the sermon on the mount

Within the gospel of Matthew lies a jewel. In chapters 5, 6, and 7 there is condensation of all of Jesus’ teaching packed in a very small space. Most scholars believe that Jesus probably never gave this sermon verbatim on a hilllside, but most likely that the writer of Matthew compiled it from various sources and presented it very carefully in precise, thematic order. Whichever is true, the Sermon on the Mount is a masterpiece of Jesus’ view of life in Kingdom. For two thousand years it has confounded the church with its seemingly impossible standards and injunctions. But viewed through first century Jewish perspective and language, the impossible becomes not only possible, but very clear and beautifully livable.

 

 

Becoming Convinced

Dave Brisbin 5.15.22
After twenty-nine weeks studying the Sermon on the Mount, can we say in one sentence what this masterpiece is all about? If not, we’ll be lost in detail and miss its intent. Speaking strictly for myself, the Sermon is a radical exercise in deconstruction: a ruthless and unapologetic tearing down, upside downing, of the world we think we know: life and love, ethics and spirituality. Once we see Jesus working to break us through the limitations of our own minds—the thought and behavior patterns that keep us from the experience of full connection herenow—we have engaged the process he calls the Way.

When Jesus tells us that even if we do miraculous things in his name, we still may not know each other, have no intimate experience that makes us one in kingdom—he is trying to break our obsession with accomplishment, ultimately the accomplishment of certainty. In the fear that makes up the working of our conscious minds, certainty is the greatest prize. But certainty is a unicorn; it doesn’t exist in this life. Knowing God doesn’t mean being certain theologically, legally, doctrinally, or any other way. It means spending enough time out of our conscious minds to become convinced.

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So we can be convinced and uncertain at the same time? Conviction and certainty seem like synonyms but look very different hanging on a human. Certainty is an intellectual agreement that is only mind deep, reinforces intolerance of uncertainty and anything that doesn’t agree. Deep down, the mind knows the assumptions made, and fear remains. Conviction is a house built on bedrock, a choice informed by intimate experience, and though unprovable in the mind, creates trust that directs decisions and regulates emotion as sure as the steps of a mountain goat.

Jesus’ Sermon pulls back the curtain of manufactured certainty and forces us into the disturbance of realizing we just don’t know, can’t know the ultimate workings of life and God. But in the process of questioning everything we think we know, accepting uncertainty, we come to rely on a power greater than ourselves that convinces us we’re not alone.

 

The Way to the Gate

Dave Brisbin 4.3.22
When we were kids, my sister did a paint-by-numbers of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. You remember those…a canvas board with a printed outline of an image, jigsaw-puzzled into numbered patches to correspond with paint colors. She worked day by day, filling in the patches with the right colors, and when she was done, if you stood about a block away, the colors fused into a whole in your eyes the way digital sound fuses in your ears.

Contrast her experience filling in the patches with Da Vinci’s after a lifetime of preparation, an image in mind, planning composition and technique, grinding pigments, mixing colors, experiencing the flow of bringing something radically new into the world. The two are as far as night from day, east from west. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had created a paint-by-numbers spirituality and righteousness. All legalists do. They imagine that our most profound experiences in life can be digitized, reduced to numbers that if followed in the right sequence will create a product, an outcome: righteousness, justification, salvation.

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Jesus passionately and sometimes violently disagreed. Spent life and ministry trying to bring us from paint-by-numbers to artistic flow, from conformance to transformance. When he says unless we exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, he means that kingdom is not an outcome, but the experience of the flow itself. Painting by numbers tries to create an outcome without the preparation it takes to enter the flow of pure presence and creativity.

Jesus is brutally clear that there is only one way to the flow of God’s spirit, and that Way is hard—requires stripping away everything we cling to out of fear that blocks the flow. When he says the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life and few find it, he’s not saying that most people are going to hell. He is saying there are no shortcuts, and few will take the time and disturbance to realize that both gate and way are a person and not a product, and never what we expect to find.

Falling to Heaven

Dave Brisbin 3.27.22
Ever think about why you’re here? On this planet? Breathing? Maybe you have no idea, or maybe you have answers that will most likely have to do with accomplishment—things we do that give us a sense of meaning and purpose. But if Jesus and Brene Brown are right, we’re here to connect, to be at one with each other. All the rest is commentary.

Could it be that simple? Could human purpose have nothing to do with accomplishment, only how and whether we relate? Hard to process. We want to do something concrete, purposely control outcomes. But what would accomplishments mean in isolation, with no connection to share? Accomplishments are only meaningful in the context of connection. They end at our head stones, yet we chase them as ends in themselves. Truthfully, what we accomplish is important, but only as a meaning/purpose delivery device—a means for delivering connection.

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An ancient desert Christian saying: “If you see a brother by his own will climbing to heaven, take him by the foot and throw him to the ground, because what he is doing is not good for him.” The ancients understood that climbing to heaven turns our spiritual lives into a task to be completed and heaven into an accomplishment—and the mental tools we use for climbing were forged in our fear of loss and may move earthly objects around, but not heavenly ones. Life is not a task, but an experience; heaven is never accomplished or acquired, only received…a gift we could never give ourselves.

Jesus and the ancients knew that climbing can’t acquire what can only be gifted; it moves us in the wrong direction. When you’ve fallen in love, did you have to work at it? Accomplish it? Complete the task by climbing into position? There’s a reason we speak of falling in love. It’s involuntary. We can work to avoid it, but we can’t make it happen. We can’t climb to heaven, ultimate purpose, either. We fall to heaven by letting go of everything that would break our fall. Until we let go and fall hard, we never realize why we’re here, never experience the connection that is heaven.

 

Snakes and Stones

Dave Brisbin 3.20.22

I’ve been going on about Jesus as a poet. A great poet. And if that sounds strange and unfamiliar, how about considering that Jesus was a great psychologist too? Jesus deeply understands the human condition and human psychological development, and in the poetic language of his day and choosing, articulates a Way to psychological health and balance for which we all crave and pay big money these days.

Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness beautifully symbolize the three “energy centers” of Thomas Keating or Maslow’s deficiency needs—security and survival, esteem and affection, power and control. In earliest childhood, we develop unconscious, emotional programs to meet these needs that then emerge into consciousness as our attachments and aversions: things we like and don’t like, cling to for happiness or cling to not clinging to. Compulsive thought and behavior patterns are driven by these attachments and aversions, which create triggering events when frustrated in any way.

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Jesus’ time in the wilderness was his drilling down to identify and meet the basic needs that were driving his compulsions in truly transcendent Way. If you think Jesus was above such compulsions, consider why the gospels would preserve such a story with Jesus pushed to exhaustion and starvation by the effort. Jesus’ Way is not theology. It’s braving the difficult passage to truth that makes us free of the compulsions that enslave us and keep us apart from each other and God.

When Jesus says no parent, or God by extension, will give their child a stone if asked for a loaf of bread or a snake if asked for a fish, he is giving us first steps along the Way. Distinguishing between objects that may look similar from a distance—seeing which give live and which take it away—is how we build the awareness to see which of our cherished attachments and aversions are really meeting our most basic needs. No one gives up what they’ve clung to entire lives until they can see past compulsive snakes and stones to the freedom of sustained life that loaves and fish represent.

 

Hiding in Plain Sight

Dave Brisbin 3.13.22
Jesus is a very good poet. Like all good poets, he never tries to tell us what can’t be rationally told, but helps us sneak up on the feel of the experience. In short word-bursts full of image and metaphor, he shows us the effect of life lived as one with everyone and everything, while evoking the radical difference of the experience of getting there. He says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field,” and we’re lost in a sea of literalism. The man already had the treasure. Why hide it again? Why sell everything to buy the field?

Sometimes another tradition can come to our rescue, say the same thing in words unfamiliar enough to cut through centuries of assumptions and show us the truth in our own. Ancient Chinese tradition tells the story of a young disciple despairing that he’ll ever understand his teachers’ meaning. Old master tells him: “If you persist in trying to attain what is never attained (it is life’s gift); if you persist in making effort to obtain what effort cannot get; if you persist in reasoning about what cannot be understood, you will be destroyed by the very thing you seek. To know when to stop, to know when you can get no further by your own action. This is the right beginning.”

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The journey to spiritual awakening is unlike any other journey we take. It won’t feel familiar. If it does, we’re on a different path. If we approach spiritual awakening as a task, something to find and acquire, we have forgotten that we already know where the treasure is. Not out there somewhere, but in this field, within ourselves, hiding in plain sight. The journey is not about acquiring. It’s about selling.

Poet Jesus knows that through mental effort and study we can find the treasure’s location. But it won’t matter. Concepts are easy. Until we stop acquiring and begin the painful process of selling everything that is inconsistent with the treasure, we’ll never own the field.

The treasure is nothing without the field. The field is where we live.

 

Pearls and Rings

Dave Brisbin 2.27.22
A pastor came with us to Mexico to deliver food and supplies to one of the poorest areas along the US border. Our organization supplied five dining rooms that served before-school breakfasts, and the women who served the children every morning insisted on serving us lunch, because that was who they were. After lunch the pastor sat the women down and through an interpreter, led them through the “sinner’s prayer,” the ritual he believed brought them into the Christian fold and made them acceptable to God. The women dutifully did as he asked, but came to me later highly insulted. What went wrong?

With every good intention but without knowing them, the pastor judged what they needed according to his standard of faith. He didn’t know they were all devout Catholics or Protestants who rose in the dark every morning to hours of work preparing food, cleaning for the next day, loving those kids as their own expression of gospel. Without taking time to find out whether they wanted or needed his help, he went home feeling he did well, leaving me to repair relationships as best I could.

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When Jesus tells us not to give what is holy to dogs or throw our pearls before pigs, what sounds so condescending and exclusionary is really just addressing what went wrong in Mexico. In Jesus’ culture, what was holy was the “ring,” the symbol for Torah and Law: since Israel was the bride of Yahweh, Torah was the ring that bound them to God. Pearls were the symbol of the wisdom gleaned from the study of Torah. Don’t push the law on someone who is opposed or antagonistic, or they will turn and tear you to pieces. Don’t teach wisdom to someone who is unprepared, or they will trample it, unrecognized and unassimilated.

Judging always keeps us at least arm’s length from each other. Discernment requires a dive into the experience of relationship to see what love requires. In Mexico, the women far exceeded our poor understanding of gospel. They needed our food and supplies, but not our pearls and rings.

We needed to know the difference.

 

Eye Beams

Dave Brisbin 2.20.22
Does anyone ever really change another person? Fix them? Lord knows we try. And though we can persuade, manipulate, even force people to do what we think they should, that’s compliance or obedience, but not change. We can help people: support them, talk to them, change circumstances, create the best environment for change, but any one of us changes only at the moment we’re ready. And no one can make us ready.

All we can really give each other is support and information. Support can be material or emotional; information is conceptual. As good as those can be, the most important things in life are non-transferable because they are experiential. No one can give us the ability to play guitar, speak a language, ride a bike, trust, love, change, because no one can give us the experience of hours of immersion and relationship. We don’t change or fix others, and Jesus never said he did either. Instead of I heal you or I forgive you, he says your faith has made you whole, your sins are forgiven. Jesus recognizes when change has taken place, but knows he can only show the door, open the door, lead the horse to water. The rest is up to each of us.

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When Jesus tells us not to judge, that the way we judge is the way we will be judged ourselves, is his poetic way of saying we need to grow our awareness past the sum of information that has been transferred to us—what we think we know that limits our perception of reality. To practice discernment instead, judgment based on lived experience, is to immerse in relationship with people and life that changes the way we see and judge. To take the beam out of our own eye before trying to take the speck out of another’s eye, is to turn the process of discernment inward and change the only person on earth we can possibly change. Ourselves.

When we take the beam out of our own eye, live the change we want to see in others, we create the best chance for others to change…just as God “changes” us. Not directly, but with the absolute acceptance of perfect love that silently draws us—the moment we’re ready to be drawn.

 

The Reality We Believe

Dave Brisbin 2.13.22
The reality we believe is the reality we endure. What we believe about reality becomes our experience of it and shapes our lives so profoundly that we don’t see reality as it is—only what survives the filter of our worldview. Because this is true, every responsible philosophy and religion on earth teaches some form of non-attachment, stepping aside from entrenched beliefs to make us free enough to see and accept what really is. There is no peace until we do.

Jesus said, don’t judge or you will be judged, and the way you judge, your standard of measure, will be measured to you. Don’t judge, narrowly understood as condemning or at least condescending others, is deeply embedded in our cultural psyche, and yet, on more levels than we’re even aware, our entire world is built on judgment. But isn’t that necessary? Don’t we have to make judgments about people and situations in order to know who we can trust, how to choose alternatives?

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We need to make a distinction here between judging and discerning. Judgment is a conclusion we reach based on internalized standards—the reality we believe. Discernment is a conclusion we reach based on real-time experience—recognizing reality as it is. We can judge long-distance; don’t need to be close to see what is acceptable to our belief system. But discernment requires a dive into relationship to experience a person as trustworthy or a situation acceptable.

Jesus’ saying sounds punitive: if we do wrong by judging, then someone, ultimately God, will wrong us back. Nothing could be farther from reality. Judgment separates; discernment connects. Judging breaks life into small pieces in conflict with each other, making love conditional and bringing into existence the world we must endure. No one does this to us. Nor God. We do it to ourselves. If the way we judge is not tempered with willingness to risk the intimacy of discernment, we will always live in the broken pieces of the reality we believe…and never see the oneness of what really is.

 

Changing Everything

Dave Brisbin 2.6.22
A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it…from Frank Herbert’s Dune. But we won’t see the truth of this until we first see the process. Ancient Hebrews called God’s spirit ruach: breath, wind, and spirit all at once. Defined by motion. A process. Ancient Christians called God trinity, which they best defined as a blur of constant interaction, a relational process within God.

A belief about God is a mental snapshot that stops the process. This is where we miss the bus: thinking about God as something that can be thought about—God’s action as events completed in time. Living things are defined by motion, so God and life are in constant motion; they will never be understood by thinking about them. If we want to see them as they are, we need to change everything we think we know about seeing. Only by letting go of our thoughts, thought itself, accepting the flow, can we know what it means to be alive in God’s presence.

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Jesus’ mega-metaphor for the Way to God is the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not too much of a stretch to say he spent his entire life defining kingdom, so knowing what he meant is the first step to changing everything. Jesus says it’s not out there somewhere, but unseen within and among us. Not a thing bound in space and time but a quality of life to be lived. He says it’s like being born again, like a small child or a seed growing in a garden, like selling everything to buy a field with a treasure. Kingdom is the process of diminishing before growing, being vulnerable to be connectable, shedding everything that stops the process so we can experience the flow as we did before we learned to be ashamed.

If kingdom is a quality of life now, not a reward later—that changes everything. I what makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful—that changes everything. If we can live as we did before shame made us feel unworthy, no longer striving for what we already possess—that changes everything. Unstops the process, kingdom, the flow of God’s presence herenow.

Worrylessness

Dave Brisbin 1.30.22
What is the goal of the spiritual life? After all, if you’re going to spend the time and energy to engage spiritual formation, don’t you want to be really clear on the goal? After counting off peace, love, joy, salvation, redemption—all of which would be really good to have, it’s clarifying to see how Jesus answers: if we follow his Way of living and loving life, we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. Freedom. Surprising? Not when you consider that freedom is both the cause and effect of perfect love.

How do you know something is free, that you are free from it? Unless you’re a scuba diver, air is still free. And until I called your attention to it, you were as unaware of your breathing as of your hair growing. Contrast that with food, of which we think about constantly. Something is free when we don’t have to think about it, plan, work, save, pay, fight, or worry over it. The things from which we are most free are the things we worry about the least. But even if something is free, does that mean we’ll automatically stop worrying?

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Jesus tells us God’s perfect love is free as an objective fact. We don’t need to worry. But how many of us are still trying to perform for it, earn it, worrying over whether it really does extend to us? We must be free enough from feelings of unworthiness to be able to take first steps toward an experience of perfect acceptance. Cause. Then once experienced, perfect love casts out fear, makes us more and more free from the fear of unworthiness as the truth of our acceptance sets in. Effect. For Jesus, truth is not information, but a person—a God who is life and love…freedom itself. Experiencing God is the experience of freedom. Freedom is the experience of worrylessness, which is why Jesus is always telling us not to worry as the first step to freedom. Look at the birds and the flowers. Worry over what you eat and wear just as much as they do. If we can worry less over small things, we can experience the worrylessness of ultimate things. And if we seek the worrylessness of kingdom first, all else is added. What’s left for worry?
 

Clear Eyes

Dave Brisbin 1.23.22
Jesus is relentless. Never lets us rest in old ideas. Or even new ones that have become set and quickly growing old. Like a personal trainer always spurring us on to one more rep, he systematically deconstructs any thought or behavior pattern that, regardless of original value, has now become a limitation.

Whenever we feel we’ve arrived: at right action, right thinking, or right belief that is paying off in material wealth or social or religious standing, Jesus is there to say we have our reward in full, which means we’ve only found treasures here on earth. Wonderful, as far as they go, but treasures on earth are temporary, fleeting, ultimately unsatisfying, and if they represent the extent of our heart’s desire, then we are bound to them here on earth. Jesus is all about treasures in heaven, an Aramaic idiom for God’s presence, always here and now. Treasures found in God’s presence are forever beyond what moths and rust can destroy or thieves steal, and are what give fulfilment and balance to our necessary pursuit of earthly treasures.

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Jesus is not relentlessly challenging our thoughts and behaviors to make us incrementally more lawful or moral or intellectually accurate. He is trying to break us through to a difference of quality, not quantity. You can’t be a little bit pregnant—you’re all in or out. And you can’t be little bit kingdom, a little bit in God’s presence. It’s a complete immersion, inward transformation, an earth shattering shift in perception and values that allows us to see what was invisible before. Jesus’ metaphor of the clear eye that illuminates every part of ourselves is another expression of this relentless pursuit of a different quality of seeing and perceiving rooted in first matching our deepest desire to God’s. When we desire most what God desires eternally, what God is—connection, oneness, forgiveness, love—everything we think and do, even the pursuit of treasures on earth, is firmly planted on Jesus’ Way: not the way to heaven, but the experience of heaven itself.
 

Heart Action

Dave Brisbin 1.16.22
We call people passive-aggressive so casually these days, it’s likely we’re no longer sure what it means. Just as guerrilla warfare is an indirect way of opposing a much greater force, passive-aggression is an indirect way of getting what we want or expressing anger and frustration without directly confronting another person. But where guerrilla warfare is a conscious tactic to turn weakness into strength, passive-aggression is usually an unconscious expression of a person’s perceived powerlessness.

People who don’t believe they can make significant choices in life are naturally passive-aggressive in their interactions with others. From chronic lateness, forgetfulness, or losing things to constant complaining, blaming, keeping relationships chaotic and ambiguous, a person who feels victimized finds passive ways forward. Belief systems feed the passive-victim narrative: the belief in an all-powerful God, can make us feel like cosmic victims of fate or destiny, that God is the only actor with a real choice. A belief in original sin—that we are born hopelessly flawed and separate from God—makes us theological victims with Jesus as the only actor who can save us.

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But Jesus is showing us a way of life that is the opposite of passive: a partnership with God in which God has already acted on our behalf, given everything there is to receive, leaving only the action of our own hearts to accept and live the reality of such connection and abundance. The opposite of victimhood. A victim is never present, always reliving the past or imagining salvation in the future. A victim lives in unforgiveness, seeing no choice in the present to create change in circumstance or attitude. A victim is always waiting, never arrives. Jesus is all about arrival: the waiting is over, the abundance of kingdom is here and now, immediate and intimate. There is no possible place for passivity or victimhood in such a reality. Take a look around. Are you waiting for something? Then your heart is not yet acting along Jesus’ Way.
 

Freedom and Forgiveness

Dave Brisbin 1.9.22
Who can really set us free? Judge, jury, priest, pastor, lover, forgiver? We say Jesus is our savior. And we wait. But Jesus said if we followed him, we’d know truth, and that would make us free. Jesus, truth, law, circumstance? Who can really set us free?

In a movie, an old convict is released from prison. Gets a job bagging groceries and drives his boss crazy raising his hand every time he needs a bathroom break. Finally told he doesn’t have to ask, just go, we hear his voice tell us that after forty years, he couldn’t squeeze a drop without sayso. The state released him, but who can really set him free? In the other direction, Gandhi and MLK found an interior freedom that even the full weight of British and American empires could never crush with all the laws and soldiers they could muster. Who set them free?

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In Jesus’ language, freedom and forgiveness share the same root that means to release, restore, return to original position or form. In the Semitic mind, to be forgiven is to be set free, and to be set free is to be forgiven. Jesus said that if we forgive our brother, then our Father in heaven would set us free. But if we didn’t set our brother free, neither would our Father forgive us. After all his teaching and stories of unconditional love and unlimited forgiveness, what is Jesus’ point here? That forgiveness is after all, performance-based? That forgiveness and freedom are withheld until we do the right thing? Of course not. Jesus is merely answering our question: who can really set us free? Have you ever been asked or asked for forgiveness, but even when granted, knew in your heart nothing had changed—you were still not free from either victimhood or guilt? No apology, restitution, or power in heaven or on earth can set us free until our own hearts are ready. If God is love, then God is forgiveness too, which means God is freedom itself. God can’t be anything other than the fact of what he is, and the moment we risk the freedom to extend forgiveness to another human is the moment we experience the truth: our release has already and always been granted, but we are the only ones who can set us free.
 

Too Big to Grasp

Dave Brisbin 11.21.21
Some ideas are just too big to fit into our minds all at once. We can understand the meaning of the words, but not the significance. The number trillion is thrown about these days the way a billion was a few years ago, the way a million was a generation ago. You can count a million seconds in twelve days, but counting to a billion would take thirty-two years. Breathtaking, until you learn that counting to a trillion would take thirty-two thousand years…

Jesus’ concept of kingdom is like this: contradicts our worldview and experience of life so deeply that even understanding the words, the reality remains out of reach until we take the first tentative steps toward experiencing it. As encapsulated in the Lord’s Prayer—not a prayer to be recited but an expression of the intention to live life prayerfully—we are being asked to release everything we have used to save ourselves in order to be saved by what we’ve not yet considered. That kind of vulnerability and the trust it implies are too big to grasp with our minds and must seep into our hearts by another way.

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Every concept Jesus teaches is an exercise in letting go of the small container of our minds and the limitations they represent. He tells us that our Father won’t forgive us until we forgive our brother who we should forgive seventy times seven times—a Hebrew expression of forever. Are we to practice unconditional forgiveness when our Father does not? The part that is too big to grasp until experienced is that all things are one, that forgiving and being forgiven are one and the same. We will only experience being forgiven the moment we free ourselves from our own unforgiveness. This is what makes kingdom so big. That God has already chosen to forgive us and love us since before time began, and nothing can change that fact. Because God is love, forgiveness, and salvation, and can’t be anything else, God’s action is complete. Against the backdrop of absolute being, our action is the only question left. Once we’ve grasped that, the waiting is over, and kingdom is here.
 

Teach Us to Pray

Dave Brisbin 11.14.21
There was something different about the way Jesus prayed. His friends watched him, watched other religious leaders. They saw their Jewish teachers praying in the marketplace or temple court in full view of the people, saw gentiles praying loud and long, entreating their gods over and over with petitions. Then they saw Jesus, after a grueling day teaching and healing, disappear into the hills sometimes for days, or wake to find him already gone, returning later with the energy and enthusiasm for another grueling day.

The difference was so stark, it finally pushed them to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” What is it you do out there in the wilderness for hours or days on end? What is it you do that brings you back to us restored? He tells them not to make a show, to retreat into their secret place, to use few words since the Father knows what they need before they ask. Then he gives them five simple lines. How does that work? How do five lines of prayer take us deep into the secret space of our wilderness and occupy us for hours or days on end?

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We have come to view prayer as made of words. We approach God through our minds, which can only understand something by contrasting it with something else, measuring its value against our needs and desires. But Jesus gives his friends a prayer that is more of a blueprint than a prayer. A way of approaching life that changes the way we see, what we can see, and occupies not just hours or days, but entire lives. Five simple lines, five steps along a path to connection with unseen spirit. These five lines are possibly the most familiar lines in Western culture, yet we don’t know what they mean. Our Father, kingdom come, daily bread, forgiven debt, temptation and deliverance…in Jesus’ Aramaic, they become a process of clearing an interior space for God’s purpose to take hold,  allowing us to find all we need in each lived moment, healing from past trauma and remaining undiverted, repeating the process over a lifetime of becoming. Jesus’ five lines are not a prayer to recite, but an intention to live life itself as a prayer.
 

Giving Like Wind

Dave Brisbin 11.7.21
How do you measure your own righteousness? Kind of loaded word. Maybe “rightness” is better. Do you even think about your rightness spiritually? How you measure up, how you’re progressing, what God thinks of you? The religious authorities of Jesus’ day had it all worked out. They measured their righteousness in three ways: how much money they gave to the temple treasury, how much they prayed, and how often they fasted.

Of course, they made sure everyone knew how much they were giving, praying, and fasting by making a show of every act of ritual righteousness. After all, what good was being righteous if no one knew about it? If it couldn’t benefit you in some way? For a religious leader to act and teach this way naturally puts him or her squarely in Jesus’ crosshairs as he works to redefine how we see our rightness with God.

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Some days Jesus would just hang out at the temple, sit and people watch. It’s easy to think of Jesus always on a mission, but a little verse in Mark describes him sitting opposite one of the collection boxes watching the activity. He sees all the big gifts going in, “sounding the trumpet” with their reverberating impact, then a poor widow dropping in two small coins completely unnoticed except by him. In pointing out her willingness to give to others even in the uncertainty of her poverty, Jesus is showing us the real nature of rightness in giving. Once a gift is defined as a specific amount or percentage, it’s no longer a gift, but a tax. And once a gift is understood as proof of rightness to a God who will reward, it’s also no longer a gift, but an investment. The reward of God is the intimate connection that occurs when we lose our sense of ourselves as separate beings in the flow between us and another. God’s spirit is like the wind: always moving and never seen. God’s reward is the same, always flowing and as unseen as God and spirit. When we can give as the widow gave, in a moment of flow to the need of the moment, we will know just how right we are with God—the reward no one else will ever see.
 

Rising Sun Falling Rain

Dave Brisbin 10.31.21
Most of us realize we’re imperfect. Some of us are even willing to admit it. When Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, some of us are immediately off trying to follow every rule…perfectly. Some give up after a while, and others don’t even try. But if we’re going to take Jesus seriously, how can we be imperfect and perfect at the same time?

Right before he tells us to be perfect, he tells us to love our enemies, because our Father causes the sun to rise and rain to fall on those who are good or not, righteous or not. In the way of the poet, Jesus doesn’t spell it out—layering image on image to bring us to an inevitable conclusion. The way the Father is perfect is that he causes the sun to rise and rain to fall on everyone because they are here breathing and for no other reason. Before we can be imperfect and perfect at the same time, we need to learn to love and hate at the same time.

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Seems the hardest thing to do in life is to love what we don’t like, what we hate. Scripture gives us a clue: love our neighbor as ourselves. How do we love ourselves? We don’t generally feel any affection for ourselves, may not even like ourselves, but we feed ourselves and clothe ourselves, shelter, educate, entertain ourselves. When we can see our neighbor as ourselves, a fellow fragile human, even with no loving feeling, loving as we love ourselves becomes possible. But is our enemy our neighbor? Jesus answered with the story of the good Samaritan—whoever is in our path is our neighbor, even if our enemy at the same time. To love and hate at the same time is to see the deeper connection that makes us all the same. The Father’s perfection is to see us all as one, as those on whom sun rises and rain falls. His perfection is an indiscriminate love, unaware of boundaries or borders, and any moment in which we lose ourselves in a connection so deep our learned boundaries fall away, is a perfect moment. Imperfect people having perfect moments, able to love what we don’t understand or even like. In the moment we can love and hate at the same time, we are imperfectly perfect as well.
 

The Second Mile

Jesus is not here to make us safe. Jesus is here to make us free. We can’t have both at the same time because freedom and security are inversely proportional—as one goes up, the other goes down. We give up freedom to feel safe, and the freer we are, the more exposed and vulnerable. Without Jesus’ priorities deeply set, we willfully miss his message in our obsessive desire for security.

Jesus is always exposing and deconstructing the legal walls we build for security at the expense of the freedom to simply relate to each other in love. As barbaric as an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth may sound to us today, it still makes us feel safe because it promises that any breach in the walls of our safety will be repaid in kind, that mutually assured destruction will be a deterrent to those who would threaten our security.

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But Jesus says not to rise up against an evil person. If someone strikes you on your right cheek, offer the left; if sued you for your shirt, give your coat as well; if required to go one mile, go two; give and lend to anyone asks. These directives make no common sense and assault our sense of fairness and security. But Jesus as poet is not speaking literally. He’s figuratively pulling us kicking and screaming from behind the imagined security of our walls. When put back into cultural context, he’s talking about maintaining a willingness to remain vulnerably free to give in our relationships regardless of the insult, infringement, obligation, or burden placed on us. In Jesus’ culture, the first mile was the mile of legal obligation, of coercion. There is no freedom in the first mile. Nothing of value happens in the first mile—only the security of obeying law. But the second mile releases obligation, and once free, we can choose to remain unfree, bound by law, or exercise the freedom to give what is no longer required. We can’t have both. We can either choose security or the breathless freedom to do the unthinkable: to love beyond law. It’s all about the second mile.
 

Deconstructing Walls

Dave Brisbin 10.17.21
Is texting OMG—shorthand for oh my God—taking the Lord’s name in vain? Blasphemous, unlawful? Many Christians will answer yes and yes. But a group of Jewish high school students said they just use it instead of an exclamation point and don’t feel God is involved at all, that OMG stands for oh my gosh anyway. Now gosh and golly have been polite euphemisms for God since the 1700s—can’t expect high school students to know that.

Those who answer yes and yes will say that OMG breaks the third commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. (Use of King James for scary emphasis.) But the context of the commandment points to legal contracts, which at the time were “signed,” sworn with their highest authority—God’s  name. To break such an agreement was taking the Lord’s name in vain, making it worthless, and no society can survive losing respect for its highest authority. But Jesus takes this a step further, saying swear no oath at all, that yes or no is sufficient, recognizing that for an honest person no oath is necessary, and for a dishonest person, no oath is enough.  Be honest, decent, true to your word, and law has already been fulfilled.

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Is Jesus literally saying never make an oath? Quakers and Mennonites have believed so, refusing to testify in court or serve in the military where an oath is required. But Jesus is not forbidding all oaths. He’s forbidding vain oaths—those we don’t intend to honor. It’s a condition of the heart Jesus is after. Is texting OMG forbidden? Following rules to the letter makes us feel safe, that controlling our behavior can control our outcomes. But Jesus is deconstructing the legal walls we use to make us feel safe and justified. Jesus is not here to make us safe. He’s here to make us free. And to be fully free is to be fully at risk, vulnerable. To be fully free is to stop hiding behind defensive walls that also limit and imprison: to come out and make peace with our vulnerability, knowing that only in vulnerability are we connected, and only in connection is it possible to be  in love—free to be in Kingdom.
 

When Two are One

Dave Brisbin 10.10.21

Nearly thirty years ago, my fiancé and I asked our Pastor if he would marry us. I can only imagine how our faces looked when he said no because we’d both been married before, and he didn’t know that we had the biblical justification for our divorces. The church’s reading of Jesus’ sayings on divorce and remarriage was that the only legitimate reason for divorce was adultery, without which any remarriage was an act of adultery as well.

Already in church leadership and pastoral training, he further told me that a leader in the church had to be the husband of just one wife, which they interpreted from Paul’s sayings as being in a series rather than all at once. I remember wondering just when they planned on telling me all this. Having seen pastors send wives back into abusive relationships, which seemed risky and wrong, I’d rationalized it as making every attempt to save marriages. I didn’t realize how deep the scriptural rabbit hole went until I fell in myself.

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The shock morphed into a full court press of study to find out whether Jesus really said such things, because how valuable is a faith devoid of common sense and the ability to protect those most at risk? I found a book on Christian divorce and remarriage in which four scholars commenting on the same scriptural passages, came to four different conclusions within the same cover. The light went on above my head that scriptural interpretation was at best an educated opinion, not a mandate from God. It was a hinge moment from which the entire trajectory of my faith has proceeded. Ancient scripture was not written for us. It was written for those into whose eyes the authors looked. Those who lived a common culture and language. We’re reading their mail, and the burden is on us to step into their world, especially if we are giving these passages the authority to govern vulnerable lives. When we put Jesus’ sayings back into their ancient context, they make perfect common sense, always protect the vulnerable, and always point to the Father’s love. I can follow that for the rest of my life.
 

Rule Breaker

Dave Brisbin 10.03.21
Stepping off stage after speaking, a woman leads another young woman by the hand who sees only the floor in front of her feet as they approach. The first asks if I would speak to her friend. Without meeting my eyes, she slowly tells of a friend since childhood who married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism, then after a long depression had just committed suicide. She loved her friend very much and was afraid she was now in hell. Rejecting Christianity, committing suicide—two third strikes in a row. When she finally did look at me, the pain was heartbreaking, pleading for an alternative, a way of doing the math that didn’t add up to the answer she feared.

How would you have answered?

A question like this is only difficult from a legal perspective where breaking certain rules requires God’s eternal indifference. Indifference. After all, even God can’t stay mad forever, can he? Jesus literally killed himself showing us his new math: the sum of a relationship that never rests on law plus the sum of a law that never rests on rules—a quality of heart that rules could help form, but only lovingkindness beyond any sense of duty could fulfill.

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Converting to Judaism was one young woman’s way of loving her husband, of finding unity in her home among future children, maybe an expression of codependence and fear, but not a rejection of God. In the altered state of her pain, suicide seemed the only way forward, but she didn’t want to die; she wanted the hurting to stop. If I can understand these distinctions and find compassion, what does it say of a god who cannot? We all break the rules, but do we really break God’s heart? Jesus is showing us that rules are not absolute. They are temporary guides to hold us in place long enough—like a jello mold—until they are no longer needed for the shape of our hearts. Jesus broke the rules of his day to show us how lovingkindness was the only rule that mattered, that sometimes you had to break the rules in order to fulfill the law. Our God is a rule breaker. Always breaking in our favor when we deserve it least.
 

Beyond Justice

Dave Brisbin 9.26.21
Desperate for a different outcome, a mother asks me to visit her son in county jail on a drug charge. Visiting an inmate is much like the movies: huge sterile waiting space, walls an unnamable yellowish beige green, bolted down metal benches, stenciled black numbers over an endless wall of doors. Waiting. Lots of waiting. A flat male voice calling my name and two numbers. One for the door, one for the window. Through the door, long corridor with windows on both sides, bolted stools before each with small acoustic panels between that give a bit of break between visitors but no privacy. All the voices of all the conversations ringing through the corridor.

I sit before my window waiting again, struck by the energy in the rows. Women dressed their best—hair, eyes, makeup—parents, grandparents, children as if at family dinner on my side of the glass, all orange jumpsuits on the other. Laughter, pitched voices, Spanish, English, hands not holding the handset waving with the words. I catch a young woman leaning forward almost to the glass. The intensity, tone of voice, soft laughter…she was sitting across white tablecloth and candlelight with her man. Leaning right past window and handset, there was no offense, no charges, just her man. At that moment, she was completely orange colorblind.

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Like the elder brother of the prodigal, coming home in disgrace to his father’s open arms, we can cry foul, unfair, unjust. What about the charges, the victims of his offense? It seems God is orange colorblind too—doesn’t see faults. Only love. But isn’t God supposed to be just? He is, in the macro, in groups where love has to look like justice, resolving conflict with the least amount of damage. But God doesn’t love us as a group. Past the group, to the one beloved, where there is no victim, love has to look like mercy and compassion, unbalancing the scales of justice always in favor of the beloved. We can criticize, even ridicule the young woman. Say she is co-dependent, enabling, a doormat. And maybe she was. But I’d give anything to have my beloved look at me that way. Past the glass. Past my orange jumpsuit.
 

Love is the Law

Dave Brisbin 9.19.21
Have you ever considered the power of your unconscious thoughts? Unconscious thoughts are like your bones. You cover your bones with muscle, skin, hair, and makeup, but though you never see them, it’s all about the bones. Your bones create your true form. Unconscious thoughts, core beliefs we have accepted since childhood, assumptions about life that family, education, and culture have hammered down are the skeletal structure on which everything we think we know hangs.

Unconscious thoughts create our true form, so even when we have consciously decided we want to change and follow a new gospel, changing our bones is not straightforward, quick, or easy. But following a way of life as radically different as Jesus’ Way to Kingdom requires just that: a fundamental change of our unconscious worldview. And primarily, we unconsciously view life and God through law—that obedience to law equals acceptance, and disobedience, punishment. It has been ever thus, and these legal bones outline the true shape of our view of world and relationship.

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So if Jesus is to take us on a ride to Kingdom, he first has to help us jettison our unconscious baggage. He says that he’s not revoking the law but fulfilling it in love because the whole law comes down to love—of God and each other. He says that the law is only in force, necessary, until heaven and earth pass away, which in Aramaic means to cross boundaries or limits, to merge together. When we can see the spiritual unity of heaven beneath the physical diversity of earth—the unseen bones of all creation, we don’t need law anymore. With law written on our hearts, whatever we do fulfills the law’s intent, if not its letter. The law exists only to help us make heaven and earth pass away, merge in our hearts—to see that love is the law…never rules. The purpose of a fish trap is to catch a fish; when the fish is caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of law is to catch God’s righteousness: unity. When unity is caught, the law is forgotten. Where can I find someone who has forgotten law? That’s someone I want to obey.
 

Light of the World

Dave Brisbin 9.12.21
With two great metaphors, Jesus shows us the effect a person has on everyone near, once they have come to see life through God’s eyes. Salt and light. As modern Westerners, salt makes no sense until we look back to see what it meant to ancient life before refrigeration and antibiotics. But light seems to make perfect sense right away. We think we know what Jesus means, which is probably worse. By thinking Jesus is only talking about the brightness and illumination, the goodness we associate with light, we’ll miss the depth of his meaning.

First, in the Genesis creation story, the earth is formless, void, and covered in darkness until God creates light on the first day. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the word translated as darkness doesn’t necessarily mean blackness, but chaos, disorder, non-functioning, unusable. God brings light: order, harmony, intelligence, support for life. The word translated as created also means to build, differentiate or allocate roles. God separates light and dark, day and night, land and water, male and female and makes them functional in supporting life. The sun is not created until day four, so harmony and functionality are primary meanings.

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Second, the darkness precedes the light, is older than the light. Curved, mysterious forces like wind and water precede the straight, ordered rays of sunlight. Each one of us must take this path if we want to follow Jesus’ Way. Enlightenment is only achieved by first descending into endarkenment, being willing to sell off whatever straight-lined, intellectual order we think we control in order to experience the mystery and disturbance of unknowing necessary for seeing truth as it really is. Like salt, light is also the ability to support life. Not just doing good things for others, but to make sense of life, give meaning, purpose, connection to life. We are this salt and light, but only if we are willing to first experience the darkness that comes before the dawn.
 

Salt of the Earth

Dave Brisbin 9.5.21
In the poetic manner of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts by painting a portrait of the person who has become the Kingdom of Heaven…not entered or possessed it, but has actually come to embody God’s “reign,” God’s will being done on earth. His deepest purpose and pleasure: humility, connection, faithfulness—lived out in human form.

Jesus then transitions to show us the effect such people have on the lives and communities around them with two of his most famous metaphors. Salt and light.

When Jesus says a Kingdom person is the light of the world, that makes sense to us. There’s enough cultural overlap for us to see light as symbolizing an obviously positive effect. But what about salt? Why would Jesus choose salt alongside light? For most of us living a culture built on technology that includes refrigeration and antibiotics, salt has been relegated to table seasoning. But in the ancient world, salt was life itself.

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The human body is about sixty percent salt water, same salinity as seawater, and humans and mammals can’t function without salt in their diet. Salt is one of the five basic tastes, but also has the ability to bring out other flavors and add zest to food. Salt kills bacteria. Ancient people didn’t know about bacteria, but knew that salting meat, fruits, and vegetables preserved them and rubbing salt in their wounds healed them. If soil is too acidic to grow crops, salt can be used as fertilizer to balance pH. Salt was so critical to ancient life that it was used as currency—traded equally for gold, silver, fine linen. Treaties were ratified with salt. Temple sacrifices and anointing oil were salted as the symbol of faithfulness, purity, fertility. To purify and preserve life, fertilize new life, add zest and security to life. Jesus’ first followers would have immediately followed his metaphor. Who is salt in your life? Who binds your wounds, both physical and emotional? Who encourages you and open doors of new possibility? Who makes you laugh and leaves you better at each encounter? And who would say this of you? When we become Kingdom in ourselves, we become salt in others at the very same time.
 

Wake Up Call

Dave Brisbin 8.29.21
Ever watch a movie where you were missing every third word, maybe because of accents, fast dialog, or low volume? At first you listen harder. Then your mind tries to make meaning by contextually stitching the edges of what you did hear together. Eventually you just give up and watch something else. This is essentially what happens when we read ancient scripture and especially the teachings of Jesus concentrated in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not that we don’t have the right words in our modern translations—the bible is the best preserved and most researched ancient text in the world. We have the right words; we just don’t know what they mean anymore.

We read a line like the first Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We don’t realize that the four key words and phrases—blessed, poor in spirit, for theirs, kingdom of heaven—all have idiomatic, cultural, or layered meanings dramatically different than the literal understanding in English. Taking those off the table, we’re left with “are” and “is” as the only words we actually understand.

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It’s one thing to know that we don’t know every third word of dialog and remain confused; it’s much worse to think that we do. When we mentally stitch meaning together, we do it through the lens of our worldview, our most basic assumptions of the way life and the world work. And for us as Westerners, that is legal and literal. When we apply a legal and literal understanding to a masterpiece of Eastern spirituality, at best, the Sermon becomes irrelevant—an impossibly absurd set of commands and concepts. We give up and go watch something else. At worst, it becomes abusive, as non-literal, spiritual concepts are turned into religious doctrine and law. The Beatitudes and the entire Sermon on the Mount are not rules to try to obey or impossible standards that can’t be obeyed—serving to make us passively dependent. They are a wake up call to a new reality: that a God who is humble, connected, and undiverted is calling us to the same attitudes that will absolutely change our worldview.
 

Becoming Kingdom

Dave Brisbin 8.22.21
Remember those Russian nesting dolls? Matryoshka dolls, one inside the other, smaller and smaller, but each containing the whole doll. In terms of Jesus’ teaching, the Bible is like this: open the Bible and find the New Testament, and inside that, the gospel of Matthew. Inside Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount, and inside the Sermon, the Lord’s Prayer. Each one smaller, but containing the whole.

If you were stranded on the proverbial desert island with just the Sermon on the Mount, you’d have not only all of Jesus’ teaching, but the core of all the prophets before him. The first Jewish followers understood the Sermon as the foundation of the Way of Jesus and of theirs as well. Used it as a catechism, memorized it, internalized it, passed it on by oral tradition for thirty to fifty years until finally written down in Matthew.

The Sermon hasn’t changed since Matthew, but our view has. The church hasn’t known what to do with the Sermon for some sixteen hundred years, since we stopped looking at it in the way it was first delivered. If we’re willing, it can be our foundation again, clarifying and focusing again in a way so needed today as more and more people needlessly leave Jesus in search of authentic spirituality…because the church doesn’t know what to do with the Sermon.

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The Sermon can reclaim its proper place in our lives if we’re willing to see it again through the eyes of poet Jesus: not defining literal truth as much as evoking a life of radical change, as a balance between knowing and loving, unlearning enough to know how to love enough to see what is uncontained in words. The Sermon only makes sense within the context of the Kingdom of Heaven, the reign of God’s unity right herenow, the quality of life of someone who has become Kingdom—not a code of conduct to obey, but the gradual acceptance of a gift we could never give ourselves. We don’t enter or possess this Kingdom, that is poet-speak for realizing Kingdom in ourselves as we intentionally live our Way into seeing life through Father’s eyes.
 

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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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Our Sunday gathering starts at 10AM and our Recovery gathering on Tuesdays at 7PM. Both gatherings include worship with one of the best worship bands in the area. See our monthly calendar and our Facebook page to stay in touch with what is happening each week. You can also sign up on our elist for email enews updates.

 

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