All By Myself
For the last few centuries, our modern civilization has highly prized autonomy. Beginning as a child, I am been conditioned to believe that I can do it all by myself. To need the help of someone else makes me a lesser person. The problem with this sort of self-assurance robs us of the privilege of needing the other. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, God equips us with strengths that we can use to bless others and shortcomings where others can bless us.
As individuals, we need one another. The Bible testifies that this goes right back to the beginning. In The Adam and Eve story, God says “It is not good for the man to be alone.” God’s creation wasn’t complete until there were people living in community with one another. But given our culture’s obsession with self-reliance, we can easily Christianize this belief and fall into the mistake of believing that, while I need to live in dependence of God, it would somehow lessen God if I also depended on others.
Transforming through community
We all have a little hypocrite inside. Many of us have a keenly developed sense of what we should do while our actions lag behind. Not only that, we also know what our motivations ought to be, but more often they’re a mixed bag of pure and impure motives. In the language of Bruxy Cavey we experience a hypocrisy gap. That’s the discrepancy between what we know what ought to do and how we ought to be motivated (belief) and our actual motivations and actions. The bigger the discrepancy, the more hypocritical we are. In the illustration, the empty space is the hypocrisy gap.
Unfortunately, left to ourselves, we’ll very rarely force ourselves to do better. Rationalizing away the inconsistencies in our lives isn’t a difficult thing to do. We’re full of excuses about why we’re just not able to do what we know we ought to do. It often takes the voice of another to hold us to account. Only when we’re in community, and only when we’re invested enough in community to heed the input of others, will we allow our shortcomings to be challenged and corrected. That’s for the ways we’re aware we’re falling short, but then there are our collective blind spots.
Why Embracing Diverse People Is So Important
Our culture easily identifies exclusion as a problem to be overcome and on this front we agree with them. Racial violence is a near constant fixture in our news. We see the terrible toll of cyber-bullying in the lives of children and teenagers. Nations fight bloody wars because centuries of festering animosity won’t allow them to live at peace with one another. In all of these cases we see people or groups who mistreat others they see as different than themselves and the consequences can be disastrous.
In our broader culture, this has led to an emphasis on inclusion. This often amounts to minimizing the differences between ourselves, explaining them away as insignificant. We tell ourselves that the differences between us are merely superficial. We all want basically the same things out of life. In some cases this is sort of true. Race, as a physical phenomenon, is purely superficial. What this ignores is all the history that surrounds race. In the US, the African American community is not simply a group of people with darker skin than others, they are a group with a unique and traumatic history. It’s only been about 150 years since African American slaves were bought and sold as property in a country whose constitution claimed that all men were created equal. Simply glossing over this historical difference as something in the past that is no longer relevant doesn’t work, because that history is an integral part of their common identity.
Finding Safe Places in Scripture
At first glance, it might look like safe places, one of our core values, has no scriptural backing. The words don’t appear in any translation of the Bible that I’ve ever read. If nightlight is a Christian charity, you might ask yourself, why does safe places make their top four foundational values?
While the words themselves don’t appear as such in the Bible, the concept of safe places finds deep scriptural roots in the Kingdom of God, a theme at the very centre of Jesus’ teaching.
To those who look at the gospels trying to find where Jesus says, “pray a prayer saying you believe in me and you’ll be forgiven and get to go to heaven,” all his talk about the Kingdom of God might seem a bit mystifying. If these are the gospels, why does “the gospel” seem so difficult to pinpoint within them?
The gospel, or good news as I prefer to call it (that’s the literal meaning of the Greek), is about God taking the initiative in Jesus to be reconciled to creation. It’s about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, it’s about God ruling as king on the Earth. Hence Kingdom of God.
During our recent visioning process, we set out our new mission statement, “We mobilize people to overcome exclusion though life-giving relational communities” (see our previous post for more details). At its heart, this statement is really about what we try to do. Another key part of our vision is our motivation, why we do what we do ? After some soul-searching, we came up with 4 core values that we value that shape the way we carry out our mission statement.
We recognize that as a Christian organization, there is a tendency for us to put things like Worship and Love as core values. We affirm the importance of these things, but for the purposes of our list, we’re focusing on what makes nightlight distinct from other organizations and churches.
Our Core Values
1. Creating Safe Places – Creating warm and hospitable environments in which relationships can flourish
2. Embracing Diverse People – Seeing the image of God in every person
3. Transforming Together – Encouraging each other to align with the heart of God
4. Living in Companionship – recognizing our mutual need of one another
Explaining these core values will take a little space, so in future blog posts we’ll dive a little deeper and tell you about the things that make us, as an organization tick. Stay tuned, and feel free to comment (please try to keep things civil if you disagree with us or with another commenter).
Reshaping Our Language
When nightlight was first conceived 11 years ago, its first mission was to claim the inner city of Guelph for God. When nightlight as an organization was born, about 4 years ago, the visioning process ran a little deeper. Now that nightlight has grown to 2 locations, with more possible locations on the horizon, we found it was time to have a look at our mission one more time.
That’s not to say that what nightlight is is really in flux, but as we do what we do, we come to a deeper understanding of what it is that God has called us to. We run drop in centres. We create safe spaces for people normally pushed to the margins. We try to practically show people the love and acceptance of a God who took the initiative to mend the broken relationship with humanity. We’ve had some time to try to put that all in a cohesive framework.
In his book Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf writes about how we construct identities that become insurmountable obstacles to having engaging with one another in a constructive way. The Christian must embody the will to embrace the other. This is not mere inclusion where we minimize the differences between us. When we embrace the other, we recognize their differences, but we choose not to allow those differences to keep us from expressing the love of God to the other. At the cross God embraces sinful humanity. He calls Those who bear his name to take up their cross do the same.
Our new mission statement is
Mobilizing people to overcome exclusion through life-giving relational communities.
Unpacking it a bit
Mobilizing people: nightlight has always been a voice challenging people to practice what they believe. The North American church knows that God calls Christians to help the poor and needy, but often that call never turns into action. The need seems overwhelmingly large. Our time and resources seem so limited. nightlight calls people to serve starting with a small, manageable commitment of a few hours a week. Of course, this is but the first step in a journey of discipleship.
Overcome exclusion: Society values people for different reasons. Some are attractive. Some are powerful or wealthy. Christian doctrine teaches us that human worth is not found in what we do, what we have or what we look like, but it is given to us by God who makes us in his image and who gives of himself to redeem us. God says we all have infinite worth, not just the rich, attractive or influential, not even just the good: Christ died for sinners (Romans 5:8). Christians can’t simply seal themselves off in a moral bubble from those who don’t fit their idea of “all put together.” We need to understand the depth of our own sinfulness and the extend of God’s redemptive grace at work in us. If we do, we’ll begin to see ourselves in the marginalized. We’ll begin to regard them with compassion, and we’ll stand in solidarity with them. This doesn’t erase difference, but it breaks down barriers across which we are unable to reach out.
Life-giving relational communities: Our previous mission statement talked about meaningful relationships. Over the past few years, we’ve learned how ambiguous those words can be. Some people came to nightlight thinking it was a singles bar. This language helps to clarify the kinds of relationships we’re striving to make.
First, they should be life-giving. By this we mean that the relationships should demonstrate safe, healthy and positive interaction. The volunteers should also exhibit the Christ-filled grace, love forgiveness and integrity in their relationships towards guests, helping them to see something of who Jesus is and why his message is applicable to them.
Secondly, nightlight is about community: While we don’t discourage the growth of individual friendships, we also recognize that people need to belong to a community. We seek to offer people a place to belong in relationship with others: a space to be accepted, encouraged and celebrated. If the poverty of relationships is really at the core of what causes other forms of poverty, then establishing communities where people are loved, supported, challenged and encouraged attacks the very foundation of poverty.
Not convinced that relational poverty is really the problem? What if your mother or brother or sister suffered from a mental illness or addiction problem and lived on the street? Would they stay there, or would you do whatever you needed to do to help them? Those of us who don’t live in relational poverty have people to support us when life sends us off the rails. Those who are relationally poor have only their own resources to draw upon. When those resources aren’t enough to cope with the setbacks and challenges in life, things tend to spiral out of control. Building life-giving relational communities gives people the support and encouragement that can help them succeed where otherwise they might be stymied.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30 NIV). Jesus is speaking about the sacrifices and benefits of being a part of the body of Christ. We may be called to lay aside comforts, possessions, even relationships that make claims on us incompatible with our commitment to Jesus, but by being incorporated into the church, a body of believers who have done the same, we become relationally rich, finding brothers, sisters and possessions we never knew we had. Jesus calls Christians to lay aside the riches and comforts the world tells them to pursue, in order that they can find relational riches: reconciliation with God and with people in the church. It’s the church’s responsibility to take this same reconciliation to the world, inviting those on the outside into fellowship with themselves and with God. In the end, we must recognize alienation at the root of the world’s problems. The good news of Jesus is about reconciliation of the world’s people to God and, in the church, to each other. Nightlight strives to be a small part of that process.