A Lesson from Ted Haggard–and Henri Nouwen

By now we’ve all heard the latest about Ted Haggard, former pastor of New Life Community Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and former head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Brother Haggard–and he is my brother in Christ, as my Bible reminds me–was found out as having had sexual relations with a male prostitute in Denver. He resigned in disgrace, and has since been in counseling.

According to the Denver Post, the four pastors in charge of overseeing New Life Church in the wake of this disaster recently made a surprising–to some, an astonishing, and to others, an absurd–announcement. One of them, Rev. Tim Ralph of Larkspur, Colorado, was quoted as explaining Haggard’s three-year relationship with the man thus: “He is completely heterosexual,” Ralph said. “That is something he discovered. It was the acting-out situations where things took place. It wasn’t a constant thing.”

I have been quoted enough by reporters to want to give Brother Ralph some benefit of doubt here. Surely he didn’t say something this awkward and opaque. But the gist seems clear enough: Haggard was always heterosexual; he just engaged in occasional homosexual relations as a form of “acting-out”–whatever that means.

Columnists have had a field day with this recent announcement, of course, with many wondering what stresses could possibly drive a “completely heterosexual” man into the arms of a male lover. Others have gotten the story simply wrong, saying that Haggard is claiming to have been “cured” of homosexuality in just three months, rather than the years normally expected for such a healing and rebuilding of such a basic component of one’s personality. The media circus continues.

In the light of all this, I’d say, first, that Haggard needs a better publicist. Tim Ralph’s claims are so unlikely that only an unusually informed and persuasive speaker could possibly put them across with plausibility, and Brother Ralph clearly isn’t such a speaker.

But that’s obvious. Perhaps also as obvious is that even if what he said is true, surely the press conference should have waited until a plausible explanation emerged for just why Haggard acted (“out”) the way he did. Instead, all Ralph said, according to the Post, was that the overseers were still “trying to discern” that. Yet until they do, they leave Haggard open to the charge–now being made by many–that this is just a whitewash and a stupid one at that, a convenient recourse to “miracle” to save Haggard’s reputation and the welfare of the church he founded.

In all of this, however, I am reminded of the late Henri Nouwen, the superb spiritual writer who taught at Harvard and Yale before spending his last years with Jean Vanier’s community known as L’Arche.

Nouwen also wrestled with homosexuality, “wrestled” with it because his religious beliefs, like Haggard’s, diagnosed it as a deformation of the personality.

Also like Haggard, Nouwen maintained a position of spiritual advisor to many. His sexual difficulty did not disqualify him from offering his considerable gifts to others. Nor should Haggard’s have kept him from pastoral service.

Unlike Haggard, however, Nouwen stayed away from preaching or public activism regarding homosexuality. He avoided, that is, any risk of incurring the taint of hypocrisy, which is a far more serious problem–in the Bible and in the public eye–than is homosexuality.

Nouwen gave us the lovely phrase, the “wounded healer.” Some have exploited this term–as all lovely things are vulnerable to exploitation–to suggest that you can be entirely comfortable with all manner of sins and still be a spiritual leader. You can be proud, you can be lustful, you can be greedy, you can wrathfully dismiss any staff members who disagree, and on down the seven deadlies–but hey, you’re a “wounded healer” and you are so darned popular, which is to say, “blessed in your ministry.” So it’s okay.

No, Nouwen teaches us to the contrary by word and by example. Serve, yes: offering your God-given talents to make God’s beloved world a better place. But serve out of consciousness of your wound, which means to serve in humility, in compassion, in patience. “There, but for the grace of God go I.” We must help others as fellow-sufferers, with genuine fellow-feeling–but also with a strong and clear sense of our limitations.

I’ve never been a fan of Ted Haggard’s, nor of the populist celebrity-evangelicalism that he exemplifies. But I feel sorry for him, for his wife, for his family, and for his church. And I hope he can get out of the spotlight that he enjoyed and that helped to do him in.

I believe in a God who heals–eventually. And so I pray for Brother Haggard’s healing, as I pray for my own.

But I also recognize, thanks to Brother Nouwen, that my wounds may not be healed right away, nor in just a few months. God may well let some of those wounds remain a while, in fact, for as I endure their pain, their shame, and their debility, I may be given the gift of remembering just how needy I am, how great God is, and how much you and I each need his restoring love.

[A shorter version of this piece appeared recently in “Sightings,” the e-mailed biweekly column on religion and society published by the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago.]

17 Responses to “A Lesson from Ted Haggard–and Henri Nouwen”

  1. Ed C

    This is a very timely comparison of two ways of ministering. I believe that we can only minister out of what we have been given. We can only pass on to others what God has given to us. That is what makes Nouwen someone we still turn to today for spiritual guidance.

  2. Jayson Besserer

    […] great post about Ted Haggard and Henri Nouwen. Read the rest of the post here. Great post and worth reading the whole thing, by John Stackhouse. No Comments so far Leave a […]

  3. Paul

    Hi John,

    I am a former barista at the Well and a downtown Van church planter. I have been a pastor for 14 years. I come from a Pentecostal background so I have been well acquainted with the evangelical celebrity phenomenon. I can still remember where I was when we heard the news about Jimmy Swaggart. I’m a guitar guy and he’s piano so me and Jimmy never hit it off (ha, ha).

    I agree with you very much about the pressure of the public eye and the whitewash regarding his healing. I was trying to assertain from your post if you think it is wise to take some time off when a wound is “emerging” or “re-emerging” in our life or should we continue to work through it.

    In asking that question I realize every situation is unique but do we give the Devil too much due when we remove ourselves from using our gifts or do we jeopardize our total healing by still enduring the stresses of ministry life?

    Thank you.

  4. Ari

    Actually, Haggard was not recommended to “take time off to heal” he was basically told that he should not ever be in church ministry again and that he and his wife need to seek secular jobs. That’s where the travesty lies IMO.

    great post, beautifully said.

  5. John Stackhouse

    Paul and Ari raise good questions about how leaders should handle a crisis of this sort in their lives–whether to take time off to sort things out, carry on while seeking healing, or leave that sort of ministry forever.

    My strong sense is…it all depends! I think it depends on the benefits and troubles that can be anticipated for all those concerned–including the leader, his or her family, his or her associates, and those he or she serves. It depends also on what kind of problem it is that has surfaced, and how central it is to the work involved. It depends on the advice of skilled helpers (psychologists, spiritual directors, and the like) as to how long it can be expected to take to work through the problem behind the crisis. And it depends on the attitude of the leader toward repentance, amendment of life, restitution of damages, and willingness to change course as need be.

    I don’t quite see how someone like Brother Haggard can be told categorically that he should leave pastoral ministry forever. Nor, however, do I see how he can expect to be functioning well in just a few months after this acute trauma and also in the light of his deep-seated difficulties.

    But I’m not close to the scene. Those who are, are the only ones who can make reasonable judgments. My prayer is that Brother Haggard, his wife, his former associates, and his church will receive very good advice (and I’m not sure they have all gotten it so far) and will take it–as is my prayer for all of us.

  6. Joe Beach

    Great post! I just found your blog (through jesuscreed). Thank you for your insight and for the lessons from Nouwen. I’ve been a pastor for 20 years. I often feel, rightly or wrongly, that we have no one and nowhere to go to… until it’s too late. Real or perceived, I think this is an important issue for us to address.

    I also wanted to comment re: Rev. Tim Ralph. He’s a close friend of mine and has been for over 20 years. He’s a great guy. A skilled carpenter, a church planter, trying to pastor a “regular-sized” church as well as he can. Ironically, I’m on his “board of overseers.” He got his type of church government from his friend, Ted Haggard. I spent two days with him the week after those “quotes” in the paper. He said he immediately called the Denver Post reporter the next morning and said to him, “your journalism skills suck!” He reminded the reporter of what he actually said (which was not stupid or shallow at all… as it came across). The reporter apologized… but, of course, it was too late.

    Tim is actually a clear-headed guy… and has a good handle on all of this. He learned his lesson and will never talk again. There is good advice being offered (to these elders and, mostly, to Haggard) by many good people… it’s not always being heeded.

    thank you.
    (I just ordered “Finally Feminist”)

  7. Raymond Rice

    Henri Nouwen may have been gay but no where is it indicated that he was not celibate as he had promised to be at ordination.

  8. Helen Dallaston

    What if some people are born gay? (just like some are born as albinos, or left-handed?)
    Given that the church teaches this orientation is sinful, I have only 3 options as a gay Christian (a) outwardly suppress it (but fail in private practice… and risk being found out) (b) publicly suppress it and succeed too, in private, by being celibate (and then struggle with loneliness and frustration for the rest of my life) (c) leave the church.
    I am not gay, but have enough wonderful friends who are, to consider that ‘sinful’ is not the right paradigm. As many of them say – who on earth would CHOOSE to be gay?

    • John Stackhouse

      I am sympathetic, Sister Helen, to people who are born with this or that trait. But it doesn’t matter whether someone is born gay or made gay or some combination (I agree: No one chooses to be homosexual). We’re all stuck with whatever we’ve got and we’ve got to try to live properly–with the help of the Holy Spirit.

      Someone isn’t gay, but he’s prone to self-righteousness, or narcissism, or depression, or promiscuity, or alcoholism, or greed. He didn’t choose to be what he is, and behaving properly is going to mean a serious regimen of self-discipline, but what else do we expect of him?

      Gay people don’t get a pass: No one gets a pass. Option (b) is everyone’s option, but loneliness doesn’t have to be the gay person’s life, just as it doesn’t have to be the life of anyone struggling with personal difficulties.

    • Alan

      I think the professor is on the right track with this. Homosexuals don’t get a pass because they may be born that way. We are all born sinners, and none of us gets a pass. The question isn’t “What if I’m born this way?”, the question is “What does God say about it?”

      The reality is that sin is whatever God defines it to be. If He declares left-handedness to be sinful and against His order of things, then it is sinful. If He says that impulses to steal, lie, and hate are sinful, then they are sinful. The same is true of homosexuality as well as heterosexual lust. He declares them to be contrary to His own character and outside of His established order of things. The fact that we’re born with these impulses simply proves that something is afoot…something has poisoned the broth.

      My parents tell me that I was born with an impulse to be angry. It was evident from the get-go. Am I excused because I was born that way? No, instead God says I must learn to master these impulses (Gen 4:7). The problem is, because I’m born with this predisposition I need help in overcoming it. And that’s where my faith in the strength and righteousness of Christ come in. I CAN be healed of this, and I CAN learn to overcome it to the glory of God. So, too, can your homosexual friends.

      Oh, and BTW, a member of my immediate family is also gay, so I’m not just speaking out of theory here.

      • Arnold

        Why do you do willingly accept this terrible notion that you were born a wretched, worthless sinner? Why do you take on such debt which you never incurred on your own? You speak eloquently, but you sound like a pathetic prisoner. If you simply freed your mind of that doctrine (original sin), think of the greatness you could accomplish. Yes, you would find yourself in a world without God, but also a life without debt. You’d grow up and realize you can be a moral person without religious obligation. Free your mind! An awesome life is out there. One here on earth, in the here and now. There is absolutely no evidence of one after death.

  9. Arnold

    Think of the liberation you would feel if you simply freed yourself of the terrible doctrine of original sin. There is no such thing, therefore no need for “salvation”. Your homosexuality is a true expression of your inner personality. It’s a good component of your character. Just don’t hurt others. But otherwise, your sexual expression is solely yours. Sadly, too many are bound by religious morals, and go about being “wounded warriors”. Don’t be that pathetic. Be strong and proud of who you are. God and sin have something in common: they’re both man-made illusions.

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