living the way

Jesus’ message is nothing if not practical. He never leaves his teaching circling a theological airport or lost in abstraction. His message is always targeted on how we live and choose in this very moment. These audio messages intend to help us live our spirituality where rubber and road meet.

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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Our Turn

Dave Brisbin 4.14.24
What would you say is the most damaging personal attitude to life in general and spirituality in particular? Fear, anger, hatred? What about passivity…and its close cousin, victimhood. Passivity is sneaky, because it isn’t immediately discernable as a vice, but the lack of will to respond actively, proactively, even to resist when that is necessary, keeps us from participating in life at all. Anger or hatred, if it’s active, is less harmful than passivity to a person’s return to life.

For someone who sees themselves as a victim, passivity is the norm. A victim isn’t just someone who was hurt, but someone who had no choice in the matter. Choice is key. Once choice returns, so does personal responsibility. How many of us hang on to victimhood as a way of absolving ourselves from the responsibility to change, heal, grow. Not consciously, maybe, but just as effectively passive.

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The church has taught us a largely passive way of spiritual life. Unquestioning obedience to law and doctrine is passive. Yet Jesus questioned everything, resisting where necessary, risking consequences. Believing we must be saved, that God can’t accept us without a savior’s intervention is passive and contradicts Jesus’ life and teaching. He consistently pointed to the Father rather than himself, saw himself as the living Way to that unity, stressed that his followers were to do what he was doing, not be passively saved by his action. His first followers picked up that emphasis by calling themselves Followers of the Way. Not Christians or even followers of Jesus—an essential distinction pointing to the need for personal action.

Jesus’ life and message is all about removing any blocks between us and God, whether the religious authority of his or any generation, or our own fears and victimhood. He is showing us a non-passive Way to approach God directly—and telling that what we’ll find there is good news. That God has already chosen us, has chosen and accepted us since the beginning of time.

There is nothing left for God to choose; nothing left for us to ask for, nothing left to wait for.

God has made his choice. Now it’s our turn.

 

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Why We Count

Dave Brisbin 4.7.24
We just finished counting the forty days of Lent that ended with Easter, only to begin counting again, this time to 49 plus one that will take us to Pentecost. Each counting is a time of preparation, but for what?

Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, and Pentecost the moment his followers engaged the full weight of spirit, but these were superimposed on the Hebrew celebrations of Pesach and Shavu’ot. Originally agricultural festivals, the people would ritually count seven weeks of seven between Pesach at the spring barley harvest and Shavu’ot at the summer wheat harvest. Over time, simple timekeeping between harvests—seven, the number of spiritual perfection, times seven—became the perfect time of preparation between Pesach/Passover, the physical liberation of the people from slavery, and Shavu’ot, the giving of the Law, a new relationship with God and the spiritual liberation of the people.

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We are now in this count, the time of preparation between Easter, physical liberation from death, and Pentecost, representing spiritual liberation. Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again, that he was born of water, physical birth, but must be reborn of spirit. Ritually, baptism, represents birth, entry into the tribe, our physical liberation, but too often the story ends there.

Many of us spend entire lives in this count, this time between physical and spiritual liberation, never experiencing another liberation that can only be realized after a descent that strips us down to as basic an existence as if being born all over again. For Jesus, the descent is represented in the wilderness and his time in the tomb. For Jesus’ followers, it is the shock and awe of Calvary that strips them bare of everything they thought they knew, leaving them counting the days to their individual Pentecosts, the moment they break into new relationship, their own spiritual liberation, second birth.

Our journeys have this same shape, and Calvary is the threshold between two liberations. The way to Pentecost begins at Calvary…the moment we think we’ve lost everything is the beginning of our ascent. It’s why we count.

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Life in Motion

Dave Brisbin 3.31.24 Easter Sunday
Ever wonder why the resurrection accounts in the gospels are written the way they are? We crave details and explanations for the event itself, but the gospels are uninterested in satisfying our obsession with certainty. The central event takes place offstage, and the story picks up after it happens, following Jesus’ friends, their reactions and choices. The gospels are focused on the effect of the resurrection on Jesus’ first followers, not on the resurrection itself.

This is a huge distinction that shows us where to look…not at the miracle, but at how the miracle affects our lives. It’s fascinating that no one recognized the risen Jesus at first sight. We wonder if Jesus looked different or whether he was miraculously hiding himself for some reason, but the truth is that the followers’ minds, like any human mind, were not yet prepared to see what they considered impossible. The gospels are telling us that seeing the risen Jesus is more process than event, a process of becoming ready to see beyond the limitation of our programming. We focus on the external event. The gospels focus on the interior process.

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In every gospel story of eventual recognition, the smallest, most intimate and familiar gesture breaks the spell our minds cast over our seeing. Mary hears her name called as she heard it a thousand times, Clopas sees the breaking of bread at supper in Emmaus, Peter feels the pulsing weight of fish in his nets after a catchless night. Intimate connections experienced over and over show us who we are, and those same tiny details prove our identity to each other, not big events. If we want to see the risen Jesus—the focus of Christian spirituality—where do we look? The women who come to find Jesus in the tomb are asked why they seek the living among the dead. What a question.

Life is defined by motion. No motion, no life. If Jesus is alive, he’s in motion too, not among the static dead, among set beliefs about past events. We will always find the risen Jesus in the center of all our motion. Among the living. In all the tiny, familiar, intimate movements of our own lives or not at all.

 

Feeling God’s Pleasure

Dave Brisbin 3.17.24
What do humans look like when they break through their own thought-created worlds—all about survival, controlling competition—and become present to the real world around them?

I remembered the movie Chariots of Fire, based on a true story set around the Paris Olympics, 1924. It contrasts two runners, a British Jew, Harold Abrahams, and a Scottish Christian, Eric Liddel. Abrahams has been embittered by the prejudice he’s suffered as a Jew, and runs for revenge, driven to win and prove superiority over those who despised him. Liddel, China-born to missionary parents, has been preparing to return to the mission field even as he gained stardom in rugby. His sister, Jenny, just as driven as Abrahams in her religious zeal, is dismissive and critical of his athletics; they distract from God.

Liddel tells Jenny, “I believe God made me for a purpose, for China…but he also made me fast…and when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt.” Abrahams runs for revenge. Jenny runs for duty and obligation. When Liddel runs, he feels God’s pleasure.

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Liddel stands apart. Principled to the point he won’t run his 100M race because it falls on a Sunday, he withstands withering fire from his elders including the Prince of Wales himself. Yet, when able to run the 400M instead, as the fastest runners in the world are tensely preparing to run, Liddel casually walks the lanes, sport coat over his running shorts, smiling, shaking hands, wishing each the best of luck.

Liddel was only 22 years old. How’d he do that?

Running was just another place where he felt God’s pleasure: sheer oneness and connection. But seems he also felt God’s pleasure when he greeted his fellow runners, unconcerned at that moment for the race itself, until that became the source of God’s pleasure. Twenty years later, he was still feeling God’s pleasure in China, working with children in the WWII internment camp where he died. Wherever he went, whatever he was doing, he felt God’s pleasure, changing everything.

I don’t know how he felt all this at 22. But with intention and a bit more time, we can all feel it too if we wish.

 

Tables and Trees

Dave Brisbin 3.3.24
Decades ago, I met a Christian who converted to Judaism, eventually becoming a first century Jewish follower of Jesus. He spoke of his personal theology, a stated set of personal beliefs. I’d never considered such a thing. Growing up Catholic, theology belonged to the church, as if God had written it, and the church discovered it, parceling it out each Sunday. Unquestionably true, the idea of a personal theology was blasphemous. We had no permission to think personally.

Yet here’s Jesus overturning tables in the temple and cursing a fig tree for having no fruit. Both stories pointing to the fact that the Jewish system of his day had become bankrupt, fruitless, unable to guide its people to authentic spiritual encounter. Jesus gave himself permission to explore his own beliefs, lived and taught out of that conviction, exposing the defects of his tradition. And where did that tradition come from? If you roll back any religion to its inception, you get to one person. A person who had life changing spiritual experience, which they lived and taught and people followed.

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All theologies begin as personal theologies—attempts to express an inexpressible experience of the infinite in a finite life. But when we come to that religion as a follower, what we experience first is the expression as it has been handed down, not the experience. Heresay…which won’t be useful unless or until it guides us to our own experience. Once theology becomes institutionalized, it becomes a closed loop, no longer pointing to life changing experience, but to its own law and ritual, as if they were such experience themselves.

Any theology only become useful once it has become personal.

Once you’ve memorized the phone number, you can burn the slip of paper. Once the law is written on your heart, you can forget the rules. The purpose of theology is to catch God. Once God is caught, theology can be forgotten—we can meet God without a middleman. But we’ll never know this until we give ourselves permission to get personal. Permission will never be granted to overturn our tables of old thinking or kill our trees of unfruitful action.

 

Listening to Rocks

Dave Brisbin 2.25.24
When Jesus rolls into Jerusalem the week of his execution, there are major mixed emotions in the crowd of onlookers. The common folk are chanting and cheering as the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, hang back, concerned over any shift in power. Jewish leaders tell Jesus to quiet the crowds, but Jesus replies that if these were silent, the very rocks would cry out. Just pretty poetry? Something deeper?

He seems to be echoing both King David and Paul who said that all creation testifies to truth and can’t be silenced or ignored. More poetic license? Astronomers say they have heard the sound of a black hole singing: a massive black hole in the Perseus cluster is emitting sound centered on a tone 57 octaves below middle C. And microwave background radiation, radiation from celestial bodies and nebulae can also be heard as sound, as music. Creation is singing. We just have to be tuned to the right frequency.

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Obviously not being so technical, Jesus is recognizing that there is unceasing music, an expression of truth emitting from everything around us…all nature, even the rocks. How can we tune in? Paul calls it unceasing prayer, but as if knowing we’d misunderstand, couples his directive to pray with rejoicing always and being grateful in all circumstances. These three directives together create the context for understanding the nature of unceasing prayer. Not prayer of words or thoughts, but a state of awareness so tuned to each moment that we can participate at a level beneath words, thoughts, and the judgment that objectifies and separates.

To engage our moments at this level is to become aware of the deeper connection that is experienced as a sense of wellbeing, a metaphysical ok-ness for which the automatic reaction is gratitude. When you feel the smile spreading across your face without your permission or thought, when you suddenly see in the smallest detail you may have seen a thousand times, the thrill of something deeper, you are praying this prayer. Significance in insignificance. Divine truth in the most ordinary moment when your prayer is your awareness—tuned to hear the rocks sing.

 

Ashes

Dave Brisbin 2.18.24
We’re still in the first days of Lent. If you didn’t grow up in a liturgical church, you may not know about ashes on foreheads, confession and penance, fasting and giving up candy bars or some other treat for forty days. And even if such memories are part of your past, you may have as much to unlearn as others have to learn about Lent.

For nearly 1,800 years, the forty-day period before Easter is meant to be a time of preparation. Originally the preparation for baptism of new converts, it was ported over to Easter as an annual time of preparation for the new life of rebirth. Mirroring Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, the deprivation and suffering of Jesus’ experience is emulated, but why? As children, we understood it as punishment and penance for our sins, wiping our slates clean for God, but this relatively passive and vicarious approach is not what Jesus experienced during his fortyness.

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Forty in the bible means a difficult time of trial and testing leading to a transformative rebirth. Think Moses on Mount Sinai, Noah in the ark, Hebrews wandering in the desert. Jesus faced three trials in the wilderness that correspond to every human’s biological needs for security and survival, power and control, affection and esteem. Jesus’ three temptations symbolize the unconscious drives every human must transcend far enough to gain the emotional regulation and awareness the rest of Jesus’ Way requires.

The fortyness of Lent is meant to be a similar, ritually difficult preparation for transformation. But if that’s our intent, we need to reframe it: not as a negative punishment or penance, but as positive, affirmative action we intentionally take to clear out distractions, take a dive into our shadow selves, and create an ideal interior environment for spiritual breakthrough. The fasting and deprivation of Lent is not punishment, but an opportunity to lower our egoic guards and awareness threshold—allow God’s presence to show through. We can use Lent as a crash course to silence and simplify enough to see what is really meaningful in our moments and any interior limitations keeping us from that meaning.

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