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.
Dave Brisbin 11.26.23
My good friend these past eight years, a committed member of our faith community, Bob Lang, died last week. I was at his house the night before with his wife and daughter and again the next day after he had passed. Staying connected to him and his family during his illness, I was very glad that last night to have been able to say in his ear all I wanted him to know, hoping he could hear and understand. He leaves a big hole in my breakfast schedule, the conversations we’d have, and accepting that he’s no longer callable will take some time.
Moments like these call so much into question, maybe everything that matters to us as fragile humans. What is Bob doing now? Who is he with? Anyone at all? Does he know the answers to all the questions I have, that every human has ever had since we started this whole thing? Most of us are well steeped in religious and cultural doctrine, but moments like these have the power to strip all that away, undistract us, question everything we think we know and lay bare the reality of what we can’t.
All we have is now. All Bob has is now. I’m convinced it’s the same now, shared, at different frequencies.
Moments like these have convinced me that choosing to live based on love is to feel love’s eternal quality. That we come from love and return to it, that we as part of love are never lost, just change form. Like energy and matter, we remain constant while constantly changing. I’m convinced that Bob is not lost, just unseen to me. We often say that the dead are still present and alive in our hearts, but I’m becoming convinced that our hearts, tuned to the frequency of presence, can make us aware of unseen life in our one, shared now…moments like these.
Dave Brisbin 11.19.23
Important government official comes to a renowned Zen master and says, “Teach me the ways of Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” It’s more command than request. The master smiles, saying, “Let’s discuss it over tea.” When the tea is ready, he pours for his guest, and pours until the cup begins to overflow, creeping across the table until it runs off onto the man’s robes. He jumps up, “Stop! Can’t you see the cup is full?” The master smiles again, “You are like this cup. So full, nothing can be added. Come back when your cup is empty. Come back with an empty mind.”
As modern, Western people, our cups are now so full, overflowing with digital data, that a study has shown our attention spans have dropped from twelve seconds in 2000 before the mobile revolution to eight seconds today. Considering that goldfish have demonstrated attention spans of nine seconds, we have fallen below goldfish in our ability to hold the moment, to simply be present to what is rather than what projects on our screens and our minds.
We can’t create gratitude, seek it directly or count blessings into it. Gratitude is what happens when we let go of the complexity in our minds in favor of the simplicity of an instant. It’s an umbrella term that covers all the positive emotions and excludes the rest. You can’t be grateful and anything negative at the same time. It’s a physical, mental, emotional impossibility. Maybe gratitude isn’t a thing itself, but the absence of anything that distracts from the ongoing gift—what it feels like to let the moment we’re in be enough for us, realize that anything added or taken away would only diminish.
Gratitude is what we call what we feel when we empty our cup and graduate from goldfish.
Dave Brisbin 11.12.23
You can understand much of human behavior by remembering that we are fragile little creatures living under a death sentence trying to survive and somehow thrive. Fear makes us crave certainty and control, which don’t exist in life but drive our thoughts and behavior in predictable directions, including our religious obsession with prophecy and end times speculation. All enthusiastically doomed to frustration.
So how do we do it? Survive and thrive under such conditions? Since human experience never changes, we can look to the ancients, not for what we can know with certainty, but for how we can live in uncertainty without fear. Throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptures, there is one overarching metaphor for life lived here between heaven and earth—the Hebrew wedding tradition…from the bride’s point of view. Seems strange at first, but consider that a Hebrew girl was betrothed to a man she may have never met in a ceremony called the kiddushin. Her groom would then leave her to build the chadar, their apartment at his father’s house where they would consummate and live out their marriage. He could be gone a year or more, returning without notice, surprising the bride to carry her home for the nissu’in, the wedding ceremony.
Immersion now, even as we anticipate not yet, teaches us that all moments are equally sacred. That all moments, now and not yet, are the same moment once entered, and the uncertainty we fear resolves only and always now in the connection we make and maintain—the only certainty we’ll ever experience with the power to cast out fear.
Dave Brisbin 11.5.23
I’ve continued to receive questions about the war in Israel and related issues, and one of them was very specific and raised an ethical nightmare of conflicting moral imperatives. Got me thinking of the competing ethical systems I learned in school: categorical imperatives—universal laws and duties that are self-contained and always morally right without regard to consequences vs utilitarianism—actions that are morally right when they produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people vs virtue ethics—the what would Jesus do question of looking to an ideal virtue agent to show us right action.
Each one has its pros and cons, and we probably need all three to regulate the excesses of the others, but what would Jesus do presents an interesting question for those of us trying to follow his teaching. First off, we can’t apply what would Jesus do to macro situations—Jesus was always teaching in the context of micro relationships and individual hearts. But a friend told me his reaction to the macro war was so personally devastating that he “googled Gandhi” to find, an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, and Jesus in the gospels, do not treat evil with evil, but rather with love. My friend’s clear use of virtue ethics helped him reframe, return home from macro confusion and despair.
When Jesus gets the devastating news that his dear friend Lazarus is dying, he stays two more days where he is, teaching and healing. Did love require delay to create the greatest good for greatest number or was he just lost in presence? When he arrives, he knows love requires a deep conversation with Martha, but with Mary, he simply weeps. What love requires can cut through volumes of ethical philosophy, but only if we’re fully present first.
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 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.
Vernon Porter 4.23.23
Vernon Porter takes the pulpit to give us a good look at God’s love from another perspective. That we can’t outrun God’s goodness no matter what happens, however traumatic or how we feel about it. That God’s love is always present, and because of the peculiar nature of perfect love, we are all God’s favorite kid. Every single one of us.
Dave Brisbin 1.1.23
First apartment Marian and I rented was near a nature reserve, and a colony of turkey vultures roosted in the tops of the eucalyptus all around us. Most people complained about the mess on the sidewalks, but I loved them. Waiting every morning for the sun to heat the updrafts that would take them aloft, like business people waiting for the train, they went to the office every day, all day, back home with the lowering sun. Day after day, seasons, weekends, holidays made no difference. No sense of time or the arbitrary lines we draw to mark our calendars.
On New Year’s Day, we celebrate an arbitrary line. A line drawn differently in different cultures at different times in history. In the West, we think of time as a series of line segments, but the new year we celebrate is really a circle. The universe is made of circles. Circles within circles. Stars, planets, orbits, rotations, all scribing the circles we call days, months, years, seasons. The earth has no more sense of time than a turkey vulture, but we do, and in the language of Jesus, when a circle is completed as on New Year’s Day, it is g’mar, perfected. 2022 is now a perfect year. Complete. Fulfilled.
Perfection is not about working a process to a perfect result, but about the effect that process has on us…even if the result is imperfect. Outcome is irrelevant to the perfection of Jesus and James. We are perfected when we come full circle, home to our eucalyptus, having learned to be more fully present and aware, to more perfectly embrace whatever and whomever shares our homecoming. No matter how imperfect.
Dave Brisbin 11.27.22
The older I get, the simpler things look. I used to love complexity. All the words, diagrams, contingencies, choices. Now I love that my wardrobe has come down to one basic uniform—black shirt, jeans, alternating pairs of shoes. And I love that I’m caring less what anyone thinks about my fashion choices. I’m convinced that the things in life that remain complicated are less important than things that don’t. And becoming aware of the complexity to which I remain attached is one way of knowing where my stone is not yet smooth.
Jesus was a master of simplicity. Pared everything down to the fewest possible words. An image or metaphor. We imagine God’s kingdom to be filled with laws, rules, doctrine, rituals, good works. Those are all parts but not the point. Jesus boils it down to one thing. Love. Of God and each other—which in turn become one thing in the act of loving. Seek that and all else will be added. Live that and all else is commentary. And when we do, what does that feel like? Just one thing.
The one thing to which Jesus is pointing feels like gratitude. Gratitude is what love feels like. We can’t be grateful and angry at the same time. Or insecure, envious, victimized. Gratitude embraces the humility of receivership, acknowledges a gift we could not give ourselves. We can’t manufacture gratitude. We become it when we let go of the complexity of entitlement. It’s that simple. And that difficult at the same time.
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.