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.]