The Sun Came Out!

sunrise mural

This week-end marked a new pattern from the usual, eat work, sleep routine. I was off for 4 days for the Easter long week-end. The weather was beautiful. Sunny, clear blue skies, warm weather.

The most perfect weather for Easter sunrise services, gallivanting by bike around the city with my toddler in tow, and planting a new crop in the backyard garden.

One amazing thing about beautiful weather is not only the ability to lift one’s spirits, but also to bring people together.

Since being introduced to Christian communal living 10 years ago in the Downtown Eastside living out the call of radical hospitality has been one of the main ways my family expresses our faith. This call is taken literally from Jesus’ teaching when he was confronted with the role of power and prestige in his day.

Jesus challenged the privileged of his day “When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a fast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just”. (Luke 14:12-13).

All winter it seems that I have been living for myself; socializing with the people at work I get along with, visiting family, dutifully going to church. But this week-end was different. This weekend I felt alive again because I was able to live out Jesus’ call of inviting people into our home for dinner who cannot pay us back.

This happened on various occasions every day where friends from our church here in the inner city came and dropped in. I was able to be present most of the time and share friendship and a few honest conversations, including some laughs.

This week-end also included gathering with a few other local churches in our neighborhood for Easter Services who have similar values. I reveled in the collective prayers on Easter morning and the strength of each voice and their diverse emphasize on different parts of God’s work (salvation, creation, beauty, atonement, etc). It was incredibly uplifting to be surrounded by such a tangible cloud of witnesses.

It was enough to jolt me out of my eat, work, sleep haze and remind me that, yes, Jesus still dwells in me and sometimes, I get a glimpse of what it is to live in the Kingdom of God.

What is the purpose of church?

Many people who have grown up in the church have questioned the need and relevance for the formal gathered “institutional” church. People wonder whether all the organization and jargon just further distances people from God.  Church attendance inaccurately pretends to visually allow people to measure one another’s level of faithfulness to God and that is disconcerting.  We often do not agree with the message being spoken, and are bored or uninterested in church services.  Or even worse, we realize that we come to be entertained but have no real relationships with the fellow people in the pews. Churches seem stuck in their ways and in many ways embody oppression in ways that are quite embarrassing.  

I’ve attended numerous different denominations, both high and low, liberal and conversavative. I’ve had the opportunity to visit churches around the world and pray with others in many different languages.

I’ll be upfront: I’m a proponent of “church” but am pretty loose in what that means.

Jesus says where two or three are gathered in his name, there Jesus is with us (Matthew 18:20).  We do not need a large crowd, a specific structure, but a gathering of those who believe to be with Jesus.

Similarly Paul encourages the believers not to stop meeting with each other (Hebrews 10:24-25).  This indicates to me that it is important to regularly and consistently gather one another in order to spur one another to live obedient lives and love each other and those around us.

Culturally, the temple life played a significant role in providing meaning and religious teaching in the lives of Jews in Jesus’ time.  We know that Peter and Paul (and Jesus) likely still continued to go to temple as there are numerous stories where healings take place in such contexts. 

In our culture too, the people will continue to look to the visible church when they are searching and wondering about Jesus.  Having different expressions of the church, but being visibly gathered says something to the culture around us, hopefully something good if we are truly living out the gospel in love.

Right now, I write this post as my little church is dwindling small and I am beginning to feel discouraged.  We don’t have amazing musicians and well-known preachers. I have to remember why we gather together. 

My answer is to be a witness to Jesus by loving each other.  My little church is made up of outcasts and sinners.  On any given Sunday I count 50% of the people who attend have a mental illness or addiction.  This is not glamorous, but it does mean that we are welcoming those to the table that will not invite us back to dinner themselves (Luke 14).  This takes lots of practice in loving and a commitment to people, week after week.  That is church to me.

Why I love group work

When I first began my MSW program I had a practicum at a men’s addiction recovery program where I led many groups.  I found this is where I shone.  I loved to engage the variety of people, to come up with interesting questions to spark conversation, to observe the intergroup interactions and the roles people take on.  I loved the way profound insight from one person could impact another in the group. 

Group work takes many forms.  The most commonly led group today by therapists and social workers is the psycho-educational group, although peer-led self-help groups may be the most widely practiced within society.  Psychoeducational groups usually balance a mix of education on a particular disorder or method of coping with therapeutic processing.

People often wonder about the efficacy and therapeutic value of groups.  In many studies they have been found as useful as individual therapy for certain conditions.  I have read Irvin Yalom’s The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy http://www.yalom.com/pagemaker.php?nav=tap&subframe=summary and have found it fascinating.  It is a good book to start with if you are interested in developing a foundation in group work.  Some of what I say will be drawn from this book and social work courses I have taken on groups.

Group therapy can allow modelling and re-enacting of relationships in a safe environment that allows learning.  Take someone who is struggling with interpersonal dynamics with others – his negative thinking  or aggressive tendencies may be observed by himself and others and processed: new interaction patterns can be formed.

In groups people are not only being treated but are contributing to the treatment of others- there is a co-operation of sorts, mutual healing that doe snot come from a hallowed/wise person (a therapist) but comes from the collective insight and weaknesses of those in the group.

It provides engagement and social support to those who usually immediately withdrawn.

It is a purposeful social engagement different from being a group of people at a party-there is learning to be had even if a person does not speak up a lot in group.

It helps people get out of their shells and feeling as if they are the only person in the world to feel a certain way, there is comfort, as well as perhaps, disappointment that their symptoms are not what makes them unique that they have to rediscover that part of them.

There is encouragement as well as motivation in seeing others gain insight and becoming more engaged and more well.

No doubt there are challenges in groups such as : confidentiality, conflict, scapegoating, monopolizing, silence, tangential thoughts, etc.  But if you are person who loves groups these are part of the challenges.

What strikes me about groups is that meeting together in groups is an essential blueprint of church life.  Many churches, like my own, have small groups that meet together.  There is no doubt that these groups, too, have great power for healing although they are markedly different in their purpose from therapy groups.  I wonder what group therapy can learn from small groups and vice-versa?  What characteristics do they share?

I am not trying to imply that church is therapy nor should be therapy.  Our goal in small groups is mutually loving one another, and discipling one another rather than learning about how to cope better in life with a certain condition. 

However, as I’ve said in the past, in my church approximately half of our members struggle with mental illness and/or addiction.  Sometimes it happens that in order for growth in Christ to happen, we may need to learn how to cope with mental illness or addiction, often with the help of therapy. 

There are many christian resources that try to help people deal with the wounds of their past from a Christ-centred way.  One of these I’ve heard of is Redemption groups which are modelled after Biblical counselling. http://redemptiongroups.com/what-is-a-redemption-group/ and originate from Mars Hill church.  I have never been engaged in such a group but for some time I have wondered about having a kind of group that addresses such issues within our faith community.  It is an interesting example as it tends to borrow some therapeutic principles while being firmly planted in the church and thus separate from therapy.

What do you think?  Have you ever led group work?  What do you like or dislike about it?

Have you engaged in groups in your church or faith-based organization?  How do the principles or processes overlap?  How are they distinctly different?