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.”

Opinions are important, but they have no right masquerading as truth. I used to believe that Truth possessed an intrinsic value that made it worth pursuing by most people, but I have observed so much reluctance to let fact influence opinion, that my belief was clearly naïve. The loss of that belief is a great tragedy to me.

From my newly acquired cynical perspective, it appears that attempts to assuage fear by indulging in rampant acquisitiveness continue to dominate the political, economic, and religious arenas. In politics, people seek power (and money), in business, money (and money), and in religion, the authority to be “right” (and of course, money!). We could add science and a host of other academic disciplines to the list of participants, each of which succumbs to characteristic temptations that obscure and overwhelm the search for truth.

Some would argue that Truth does not even exist, and that it can never escape the limits of human subjectivity, so for the sake of this essay, I define Truth as more of a direction than a destination. That is to say, the inability to reach it in any absolute sense does not make the search worthless. It is always possible to understand more Truth; it’s just not possible to arrive at the final goal.

This essay does not set out to demonstrate that our various institutions and disciplines are intentionally perverse, manipulative, or dishonest, (although these characteristics are always present in some measure). The more central issue has to do with prejudices, blind spots, and unexplained presuppositions that function unconsciously. By this I mean that while we might know what we believe, we don’t realize that it isn’t the absolute Truth about life.

It seems to me that such unconscious impediments to clear thinking are often reinforced by fear and anxiety – of being controlled by others, of not having “enough” (defined as “a little more than I have now), and of making a “wrong” decision that might result in pain, loss, and/or punishment. Conscious fears, those triggered by identifiable dangers, lead to appropriate protective responses. But unspecified anxiety springs out of “prejudices, blind spots, and presuppositions” in a way that spawns “axiomatic” thinking.” Or said differently, prejudices, blind spots, and presuppositions become the axiomatic “truths” upon which we then base our attitudes and behaviors. Axioms are thought to be beyond proof and therefore beyond further investigation.

In practice, however, some axioms can be modified over time, but typically they don’t succumb without a fight. Let me give one example: Isaac Newton made certain axiomatic assumptions about the nature of atoms that worked out quite well as foundations for his principles of physics. More recent explorations in nuclear physics have shown his assumptions to be inadequate at best, and flat out wrong, at worst. That said, under certain conditions they work perfectly well, but not under all contitions. Our axiomatic prejudices and presuppositions work the same way. They may be “true” in certain limited situations, but may not be so true in a broader sense. And, it is our anxiety that often “promotes” limited truth into more generalized application.

I think that in order to move in the direction of greater truth, we must challenge our axioms. This challenge helps us to recognize the conditions under which they work well enough for us, while also identifying a broader set of conditions under which our axioms might not be true at all.

Returning to the title of this essay, I suggest that unexamined axioms confuse or understanding of opinions vs. truth. Our opinions may feel perfectly adequate as long as our axioms are accepted (even unconsciously) as true. But when we note the connection between our level of anxiety/fear and our tenacious hold on our fundamental beliefs (axioms), it then becomes possible for us to engage in the difficult and sometimes risky work of investigating them. I say it is risky, because we tend to build complex belief systems on the foundation of our axioms. If the foundations change, then we have to reexamine everything – and who has time for that?

I would like to believe that we could learn to celebrate any discovery that moves us in the direction of more truth, but my observations say that vigorous, and even nasty defense of our axioms is the typical response.

It appears to me that actions based on narrowly drawn axioms tends to benefit some groups and punish others and that the search in the direction of greater truth can benefit a wider swath of creation. I guess it’s axiomatic for me that it is a good idea to work in the direction of greater truth.

Well, this is how I see it. What about you?

In his Family Systems Theory, Dr. Murray Bowen identified two basic life forces, togetherness and individuality, that are always engaged in a lively tension in any system regardless of size. Bowen’s theory posits that healthy systems foster healthy individuals, and healthy individuals tend to influence those around them to healthier (and by that I mean more mature) functioning. What, then, might be the impact of the healthy or unhealthy balance of these factors on us?

Our current political realm provides a ready-made laboratory for us to observe this dynamic. Political systems always manifest the tension between the needs of the wider community and the needs of the individual. In our present political culture, since the U. S. Supreme Court has given corporations the same rights as individuals, and has given them unlimited financial power to affect the process, we can see that the tension has become grossly unbalanced.

But before I address that, let me give you an oversimplified picture of how our political system embodies the tension. Freedom is one of the current buzz words in political discourse. When divorced from community, it becomes “the right to do anything I want, amass as much money and power as I can, and not have to consider the impact of my activities on my “neighbors.” Of course, given the choice, everyone wants the experience of freedom. No one is completely comfortable with someone else breathing down our necks in a controlling way. I said this explanation was superficial, so I will go on to say that this definition of freedom seems to represent the present Republican view. And, by the way, any other political view that does not affirm this definition of freedom is seen as “Socialist” – and we all know bad that is, don’t we!

Here is the oversimplified other side. The survival and well being of “the group” becomes primary. It survives, not by giving unlimited power to the individual, but by amassing its power in the collective. When it is in balance, it champions the needs of all individuals. This understanding represents the traditional Democratic view. But when it gets out of balance, its own survival can become more important than the individual. That last sentence is true of either political persuasion.

At this moment in history, it seems that the power has swung to a pathological degree in the direction of the individual (or corporation!). The effect of a hard swing to either end of the political spectrum is always detrimental to the health of the whole system, so it seems (to me, at least) that a rebalancing is necessary for our very survival.

The nature of our present political discourse makes it almost impossible to move towards a healthier balance, because each side tends to overstate its case in “all or nothing” terms. When that happens, real compromise becomes practically impossible. There have been times in the political arena when healthy compromise has been celebrated by the participants in the process, but today, any compromise is seen as a defeat for “our side” – and the more out of balance the perspective, the more it looks that way.

I entitled this post “Togetherness and Individuality”, but in extreme political terms it could have been “Corporate power vs. State Power” When power is the “coin of the realm,” and when the loudest political voices come from unbalanced positions, the real individual (not the corporation masquerading as in individual) is always victimized. Is unbridled state power dangerous? You bet! But don’t forget that unbridled corporate power as at least as dangerous!

Let’s work to restore the balance so that all “real” individuals can thrive in a healthy system.

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

Human communication can lead in two basic directions: towards more clarity and specificity, or towards broader and deeper understanding. This weekend I am leading a workshop on Basic Training for lay people doing pastoral care. One of the exercises focuses on how to be truly present with another person. Often, especially when people are communicating in some official capacity, they want to “get to the point.” That is, they want to find out what is “really” going on. I try to teach people that such a direction is not particularly helpful, that it puts the focus more on the presumed answer to some question rather than on the development of the relationship. And it tends to inhibit conversation just at the point when more conversation is the objective.

On a larger scale, this dynamic has plagued religion for millenia. Too often religious communication and preaching is designed to identify what is right, as opposed to all the other ideas that must then be wrong. This approach presumes that a “right” answer actually exists. What if, instead of striving to be right, our goal was to become more complete – that no matter how much we already understand, we can always learn more. In the workshop, I invite the participants to get into groups of three, one who asks, one who answers, and one who observes the process. They are given a list of questions. The objective is to learn as much as possible from a person as they can in five minutes – that is to say, to “amplify” their understanding of this other person. I remind them that we can never understand another person completely, so there is always room for more learning and always opportunity for more growth and development in the relationship.

I would like to believe that when people from different religious traditions come together, their objective can be to amplify their understanding by mutual sharing rather than arguing about who has it right already.

In the spirit of what I have just written, I am interested in how you see it.

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

I’ve been preaching for many years. It’s a welcome challenge week after week to try to say something useful, relevant, and honest. I’ve learned a lot in the process, but when I write fiction, it seems that the old questions present themselves in new ways. When I wrote Community of Promise, I looked at the developing relationship of individuals and communities with the divine spirit. The book showed that those relationships could happen in a wide number of ways and that there need not be a hierarchical system of indoctrination for religion to be healthy. In fact, it was not necessary at all for people to believe the same things. They did, however, need to talk to one another and to respect the various perspectives that they brought to the conversation.

Today I find myself thinking about the many functions, purposes, and uses of religion that have been exercised throughout time and place in our world. Many people explain the rise of religion in terms of fear. Clearly there are forces in the world – storms, floods, sunlight, and the like – that can be dangerous (or helpful) and that appear to operate in ways that might be arbitrary. The explanation goes that people in the distant past attributed these forces to anthropomorphic “gods.” If the gods are anything like us, or more accurately if we are anything like the gods, then influence might be possible – hence sacrifices, rituals, and other activities sprang up for that purpose.

That explanation rides on the notion that unless we do what the gods want, or at least what is pleasing to them, life will be more dangerous for us. At its foundation, these purposes are manipulative. Idolatry might be defined as the creation of “gods” for whom the rules and outcomes are well defined. Idolatry puts the “real” power (manipulative as it may be) in human hands. It is an attempt to figure out how to get the gods to treat us the way we want. Much of religious behavior throughout time seems to be of that type. A nasty side effect of this use of religion is that it allows the rich and powerful to argue that they are more acceptable to the gods, so they must deserve what they have. And, of course, that also means that the poor and disenfranchised must be less acceptable, and do not deserve as much.

There is another way of thinking that develops through the history of any particular religion. Because most of my study has been the Judeo-Christian tradition, I see its development most clearly there, but I have seen evidence of it in other religious traditions as well. Here it is: what if religious practice is designed to develop trusting relationship rather than being a manipulative response to danger?

It seems to me that every religion is subject to both kinds of use: manipulative, or trusting. Once we understand these opposing uses of religion, then we can evaluate our own practices to see what we are up to with our beliefs, symbols, and rituals. It appears to me that when we use manipulative forms of religion, we have a greater tendency to hurt one another and to undermine the very fabric of our communities.

So why and how do you relate to the divine? Is your behavior based in fear that you will be punished if you don’t do “what God wants?” Is it based in a self-serving affirmation that you deserve what you have and that others don’t deserve as much? Is it based in the belief that relationship is important in any healthy community, and that trust and mutual respect build us up?

It is clear from the way I have constructed these questions how I see it. How about you? How would you have religion function in your world?

Please use the comments section to let us all know.

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

I’ve been curious for a long time about the prevalence and diversity of religion at all times and places throughout human history. We even have some archeological evidence about what look like religious artifacts in pre-historical times. With all this time and effort given to this sacred task, you could wonder if we’ll ever get it right – that is to say, is it possible to find a body of religious understanding, symbol, and ritual that could be proven to be the “correct” understanding – the one that any rational person would have to accept?

In my experience, the search for the “correct” religious understanding constitutes a very dangerous approach indeed. It inevitably results in divisiveness, increased fear, suspicion, and efforts to convert those who believe differently, sometimes by threatening and even deadly means. Furthermore, so much of religious language, practice, and articulated theology has been shown to include political, economic, and even overtly racist motivation.

In Community of Promise, a different kind of religious understanding brings people together. This novel, like many others, can be seen as an experiment in “what if.”

So, what if religion began with the understanding that there is no correct way to believe? What if worship of God had nothing to do with creating an advantage for yourself over your foes? What if God does not set people against each other, but is manifest in the relational spaces between people? What if the individuals within a community truly relied upon one another’s developing relationship with the Divine, and what if the community turned out to be capable of a deeper appreciation of truth than the individual? What if we could extend that process to say that even groups with differing perspectives could learn and grow through mutual sharing?

And finally, what if we didn’t have to set up “official” religious bodies to shape and control the beliefs and behavior of the masses?

These are big questions, but don’t let the number of them be confusing. They all really boil down to one: What if the Promised Land, or the Realm of God, or the healthiest possible practice of community is truly “within and among us?”

Wayne Gustafson

I continue to be disturbed by the highly divisive and adversarial tone that pervades public and private discourse in our culture today. I wrote last week about communication as a significant quality of healthy community, particularly the ability to listen. What I am wondering about today is the apparent difficulty we have in listening to each other. What stands in the way of our ability to listen to the experiences of another?

One answer to the question is cynicism. Hardly anyone believes that others are telling the truth about their own experiences. Every communication is suspected of being a manipulation. It’s as if the name of the game has become who can tell the biggest lie in order to get someone else to believe the way you want them to believe.

It becomes a conundrum. If I can’t believe that anyone is telling the truth, then I am stuck with drawing conclusions based only on my own relatively narrow experience and perspective. Now, you might argue that people are still reading newspapers, still buying books on political and social themes, still listening to talk radio. That is so. But I have come to recognize a personal temptation regarding the sources of my information. I tend to prefer reading and listening to people who already see the world pretty much as I do. This is not a useful policy. While it might feel supportive of my personal opinions, if I restrict myself that way, how am I going to learn anything?

One way to continue learning is to distinguish “point of view” and “perspective” from opinion. If I simply state my opinions, that is to say, my conclusions about an issue, then you have plenty of reason to tell me that I am entitled to my opinion, but you don’t agree with it. If, on the other hand, I offer a perspective, then I am giving you something useful. I am sharing that this is what the situation looks like from where I stand. If you see things differently, we need not immediately conclude that one of us is right and the other one wrong. We will be able to recognize that the differences are related to the difference in our perspectives. Then we can learn something! Opinions are mutually exclusive, while perspectives can be added together. When perspectives are shared, then everyone has opportunity to see more broadly.

I suggest to you that our community, if it is going to be healthy rather than toxic, needs more sharing of perspective and less imposition of opinion.

What do you think?

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

“Community of Promise” plays with the idea of the Promised land being more about Quality of Community than about geography. So what constitutes a healthy community experience. Modern political culture identifies characteristics like order and prosperity as the most significant factors. A couple of years ago, I preached a sermon about Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness. As I looked at the nature of his temptations, it appeared to me that Comfort, Safety, Power, and Status were the potential barriers to his ability to fulfill his destiny in the world. But an individual’s personal experience of comfort, safety, power, and status is not at all the same as a community’s experience. Is it perhaps not enough, then, for individuals to seek these things. What do they look like from the perspective of community?

Remember that these are temptations, which means that there may be other, deeper, values that are necessary for communities to be healthy. One of these is broadly practiced compassion. What distinguishes compassion from pity-based charity is understanding. And understanding can only develop in relationships by means of communication.

In my counseling practice, I meet with many couples whose stated therapeutic purpose is to improve their communication in the relationship. When I ask them to define their understanding of communication, they usually tell me that they want to be able to get their point across better to their partner. I try to teach them that the most useful foundation of communication is not the ability to speak more clearly (although that has its legitimate uses). The most useful foundation is the ability to listen deeply, respectfully, and openly.

Perhaps you recognize that too often our practice of listening attempts to support the beliefs we already carry about the other person. Open listening recognizes that this other person is a brand new creation today, so we commit ourselves to hear what is new, perhaps what is in the process of being born in the other. When that kind of listening happens throughout a community, the foundational needs of the community become clearer.

So if “The Promised Land” can be defined by quality of community, then careful listening to one another determines the eventual structure of particular communities. And each resultant healthy community provides the individuals in it greater opportunity to get what they really need.

In the wilderness, the Children of Israel needed to be a healthy community so that they could survive, and perhaps even thrive, in what they perceived to be a hostile environment. Their growing focus on Comfort, Safety, Power, and Status as they neared their destination actually got in the way of their ability to experience healthy community, perhaps because it broke down their practice of mutual compassion.

How much do our present day individualistic desires for Comfort, Safety, Power, and Status get in the way of our community, too.

“Community of Promise” gives at least one perspective on this question. I invite you to read it.

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


I am writing to ask for your help.

As it may be clear by now, Community of Promise is not being marketed and sold in traditional ways. Much of its potential will be realized as the word spreads. Even in the self-promotion world, I am attempting to market my book without using Amazon or the other “big box” companies. I am passionate about supporting local bookstores and I love meeting the people who are buying my novel about Moses.

There is no doubt that I cannot do this alone. So, if you are considering purchasing a book, please do it. If you know of a book group in your community or religious organization, please tell them about Community of Promise.

And, once you have read the book, if you find it useful, interesting, and/or informative, help spread the word. A mention (with a link, too) on your Facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media page helps reach so many more potential readers.

It may be evident to you that I believe in the value of this book. I think it deals with important issues, and, to my mind, our world, with all its hatred, mistrust, and violence, can benefit from the values and models for community found in the novel.

Your willingness to spread the word helps in another way, too. I am working on a second novel, but I need the time to do it. The more copies of Community of Promise I can sell, the more time I will have to write.

Pleasem help me share this theologically progressive perspective with the world.

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

Greetings Friends,

The muse is kicking me in the butt again, so it’s time to be working on the second novel. Somehow I keep thinking about an infant going to the doctor for a second set of shots. “Oh, I remember this place. This is not fun.”

Actually, I remember many times while writing Community of Promise when it was fun – actually a lot of fun. But that’s not the point of this post. The point is that I can’t stop myself from comparing the experience now to the experience the first time – what I am writing now with the final version of what I wrote before. The truth is that the first time I truly didn’t know what I was doing. I had never written anything like a novel before. I just sat down and wrote the story.

I also find myself thinking about Anne Lamott’s comment in “Bird by Bird.” Paraphrasing her: “All first drafts are crap.” I need to let myself relax and enjoy the process. I have to let the story grab me. There will be some good sentences, but I have to keep writing to settle into my yet-to-be-discovered voice. I’m not sure I really know what it is yet, but I think I get occasional glimpses.

I am awed by the amount of work that full time writers put into their work to make it wonderful. I just finished reading John Irving’s “Last Night in Twisted River.” He does great things with language and tells an intriguing story besides.

Given where my life is at this point, I don’t see full-time writing in the cards, but who knows what the future holds. You can help by buying your copy(ies) of Community of Promise. And, if you like it, tell your friends, your family, your neighbors, your co-workers, your colleagues, your church, your facebook family… Well, you get the point.

‘Til next time.

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