The longer I live, the more I come to understand some of the deeper meanings associated with Christmas. At the same time, I also experience a growing sense of astonishment that humanity doesn’t seem to take in and use these meanings. Wherever and whenever I look around, the human situation seems to be increasingly dire. Well, how about that for a merry opening to my reflections on Christmas!

Like most everyone else, I feel the compelling social pressure to be happy, hopeful, encouraging, and festive at this time of year, but I fear that if we restrict ourselves to that set of emotions, we miss a more profound issue. No, I’m not going to talk about all the needy people in the world who need your holiday generosity. Again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with holiday generosity, but when we focus too exclusively on it, just like when we focus too much on the positive holiday emotions, we miss the more profound issue.

The more profound issue has to do with our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry. I grew up hearing the stories of Christmas in the context of an individualistic culture. While I was taught to have compassion for other individuals in the world, the focus was still on the needs of the individual. I grew up believing that Jesus came to improve the life of individuals, to help those individuals who were less fortunate, to save the souls of individuals, and then to celebrate how fortunate I was to live in a Christian household and community.

But I must challenge the premise of my early learning. Did Jesus really come to “save” a collection of individual souls? Frankly, for most of my life, it has not occurred to me to me that the answer could be anything besides “yes.” Lately, I’ve been thinking differently. I’m not the first one to think about the meaning of Christmas from a different perspective, but it seems to me that individualism still holds major sway. But what if the individualistic perspective doesn’t really get at the deepest layers of meaning? What if Jesus is not the religious “cavalry,” swooping in from “heaven” to save our individual souls? What if the message is more about considering a different set of fundamentals for life and community? What if we are “saved” collectively instead of individually?

What difference might that radically different perspective make?

First of all, it would remove guilt as the primary motivation for good works. Guilt focuses on the morality of the individual. It does nothing to affect fundamental change. Guilt happens in the interplay between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” While guilt might pry some of the wealth away from the haves and distribute it to the have-nots, it does nothing to transform the hierarchy of the relationship. If nothing else, Jesus challenged the notion that some people and groups actually “deserve” to have more than others. He challenged the notion that God has blessed the rich and powerful, leaving the disenfranchised out in the cold. Furthermore, the earliest manifestations of “Christian” community challenged the idea that individuals had to protect themselves by amassing wealth and power!

Parenthetically, one could argue that this early community was “socialist” in structure, but that would be missing the point once again. All of our economic systems still focus on how much “stuff” is owned, whether by the individual or the group is irrelevant! That early Christian community came together, not around a different way to own stuff, but because they had learned (presumably through Jesus) a different way of relating. It was the quality of the relationships in the community that provided security, not their collective wealth.

Christmas is known to be the season of giving. But we still live in a culture that values individualistic hoarding most highly for the rest of the year. Jesus’ message tells us that wealth does not create trust. In fact, wealth seems to create more fear that someone else (of course, someone who is less deserving) will take what the wealthy possess. And the kind of giving we see at Christmas doesn’t really change anything at all if it does not change the system that insists on wealth and poverty as a primary measure of success.

The Christmas call to “Peace on Earth” does not mean that the poor should stay in their places and not be too disruptive. Peace is a matter of quality of relationship, not the suppression of human need. It seems to me that Chief Seattle spoke more in keeping with the message of Jesus than many American Christian churches when he said that whatever we do to the web of life (in which we all participate) we do to ourselves.

What if the Christmas message actually proclaims the web of life (not simply a collection of individuals) as the focus of salvation? If we come to believe that, maybe real transformation is possible.

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

Hardly a story told does not involve a journey – religious stories, fairy tales, songs, poems, novels, and many non-fictional topics. All of these may recount human (or animal) experiences of getting from “here” to “there.” Here and there can, of course, be metaphorical, emotional, physiological, psychological, or geographic. The decision to embark and the degree to which the experience turns out to be unpredictable are significant elements in many stories.

Perhaps these journeys intrigue us because our personal stories and journeys also involve elements of decision and unpredictability. Sometimes people refer to the decisions facing them as “no-brainers,” implying that the correct choice should be obvious to anyone. In my experience, relatively few of life’s decisions exhibit enough clarity that the answers become at all obvious. Typically, the “no-brainer” evaluation is made by one person about another person’s decision. Again, in my experience, one person is seldom, if ever, qualified to decide for someone else. The obvious exception to that statement is in the relationship between a parent and a young child, though that should be a very short-lived arrangement. I offered some perspective (hardly comprehensive) on decision-making in last week’s post.

For the sake of this discussion, let me distinguish between two very different kinds of journey. The first focuses on achieving a particular end. While the specific path might not be determined precisely, the journey is about getting to the destination as quickly as possible. The second kind of journey is more about direction than destination. Its objective is to make your next move in a particular direction from where you presently find yourself. But you do not know where you will end up, nor can you know precisely what your next direction will or even can be.

It has been my observation that many life journeys end up being severely restricted when we evaluate them only in terms of reaching the destination. How many times do people say, “When I get through this, then I’ll be fine – I will have arrived.” In most of life’s real journeys, the promise of reaching a destination seldom delivers the expected sense of completion. We realize that the journey continues. There always seems to be another hill to climb, another test to pass. “Maybe next time…” we say.

What, then, does it look like if we plan our journeys based on direction and experience, rather than on reaching the destination? Well, for starters, it takes a lot of pressure off of us. Destinations imply success or failure – we reach them or we don’t. Journeys based on chosen directions invite us to experience and learn as we go. Perhaps I’ve said in other places that “Life can be lived experimentally, inviting us to learn along the way, rather than as a series of tests to determine our absolute value as human beings.

Here’s a small example: I’m finishing this blog post on Friday morning, not Wednesday morning as usual. If Wednesday was my destination, then I failed. If, however, I realize that this week has presented me with some interesting detours, then Friday morning is simply Friday morning, not proof of failure. I will still aim for posting again next Wednesday, but when it actually gets done, and what I will choose to write about, will be determined by many factors, most of which haven’t happened yet.

The best I can do is prepare myself to be a learner. I will try to pass some of that learning along next week.

By the way, those of you who read Community of Promise will find that the Promised Land in my story is not a destination, it is a matter of quality of community, and it happens all along the journey.

Blessings on Your Journey,
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

 

A couple of years ago, I began wrestling with a personal question that on the surface looked simple, but in practice turned out to be more challenging than I could have imagined. What do I really want to be doing with my time and life? Not a new question by any measure, it has been approached by many for millenia in the realms of philosophy, theology, psychology, politics, and neurobiology (to name just a few).

While I could write from any of those perspectives, I prefer a perspective that cuts through all of them: the question of whether my choices come from within me or from some external source. Let me explain. My areas of formal study have been theology and counseling psychology. They both deal with whether a person’s “locus of control” (meaning the ability to make self-directed choices) should be internal or external. The way many people approach religion, a divine being exists outside of them with the power to intercede into life at will. As religious texts tell the story, this being has established a certain set of “correct” choices to life’s problems. The main issue in such a framework is then about one’s level of obedience to this divine one. The options and right behaviors are determined from without and humans are tested based on their choices. Rewards and punishments follow.

Families and cultures usually function in the same way as that image of the divine (including the part about rewards and punishments). Individuals learn that certain professions, values, opportunities for entertainment, and laws (written and unwritten) are acceptable. Only some of the questions have “correct” answers, but people feel enormous pressure to choose from the prescribed list of options.

Psychotherapists often encourage their clients to develop what is called an internal locus of control, meaning that at least they can make their own choices (within the acceptable options, of course).

As I began to wrestle with what I might want to do next in my life, though I possess a pretty potent internal locus of control, I had a difficult time identifying options that were not the standard ones for someone of my education, profession, and experience. I had to get on the other side of questions like, “What am I good at?” “What are ministers “supposed to do?” and even, “What do I enjoy doing?”

Those tend to be relatively superficial questions that bypass identity, integrity, and personal authority. In our language, the pronoun, “I”, usually refers to the ego – a necessary but rather superficial part of myself. The “I” in my present question is more like Carl Jung’s identification of The Self – a deep and broad practically divine understanding of identity that hold all the other parts of who I am together in a coherent whole person. In Christian terms, Paul the Apostle wrote in a letter that the Living Christ, who lives within him, motivated his best actions. Jung claimed that Paul’s Living Christ, and the psychologically observed Self were different descriptions of the same reality.

So, it is in response to the leading of my Self that I ask what I want to do. To be truly free, I must be responsible both for identifying my options and for making my choices from them.

It was quite a surprise to me when I discovered fiction writing. (That activity had never been among my identified options.) But I have concluded that I must write, not because someone else tells me to, but because at least for now, it is the most honest expression of who I (my Self) am.

I have written one novel, Community of Promise. (Click here for more info) I am presently working on a second one. Stay tuned.

I’d be interested to know who you are choosing to be in the world?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise: The Untold Story of Moses

 

I live in what is called an “Intentional Community.” This community holds a broadly defined commitment to ecological awareness and practice, healthy community, and ongoing education (by and for us). One of the factors that makes this community experience both wonderful and difficult is that we attempt to make our decisions by means of a process called “Consensus.” The phrase, “come to consensus” is familiar in our culture, but it is usually thought to mean “come to agreement.” That is not really what it means, however.

In his book, Consensus through Conversation, Larry Dressler defines consensus in this way: “Consensus has been achieved when every person involved in the decision can say: ‘I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.’” Clearly, consensus is quite different from simple agreement. And it is certainly different from “majority rules” decision-making.

Let me write about consensus by identifying some of what it is not.

Consensus is not a decision; it is a process that is based on deep mutual respect for the participants and for the group. Getting to the “best decision” is not the same as getting the outcome I want. “The best decision” becomes more possible when more people participate in it, when every perspective is considered (and that may include the environment, other non-human living beings, and the health and well-being of the group beyond individual desires), and when the process generates deeper learning among all the participants. As an individual who participates in this process, I need to recognize that the combined wisdom and perspectives of the group add up to something greater than my own. At the same time, the perspective I bring is vital to the process because it is just as unique as any other.

Consensus is not a debate; it is a respectful consideration of varying values, perspectives, and needs. And there is no such thing as “winning” in the consensus process. The closest thing to winning is when the community comes to a decision that all the participants can commit to.

Consensus is not compromise. Compromise is finding a middle ground between two existing positions. Another way to say it is that “compromise is getting the best deal you can as an individual.” In consensus, the primary focus is not on the individual’s desire, but on the well-being of all, including the individual. The consensus process encourages creativity that does not stay on the axis between two opposing positions. Brand new solutions can emerge that address all needs in a broader way.

Finally, Consensus is not perfect. It takes time, it requires participants to leave room in their minds for growth, learning, and new ideas. When it works well, though, it helps both individuals and communities to become healthier.

It seems worth it for me. And, wouldn’t it be interesting if our political discourse had more of the consensus process in it?

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

 

Here is the promised post in which I consider a broadly understood definition of “Recovery from Addiction.” I had planned to write this one last week. It didn’t quite happen then, but here it is now.

Consider these perspectives and context about addiction and recovery. In my post on Addiction (Nov 10), I referred to the prevalence of “external solutions” that contribute to all addictive process. Furthermore, the belief in such external solutions is heavily promoted by our consumerist culture. Someone is always ready to point at your “problem” and offer to sell you something that is supposed to fix it. Such a transaction plays right into the essence of the addictive process itself. It convinces you that you are lacking or damaged in some fundamental way, and that you need something “from without” to fix you, comfort you, or “fill you up.” (By the way, some people and religious institutions also try to use “God” in an addictive way. Spiritual consumerism, perhaps?)

How we think about ourselves, our communities, and the addictive process can help us to move toward recovery. One way of thinking is to affirm that no one outside of ourselves has the right, nor sufficient information, to make a definitive diagnosis about what is fundamentally wrong with us. (There may be some medical reasons for specific diagnosis and treatment, but we must be careful not to generalize that approach too much.) A second perspective is that the experience of inner emptiness does not have to be problematic. In fact, emptiness is necessary for any real creativity to emerge. A third perspective identifies isolation as both a symptom and contributing cause to addiction. Some in the recovery community say that addiction is a “family dysfunction,” or more generally, a systemic dysfunction. This means that the recovery of the individual is intimately connected to the recovery of the system or family.

In my experience, recovery is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to achieve in isolation. While AA refers to itself as a “selfish” program, that does not imply isolation. It just means that trying to “fix” others does no one any good. Participants are just trying to be responsible for their own stuff. Healthy community does, however, promote recovery.

So what are some of the things that actually happen in recovery?

1. Safety and confidentiality are highly valued in 12-step groups. Can our religious congregations or families make the same claim?
2. Each person who participates knows that everyone is there for the same basic reason. There is no basis for organizational hierarchy or for the superiority or power of some people over others.. Again, can our religious congregations or families make the same claim?
3. People actually talk out loud about their own problems! The opportunity to talk honestly and to be heard respectfully generates powerful healing energy. Where else can people share honestly with one another about human struggles? Where else can respectful listening happen?
4. Realistic hope (as opposed to wishful thinking) triumphs over fear. This is not magic. Hope is lived out one small risk at a time.
5. People in recovery become appropriately responsible for their own participation in community as they identify and release what they cannot control.

Fear is at the center of all addiction: fear of not having enough, fear of not measuring up, fear that others possess what we need, fear of punishment, fear of losing, etc. And of course, being spiritual beings, we can experience fears related to divine power over us, too. The Bible says that “love casts out fear.” We could learn much about the practicalities of love from observing 12-step communities.

Perhaps the most general description of recovery is the giving and receiving of love in community.

Community of Promise contains two different images of “The Promised Land.” One is a hierarchy where obedience is believed to affect divine reward or punishment. The other is a cooperative system where divine and human engage in a co-creative dance out of which their community emerges. I think the first one generates addictive patterns and the second one promotes recovery.

What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

 

Lots of magazine articles address the general question about what is wanted, usually involving women wanting to know what men want, or men wanting to know what women want? Even with all those articles and their varied opinions, there is no consistent answer. How crazy it must be then to consider from a human perspective what God might want. As arrogant or impossible as the question may sound, thinkers in religion, philosophy, and psychology have been addressing the question virtually forever! So, I guess I’m just taking my turn at it.

Generally when people think about God’s desires they choose from two available variations on the question. What does God want “from” us? (Lot’s of individuals and religions are more than happy to provide their answers for you.) Or, What does God want “for” us? This question usually begins with a “loving parental God” who just wants the best for “His” children. Neither of these are necessarily bad perspectives, but they don’t cover all the possibilities. I’d like to add another one: What does God want for (or from) God? Said differently, “What is the Creator/Creative God up to anyway?”

It is always easiest to address this question if we begin with an image of God that shares lots of human characteristics: thought, feeling, intention, etc. But, of course, because it’s easy, it’s also restrictive, so I’m not going to begin there. In fact, I’m going to skip the image of God question all together. Maybe instead I’ll cheat just a little bit and consider “divine intention.”

How do we get evidence about what God’s intention might be? Theologians and philosophers make use of “revelatory experiences” and “reason” respectively. How about if we just look at what happens around us in the world to see what light such observations might add to our understanding of creation and the “creative intention.” Those observations make use of the various lenses of religion, history, scientific inquiry and psychology.

Here’s one example of how to approach the question. I am in the process of writing a second novel that is a loosely drawn sequel to Community of Promise, my first novel. Parts of the novel draw on an understanding of ancient Egyptian religion. One generally understood ancient belief is in the divinity of Pharaoh. Perhaps more accurately, Pharaoh is seen as a god-man. So, what does this mean? Is Pharaoh essentially of a higher order of creation than common mortals, thereby justifying the use of power over the masses? Such thinking is similar to “the divine right of kings.” It tends to follow a strictly hierarchical model with power concentrated at the top. Many have seen Pharaoh’s role in this way, including, I suppose, some of the Pharaohs themselves.

My deepening study leads me to a different understanding of the god-man. Many see Pharaoh as more of a religious figure than a ruler. Perhaps the Divine made use of Pharaoh as an entry point into human consciousness. The goal was not to concentrate the power at the top, but the king had the function of making the people more accessible to the embodiment of divine consciousness. One could speculate that the divine intention might be not only to create the universe, but to become conscious in it, too.

How might we think about our human lives if we saw ourselves as partners with the divine in bringing divine consciousness to its fullness in creation? Clearly this is not a new idea. Many have held it throughout history, but in our divisive and fear-based culture it seems like a delightful alternative to the hierarchical model that has “dominated” the political and religious world for millenia.

So, have you done your part to work “with” the divine today?

That’s how I see it, how about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

 

If there is any flaw in the human mind and spirit that is more destructive than the tendency toward addiction, I cannot imagine what it could be. Unfortunately, in the public discourse about it, addiction often gets restricted to alcohol, drugs, and sometimes sex. That makes it possible for those of us who don’t suffer from those particular addictions to ignore all rest of the evidence that we live in a highly addictive culture and that probably all of us, if we are honest, suffer from addictive leanings. Before you run away, having convinced yourself that this post cannot possibly have any relevance to your life, let me offer some ways to think about addiction in a broad way.

The essence of any addiction is the attempt at least to manage, if not obliterate, any uncomfortable feelings about ourselves or the world. And of course, the worse we feel about ourselves and the more we are confronted with the painful realities of our world, the more we want to run away from those feelings. Can you relate to that?

Denial is the “coin of the realm” in any addictive system. Some people in 12-step programs will say that “Addiction is the disease that tells you you’re not sick.” And it(the disease) goes on to tell you that “if you’re doing any damage, it is only to yourself; others should not be affected.” Unfortunately, such denial is always based in a fundamental lie. It doesn’t tell the truth.

To give one example: The industrial revolution has created much good in our culture, but it has always used denial to avoid dealing with the long-term consequences of the waste it creates. The more money there is to be made and the more new “toys” that are available to buy, the less motivated people are to look at the effects of waste on our planet. Now we are paying the long-term costs in rampant toxin-created illnesses, destruction of cultures, and increasing poverty.
As long as the primary focus stays on the excitement of the bottom line and on the shiny new toys we can buy, denial of any dangerous future consequences rules human life. The “lie” distracts us from seeing the truth, but if we look anyway, it tells us that there is “no problem” or, if really pressed, tells us that there is “no proof” of any problem, so don’t worry about it.

In an addictive system, all internal empty space must be filled with some external solution or source of comfort. Governments, businesses, and, I am sad to say, most organized religions remain successful by keeping people focused on their emptiness, their neediness, and on their “sinfulness.” It turns out to be an act of sedition to empower people to feel genuinely good about themselves, because healthy people do not need externally protective governments, shiny new toys, or institutional sources of “salvation.” In our culture, people learn that the absence of immediate entertainment equals boredom, that quietness equals laziness, and that we have a right not to feel “shamed” by having to look at the consequences of our addictive behaviors. People are taught that all these feelings are bad and that we shouldn’t have to feel them. By utilizing external “medications,” we shut off our ability to perceive real dangers, we make real creativity – the kind that can only come out of profound emptiness – impossible, and we lose our ability to be resilient and loving in community and relationship.
And, by the way, there is always someone ready to sell us some short-term “remedy” that serves to maintain our denial of reality.

Addiction is all about promising short-cuts to comfort
. If we look at present business (the quarterly bottom line), politics (what have you done for me lately?), the economy (We can’t do anything to restrict business, even if it kills us all eventually), and even community (I’ve got mine, too bad you don’t have yours), we can see plenty of evidence of the sickness of denial.

Any careful study of addiction can easily demonstrate that it makes lots of promises that it either cannot deliver, or at best that the “cost” will be much higher than expected.

All of the above have a destructive effect on the very community that could promote long-term health and well-being. Fortunately, for those who identify the addictive patterns in themselves, they can then embark on a program of “recovery.”

In my next post, I will write about what a broadly understood recovery program might look like.

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

 

I am not a politician nor a political pundit, but I cannot avoid having some feelings, and hopefully some useful perspectives on yesterday’s election. I wrote a few weeks ago about the needed balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. As I have indicated in some recent posts, balance is not the same as compromise. Compromise means that I have to give up some of what I want so a “deal” becomes possible. Balance has more to do with health in the sense that healthy communities promote the health of the individuals within it and healthy individuals promote the health of the community.

Our political environment completely ignores the balance between those two perspectives and, instead, sets them against each other as adversaries. When the needs of the community and the needs of the individual are set against each other, neither can move towards health, so when one side “wins,” the relationship between them always loses – meaning they both lose. (See My October 6 post) While I might have my feelings about the results of this election, the sickness of the process is a much greater concern to me.

Our political system has degenerated to the point that winning the seat for the next term has become the only value. Lying in the service of winning has become the norm. And there is no shortage of victims from that particular evil. Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that the payoff for so many people who win political office is increased riches for themselves (perhaps after leaving office). How does that serve the wider community??? I don’t see it.

Finally, recent judicial decisions allowing corporate money to have unlimited influence in the election arena has to rank among the most unjust decisions ever made. It used to be that thoughtful people could at least “Follow the money” to see the potential beneficiaries of particular political positions, but that is virtually impossible now. How can that ever serve the well being either of individuals or the community?

Instead of just ranting (which feels pretty good, by the way) I want to offer a challenge that we come up with some healthy sound-bites to counteract the negative and false ones that have become the “coin of the political realm.”

For example: John Lennon (quoting Jesus? Buddha?) said: “All you need is love.”
Chief Seattle said: “What we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves.”
In Community of Promise, I wrote: The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Or, as I sit here thinking, it comes to me that: “Individual Freedom does not guarantee justice or safety.”
Or
“Greed ultimately eats its host.” or “It is the nature of addiction to destroy its followers.”

Those are some of mine. I invite you to share some of the sound-bites you would want to promote?

Wayne Gustafson

 

One of the themes of my novel, Community of Promise, concerns the nature of mystical experience. That is to say, how valid are the messages that people report having received through such experiences and how can they be useful? Several of the characters in the story have mystical experiences that vary in style, content, and meaning. Individually and collectively they must learn some proper use for what they take to be divine communications.

My presupposition in the novel assigns a certain authority to the mystical realm, raising the question of the proper understanding and use of that authority. Is is legitimate for one person to assume (or be given) the right to command others based on some privately revealed divine message? Is is legitimate for a group to coalesce around a particular interpretation, proclaiming it as divine, and then use the group’s collective power to impose that understanding on others? These are common questions that have affected religious identity and practice throughout history.

Conceptually, I find these to be valid and useful questions, but practically speaking, I am aware of my temptation to judge some religious groups and understandings as legitimate (of course, doesn’t everyone agree that this is the truth?), and others as illegitimate “cults” and splinter groups. But, if I am going to be honest, I must question the basis on which such judgments can be made by anybody.

My reading of history tells me that “legitimacy” may be a shaky concept, because it appears that the exercise of power rather than demonstrably objective truth usually confers legitimacy. That kind of temporal power tends to manipulate “divine revelation” into a self-serving justification. So, maybe legitimacy is not really the characteristic I want to explore. Perhaps some identifiable foundation of morality (broadly defined) or ethics is more useful in dealing with experiences of mystical “revelation.”

As I see it, morality and ethics are relational terms that derive their meaning from the nature of the relationship out of which they emerge. Conversely, the nature of any relationship might also be informed by commonly held moral and ethical principles within which it exists, so that relationship and foundation exist in a living mutuality, forever challenging and embodying one another.

For this mutuality to work, we must do without the notion that individuals and groups can be “right” in any absolute sense, even about the insights and glimpses of “truth” that appear to come to us from divinely inspired mystical experiences. And while we might want to hold on to the conceptual possibility of the existence of Absolute Truth, there is a huge body of evidence to demonstrate that our human understanding of it will always be less than absolute. I take this as an axiomatic principle of reality.

Still, I think mystical glimpses of life have value and are worth seeking by whatever means we can, as long as we remember a basic principle of healthy religion that has been articulated by a number of reputable Psychologists of Religion. Healthy religious perspectives can always be modified when confronted with new information, and are not absolute in themselves. Some level of relational trust assists in the process so that we can welcome new information shared in good faith, rather than seeing it as a threat to our power or expertise.

Such an approach invites religions of any stripe to engage in mutually illuminating dialogue, not to prove who is right, but to make use of the variety of perspectives and “revelations” in a sacred attempt to apprehend more Truth for all. It may be that the collegiality emerging from this process will allow us to move from adversarial positions to positions of mutual cooperation, from enemies to friends.

Just for the record, I am not promoting “compromise” here. Compromise is defined as working for the best “deal” you can get between clearly articulated, but diverse positions. I am suggesting that healthy cooperation, even making use of “divine revelation,” is potentially transformative to all parties, often moving them to a collective position that none of them could have imagined apart from their respectful relationships. I think our world needs more of this if we are to survive, much less, thrive.

Am I being naïve and utopian? Perhaps. But, I believe that this process is still worth considering.

How do you see it?

Wayne E. Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

 

One of the hats I wear is that of consultant to churches. At times my consulting work takes place when I am the interim minister of a congregation, and sometimes when I am a hired consultant. One of the most useful questions I can ask is this: “Why is it important for this church to exist in this community?” Many times the people in churches have difficulty answering the question in that form. For many, churches simply exist – have for a long time – and “should” just continue to be.

In my opinion, churches that cannot answer this question are often in the process of dying. “Will the last person to leave, please turn out the lights and lock the door.”

A part of my job is to help congregations find healthy and functional answers regarding their purpose. One very fertile area to explore for a potential answer is the present level of anxiety that may exist in the wider community. In many (if not most) parts of the United States, communities today carry prodigious levels of anxiety. Upstate New York is no exception. The anxiety springs out of the many challenges that economic and social changes can engender. Let me give you an example:

A church I served a few years ago as interim minister was situated in a small community with a vibrant history. That community had been supported for many years by a single major industry. (The particular identity of this industry does not matter because stories like this have played out in many forms and with various details throughout the upstate region.) When the industry moved out of town, it not only left a huge economic gap, but it also left a residue of distrust and anxiety. These feelings were expressed in questions like: “Who are we without our industry?” “How will we survive?” “We’ve given heart and soul to ‘them.’ Don’t they care about us?” (And the most painful question of all…) “Weren’t we good enough for them, or was there something wrong with us that caused them not to stay here?” Over time the anxiety spread to the local government, law enforcement, and, of course, to the churches.

Now, we all know that life is fundamentally dangerous and is filled with peril. We also know that we are clever and resourceful, so when we are confronted with clearly identifiable dangers our communities can often respond with creativity and purpose. However, it happens too often that when communities, organizations, or families experience traumatic events, they don’t know how to handle those in a creative way. They try to “put it behind” them and just go on, but the inner experience of violation, vulnerability, and unspecified blame results in free-floating anxiety. It becomes difficult to trust anyone from the outside, but it is just as hard to trust anyone on the inside.

The loss of economic support from the departure of an industry is one kind of trauma, but there are many others, like racism and classism, to give a couple of examples. In response to any trauma at any level (family, organization, or community), anxiety spawns emotional reactivity, that in turn spawns less safety, more anxiety, and even more reactivity. In general terms, smaller units can deal with anxiety more easily than larger ones. In turn, a relatively non-anxious individual can help lower the anxiety of any larger group. (Or a relatively non-anxious smaller group can do it for a larger community.) Many useful books have been written on this topic (See Ronald W. Richardson, or Peter Steinke).

For this post, I am suggesting that one way for a local church (or other community organization) to answer its “purpose question” is to see itself as a potential “non-anxious presence” in its wider community. For Christian churches, we can draw from Jesus’ invitation for us not to be afraid. Our relative lack of fear (and anxiety is a form of fear) can then help us create safe opportunities for people in the wider communities to work through the effects of their collective trauma.

Being a non-anxious presence is not about fixing a community’s problems. Frankly some challenging conditions are not fixable. This approach is more about creating an atmosphere of relative safety that encourages communication, helps build relationships, and promotes community health.

As I see it, we need a lot of that.
What do you think?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”