Reality vs. Sterotypes

Reality vs. Sterotypes

Everyone (Who Counts) Is Just Like Me

In our culture its easy to fence ourselves off from people who aren’t like us. Chances are we live in a neighbourhood where people are from a similar socio-economic background. The people we work with are often like us. We worship at churches where there is very little diversity. All of our contacts reinforce the idea that the way we live is “normal.”  Sure, there are other people out there who don’t fit into my concept for normalcy, but they must be an anomaly, an exception to the rule. Most people must live like me. We begin to create an understanding of reality that places my experiences and preferences at the normal centre and looks at deviation from them as an aberration. We have two ways of dealing with those who aren’t like us, we either pretend they don’t exist (or at least not in significant enough numbers that they should discredit my ordering of reality) or we construct a stereotype with which we paint them all. We do this politically when conservatives look at liberals as a bunch of bleeding hearts and liberals look at conservatives as universally greedy and uncaring. We can do this socioeconomically when we look at those with more than us as fat cats who are exploiting us or when we look at those with less as lazy and unmotivated. In each case, our understanding of the other is built from ideology and not from real experience. Perhaps we have a hard time distinguishing reality vs. stereotype.

Understanding the Tension: Reality vs. Stereotype

In my time at nightlight, I’ve come to understand that there are no shortcuts in getting to know people. No political ideology or stereotype is sufficient to understand whole groups of people. I had ideas about what people at the margins were like, but it wasn’t until I met and interacted with quite a few of them, that I started to understand something about the lives of the particular people I’d met. I can make some more informed generalizations, but even there, I simply risk making a more informed stereotype. All people aren’t the same, even those who share certain characteristics.

Breaking down this sort of stereotyping is an important goal. After all, beliefs that whole groups of people are the same (always in some undesirable way) have we have seen such evils in history as chattel slavery or genocide. Stereotypes about certain racial, ethnic, socio-economic or political groups allow us to dehumanize them, to blame them for what we believe is wrong with the world and to absolve ourselves to any responsibility to them. Like Cain, we refuse to be our brothers’ keeper.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus challenges our categorization of others. A Samaritan, reviled by Jews for his ethnicity, showed kindness that religious Jews would not. It’s fair to say that part of what Jesus is saying is that people can surprise you. The people who are like you aren’t necessarily your friends, and the people unlike you don’t have to be your enemies.

What Would Jesus Do?

How has the church done? There’s evidence that many of us haven’t done well (forgive me painting with such a broad brush). Perhaps we’re guilty of disowning our brothers and sisters in Christ because they interpret certain passages of scripture differently than we do. We’ve vilified those whose political leanings aren’t the same as ours. We’ve written off people from other Christian denominations: what do we think of Evangelicals? Mainline Protestants? Catholics? Orthodox?

Outside of the church, how do we view the poor? Are they all a group of people who deserve their place because they’re lazy and immoral, or does our view of reality allow for more nuance? Do we understand that there isn’t always a clear line between victim and perpetrator? Do we understand the difficulty of those in poverty getting out of it? Might some be victims of circumstances outside of our control? The existence of people who are other than me might seem inconvenient to me, but it’s only as I interact with that inconvenient other, that I see them for who they are, not as an abstraction, but as a human being for whom Christ died. A human with hopes and dreams and talents whatever their flaws.

The next time you’re tempted to write off a whole group of people because you believe they’re all the same, resist the temptation. If you don’t like the poor, make a point to meet some of them. If you don’t like people form a certain denomination, meet of some of them. After all, Jesus could always have said, “human beings. They’re all the same. They’re not worth the effort to save. Let ’em burn.” Instead, Jesus sought and saved wayward people like you and me. It’s our job to do the same.

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PS. nighltight is a multi-denominational drop-in centre allowing Christians from many different denominations to serve people at the Margins. We’re currently open in Belleville and Kingston Ontario. it’s a great place to meet people who are differen than you are, whether they be the poor, the lonely, the needy or Christians from a different denomination. Find out more about volunteering at one of our drop-in centres,

Where is God in the midst of my  plenty?

Where is God in the midst of my plenty?

by Peter Law

Autonomy versus Interdependence

It’s easy to think that pain, suffering and disappointment would keep us from knowing God. We might conclude that an all-loving, all-powerful God should make all my problems go away, so the presence of struggle in my life might serve as evidence that God isn’t among us. Yet it seems the opposite is actually the case. It is in the place of need and discomfort that people cry out to God for help, for comfort and for guidance.

Our culture has taught us that autonomy is something we should long after. I should have enough money that I don’t need to rely on others. On a family level, my family should be able to take care of my needs without taxing the community. Autonomy means that my options are open, the possibilities are limitless. But is autonomy really what we need? Does it fulfill us, or does it merely numb the pain of life in a fallen world?

In the book of Revelation, the author records instructions from Jesus seven church. In the letter to the church at Laodicea, Jesus confronts the complacency that the church’s material abundance has produced: “you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17 NRSV). It seems the people of that church were satisfied with the status quo, but Jesus tells them they’ve set the bar far too low. They had become satisfied with the best that the kingdom of this world and had lost sight of the greater kingdom to which God was calling them—his kingdom. Their relative comfort had led them to forget that there is something beyond what they can see, hear, taste and touch. They became like a toddler so caught up with playing with the box, that they miss the wonderful gift their parents have given them.

We can fall for the same trap. On January 14 of this year, the american lottery Powerball, offered a 1.5 billion dollar jackpot. Even people from Canada were heading in droves to the US to buy tickets. The allure of having more money than you could ever spend is powerful. Even though your odds of winning were astronomically slim —1 in 292 million—the rush of so many people to buy tickets should cause us to ask a fundamental question: would winning that much money really enhance my life, or merely blind me to the blessed reality of my need for God and his church? It comes down to competing values autonomy versus interdependence.

Learning to rely on one another

God created humans to live in relationship to himself and with each other. Humanity’s choice to sin alienated us from God and that alienation flows out into human relationships (We see this dynamic in place in Genesis 3, where God confronts Adam about his sin and he throws Eve under the bus, blaming her for it all in order to avoid personal responsibility). Through Jesus, we are invited into the Kingdom of God, a place where we have been reconciled to God and the power of that reconciliation overflows to our human relationships.

The kingdom of God is not merely one where everyone lives as an island unto themselves in a private, blessed, relationship with God. Rather, in God’s kingdom, God has chosen to make us dependent not just on him, but also on one another. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul talks about how God made the members of the church different so that we might meet one another’s need, ” God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be” (I Cor. 12:18-19 NRSV). We’ve all been given abilities and shortcomings that allow us to be a blessing to one another, but also allow us to be blessed by others. This is because interdependence, not autonomy is a value of God’s Kingdom. It is relationship with the other, specifically the different other, that enriches my life.

at nightlight we seek to build bridges between the the church and “the other” those who are unlike the people we tend to see in our Sunday morning gatherings, because it’s in these relationships that I finally find the gift that God had been hiding inside the box that has so mesmerized me. Riches and unending good fortune allow me to forget that I have needs for God and need for others. In life’s more humbling circumstances, when I realize my needs I can’t meet myself, that I discover the true wealth of community.

The Mission of the Church

The Mission of the Church

by Peter Law

the Mission of the Church: Where Does It Come From?

the mission of the church: Jesus ascendingThe missional church movement is all the rage in discussions about what the church ought to be. Nailing down precisely what it means is difficult, even for the people who started the movement. However, one of the features that comes up over and over again among those who discuss it is that mission is not an activity the church does, but it is something that God does. The church is the church because it’s the body through whom God has chosen to carry out his mission. In other words the mission of the church is to be the group of people called together to act out God’s mission to the world.

What then, can we say about God’s mission? Is it a surprise twist that Jesus sneaks in just before he leaves: “Hey guys go around and tell people that I lived, died and rose again…Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, I want you to tell all those Gentiles too.” Or is mission absolutely central to what God has been up to since the beginning?

I’ll let cat out of the bag now: mission isn’t something God just decided to do moments before Jesus ascended to heaven. Instead it’s at the very centre of all of his dealings with people, right from the beginning. And I do mean the beginning.

Mission and Adam and Eve

The mission of the church: Adam & EveBiblical scholars have long noted the similarities of the Adam and Eve story with other creation stories found in the region. These stories typically follow a predictable format that recounts how the deity created, defeated his enemies and established his own cult on earth. The Genesis story borrows some of these features, but turns the story on its head in order to highlight the different sort of God it is trying to describe.

In the other creation stories, the god defeats a rival god and destroys him or her. Then he establishes a religion, builds a temple and puts his image (an idol) in the temple. In the Biblical story, God creates a good creation (no bodies of slain adversaries needed), the entirety of which is his temple and his last creative act is to put his image (living, breathing human beings not stone or wood statues) into it. The drama in the biblical creation narrative arrises not from the presence of rival gods per se, but when God’s highest creation, human beings, choose to disobey God, usurping God’s place and, in essence, declaring themselves to be gods.

The manner in which God handles this must have seemed puzzling to the original readers. They would have expected God to fall on those upstart pseudo-gods with all the fury he can muster. Instead, his reaction is far more muted. There are consequences, but yet the perpetrators are allowed to live on. Even before God pronounces judgement on the man and the woman, he hints at the rescue plan that is to come.

And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.” (Gen 3:15)

Mission and Abraham

The mission of the church: AbrahamAs Christians we might think that this whole plan of redemption begins with the incarnation of Jesus, but that’s missing most of the story. The primeval history of Genesis 1-11 serves as an epilogue to the story of God’s mission beginning with Abram (later, Abraham). in Abram’s call in Genesis 12, the first thing God says to him is

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
 I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:2-3)

We often pay attention to the beginning of this passage and neglect the end. God is blessing Abraham, but in doing so, he has a much larger goal in view. His blessing to Abraham is the opening move in a grand strategy that will bless all nations of the earth. The apostle Paul later comments that this is the first instance of the gospel being proclaimed (Gal. 3:8).

What shall we conclude then? The mission of God is not a last minute plot twist thrown in by Jesus as he is departing, but it’s something God has been up to since the very moment human sin made it necessary. God is, and always has been, the God whose love reaches out to his enemies, seeking to turn them into friends.

God’s Mission Shapes the Mission of the Church

When the church’s mission is based on a few verses in scripture, (Matt 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 1:8) we can wonder what it is that we’re supposed to do when going to the nations. Instead, when we understand the richness of what God has done, starting with Abraham and culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we understand that our approach to the world needs to mirror the radical self-giving love, compassion and forgiveness that God has shown us. We must also never forget that just as Abraham’s blessing was not merely for his enjoyment, but a means of blessing the whole world, our election always has God’s desire for universal reconciliation at its heart. God’s grace doesn’t make us better than anyone else, it is a gift freely given to us. Carrying out God’s mission, then, means freely giving it to others.

A Christian Response to Addiction

A Christian Response to Addiction

By Peter Law

As a Christian ministry that works with people on the margins, we see many people with addiction problems. This begs the question, “what should be a Christian response to addiction”? The church has often struggled with how to respond to people with addictions. Our way of addressing them has often been one that simply tells the person to stop doing what they’re doing. The results have often been disappointing with people falling off the wagon with alarming frequency.

But perhaps our approach has been wrong all along. Psychological research suggests it’s not the chemicals themselves that cause the problems, but that relational deficits push people towards addictive behaviour. This isn’t always welcome news, since it’s easy to tell a person to get off drugs. But it’s much harder to open yourself up to relationship with a person, but that’s probably what they most need.

This isn’t just a pious sounding theory. Secular psychologists have also identified healthy bonding as the cure of addiction. This YouTube video by In a good conversation starter about the nature of addiction and relationships. Give it a watch.

Of course, not all bonds are created equal. Some relationships enable or encourage addictive behaviour. I’m reminded of a high school friend who was trying to quit smoking. His father, also a smoker, used to badger him into smoking with him. Those sorts of toxic relationships are often more likely to reinforce addiction than to break it. It’s as we build healthy relationships with people whose overriding concern is to see us flourish, that those relationships begin can help us bring freedom from issues that hold us captive.

So what does that mean for us? It means that our response to addicts—and not just drug addicts and alcoholics, but porn, video game and gambling addicts, materialists, people with eating disorders, workaholics and every other person whose addictive behaviour is keeping them from being truly free—is not to distance ourselves from them, but to seek meaningful engagement with them. As we become friends with them in a non-condescending way that their need for their addiction may grow less. Of course there will be set backs along the way. It will be a far more costly process than simply telling them to stop would be. But Christ comes to us in relationship, offering reconciliation through God’s grace. Rather than simply telling us to do better, he offers himself. Our job is the same, becoming an embodiment of Christ’s grace to others in relationship. It’s in that place that we can truly be the embodiment of Christ in their lives.

Greg Paul: Redeeming The Word “Religion”

Greg Paul: Redeeming The Word “Religion”

Greg Paulon November 11, 2015, Geneva House, The Navigators and Nightlight jointly sponsored a lecture by Greg Paul at Queens University. In the lecture, entitled “Redeeming The Word ‘Religion’ Through Social Justice,”  Mr. Paul discusses the discomfort many Christians have with the word “religion.” He believes that it can and should be redeemed by authentic Jesus followers in the church living out their faith in a tangible fashion. If we go where he went and do what he did, then our religious observance would please God and would seem far less empty to the surrounding culture.

Listen to Greg Paul’s Lecture here



Compassion Hurts

Compassion Hurts

by Peter Law

Protecting ourselves vs. helping others

In Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, A catholic bishop in a French town takes in a stranger. The man, an ex-convict named Jean Valjean, has been denied food and shelter everywhere he’s gone. Filled with compassion, the bishop takes the man in. During the night, Valjean makes off with the bishops valuables. Shortly thereafter, he’s arrested and brought back by the police back. Asking if he’d like to press charges, the bishop says that it’s all been a misunderstanding. Incredibly, he covers for Valjean, saying that he had given him the possessions he had in fact stolen and that Valjean had actually forgotten some of it.

The bishop in the story shows compassion and hospitality, even at great personal risk. When harmed, he does not regret this compassion, but adds to it. That Valjean’s life will be radically transformed by this act of love is something the bishop can’t possibly know. He is compassionate because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what Jesus would do. (more…)