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Holy Laughter

Remembering Haggard's sin — and ours.

Amidst the dusty swirl of reaction and commentary that has been kicked up by a new film about Ted Haggard is this comment by one pastor from his former church: "The wound will not always be with us. The wound will not always define us."

It's understandable that the pastor would say this. No church wants to be remembered because its nationally known pastor had homosexual trysts with male prostitutes and allegedly with at least one member of the congregation. We do not imagine the church dedicating a building to Haggard, or putting up a plaque that says, "To Pastor Ted — his very life embodied everything this church stands for."

But maybe it should. Maybe it should think of a way to keep that wound fresh for coming generations. Instead of trying to "move on," as we are so wont to do in our culture, maybe New Life Church should proudly let this incident define it.

There are many subtleties to the word define, but two seem pertinent: "To delineate the outline or form of," as in "the rolling green hills were defined against the deep blue sky." And this: "To give form or meaning to," as in "Jim's life was defined by action."

And what defines human existence more than death? Ernst Becker, in his classic, The Denial of Death, wrote: "The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity — designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man." The late Richard John Neuhaus put it in a distinctly Christian way in As I Lay Dying: "We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born towards death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well."

The Christian church has understood the defining nature of death from its beginning. It even adopted and promoted a "logo" that is more than anything a symbol of death.

But Christ died that we might live, we say. Yes! And he died because first we have all died. Death is that which delineates our lives and even our salvation from it.

Back to Ted Haggard's sin, which is another way of saying Haggard's death. All have died, Paul argues, because all have sinned (Rom. 5:12). In fact, these two phenomena are so hopelessly linked that we can never think of death without thinking of sin, and we cannot think of sin without thinking of death. They are joined like pornography is to sex, like Hitler is to the holocaust. But also like forgiveness is to the Cross.

It is understandable that such churches — and sadly, there are hundreds of them — want to forget, as quickly as possible, the notorious sin and the scandalous pastor who brought shame to it. And that such churches would strive valiantly to tell itself and the world, "We're not like that. Really. That doesn't represent us. We're much better than that." That it would do its best to put the episode behind itself and move on.

But woe to the church that does that. We should wonder, in fact, about any Christian anywhere who does not look at Ted Haggard and say, "Oh yeah, I could have done that," or more honestly, "To my deep shame, been there, done something very much like that." Instead of thinking of Haggard and his ilk as ugly exceptions to our general moral uprightness, we should remember that we are part of his ilk.

The good news is that we do indeed define ourselves by the Cross. It is good news not because it helps us forget sin and death and move on. It is good news because we are no longer afraid of sin and death. We can stare sin and death in the face — and laugh.

But we cannot laugh if we do not continue to stare at and even remember sin and death, in all its sordid human excess, like we tell at a joyous family reunion the gut-busting story of that family vacation when the car broke down and the tent flooded and Mom stopped speaking to Dad for two days. The joke is lost if, "We're not like that. Really." Then Christ has died in vain, and the joke is on us.

No, the good news is hilarious precisely because this ugly, shameful couple, Sin and Death, has been made a laughingstock, and is being laughed right out of existence. In the meantime, we need a fall guy. So let Haggard's sin — and ours — be ever before us. Let us vow never to put it behind us. Instead, let us keep telling the story, and tell it well and in fine detail — so well that our stomachs threaten to split and our eyes flow with tears from laughing so hard at the juxtaposition of our sin and God's grace.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of the forthcoming, A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God. This column is cross-posted on his blog, where he interacts with readers.

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