees or prerequisite.
There’s a catch: what is this freedom? What does it feel like? How do we know we’re talking about the same freedom Jesus tells us comes from knowing truth? In our culture, freedom is unencumbrance from anything that would limit our ability to say and do whatever we want, whenever we want. Our movie heroes are the antithesis of the modern middleclass—burdened by mortgages, debt, desk jobs, families, grinding daily and weekly routine. Movie heroes appear and disappear, ride into town, save the day, then ride back out with us looking wistfully after. Unencumbered by any responsibility other than their own code of conduct, they can never put down roots, become tied to relationship, family, place. To tie them to anything would make them just like us.
To be completely unencumbered is to be completely alone. The freedom to which Jesus is leading, comes from experiencing the truth that all that matters in this life is the connection our freedom buys when it allow us to lay down our defenses and experience what happens next.
Dave Brisbin 6.26.22
If you’re serious about following a spiritual path, you have two major roadblocks to overcome: your mind and your body. Your mind, storehouse for the dualism of your egoic consciousness, constantly talks to you—comparing, contrasting, judging. Your body, storehouse of your emotions, drives unconscious behavior patterns with childhood conditioning, memories, guilt, shame. Necessary for survival, but left unchecked, mind and body keep us in a narcissistic bubble, apart from others and the reality of the moment.
Admittedly oversimplified, the West has been in love with the mind, rational thought, for the past three hundred years since the Enlightenment, but in in the last fifty or so, has fallen in love with the body, with emotion. Emotion has become the sign of being authentic and in touch, empathetic and compassionate. Arguments now appeal to emotion, drowning out rational thought with feelings. Society needs a balance, but ancient wisdom tradition knows that true spiritual formation means intentionally detaching from thought and emotion, finding a deeper self and wordless connection to ultimate presence.
In a society devolving into the chaos of pure emotion, that sees opponents not intellectually as misguided, but emotionally as evil, deserving disdain, hatred, and eventually violence, we start with what we can actually control—ourselves. To build awareness to the point we can see emotions for the tools to growth they are and choose what is loving regardless of what we feel.