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Ducks and Swans

Dave Brisbin 8.14.22
Most of us have heard the phrase, “ugly duckling,” but most of us no longer know the story from which it comes. We may think it refers to a face only a mother could love, but The Ugly Duckling was a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale published in 1843. After a mother duck’s eggs hatch, there is one duckling unlike all the rest, who is verbally and physically abused because of his looks. He goes through a series of isolating and humiliating incidents until, when fully grown, throws himself into a flock of swans preferring death to further rejection. He’s amazed that he is fully accepted until he sees his reflection in the water and realizes he’s been a swan all along.

When Andersen was asked if he’d ever write his autobiography, he said it was already done. A tall, ugly boy with a big nose and feet, he was cruelly mocked and teased, but in addition to his musical and writing talents, there was evidence he was the illegitimate son of the king of Denmark. The swan was not just metaphor for inner beauty and talent, but also for royal blood.

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Beyond ugly ducklings, there is Cinderella, The Frog Prince, and numberless stories on the same theme from ancient times to today. Luke Skywalker is secretly a Jedi knight. Neo in The Matrix is secretly “the one” who can wake humanity from slavery. Jesus is an ugly duckling too. A Cinderella born into abject poverty, raised in Nazareth—of which Nathaniel asks, “can anything good come from Nazareth?” He is unrecognized, despised, ultimately killed, but not before he finds his true identity, his royal blood and the power to wake humanity to the good news. What news?

That we’re all swans. The slipper fits. We’re knights, secret royalty. That the journey Jesus took to truth is a journey we can all take. That when Jesus says “you will do the things you see me do,” he means that whenever we wish, we can take up the human task of realizing that though we don’t yet see it in ourselves, as children of our Father, the king, royal blood flows in us as well. That even in the admission of our powerlessness, this good news alone can wake us from the slavery of our fears.


Sacred Routine

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.

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Here was ritual expanded beyond the religious experience, but not the spiritual. As humans we find connection in what is reliable and repeatable—acts regularly repeated in a set manner. In other words, a routine. Another word we don’t like. But routine is what our lives are made of. It’s what we do over and over that defines us to ourselves and others, not the exceptions no matter how exciting.

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.


The Rite Rituals

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.

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Jesus was very clear. He’s not superstitious. Though he carefully kept all the non-rabbinical rituals and practices of first century Judaism, he missed no opportunity to show and teach that obeying laws and practicing rituals can never magically gain God’s favor…we already have that and always will. But by engaging a radically different Way of living life, we come face to face with the truth of God’s pre-existing favor, freeing us from the fear of punishment right herenow. Salvation realized, not earned.

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.


Every Moment, Every Person

Dave Brisbin 7.24.22
A dear friend and colleague suddenly diagnosed with stage four cancer brings everything to a halt. Not just in her life, but in ours as well—at least for a time. And when we start breathing again, I know what I’m thinking, but wondering what she’s thinking in the dark hours. Her voice sounds strong; she’s talking about fighting and treatment plans, but also logistics and last wishes for her children and all of us.

She’s striking a strange balance between hope for life and admission of the possibility of death, the preparation for it. But isn’t that just a statement of the human condition? Don’t we all live out our lives, plan and dream, laugh and embrace, under the shadow of a death sentence? As long as there’s no date attached, no end in sight, we can pretend, but at times like these it all comes hissing in like a leak in a submarine.

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Her family is now experiencing an intensity they haven’t in some time. We all do this. Why do we wait until the possibility of losing someone becomes imminent before we feel and express their value to us? With our own lives, with the moments that make up our time here—why do we allow the urgencies of life to masquerade as important and distract us from the only moment that exists? This one that we’re in right now. What is urgent is not necessarily important and what is important rarely feels urgent. Relationship and connection, like life, appear open-ended—and without deadline or urgency, they feel reschedulable. Until times like these.

None of us wants to think about death approaching out of the dark at unknown speed and distance. But the value of life can only be experienced in the acceptance of death. In accepting that there are no answers to the deepest questions of life, to stop searching for meaning in the darkness of what we can’t know, we can see again what we’ve always known in the light of each living moment. To stop trying to import meaning into our moments with thoughts made of words and see that each moment is already just enough for us is the gift we can receive at times like these.


Questions as Answers

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.

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Jesus is much more interested in questions than answers and is perfectly comfortable with questions serving as answers. Life is made of uncertainty. The questions we most profoundly want answered are unknowable in this life. Jesus knows that the life he lives and envisions for each of us doesn’t flow from answer to answer, but from question to more incisive question. Direct, declarative statements as answers don’t take us on journeys, and Jesus is all about engagement in a process of questioning that constantly refines the scope of what is true.

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.


The Feel of Freedom

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.

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The scriptures paint a very different picture. Over and over, spiritual freedom is not tied to unemcumbrance, but its opposite: slavery and servitude. To be set free by truth is to become a slave of God and everyone in our path—in that culture, an indentured servant or bond slave who voluntarily pledges life and freedom as repayment for a debt. Spiritual freedom is not unencumbrance, but the freedom to submit gratefully and fearlessly, to lay down our lives for another’s life and welfare, to know we are free because we can give our freedom away just as freely.

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.


Unalienable Right

Dave Brisbin 7.3.22
The 4th of July comes round again at a time when faith in our country has been deeply shaken. We are questioning our most enduring institutions right down to the Constitution and Founding Fathers’ motives and wisdom, with some saying we need to scrap the whole thing and start over. Second American Revolution. Considering the angst, seems appropriate to paraphrase Winston Churchill: the US is the worst country ever built by humans—except for all the other ones.

Our country is flawed, of course. Though I’m convinced history will show we have been a force for much more good than evil, if we are committed to rising above the triggering of emotion, obsessive thought, special interest, and personal bias, we can occupy liminal space, the threshold between camps, and see clearly enough to praise and criticize as needed to make us better. Rising above personal triggers—that’s easier said. But fighting this interior revolution must happen first if we’re to wage an exterior one with any hope of leaving people better than found.

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Ancient Jews understood their journey as a nation as the journey of a single person, that the macro mirrors and maps the micro, and here, our Declaration of Independence may help map our own interior journeys. The Declaration speaks of political bands that should exist only as long as they serve all parties, of self-evident truths of equality, and unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. That people will suffer as long as they can before they take up the cause of fundamental change…as it should be. Revolutions make things much worse before better.

Jefferson is channeling Jesus who told us to count the cost before going all in, but until we’re willing to question everything and let go of all we say we believe, we’ll never see which “bands” holding us in place no longer serve us in experiencing our ultimate unalienable right: a love that changes everything.

Our flawed founding fathers did exactly this. Even as we question their flawed convictions, let’s not dismiss their journey, the process by which we must become convinced ourselves.


Sweet Emotion

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.

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Emotions aren’t bad; they must be deeply felt and used as windows to unconscious drives and fears that help guide us to growth. But if we identify with them, think they are “true,” we become lost, acting out emotional triggers, hurting people while feeling justified and virtuous the entire time. We literally don’t know what we’re doing. The goal of ancient Christians was to unidentify enough to become unoffendable to the threat of negative emotion and to graduate past the “consolations” of positive emotions into the “desolations” of a faith that needs no external support.

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.

Father Overflowing

Dave Brisbin 6.19.22
Physical survival depends on how well we manage and compete for finite resources, a zero sum situation in which there’s only so much oil in the ground, and our share always comes out of someone else’s. Winners and losers. So we can be forgiven for embedding a scarcity mentality so deeply in our psyches that we pin it on God as well—keeping us forever fearful and defended, the opposite of the vulnerable connection love requires.

Our concept of God is all-important. It orders our view of life and relationship, meaning, purpose, identity. It regulates our fear. Or not. Jesus knows this and works hard to draw his people away from the anthropomorphic images of God as Ab—father in Hebrew that carries images of the fierce tribal leader presented in early Hebrew scripture and the legal judge presented by the Pharisees and other first century contemporaries.

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The names we use for God mirror our concepts of God, so instead of Ab, Jesus used Abba, which adds a feminine ending, a unity of transcendent father and immanent mother, a balance of power and intimacy with whom we can both be in awe and in love. Then in his model prayer, Jesus uses another name: “Our Father who art in heaven,” in Aramaic: abwoon d’bashmaya. In abwoon, AB, strong leader of the house, is joined with WN, the security of life that continues, presenting a genderless cosmic parent who causes the flow of birthing, creation. The D and B prefixes in d’bashmaya show God not living in heaven but identified with heaven as the visible face of God’s inner essence…the heavens, the universe, show us who our Father is.

Science tells us there are up to 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe with up to 700 billion stars in even a small galaxy like our Milky Way. Most stars have planets, if like Earth, contain up to a trillion species with billions or trillions of life forms each. The universe tells us our God is insanely extravagant, abundant beyond belief. No scarcity. No zero sum. God is an inexhaustible, overflowing love of life. Can’t diminish it; can’t earn it. Admission is free and every seat is front row center. Once we experience that, we know there is nothing to fear.


Divine Admixture

Dave Brisbin 6.12.22
I’ve developed a three year rule: if you’ve been with someone for three years and still not sure you can commit, answer is no. Not absolute, but after three years, if you’ve been up close and paying attention undefendedly, you’ve seen enough to know a person’s nature.

It’s the same with God.

A mistake we make is thinking that Jesus’ Way is the way to heaven, the way to God’s approval. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus’ way is not a way to something, it’s the way to experience what’s already here. It is the only process by which we can become undefended enough, vulnerable and unself-conscious enough to experience and be convinced of God’s nature—pure connection, unity. Until we know that love without degree is who God is and the basis of our relationship, life will be too scary to stay undefended very long.

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Jesus knows the first step to walking his Way is to realign our thinking, open eyes to new possibilities. This summarizes most of his teaching, but most incisively, at the last supper, hours before his death, he tells his friends he has a new commandment: to love each other as he has loved them—that everyone will know them by their love. It’s love that defines us, not intellectual belief, theology, doctrine, ritual: those aspects of religion are either ushering us toward the experience of degreeless love or just in the way.

The early church understood. Their daily lives were characterized by care for each other that reflected their experience of God. Followers in the first three centuries after the crucifixion wrote that “how they love one another” was the “brand” others saw on them, a people with a “divine admixture,” humans mixed with God. The Romans could not extinguish such a church even after three centuries of persecution, so they extinguished it in the fourth century, not by force…by making it their state religion. When power replaced love as the admixture, there was suddenly something to defend, and church lost sight of love.

Degreeless love needs no defense. Defendedness can only see degree. Never the love.

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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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Seeing ourselves as a learning and recovery community that worships together, the focus isn’t on Sunday morning alone, but on every day of the week as we gather for worship, healing and support workshops, studies, 12 step meetings, counseling and mentoring sessions, referral services, and social events. We maintain a food pantry for those needing more support, a recovery worship gathering, and child care for those with little ones.

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