Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy

Last week I was having coffee with a friend who does not share my convictions about Jesus as King, Savior, Lord. He does, however, have great respect for his teaching, for how he lived his life, and for the example he invites us to follow.

During our conversation, he noted that he has had encounters over the years with Christians who spoke to him about their beliefs about Jesus and who tried in various ways to convince him that he should believe the same. Their chief interest seemed to be to get him to believe the right things about Jesus, thus becoming a Christian and thus gaining eternal life when he died. Absent was much discussion about the way of Jesus, about the content of his teaching, which had more to do with how we live than where we go when we die.

This friend, who does not identify himself as a Christian does, nevertheless, live more like one than many Christians I know- including myself sometimes. I arrived at the coffee shop about 5 minutes before he did. When he walked in, he threw his Bible on the table and said “just a minute”, and walked back out the door. I couldn’t imagine what he was doing. A moment later, he walked back in with an elderly woman and took her up to the counter. I had to join him to see what he was up to. He helped her pick out a sandwich and a drink, and paid for it. As we got back to our table, he explained that she had been on the sidewalk just outside the store asking for money for food. He noticed her, had compassion, and invited her in for a meal. I realized that I had walked right past her on my way in without even seeing her.

Our discussion that night included a consideration of what we might call orthodoxy and orthopraxy- believing the right things about Jesus and actually living the right way, as Jesus taught us. Both are critical. I confess, however, that most of my life I have been far more passionate and even dogmatic and argumentative about believing the right things than I have been about living the right way. I didn’t put a tenth of that energy into worrying about whether or not my life lined up with the way of life taught and modeled by Jesus. As long as my views of the atonement, the Trinity, the Bible, etc., were right, than I was alright. At least my eternal destiny was certain.

Since that conversation, I have had this picture (actually, it’s more like a movie) in my mind. My life on earth is over, and as I come before God, I hand him my doctrinal statement, which I had worked hard on over the course of my life. He accepts it, and then proceeds to mark up with a highlighter the places where, in spite of my study and diligence, I did not get it right. When he is done with that, he asks me for another document- my resume- the record of how I actually lived out the truth and the implications of the truth contained in my doctrinal statement.

Is God less interested in that second document?

I have been thinking a great deal the past few days about how the rift between orthodoxy and orthopraxy occurs. I am reminded of Gandhi’s words: I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. In Gandhi’s time, those calling themselves Christians indeed had little resemblance to Jesus, thus his observation. How does this happen? It was the biggest issue confronted by Jesus in his day- the Pharisees who believed the right stuff, but in Jesus’ own words “never heard the voice of God”. How do we get the right information, yet not be formed by it?

I believe that orthodoxy matters a great deal. Truth matters- truth about Jesus, that he is as he claimed to be- not just teacher, but King, Savior, Lord. But I also believe that one of his most penetrating questions needs to be taken serious by all of us who are “orthodox” in our faith: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I say?” Calling him Lord makes us “orthodox”. If we don’t do what he says, what does that make us?

My hope for my friend is that he will continue to live his life doing what Jesus says. That’s not a bad place to start with Jesus. From what I can tell about the disciples, they began to follow Jesus, even radically, leaving their family, their jobs, their possessions, to be with him before they fully understood who it was they were following. But in the end, in the process of following him, they came to see the full picture of the One who had initially captured their imaginations and their hearts.

I have always thought that we must begin with orthodoxy, which will eventually lead to orthopraxy. Sometimes, I now believe, it is the other way round. Orthopraxy can lead to orthodoxy. Follow Jesus’ teaching, and it leads to Jesus.

I hope that is the journey my friend is on...that his orthopraxy leads him to greater orthodoxy. In the meantime, he is making an impact of on others, because he is following Jesus. And I hope my orthodoxy leads me to greater orthopraxy.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Crazy or Demonic

In NYC it is common during the course of a 15 minute walk to pass a couple of homeless people. Sometimes they sit or stand and quietly ask for help, verbally, or by means of a sign. Sometimes, usually on the subway, they give a speech explaining their circumstances and ask for help as they walk up and down the train with their paper cup outstretched to receive donations. Sometimes, they talk nonsense and act threatening.

It is estimated that more than 50% of the homeless in NYC are suffering with some form of mental illness. In my first year in the city, I know I have encountered many of them. Having worked in the field of psychology earlier in my life, I recognize the signs of schizophrenia and paranoia pretty quickly, although usually it is pretty evident to any passerby. I have also wondered for years how to know when there is something demonic taking place in the individual. The 4 Gospels took it for granted that demonic activity was common. Jesus encountered and dealt with it regularly.

Last night our small group was discussing Like 6 and came across these words:

He (Jesus) went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, (17-18).

Those troubled by evil spirits were cured. There seems to be nothing astonishing about this statement. It is assumed that demonic activity would be encountered. Is that our assumption in this culture today- even among Christians? I would say generally not. In fact, talking about demons likely raises some eyebrows, even in our churches. Should we assume that since Jesus’ time, demonic influence has abated?

While I believe that mental illness does exist that is not related to demonic activity, it seems likely that deranged thinking may at times be evidence not of mental illness, but of demonic activity. Even physical illness can be the result of demonic activity:

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. Luke 13:10-11

Clearly, both physical and mental illness may have a demonic basis. But how do we discern when this is the case?

This past week I have had three encounters with homeless people who clearly had a mental illness or demonic presence, or both. The first occurred Sunday evening. Amanda, one of Communitas’ members, invited a homeless man she met on the bus to join us for our Sunday evening gathering. He came, and sat through the service quietly. He then joined us for our post-service meal at a local diner. It began well with him ordering a meal, but things began to deteriorate. After a few bites into his hamburger, he began to tear it apart and mumble about it being poisoned with cyanide. He pushed the food away. Then he began to speak against the government, becoming increasingly agitated and raising his voice. Our attempts to reason with him had no effect except to make him angrier. His diatribe then turned against some of the men in our group sitting some distance away form the man. He began to accuse them of things and his statements were laced with foul language. Now everyone within earshot began to squirm. We were extending love and care to man who seemed now bent on anger, and perhaps violence.

When we left the diner, the man stood across the street shouting obscenities at us. As we walked away, he hurried across the street, catching up with us and speaking lewd and threatening comments. At this point, I steered him away from the group and walked in a different direction, trying again without success to get him to calm down and to explain why he was angry at people who had shown him kindness. As we walked west on 34th Street, he continued to rail against us and the world in general, and at one point told me that he might be an old man, but he could take me down easily. At this point, I decided another strategy was warranted. I asked him what he thought about Jesus. His demeanor changed instantly. As we walked he spoke about him being the only true man, the only one worth trusting, one who had complete integrity. No obscenities, no raised voice, no incoherent thoughts. And most importantly in that moment, no talk of taking me down!!!

After a block, I left him with words that Communitas is simply a group of imperfect people who agree with his assessment of Jesus, and are trying to follow him. The obscenities returned as I walked away. I have no idea what this experience meant. Why did the mention of Jesus’ name calm him down? Most accounts of Jesus encountering demons resulted in increased agitation. All I know is that his name bought a block worth of peace to a trouble man.

Since that evening I have had encounters with two homeless people, both women this time, who were shouting nonsense and obscenities, and threatening people as they walked by. In both cases I came near to see if I could engage with them and perhaps try the “Jesus experiment” to see if it would calm them as well. No chance. As soon as they saw me looking at them and making eye contact, the volume and intensity increased dramatically. In fact, both screamed at me and said something to the effect that I was the true source of their trouble. I have to say that in these cases, it felt to me as though these women were, as Luke wrote, troubled by demonic spirits.

I find that a part of me wants to ignore this issue in the city- the visibly disturbed homeless. It seems hopeless, and I don’t really know how to discern what is needed and how to respond. And yet, if Jesus was living here and walking the streets and riding the subways I do everyday, I don’t think ignoring would be his strategy. I realize again how much I have to learn, and how utterly dependent I am on the wisdom that God has promised to me when I ask. Believe me, I am asking!