Before Pastor Ted Haggard called me on Saturday afternoon, I don't know that I had ever heard true contrition. I know what it sounds like now. I will never forget one moment of that phone call. He was humble, he was broken, he was concerned for me and everyone hurt by his actions. Maybe this was Pastor Ted's final lesson to me—here is how to say you're sorry.
His repentance is part of the story now, especially after yesterday's New Life Church services streamed worldwide. When Pastor Larry Stockstill, chairman of New Life's board of overseers, read Pastor Ted's confession letter, countless thousands of people were able to hear the same contrition I heard Saturday afternoon. The letter was powerful because it was personal, and I'm certain many of us were thinking the same thing: Repentance is important not just for Pastor Ted, but for all of us; this event provides us with an opportunity to humble ourselves, consider our lives carefully, and do whatever repentance requires.
So far for Pastor Ted, repentance has required saying a series of very difficult things: "I am a deceiver and a liar"; "I did things that were contrary to everything I believe." I don't know what he did, nor can I comment with insight about which of Mike Jones' allegations are true. We don't yet know anything beyond Pastor Ted's admission of "sexual immorality." Even the board of overseers at New Life Church has yet to conclude many details, faced as they are with discrepancies in Pastor Ted's account of his life.
I understand that people have questions about sexual orientation and drug use, but I'm not curious about those questions today. I wouldn't have answers even if I were curious, and it's a small grace not to be awash in those details. The last four days offer more than enough to handle. The wound is still fresh. As a friend and former employee of Pastor Ted Haggard's—I served as editor for seven of his books and countless articles—I am not equal to writing about every aspect of what we are facing. I'm not certain I should be writing about my own details of this experience, and I will likely leave out as many as I include. But if I can offer a human face to these events, maybe that, too, is a small grace.
Early last Thursday morning, I opened my wife's laptop in order to bring up the homepage of our local daily paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, so I could see the day's weather. I read the headline—"Haggard denies gay sex claim"—several times before I fully registered that, yes, this was about my pastor. Nothing about it rang true; it seemed so utterly false. My wife awoke a few minutes later. "You won't believe this," I told her. Neither of us believed it. It was most certainly politically timed libel. Pastor Ted was not running for office, but he had advocated support for Amendment 43, a Colorado ballot initiative defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Surely this accusation had everything to do with politics.
I knew it would be a crazy day in the New Life offices, so I drove there to be present and available if I was needed. I sometimes still work at my old desk at New Life Church, mostly as a way of staying connected to the church's incredible staff members. New Life is an impossibly friendly environment—hugs and smiles all around—and no matter how small or big of a deal this event was going to be, I wanted to experience it in the midst of that friendliness. Throughout the morning, if we talked about it at all, we talked about how to defend Pastor Ted. We had a few "what if" conversations throughout the day, but the allegations seemed too well timed, and too inconsistent with everything we knew of Ted Haggard.
At some point during the day, I texted Pastor Ted: "I'm standing with you. I love you." He replied his heartfelt thanks.
That evening, New Life's elders gathered together for a meeting, where they would later be joined by the church's external board of overseers who had come into town to investigate the claims. I did not attend that meeting, but had friends who went to observe. The prolonged silence of the day had gotten to me by then, and I was frantic for information. Every few moments, I sent text messages to my friends—"What do you know?" "Any updates?" "What's going on?"—until finally one of them responded: "Some of the allegations are true. :( "
My God. What could be true? I wasn't shocked or sad yet; I was nervous. What were we about to learn?
By this time, it was nearly 10:00 p.m. I rushed to the church to see if anyone was around. I found a few guys sitting in an office; I joined them, and we sat and stared at each other. We did not know anything more than "some allegations"—and again, we don't know anything more than that now—but we sensed that life was about to get very, very hard. I contacted one of New Life's pastors to say I'd be available for anything he needed. "I think I mostly just need a friend," he said. "I'm not sure what the world is going to look like tomorrow."
A friend followed me home, and we sat up all night. We prayed. We talked about Pastor Ted, we talked about ourselves—already, this experience was driving us toward honesty, humility, and repentance in our own lives. We also kept vigil for news reports. Within hours, there were details from Mike Jones, Pastor Ted's accuser—voice mail recordings, an envelope with hundred dollar bills. These were intimations of the experience we were about to have; tangible evidence not just of wrongdoing, but of how difficult life was going to become.
The next two days are a blur of sleeplessness, media inquiries, occasional sobs, and mostly, work. I talked to the New York Times and the Denver Post. Good Morning America called. I began ignoring phone numbers I didn't recognize. I went to New Life Church and walked around hugging people. "How are you doing?" we asked each other, hoping that one of us would say something to tell us how we should be doing. A couple of times I sat to pray, and all I could say was, "Lord, have mercy. Please have mercy." I read the Beatitudes—"Blessed are those who mourn" always seemed like an inspiring idea; now it was a promise, and I held onto it.
I was living someone else's life—the life of a man who worked for a televangelist trickster, not the life of working with Ted Haggard, a man who had been a faithful friend, a source of joy and laughter, a well of wisdom. In my years of working with him, Pastor Ted and I had come to realize that we held different positions on some key concepts in faith and politics. But it never mattered in our friendship; it was sometimes painful for me to be in disagreement with him, especially after he became a public figure, but he built a bridge across those differences. He jokingly called me the "staff liberal" (an overstatement). He pushed hard for his perspective, but he read widely and voraciously and understood that reasonable people could disagree.
When Saturday's press release from New Life Church announced that Pastor Ted Haggard had "committed sexually immoral conduct," the media began to call me again. They were primarily concerned with why Haggard told a different story earlier in the week. Being Haggard's editor for eight years and parishioner for twelve did not give me any special clarity into that question. But as a human, it is not puzzling to me why a man would struggle to reveal his secrets—especially to reporters stalking him at home. I am not excusing Haggard, just as he is not excusing himself; I am acknowledging that though the truth is always good, it's often not easy, especially when the truth requires repentance.
At both morning services and the evening service on Sunday, New Life Church was in a glow. Strange to say, but anyone who was there would tell you the same. Pastor Ross Parsley, who will be our interim senior pastor while the board of overseers searches for Pastor Ted's permanent replacement, mentioned to me that "it feels like God is really here." It makes sense to me, I told him—God likes truth. And we've suddenly got a bunch of truth.
Parts of evangelicalism are stuck in a self-help mode where people have come to think that believing in Jesus automatically makes life easier. Some believe that Jesus making life easier is a good reason to believe in Jesus. New Life Church has been susceptible to that idea from time to time, but we were pretty clear of it yesterday. During his sermon in the first service, Pastor Ross said, "We feel a lot worse today than we did a week ago. But we were a whole lot worse off a week ago." It's a paradox a lot of people don't want to face: when you're feeling good, it might be because you're not dealing with yourself. Truth feels good, but it sobers, too.
The services taught me a lot about how we at New Life Church will get through this crisis. Think of Gayle Haggard's words from her letter yesterday: "My test has begun; watch me," she said, pledging to endure this trial with grace and dignity. It's a staggering pledge. But I have no doubt she will endure, and that her church will, too, even if we have a Jacob-like limp. Already it's been clear that we are not scrambling for a game plan—the bylaws of New Life Church that Pastor Ted installed years ago prepared us for a time like this. Our external board of overseers—three pastors from Colorado, one from Louisiana—did an expert job this weekend at handling an urgent and overwhelming crisis. Within three days, they had interviewed Pastor Ted, consulted with experts, completed their investigation, and issued a decision. They did not spin, and they removed him from ministry. No cheap grace here, but a rare display of swift and wise judgment.
New Life is handling this crisis the way families handle crises. We'll cry it out, pray, lean on each other, and find strength in our love. Whatever your opinion of New Life Church, know this: it is a remarkable community of people who are faithful to one another through thick and thin. Plenty of churches have to live through difficult times; I would rather not live through this one, but since I have to, I'm comforted to know that I'll be living through it here.
Already this weekend, I have begun to see that we will not all deal with it in the same way. Some people are still numb, or in shock. Some are sad. Some are in despair. Some are angry. All of those emotions are okay, as Pastor Ross assured the congregation yesterday. Most people's emotions, like mine, are a mixture of all of the above.
I have been asked again and again if I feel betrayed. I'm not sure that I do. I love Pastor Ted, and I am sad for him, and I am sad for the loss of him. He has been a positive influence on my life. I'm heartbroken that my view of him was incomplete, but I am grateful for the view I had. Many of the most important principles I believe—that we should serve God and other people before ourselves, that family is a prime good, that being grateful is the key to being happy, that thoughtfulness should be pursued in all things—are principles I learned from Pastor Ted. I don't think he's forgotten those principles; I just think that he, like all of us, struggles to live the way he most wants to live. "I do not understand what I do," wrote the Apostle Paul. "For what I want to do I do not do, but I hate what I do."
The events unfolding here in Colorado Springs do not change the fact that my life was made better—richer, stronger, more complete—through the influence of Pastor Ted Haggard. Twelve years ago, I began attending New Life Church as a despairing, confused college student, and my life was transformed. I've chronicled my struggles to live out that transformation, but I am who I am today because Pastor Ted inspired me to live with faith in God, kindness toward others, and confidence in myself. In addition to being a wonderful pastor, he is one of the most faithful friends I have ever had.
Late last night, as I sneaked into my daughter's room and kissed her on the forehead, I thought about how I would not be doing that were it not for Ted. I would not have chosen the joys of having a wife and children; I would not have discovered that serving others is more rewarding than serving myself; I would not have developed a deep regard for the Christian tradition, nor taken seriously the vast moral and intellectual resources of the faith.
None of my gratefulness for Pastor Ted is past tense. Regardless of what we learn in the coming days and weeks, no matter what is revealed, the affirmative influence of Ted Haggard on my life is fixed. He gave me my first writing job and challenged me to develop my talents. Through New Life Church, he introduced me to many of my closest friends. He encouraged me to attend graduate school and supported my desire to work in journalism. Even when I wrote a book detailing my difficulties with the evangelical subculture, Pastor Ted extended patience and generosity.
Many men and women who have served Pastor Ted in ministry, called him a friend, or attended New Life Church have some version of this story. That's one reason I believe that we'll get through this. Pastor Ted helped us, which is why we're willing to help him. It's a complicated, uncomfortable position, but it's the one we're choosing.
The other reason I believe we'll get through this is that because of the biblical witness, we're not surprised by sin, and we're equipped to handle tragedy. We are blessed in our mourning. We are blessed in our poverty of spirit. God lives in a high and holy place, but also dwells with the contrite and broken. He is dwelling with us now.