Playing Church

I think I’ve blogged myself into a corner.  Do you ever feel like you have to censor yourself, or that you can’t present a part of yourself as you truly are? That’s how I’m feeling, and I’m not quite sure how to go about resolving that.  I suppose one just attempts to write something…

I have allowed myself to stand on the outside of the faith community for a while now.  I used to be knee deep in it, and, then, as I’ve written here, I was ‘shunned’ out.  I hadn’t done anything wrong as in morally failed or “sinned” to use the religious parlance.  Wrong was done to me, and I was judged as ‘unclean’.  Read 2 Samuel 13 to see this dynamic in action in the account of “The Rape of Tamar”.  This is not an uncommon reaction.  Historically, how many women have committed suicide for bringing shame to their families and communities after being raped? I loathe the term ‘rape culture’ for a few reasons, but it exists for a reason.  In the 21st century when a woman is raped, what are the odds that at least a few people are going to inquire after what she was wearing at the time of the assault? Not that long ago, a woman confided in me that her husband was beating her.  She wanted to know if my husband was beating me, too.  She had begun to normalize domestic violence.  Why? When she reached out and asked her former youth pastor for help, his response to her had been, “Well, what are you saying to your husband that makes him feel the need to hit you?” He then went on to lecture her about female submission.

These are not the only stories I could tell you about my experiences in the modern-day Protestant church.  I have made lifelong friends with people I’m privileged to know.  I’ve experienced generosity and kindness that has shocked me.  I’ve experienced beauty and connection that I believe I’ll likely not know elsewhere.  This is not the norm in my experience.

I want to present you with a name.  If you are a Christian you might recognize this name.  If you are not, you may or may not.  Ted Haggard.  Any takers? Who is Ted Haggard? Ted Haggard was the president of National Association of Evangelical Churches (NAE) from 2003 to 2006.  He was head pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, and he was one of the superstars in the evangelical world.  Everyone knew who Ted Haggard was.  He wrote books and led conferences.  I met Ted once.  He was a charismatic man, very likable.  He was very down-to-earth with an excellent sense of humor.  One young pastor I knew at that time refused to watch “Seinfeld” because it was too worldly, but after Ted told a joke from one of the “Seinfeld” episodes he loosened up a bit and permitted himself to watch the show from time to time.  A scandal broke, however, that destroyed Ted and his family.  A man came forward alleging that he had been having an affair with Ted for three years.  This wasn’t just any affair.  It was a paid affair with a male escort and masseur involving the occasional use of meth.

What do you think happened? If the church doesn’t still quite know what to do with women who are raped and men and women who are sexually abused, then what do you think the church did to their possibly gay, adulterous leader? One word: Annihilation.  The word ‘annihilation’ comes from the Latin word ‘nihil’ which means ‘nothing’.  The church community quite literally brought Ted Haggard to a state of nothingness.

When it comes to following church protocol on what to do when a member ‘falls’, Ted did it right.  He dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’.  That was somehow not good enough.  I suspect that the Board of Deacons and church members were so incredibly horrified by the fact that he was caught having sex with a man that they needed him shamed.  Punished. Had he been caught having an affair with a woman, then I suspect he would have been treated a bit differently.  I suspect that they would not have made him and his family leave Colorado Springs.  Did you get that? Part of his severance package was exile!

Now, I’ve heard all kinds of justifications for the poor treatment of Christian leaders when they fail, and they are all just that.  Justifications.  The truth about this situation is that Ted’s exile did not end with a geographical change.  He was relationally exiled as well, and no one from the evangelical community would befriend him until one pastor decided to talk to him–Michael Cheshire.  What motivated this man to reach out? A friend’s blatant honesty:

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.” (online source)

There it is.  The truth.  This is how post-modern Western culture views the church today.  As ontological cannibals luring people in with promises of hopes restored, new life, healing, and forgiveness, and, once they have you, you are a potential victim if you don’t fall in line, perform, try harder, go to church every Sunday, drive out lustful thoughts, submit, have your devotional times, try to attend those Wednesday services, too, make it to additional worship services, tithe (don’t forget additional offerings), volunteer for something at least once a month at a minimum, go on a mission trip, sign up for a prayer ministry, get involved, attend a conference, attend the prayer breakfasts, don’t drink, don’t eat too much, remember to reinforce the Sunday School teaching during the week with your children, if you’re a wife you must never deny your husband sex when he wants it because it’s your duty as a wife to provide him with sex no matter what, no pornography, attend the men’s group for purity in marriage, attend the women’s Bible study, never masturbate, don’t watch R-rated movies, don’t watch PG-13 rated movies, don’t mix with secular people,  in fact, avoid the culture altogether, stay home and meditate, read the Bible, and sing worship songs.

It’s religious bullshit.  Plain and simple.  If you have performed your duties under the watchful eye of church leaders and fellow religious congregants, then you are safe from punishment.  You have appeased the angry deity except in this case the angry deity is not God.  It’s the people in power in the church and the Christian community at large.  How do I know this? Read what happened to Michael Cheshire when he befriended 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 (sic). Now the “Christian machine” was trying to take away their new friends (online source).

What did Michael Cheshire start figuring out?

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 (online source).

The statement has been made more than once or even twenty times that God cannot use Ted Haggard anymore.  What human being gets to decide that? Do you? Do I? I think that Ted finally has the credibility to be quite useful because he is no longer removed from the masses, protected in the ivory tower of evangelical Christianese and “Bless you in it”.  He’s suffered.  He’s been at the bottom of some very dark pits.  If you were in need, feeling ashamed of yourself and abandoned, who would you want to talk to? Ted Haggard or Leith Anderson, the current president of the NAE? I’ve also met Leith Anderson.  I can tell you who I’d want to cry in front of, and it wouldn’t be Leith…

No, I think the one thing that was missing in the way Ted Haggard and his family was treated was the presence of God.  Why does the church seem so…irrelevant now? Because she forgot that she doesn’t exist to perform nor should she be trying to protect her reputation.  She exists to be in a relationship with God, and the love, friendship, intimacy, healing, hope, and restoration that is a by-product of that would overflow into the world around her.  She doesn’t exist to judge or moralize.  She exists to go into the dark corners of the world and sit with those that the world has cast aside not to be a participant in that very deed! Not an avenging angel deciding the fate of those whom she deems worthy while condemning the guilty.  Michael Cheshire came to his own conclusions:

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 (Going To Hell with Ted Haggard*)

Michael Cheshire isn’t the first guy to be singled out for hanging out with a known “sinner”.  I would say he’s in a good company.

The Son of Man (Jesus) came eating and drinking [with others], and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of tax collectors and [especially wicked] sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified and vindicated by what she does (her deeds) and by her children..  Matthew 11:19

The question on my mind is: Who does the Christian church love more–herself and her reputation or their God and the people he loves? I judged Ted, too, when I found out what he’d done, but it wasn’t for his moral failures.  It was because he was so bloody arrogant.  That was the quality that stood out to me the most when I met him–his hubris.  He dripped with it.  It was all too easy for me to sit in my comfortable home and point my self-righteous finger at a fallen church leader disdainfully proclaiming that pride comes before a fall and didn’t I see it coming and blah blah blah.  Judgment is too easy.

Why is our church culture treacly sweet, emasculating to men, relationally aggressive among women, patriarchal, overrun with cliques, and about as deep as the neighborhood kiddie pool? Because it’s easy.  Because it’s what has always been really.

But, what about making it all personal? Take away the religion.  Take away the duty.  Take away approval-seeking.  What do you have left?

When my relationship with God became that–a real relationship made of blood, bones, tears, and heart–everything changed, and there is no going back to church culture and religious effort.  Trying harder and appeasement.  Fear of what everyone might think of me if I didn’t sign up for a women’s Bible study.  Fear of…whatever.  It’s fear, however, that is motivating this kind of treatment of others when they are laid bare before us, exposed and vulnerable.  Ashamed and burdened with their failures and profound disappointment in themselves.  Do you really think they need an entity like the church telling them what they already fear to be true? They already know.  They fucked up.  They really did.  Like Ted, if you were caught with your pants down with another man (that’s not your spouse) and a crack pipe in your mouth, don’t you think you’d feel pretty awful? It’s not the job of the church to bring conviction–never condemnation— to the world.  That’s the job of the Holy Spirit.  It’s the job of the church to participate in the ministry of reconciliation and healing.  I think that many people who go to church may not have ever become acquainted with God.

That’s what will change the church.  Meeting God all over again.  Why? Because , quite frankly, to know God is to be utterly loved, and once you have experienced that sort of love–that depth of goodness and kindness–you’re changed.  Once you have received that sort of compassion, you can’t help but offer it.  Nothing in your life is untouched by his kindness, and judging others is no longer addictive.  Can you imagine a church like that? Kind, gentle, loving, compassionate, free of judgment, full of self-control, and endlessly patient with all your failings and attempts to start over? Well, that’s what God is like, and the church is supposed to reflect that nature.

So, then, yes, I can imagine it because that’s God’s idea for his people.

How do you think Ted Haggard would have fared in that church? Do you think he’d still live in Colorado Springs?

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2 thoughts on “Playing Church

  1. Oh look a hornet’s nest, well let me just stick my hand in there and see if there is a prize at the top of it.

    I play these little videos in my mind at times. It was funny in my head, not sure if you will see it the same.

    My wife would absolutely love you, this post should be printed and nailed to every church door much like you know who did, way back when with the stuff he wrote.

    When I became a believer, the motivating factor was a revolver, the wrong end of a revolver, pointed at my forehead, I don’t know about most but that was enough for me to take my mortality seriously. Pretty simple beginning in my new found freedom, really simple actually but it didn’t last long. I soon felt as though I were a zoo animal and that I was on display. That is the easiest way to describe it. Not going to get bogged down in too many details, the short story is many more years of drug use, finally sobriety and having to face Christ in the eye and try and settle things, you see I have found the profound is in the simple. What I mean is, at the end of every interal battle or the end of the rope situation I have gotten myself into, two things have happened. The first thing is there is just enough flame in my sole burning to keep a gun out of my mouth, that still small voice that says, I want to live. Second thing that happens is unexplainable relationships that are much like lighthouses were to ships way back when that would have met there fate had those lights not been there.

    I am not a wise man, I am not a smart man, I usually have to sit, sometimes for hours and sift through my thoughts, beliefs and feelings until I can face what I actually believe about this or that. Sometimes this leads me to have to get honest with myself about things I intellectually acknowledge but don’t believe in my in most being to be true.

    I have no answers, I only have my experience and what I have come to be settled with in my core.

    Thank you for being a part of my journey.

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