Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Broadening Perspectives

I am a believer. I believe that the created universe contains in its very essence a tendency towards development. One might call it something like a life force. The challenge to a “believer” of any stripe is to resist the temptation to be one-sided or superficial. You see, I could easily write about modern understandings of “progress.” Or I could wax poetic about the beauty of flowers or children growing into their magnificent fullness. But if I succumb to the temptation to simplify in either of those directions, then any counter-perspectives can be oversimplified, too.

Let me give an example. The will to survive is one foundational element we consider in trying to understand life. But, does the desire for survival in each element of a hostile or competitive system qualify as a comprehensive ethical foundation for life? And is the potential or actual destruction of one’s “enemies” in the service of survival then automatically justified? Sometimes this particular foundation for human behavior is put like this: “Do unto others before they have a chance to do unto you.”

While this “ethic” may make sense and be defensible from some perspectives, it seems to me that human and even biological history provide ample evidence for its ultimate, and perhaps inevitable, failure. Within that framework, all victories remain temporary. And they are always accompanied by a deep fear that sooner or later the same or another enemy will arise. Have you noticed lately how the list of potential enemies keeps growing? Not only must we contend with other human groups, but the climate, the toxic environment, and even the potential breakdown of economies and delivery systems for food and other necessities have been added to our awareness of potentially threatening forces. Seeing other people and even natural forces primarily as enemies tempts us to hunker down into survival mode. Of course, from a narrow perspective, such a position seems to make perfect sense. Still, I have the uneasy feeling that while survivalism appears defensible, it is not necessarily the best approach we have available to us.

To identify what might be a better approach, we cannot just oversimplify in some other direction, like: Don’t worry; be happy; love conquers all” for example. We can, however, look to our available sources of deep wisdom. Both Jesus and Buddha, albeit in somewhat different ways, teach that personal survival is not one of the central values or features of their approach to life. Personal life is always seen in a broader context of meaning. They imply, and we can see from history, that many of our human efforts towards survival can result in massive levels of destruction.

If we study carefully, we see that the spiritual mystics all invite us to broaden our perspectives so that we can see ourselves as participants in a larger reality. Sadly, the temptation to reduce these big ideas back down to a more individualistic perspective never seems to go away. And the anxieties we carry about survival as individuals grease the skids of that regression.

There is nothing I can say, no matter how compelling I believe my argument to be, that will preclude the oversimplification of our sometimes perilous situation. I will, however, continue to make the invitation that people experiment with the features of a broader and more profound view of creation and its potential meaning. The individualistic perspective will certainly remain with us, because it is sometimes valuable and necessary, though it is not always the most useful perspective at our disposal.

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I believe that creation carries, in its essence, the potential for continued development. What I hope for, and what I will continue to work towards in this new year is the implementation of a more universal perspective in politics, business, neighborhood relations, and religion. I invite you to join me.

Please add your comments and perspectives.

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reflections on Christmas

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

Friday, December 17, 2010

There are Journeys, and then There are Journeys

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.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What Do I Want to Do? Reflections on Freedom of Choice

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

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Consensus in Community

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Recovery in Community

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.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Does God Want?

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.”

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Addiction: The Enemy of Community

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.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Community, Politics, Money, and the Sound-Bite

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.”
“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

Thursday, October 28, 2010


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.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Healing Presence in an Anxious Community

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.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are Opinions True?

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?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Togetherness and Individuality

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.”

Friday, October 1, 2010


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.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Some Whys and Hows of Religion

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.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

What If...?

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Courage to Listen

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.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Healthy Communication for Healthy Community

“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.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Little Help from My Friends


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."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writing a Second Novel - Not Like the First

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."

Friday, August 6, 2010

A "Chautauqua" Event

I had a wonderful experience this week at a "Chautauqua" Event in Homer, NY.
A Chautauqua event is based on the model of the Summer institute programs at Chautauqua, NY ( It includes classes, speakers, ecumenical worship, and music/arts. The Cortland (NY) Council of Churches has been holding this one-week event for many years. This year one of the class offerings each evening was a talk by a local author. I was privileged to be one of the presenters. The attendees were interested in hearing about how the book came into being, how it was published, and how fiction can be a powerful tool for theological reflection. I even sold a few books that I was happy to autograph.

From a personal perspective, I find that talking about "Community of Promise" and its process of coming into being helps me remember how exciting this whole experience really is for me. The story took on a life of its own a long time ago, but it keeps teaching me in deeper and deeper ways. In addition, it is touching to hear people describe their experiences of reading the book. One person told me how reading then novel creates a holy space for her. That echoes my own sentiment. While it is a playful exercise that looks at an old story from a somewhat eccentric perspective, it also illuminates some of the ways that people can relate to the divine. In some traditions, people try to restrict that relationship to very narrow terms, but I find that stories like this create a healthy expanded awareness of the rich diversity of relationships that people have with the "God of their understanding."

If you haven't read it yet, I invite you into the experience. If you have read it and enjoyed it, please pass the word along to others. Posts to Facebook and other social media about your experiences help immensely. Finally, if you wish to share your experience of the story, please comment here on this blog.
(Click below if you want to share it on one or more of your networks.)

Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Wayne Gustafson
"The Promised Land is within and among us."

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How we can help change the book distribution world

Here is a copy of the post I just submitted to LinkedIn, Books and Writers Group.

In a previous LinkedIn discussion (Book Distribution in a Changing Industry) I asked a question about alternate distribution models that might work with my novel (see

Among the comments in that discussion, Blaine Loomer suggested that I check out Because I am particularly interested in supporting independent bookstores rather than the "big boxes," I asked for some information about bookstores that had already signed on to wubbit. I understand perfectly well why he didn't reveal store names at that time (good boundaries, Blaine.)

I have just signed up with wubbit and I want to tell you why. (I am sharing this completely on my own - I receive no benefit from publishing these comments beyond potential book sales.)

I have a strong interest in seeing the development of some new distribution models - like wubbit. Of course, I wanted to see that wubbit was already wildly successful before I invested my hard-earned $36. But then in my research, I discovered a dilemma that is facing wubbit, and perhaps any other start-up. You see, I wanted to know that there were lots of bookstores just waiting to hear about MY book.

Then I realized that bookstores might want to see that there were already thousands of books available at wubbit before they jumped in. Of course, now you see the dilemma. So I decided that I could only take responsibility for my part of the picture. If I am truly committed to the development of more flexible distribution models, then I must be willing to support companies that are trying to do just that.

I decided to finish my sign-up at wubbit before writing to all of you. I want you to know that I have used my $36 not only to make "Community of Promise" more available but to support the transformation of the industry as well.

If you also desire to see the publishing/distribution industry's transformation, I hope you authors and small publishers will make your books available on wubbit, too. Just think how impressed all those independent bookstores will be when they see all our titles there. By the way, I also told my local indy about wubbit. I see this as a way to help one another be successful in this challenging market.

Let's all find even more ways to sell lots of books!

Wayne Gustafson

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Truth in Fiction

Just in the last couple of centuries, certain vocal elements in the world of religion have promoted the idea that in order for religious texts to be authentic, they must be literally true. This relatively new idea causes people to look at these writings in a narrow way. For example, in the Hebrew scriptures such readers must accept or reject the reality of the serpent in the garden, the parting of the sea, or the collapse of the walls of Jericho. Or, to give a few more examples, in the Christian Scriptures they struggle with virgin births, healing miracles, or resurrections.

The inevitable upshot of this literalistic approach is to create a split between one-dimensional believers and reactionary atheists, largely because it leaves no room for complex or paradoxical (luke-warm?) understandings. So, the only remaining choices are to believe it all or reject it all. I know many people who practice a deep spirituality but consider themselves atheists, having rejected the full acceptance of the predominant religious view. Fortunately not all religion operates that way. Many religious traditions value the paradoxical in their search for deeper understandings of the truth.

For the sake of this post, I want to look at a similar potential dichotomy regarding fiction writing. Seen in a superficial way, fiction might simply be the product of the author's imagination with no relationship at all to truth. Some people caught in the literalistic perspective have also relegated "myth" to the ash heap of "perhaps interesting, but made-up stories."

Though I have studied theology for almost four decades, my recent experience of writing a novel based on the biblical Moses gave me some new perspectives on the "truth" of mystical revelation and on the qualities of relationship with divine spirit. I have come to believe that "Community of Promise" illuminates the truth, even though there is not one shred of historical evidence for most of the story.

I have been so impressed by the process, that I want to encourage everyone at least to read good fiction, or better yet, to write it. For the record, it is clear to me that fiction does not have to be overtly religious to shine the light of deeper understanding on human reality. We can be of great help to one another by using our fiction to illuminate hidden corners of truth that other approaches overlook.

Wayne Gustafson
"The Promised Land is within and among us."

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Getting the Word Out

I suppose there are lots of reasons why people write and perhaps those and a few other reasons why people publish their writings. When I started writing "Community of Promise," I didn't think much about publishing. I had not set out even to be a novelist! I have been a minister and pastoral counselor/ psychotherapist for almost four decades, so naturally I have written countless newsletters and sermons. But a novelist? It never occurred to me that I might write fiction someday.

"Community of Promise" began with a single scene: Moses stands before the Jordan River, preparing to cross with the rest of the Israelites to inhabit the Promised Land - the goal of a lifetime. But he's having second thoughts. His people had learned so much in the wilderness about being a community that derived its identity from a very personal relationship with the God who had rescued them and chosen them, and from their shared experience of surviving out there for 40 years. Would they forget all they had learned when their focus turned to the business of exterminating the residents of Canaan, to property ownership and government? Moses feared exactly that outcome! And he decided he couldn't bear watching it happen to the people he loved.

From that germ of an idea, I got curious. What would Moses do if he felt the way I have described? Motivating me by that question, the story insisted on being discovered and written.

Now that "Community of Promise" is in print, the focus naturally shifts to the potential reader. Here is a question for you, dear potential reader, that I am now motivated to ask: "What if the Promised Land is more about quality of community than geography or ownership?"

If that question intrigues you, I invite you to read "Community of Promise" - and then, once you have read it, let me know how it has spoken to you. And, if you feel further motivated, invite others to read it, too.


Wayne Gustafson

Monday, July 5, 2010

My Commitment to Regular Posting

Greetings friends,

Since setting up this blog site, I have been consumed with ending my Interim Ministry position with The Park Church, Elmira, and beginning to reinvent my life. My last post was in April 2010.

Little by little I am identifying the specific commitments that are required for me to move ahead. (I am expanding my Pastoral Counseling practice, too, but I won't deal with that here – just the parts of my life that are related to marketing “Community of Promise” and preparing to write another novel.)

I commit myself to writing in this blog once a week. I found with my previous blog ( that if I succumbed to the temptation publish posts more than once a week then I would also be tempted to write less frequently at other times. Once a week seems to be a realistic commitment. I plan to publish on Wednesday mornings and will write that into my schedule.

Some of what I write will be updates on the process, but I will also write about issues raised in “Community of Promise.” So, if you have questions or issues that you would like me to address or that you would like to start a conversation about, use the comments feature below to begin.

For now, suffice it to say that I have sold 206 copies of the book.

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

First Reading

Well, I held my first book reading last night with a small group of people in the community where I live. I like the feeling of reading the story out loud. Perhaps when I write the next book I will try reading the whole thing out loud as an editing technique. Any awkwardness in a sentence stands right out when read aloud.

It seemed to me that hearing pieces of my fictional account about Moses stimulated the listeners' curiosity around the Biblical Story itself. I think that's a good thing. I think there is so much richness in the basic story that it invites imaginative fiction.

The story in Community of Promise does not feel like something I manufactured. I think I discovered it instead. I find that each time I read some of it, the story and the characters speak to me anew. I hope others will have that experience, too.

I have a couple of promising events coming up in the next few weeks. It's time to sell, sell, sell. If you've read the novel and you like it, I invite you to tell your friends about it. I am also looking forward to more readings and author appearances. You can help me out there, too. Please inform me of opportunities you hear about.

Thanks for reading (and for reading!).

Wayne Gustafson
"The Promised Land is within and among you."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

I Have Books!

Greetings friends and followers,

My order of books was delivered on Friday, March 26. What an experience it is to hold an actual book of mine in my own hands. My neighbor, Megan Pugh has created a beautiful cover. I couldn't have made a better choice. If you have graphics work to be done, check out her website at

Well, two things are about to change in my life. I will be completing my Interim Ministry at The Park Church, Elmira, NY in June. (By the way, while at The Park Church, I wrote a blog about Healthy Liberal Christianity for about 18 or so months. If you are interested, you can find it at
Also, I will be shifting my energy to offering workshops (where I can sell books) and writing. I have a couple of new ideas for books and I'm ready to get down to it.

Over the next few days, I will send copies to those who have pre-ordered them.
Thanks for your support.

Wayne Gustafson

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I am about to enter a totally new phase of life. When I started writing "Community of Promise" several years ago, I never dreamed that I would end up creating my own publishing company to print, distribute and market the novel.

I plan to write in this blog about the process that I am going through. I will include what it is like to receive 1000 copies of the book next week, my upcoming experiences of speaking, selling, and marketing, and perhaps I will include some comments on what it was like to write the novel in the first place.

Right now, I want to welcome you to this blog and invite your comments and suggestions. If you are an author also, please send me your website information so I can include it in my links. I hope you will reciprocate and put this my address on your site, also.

Right at the moment I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole process. In the last month I have pre-sold about 100 copies and I think I have a good marketing plan for the rest (only 900 more to sell!). We'll see how it goes.

If you click on the link at the right, it will take you to the website for "Community of Promise." I welcome your comments about that site, too.

But for now, let me tell you how I got the idea for the story. In my dual professional role of minister and pastoral counselor, I have worked for many years with clients who suffered under a variety of addictions. Making use of that experience and my background, I designed a workshop about "Addiction and Spirituality" in which I made use of the Biblical story of the Exodus as a metaphor for the addiction, recovery, relapse prevention process. I learned through that workshop that addicts who are recovering often experience the proverbial "Promised Land" more while they are in treatment than after they have returned to their "regular lives." I began wondering if the most profound experience of the "Promised Land" might actually belong more to the time in the Wilderness than to the geographic Promised Land.

A few years ago, well after the creation of my workshop, I was serving as the interim minister in a church. A parishioner asked me this question after services one Sunday:
"Why was Moses not allowed to enter the promised land after all he had done for the Israelites?" It seemed unfair to her. I heard myself answer: Well, perhaps rather than being prohibited from entering the Promised Land, Moses was actually allowed not to go. Perhaps he feared that the people were about to lose touch with the important lessons of the Wilderness when they began the conquest and governance of this new land across the Jordan River.

My answer to her in concert with my thoughts on the wilderness experience quickly turned into the beginnings of a story. I call it the "Community of Promise."

Thanks for reading so far. Please come back again - there is more to tell.