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In community, life is more than mere survival

January 12 2016


As life gets ever busier and more stressful, is community the key to a life that’s not just about surviving but actually thriving?

“The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” Five years after I first read this quote by novelist Jack London, it still makes me stop and think. As life gets faster, more expensive, more individualistic, it often feels like it’s all we can do to merely exist – to keep surviving. Get up, go to work, pay the bills, microwave some food, watch TV, then go to bed ready to do it all again tomorrow. But this quote speaks to me because while that life might be existing, it’s far from really living.

Our society and economic system treats us like just one of many easily replaceable parts. If we don’t take a job, someone else will; if we don’t want to buy this product, someone else will. We are expected to work longer hours than ever, but see little reward. But we are much more valuable than that.

The Christian faith speaks of our inherent value. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” says God through the prophet Jeremiah. And it is in this love that we find our value. God’s act of love means we are lovable, we are valuable. Jesus speaks directly about this issue. The Gospel of Luke records His words; “Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” In the same passage He tells His disciples “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

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‘Life should be about really living, and more than living; thriving’ – Mat Ray

As I work with churches to help them think about how they can respond to disability and community work, I often find myself talking about these fundamental Christian beliefs, God made everyone and He loves everyone, so everyone is intrinsically valuable. Whether we have great jobs, or remarkable talents or speech impediments or mobility challenges, or chronic pain, or none or all of those things, God loves us equally and values us equally. That’s why we are so passionate about helping churches to throw open their doors and welcome everybody!

The importance of community – a biblical viewpoint

At its simplest interpretation, living in community means not being alone. Good days are better: our jokes are laughed at, our triumphs are witnessed, our stories are remembered. Bad days are easier too: we are comforted in distress, advised in dilemmas and supported through disaster.

Community is a principle that is modelled in scripture. In the Genesis story, God looks at Adam in Eden. It’s the perfect garden which not only supplies all his physical needs, but his spiritual needs too – a place he can walk with God. But even there, God says ‘It is not good for man to be alone’. And if it’s true in Eden, how much more important it is in our fractured world? The God who created us and who wants us to thrive, sees that relationships can give us something nothing else can: community is the key.

At Livability’s Big Mental Health Day, I had the privilege of facilitating a large group of about Christian men and women with mental health challenges. We spend an hour together sharing our experiences. I was overwhelmed as I listened to the group tell moving, vulnerable stories and then witnessed others respond with care and encouragement. At the end of the session, a young woman approached me with tears in her eyes, “You have no idea how important this was – I thought I was on my own.”

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At The Big Mental Health Day, I was overwhelmed as I listened to the group tell moving, vulnerable stories

Whether isolated by disability, poverty, or any number of other factors, society has more lonely people than ever. The Psalmist writes ‘God places the lonely in families”. Many of Livability’s projects work on this specific challenge. Regenerate RISE, our link church in Putney, west London, brings isolated elderly people together. As they eat or exercise together, listen to talks or get their hair cut, a community is being developed. It is a place where people can feel accepted, supported and loved.

Our Lifestyle Choices projects are all about community too. Disabled people often feel unable to access local opportunities, like sports teams, college courses or volunteering opportunities. This may be because of physical access, or due to a lack of confidence, but Lifestyle Choices workers get involved, providing support as challenges are navigated, risks taken and community life engaged with.

How does this work itself out in my life? Like many city-dwellers, I live with the tension between enjoying being part of city life and wanting to protect myself from the unpredictability of strangers. It’s tempting to ignore those who challenge me, and only open up to ‘safe’ people, who are usually very similar to me. But as I learn the importance of community, I’m trying to spend more time with people who are different to me, giving and receiving the gift of friendship.

That might mean talking about football to the teenage boys who gather on my estate’s stairwells, or listening to stories of the good old days from the old lady walking her dog. If every person is made in the image of God, then it’s worth asking of each of my neighbours ‘What part of God’s image can I see in you?’

Mat Ray is Church Engagement Manager for Livability, a national disability and community engagement charity. He works to build relationships with churches that want to be good news to both their members and their local community. He is passionate about faith, disability, mental health and good coffee.

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