“I keep thinking we’re near the top, but we turn a corner and there’s more mountain to climb.” My friend Renae, my roommate and I were hiking in Colorado Springs’ Front Range, just one week after my pastor was no longer my pastor.
Renae’s comment got me thinking about New Life Church—where we’ve been and how far we have to go. For in the last few days, we turned a corner to find a lofty peak we never expected
“So, if you think that you are standing firm…”
Celebration of Discipline, a book we’ve just started in the small group I’m in (curiously enough), begins this way: “The greatest problems of our time are not technological… [nor] even political or economic, because the difficulties in these areas are largely derivative. The greatest problems are moral and spiritual—and unless we can make some progress in these realms, we may not even survive.” I think something about my attitudes and life wasn’t keyed in to this fact a few weeks ago. To quote Pastor Ross Parsley, “We took a subtle bit of pride in ourselves.”
Not that growing ministry is a bad thing. For instance, a great strength of New Life for many years (and especially now) has been the church’s four internships. Church becomes more lively when about 300 students are worshipping, coming, going or meeting at any given hour. Church = once-a-week services? So last century. It’s certainly possible to have a megachurch without overblown ego. And I don’t think there was a “personality cult” per se around Ted Haggard.
But, well… with intern enrollment up every year, the NAE office at New Life gaining national clout and cool stuff like a massive spinning globe in the prayer center, looking at the exterior ornaments became easy. I remember last year when the parking lot trams came in. “Staff told me, people will be able to get out of the cold quicker,” Pastor Ted said at the time. “But I love it because, hey, we’re more like Disneyland!” It was a joke, but perhaps one that hinted at a problem here.
I watched as Pastor Ted’s influence grew. Like many churches, New Life has had special choirs come in, elaborate flag ceremonies on Missions Sunday, plus guest speakers like Ron Luce and Sunday Adelaja from Europe. But it was Pastor Ted’s global vision, off-the-cuff humor, political acumen, etc. that convinced me New Life had something special — an anointing that seemed to keep expanding. But whether repeating Ted’s jokes or talking up a New Life program, “preaching ourselves” became a very real danger.
“…Be careful that you don’t fall…”
Back to our recent climb… ascending the mountain, we passed the Will Rogers Chapel. First we saw the main entrance where thousands entered every year. Then our path took us around the back, which perhaps only a few dozen hikers ever saw. What impressed me was the heavy stone wall that encircled the chapel: every inch of the circumference—front and back, seen and unseen—was guarded.
To guard a heart takes trust, wisdom, people around me who will kick the sin they see, and probably some things I’m missing. It’s no easy task. I’d rather float through life and ignore the hooks Satan has in me, ignore the small things. After all, doesn’t everyone struggle? Didn’t the Apostle Paul himself have a “thorn in the flesh”?
But, no, I don’t have to choose sin. “The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world,” (I John 4:4). My heart connection with Jesus every day is what enables victory, purpose, abundant life. And my words to God have never been more emotional than that night wrestling which how my pastor could fall so hard and so fast.
“If you asked me last week to write a list of 1,000 pastors who this could’ve happened to,” said Charisma publisher Stephen Strang. “Ted Haggard wouldn’t have been on there.” No question, this caught everyone by surprise. It looked like a last-ditch election ploy, or even the set-up to a dumb joke—but it was what it was. “98% of me was the good man you knew, but the 2% evil began to dominate,” to paraphrase Ted. Suddenly I want to learn more about accountability, about the nature of my own heart.
Following the Sunday service where Ted’s letter of confession was read, I spoke to a businessman named Wayne. He works as a mortgage broker, right next to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles in Colorado Springs. One day he saw a man in the parking lot who’d just got a license for his snazzy new scooter. As Wayne watched, the man fell off his vehicle and scraped himself up. Wayne ran to help; the man was bleeding and scarred. A crowd gathered. As Wayne began to help with his wounds, what did the scooter rider do? Ted Haggard began to preach the gospel to the hog riders who’d gathered to see blood. “That’s why I joined New Life,” Wayne told me after his story. “Today I can’t pick Ted up from his fall – but I can come and pray with his friends.”
“…When you are tempted, He will also provide a way out…”
A few New Lifers walked into that service with a spring in their step, like any other Sunday. They were the children—teasing each other, excited to sing with their friends, asking Mommy to stop at the café so we can get a bagel. Having lunch later with a family, I asked a girl how church was for her. “It was fun, we heard about David becoming king,” the 10 year-old said. As touching as it was to hear Gayle’s letter, seeing the next generation following God lifted me up even more.
The last sermon Ted gave was from I Samuel 16, the story of Saul’s anointing passing to David. After the scandal, my small group dug in to the analogy: Saul was called by God to be Israel’s first king, led with humility for decades, expanded their territory and defeated many enemies… until he did some things that looked good, but his actions weren’t complete obedience. As an elder recently said, “Sometime in the past three years, we started saying, ‘Isn’t New Life great?’ more than we said, ‘Isn’t Jesus great?'”
(Here I would caution anyone tempted to now disparage Ted. “Though the man of God be wrong, we are not to touch his anointing,” a wise friend of mine recently said. “Remember David and how he respected Saul even when Saul was trying to kill him.”)
Perhaps some of us saw our error sooner than others. One of New Life’s worship leaders, Jared Anderson, just wrote a song called “Lost in Heaven”; it pinpoints this issue so clearly. “Sunday morning and I’m performing ~ Right and wrong seem far away… I flee temptation, but not frustration… I’m living in Heaven with no place to go ~ Should I be freaked out ~ Or should I feel alone ~ When this prodigal has never left home?”
“…For God is faithful” (I Cor. 10:12-13)
During our hike, Renae brought up that her counseling training had taught an enlightening definition: “Joy is being fully known and fully accepted.” Contrast that with Ted’s statement: “When I stopped communicating about my problems, the darkness increased…” So it’s another paradox of Christianity: the stone wall of protection comes only with vulnerability, a hunger for others’ correction.
Humility is more than just vulnerability. It’s really taking to heart correction, not taking offense. Maybe it looks like passing up a promotion when the timing is off. Or it could be worship so extreme that people will watch and think I’m crazy — but I don’t want to care. It’s confessing my failures, and taking personal inventory of my own heart. Self-sufficiency isn’t the Gospel, after all; Jesus says, “Come to Me, and We’ll get you fixed up.”
Finally, we reached the summit. Below us, a forest of pine trees rose and fell on the contours of the foothills, like a green ocean. Above us all around, higher peaks and more dramatic views opened up in the distance. This wasn’t really the top; so much more was left to discover. It seems knowing God is a series of false summits: will we ever “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”? Not likely, but we can sure try. It’s the only True false summit… a love that takes off the blinders of my self-centered vision and opens me to a vast landscape of real joy.
P.S. Is New Life still anointed? Without a doubt. From what I’ve seen, this is leading us to a time of understanding some things better than ever–like integrity, sexuality, and the power of the Cross. Fill us and mold us as only You can, Lord.
(Thanks to Pastors Ross Parsley & David Perkins, whose recent messages were liberally borrowed from in this blog : )