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Going To Hell with Ted Haggard
What I learned about grace and redemption through my friendship with a Christian pariah.
I didn't plan to care about Ted Haggard. After all, I have access to Google and a Bible. I heard about what he did and knew it was wrong. I saw the clips from the news and the HBO documentary about his life after his fall. I honestly felt bad for him but figured it was his own undoing. When the topic came up with others I know in ministry, we would feign sadness, but inside we couldn't care less. One close friend said he would understand it more if Ted had just sinned with a woman. I agreed with him at the time. It's amazing how much more mercy I give to people who struggle with sins I understand. The further their sin is from my own personal struggles, the more judgmental and callous I become. I'm not proud of that. It's just where I was at that time in my walk. But that all changed in one short afternoon.
Eating our own
A while back I was having a business lunch at a sports bar in the Denver area with a close atheist friend. He's a great guy and a very deep thinker. During lunch, he pointed at the large TV screen on the wall. It was set to a channel recapping Ted's fall. He pointed his finger at the HD and said, "That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that's what keeps me away."
It was well after the story had died down, so I had to study the screen to see what my friend was talking about. I assumed he was referring to Ted's hypocrisy. "Hey man, not all of us do things like that," I responded. He laughed and said, "Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can't forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he will take me as I am. You say he forgives all my failures and will restore my hope, and as long as I stay outside the church, you say God wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him." Then he uttered words that left me reeling: "You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will."
Change of heart
He was running late for a meeting and had to take off. I, however, could barely move. I studied the TV and read the caption as a well-known religious leader kept shoveling dirt on a man who had admitted he was unclean. And at that moment, my heart started to change. I began to distance myself from my previously harsh statements and tried to understand what Ted and his family must have been through. When I brought up the topic to other men and women I love and respect, the very mention of Haggard's name made our conversations toxic. Their reactions were visceral.
Please understand, this isn't just my experience. Just Google his name and read what is said about him in Christian circles. Most Christians would say God can forgive him, but almost universally people agree that God will never use him again. When I pressed the question, "Why can't God still use Ted?" I was dismissed as foolish or silly. Most of these people got mad and demanded I drop the subject. Perhaps they saw something I was missing, but this response seemed strange. After all, I reasoned, Jesus restored Peter after he denied Christ. That's a pretty big deal. And what about the Scripture that teaches us that the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable? So I felt I needed to meet Ted for myself. So I had my assistant track him down for a lunch appointment. I live outside Denver and he was living in Colorado Springs, a little over an hour away. Perfect!
We exchanged a few emails and agreed on a date and a restaurant. I took two men from my staff, and we met him for lunch. All the way there, I quietly played out in my head how he would act. Would he be reserved? Sad? Angry or distant?
Surprised by friendship
In less than five minutes of talking with Ted, I realized a horrible truth—I liked him. He was brutally honest about his failures. He was excited that the only people who would talk to him now were the truly broken and hurt. During our conversation a lady approached him. He instantly went into "pastor mode" and cared for her. Deep inside God was teaching me that true salvation is an ongoing process. We spent two hours together and decided to stay in touch. I began to call and ask him church-related questions. He possesses a wealth of wisdom. He even has a growing church in the very city that knows him for his biggest failures. I thought I had it tough as a church planter! But God is causing his church to really grow. I met his wonderful wife, Gayle. She is a terrific teacher of grace and one of my heroes. When I grow up, I want to be Gayle Haggard. And so I became close friends with Ted Haggard.
But then the funniest thing started happening to me. Some Christians I hung out with told me they would distance themselves from me if I continued reaching out to Ted. Several people in my church said they would leave. Really? Does he have leprosy? Will he infect me? We are friends. We aren't dating! But in the end, I was told that my voice as a pastor and author would be tarnished if I continued to spend time with him. I found this sickening. Not just because people can be so small, but because I have a firsthand account from Ted and Gayle of how they lost many friends they had known for years. Much of it is pretty coldblooded. Now the "Christian machine" was trying to take away their new friends.
It would do some Christians good to stay home one weekend and watch the entire DVD collection of HBO's Band of Brothers. Marinate in it. Take notes. Write down words like loyalty, friendship, and sacrifice. Understand the phrase: never leave a fallen man behind.
Where's the love?
I had a hard time understanding why we as Christians really needed Ted to crawl on the altar of church discipline and die. We needed a clean break. He needed to do the noble thing and walk away from the church. He needed to protect our image. When Ted crawled off that altar and into the arms of a forgiving God, we chose to kill him with our disdain. I wrestled with my part in this until I got an epiphany. In a quiet time of prayer, Christ revealed to me a brutal truth: it was my fault. We are called to leave the 99 to go after the one. We are supposed to be numbered with the outcasts. After all, we are the ones that believe in resurrection. In many ways I have not been aggressive enough with the application of the gospel. My concept of grace needed to mature, to grow muscles, teeth, and bad breath. It needed to carry a shield, and most of all, it needed to find its voice.
Grace must pick a side in the light of day, not just whisper its opinion in the shadows and dark places where we sign our name Anonymous. When a leader falls and then repents, grace picks a side. Grace is strong. Grace is a shield to those who cannot get off the battlefield. Grace is God's idea. Like a spiritual Switzerland, we stay in our neutral world where we can both forgive and judge but never get our hands dirty caring for the fallen. And when we don't pick a side, the wrong side gets picked for us. Crematoriums are more sanitary than hospitals. Let's change this!
Of course, I understand that if a person doesn't repent there is not a whole lot you can offer. But Ted resigned, confessed, repented, and submitted. He jumped through our many hoops. When will we be cool with him again? When will the church allow God to use him again? It's funny that we believe we get to make that decision.
The Ted Haggard issue reminds me of a scene in Mark Twain's, Huckleberry Finn. Huck is told that if he doesn't turn in his friend, a runaway slave named Jim, he will surely burn in hell. So one day Huck, not wanting to lose his soul to Satan, writes a letter to Jim's owner telling her of Jim's whereabouts. After folding the letter, he starts to think about what his friend has meant to him, how Jim took the night watch so he could sleep, how they laughed and survived together. Jim is his friend and that is worth reconsideration. Huck realizes that it's either Jim's friendship or hell. Then the great Mark Twain writes such wonderful words of resolve. Huck rips the paper and says, "Alright then, I guess I'll go to hell."
What a great lesson. What a great attitude. I think of John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." Maybe it's not just talking about our physical life. Perhaps it's the life we know, the friends we have and lose. Maybe I show love when I lay down the life we have together to confront you on a wrong attitude or action. Maybe we show no greater love than when we are counted with people who others consider tainted. Becoming friends with Ted was a defining moment in my life, ministry, and career. Sure, I lost a few relationships, but I doubt they would have cared for me in my failures. So really, I lost nothing. If being Ted's friend causes some to hate and reject me—alright then, I guess I'll go to hell.
Michael Cheshire is pastor of The Journey Church in Conifer, Colorado and author of How to Knock Over a 7-11 and Other Ministry Training (2012) and Why We Eat Our Own (2013)
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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