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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dave Brisbin 8.20.23
How do you know you’re in love? Can you explain it, define it? Control it? Oh sure, you can talk about effects on your heartrate and attitude…but define, much less control? You just know. The train leaves the station, and you’re on it. Great movie exchange between atheist and theist: atheist says she will only accept what she can prove scientifically. Theist thinks for a beat, then asks, do you love your father? Yes. Prove it.
Jesus gets this. Said such spiritual processes are like the wind. You can’t see it, only hear and see its effects. Can’t know where it’s going or coming from. Powerful, invisible, mysterious. In his usual enigmatic way as poet, Jesus is saying that love and spirit operate outside of logic and rationality. We can’t define or control anything without thinking about it, and if we’re thinking about it, we’re not in it.
This is basic human nature, and why Jesus’ main objective is to shock us out of our minds. Look at his words again. He’s a poet, so you won’t see it directly, but an ancient Chinese philosopher framed it perfectly, telling of a river, full of its power during a flood, emptying into the ocean and there facing the shock of its own insignificance, dependence on greater waters. Life will deliver such shocks naturally, but our minds resist the conclusion. Jesus is teaching an intentional Way, eliciting experiences that will shock us into a benevolent mental breakdown.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.