Monday, November 06, 2006

Sometimes The Runner Stumbles

During the last few days I have been enjoying Thomas Cahill's recent book, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, toward the end of which he focuses on Dante Alighieri and his most seminal of all poetry, The Divine Comedy. This poem begins with some of the most famous words in literature:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So last night while driving home from a long Sunday I found myself comparing and contrasting the experience of Dante with that of Ted Haggard, one of the latest who midway through life's journey has found himself lost within that dark, dark forest. I ache for him to the point of tears, and for his whole family.

Until the last few days I knew little about Ted Haggard, except that he was President of the National Association of Evangelicals, pastored a big congregation in Colorado Springs, and had launched a significant prayer ministry. Now his dirtiest linen is being paraded for literally the whole world to see.

We might never know precisely what transpired between Haggard and his accuser, Mike Jones, and I have little curiosity to find out. Part of the tragedy is that everyone is involved when the sins and stumbling of a Christian leader are revealed in this kind of way. There are those who crow and point fingers, often stirred up by the feeding frenzy of highly inappropriate self-righteousness about the fallen one that comes with the revelation of yet another 'juicy' morsel.

The tragedy is that when someone with the profile of Haggard fails the Gospel is tarnished and the whole church, regardless of denomination and tradition, is hurt. The world shrugs and says, "Well, Catholics do it, Episcopalians do it, why should we expect Baptists, charismatics, or community church types to be any different," (if they are even aware of the panoply of names and titles beneath which we array ourselves). The next shrug to accompany their thoughts is about the veracity of the message we claim to live by.

I have no desire to castigate Ted Haggard. Virtually every one of us who has been called to Christian leadership is involved in a permanent wrestling match with their own dark side. Our problems may not be sex, drugs, or alcohol, but if we are honest we all battle inner demons that would delight to destroy us -- and the church. Most of us who have spent any time trying to live out this most demanding of vocations have dents in our fenders of which we are not proud, although we are thankful that in Christ we are forgiven, and by his grace we can be made whole.

Interestingly, few veteran pastors and Christian leaders are turning their fury against Haggard -- perhaps because they know their own fragility. Many of us watching the media circus probably whisper, "There but for the grace of God..."

All of us must recognize just how fragile we are, and that our lives are part of a spiritual battle being fought out in darkening times. We can expect both bad theology and ethical error to appear, sometimes in the lives of some of those who are seemingly the brightest and best. Isn't this the message Paul attempts to get across in the Pastoral Epistles?

I feel desperately sorry for Gayle Haggard. She began last week as the wife of a much respected pastor, and ended it with her life in tatters, probably discovering things about the man to whom she had been married that she either never imagined or tried not to repress. I pray there will be recovery but their life will never be the same again. As the Haggard family hunkers down to work their way through this avalanche that has buried their lives they need our support and prayers -- whatever it was that Ted Haggard did, or did not, do. This is what the grace of the Gospel is all about, and that same generosity should be extended to all pastors this day whose lives have come apart under the pressures of ministry.

It is clear something is amiss in Haggard's life and ministry, and we can only conjecture what it was. I suspect his undoubted success is less than helpful, together with the unquestioning devotion that often comes to pastors who have the richness of personality and ability that he clearly has. Accountability is vital for Christian leaders, something about which Prof. Ben Witherington has written in a telling manner: (

Witherington also writes also about the need to know ourselves, and especially the nature of our own Achilles' heels. Knowing our own fallenness and the damage it does to ourselves and those around us is an essential ingredient to spiritual and mental health as well as faithful ministry. In many ways peeling away the layers with which we try to protect ourselves from the darkness within is one of the most difficult and painful tasks for anyone entrusted by God and the church with leadership. Perversions of and diversions from the Gospel both individually and within the institution are likely to follow on from such failures.

The events of the last few days surrounding Haggard are a reminder to us above all us that if we are called to be healers in the name of Christ, then the wholeness we mediate can only take place when we are able to embrace our own brokenness -- and that in the power of the Cross. The Christian journey is a life spent allowing the balm of that Cross to penetrate ever more deeply into ever more corners of our life and being.

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