Will Ted Haggard please be quiet?

Ted Haggard and his wife (author of a book, Why I Stayed) will be getting their next fifteen minutes of fame on “Celebrity Wife Swap” in January.   They co-star with Gary Busey and his wife. 

After falling hard in 2005, Haggard is slowly making his way back onto the American Christian scene.   He started a new church, St. James Church in Colorado Springs, and produces video clips that air on YouTube.  And now courtesy of Hollywood’s love for the moral edge, Haggard’s marriage, family and home will be part of the season premiere of “Celebrity Wife Swap.” 

Wow. Why couldn’t they star in a home make-over show instead?  Or on that show where you sell your storage container junk?  That one would preach. But “Celebrity Wife Swap”?  Never mind the buzz it creates among the those-Christians-are-crazy crowd.  What about Christ’s call to a humble life?

I feel myself skating that thin line between discernment and judgment, so let’s remove the conversation from Haggard’s public choices.  What I really want to ask is a question about the difference between receiving forgiveness and walking in it. 

Christians believe in a God of Second Chances.  Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel.  Forgiveness is what God offers through the cross.  Repentance is our response.  To repent means to turn away from something that offends God.  There is more to it than just saying, “I did it.”  It means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God.  We become no longer our own, but His.  That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

For real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go.  There has to be a death to self.  Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, and always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance.  It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son.  When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing.  He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die.  I want my share of the estate now.”  Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.  Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way.  The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die.  Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”  There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in the stories I read about big-name Christians who get caught and admit wrong.  I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, or for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth.  Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please.  I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance.

I guess I’m looking for a little holy humility.  I’m not convinced I’ll find it on “Celebrity Wife Swap.”

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I found an angel in jail.

Angels come in more than one form.

The other day I was visiting a guy in jail (not an angel, in case you’re thinking that’s where I’m headed).  I asked him about his tattoos, and he showed me several crosses and some other symbols I didn’t quite get.  Then he showed me the top of the tattoo on his chest.  From the looks of it, it was a huge angel printed across his body.  Not a little angel.  A big one.  Feathers and all. 

He said, “I just felt like I needed an angel to cover me.”

Then he told me this story of how he ended up in jail … this time.  It sounds as if it involved a woman.  He was in a bad situation, he said, and it got worse. Then it got dangerous and from the way he told it without really telling it (we were having this conversation in the jailhouse, remember …), it sounds like the situation could have really messed up his life.

But then … his words … God showed up.  With blue lights on top of his car, evidently.  Just when things were going south, the cops drove up and arrested him.  To him, that moment was all God, all mercy.  It was God changing the course of his life when he didn’t have the courage to do it himself.  It was angels covering him, giving him another chance at life.

His story reminds me of that place in the book of Acts where Paul ends up in Athens and notices all those idols plastered around the city.  It strikes him that all these people have put an incredible amount of time, energy and faith into these blobs of metal and stone that have no power.  Meanwhile, they’ve completely missed the living God.  Like placing faith in a tattooed image of an angel, but missing out on the chance to follow Jesus.

So now this guy is sitting in jail reading his Bible, waiting for the next step.  I have to agree with him that maybe this is God’s best for him, given the circumstances.  I’m really hoping with this guy that maybe he is not sitting in a jail right now, but in a spiritual incubator.  I’m praying he gets a new mind and a better set of choices out of this deal.  I’m praying he gets a better conscience with which to process those choices.  I’m praying for his kid who he has yet to hold, and for the generation he will influence with his choices.  I’m praying he will choose to follow Jesus, because it isn’t when we are practicing freedom that we are most free but when we follow Jesus.

I am praying for this young man … that real angels surround him and cover him, and that the Holy Spirit fills him and Christ consumes him.  

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Anything but Silent

I saw the Kingdom of God yesterday.  Twice.

I stopped in at an assisted living home to see a friend sing with her choir.  My friend is mentally disabled.  She spends her weekdays at a center for adults with mental and emotional disabilities. She lives independently through the week (stays with her sister on the weekends) and does her own cooking.  She is a great bowler and a passionate singer.  She has a good life.

At least once a week, my friend calls me to share what’s going on in her life. Lately, she’s been laser-focused on getting me to show up at one of the places her choir is booked to sing.  I picked yesterday to make it happen.

That’s where I saw the Kingdom of God.  It happened first in the simple witness of this roomful of Alzheimer’s patients and adults with disabilities.  The choir of adults with disabilities was there to bless the residents.  The residents were there as a willing and even enthusiastic audience for this choir.  It was clearly a Kingdom match, the kind of thing Jesus would stop for.  I’m pretty sure “church” happened up in there.

Then the Kingdom broke in again when one of the men in the choir sat at the piano to play.  The choir leader said he was a beginner but he had Silent Night down, so he’d be playing it for us.

It took him a minute to get started, but once he found the tune he played a very handsome, simple version of Silent Night.  What got me was the guy in the choir who couldn’t stop singing.  He was a middle-aged man with Down Syndrome.  As soon as the pianist began, he started singing along, word for word.  He wasn’t “supposed” to be singing (this was a piano solo), but evidently he couldn’t help himself.

The leader heard him and turned to shush him.  He got this sheepish look on his face and nodded as if he understood that quiet was what he was supposed to be.  But as soon as she turned away, he started again.  This happened a couple of times.  She’d turn and quiet him and he’d look all sheepish, but as soon as she turned back to the piano he’d start again.  At one point he put his hand over his mouth, not to keep himself from singing but to keep himself from being seen singing. 

And that’s when the tears welled up in me.  It was just so beautiful and such a sign of the Kingdom. This guy, hearing the music, unable to contain himself even if no one else was singing, even if it was against the rules …

And I thought to myself:  who is the smartest person in the room?  The one who knows when not to sing?  Or the one who can’t keep himself from singing when the music of Christmas begins to play? 

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The Cost of Transparency

A young man I greatly admire wrote this week about his desire to see Christians being more real with each other. He is working with a youth team, teaching leadership principles. He challenged them this week to be more honest, more open, more transparent. It’s a noble challenge, a great one for people who have soaked up a more typical church culture.

It has me thinking about our church. It could be the imagination of a pastor who thinks her people are just the best but I would have to say that if there’s one thing we’ve done right, it is that we’ve encouraged this faith community to be brutally honest with each other. We’ve made the testimony a cornerstone of our worship experience and we’ve heard just about every possible story. Guys who pulled guns on their wives. Moms who endured the incarceration of children. Every conceivable addiction, including porn. Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. We don’t do this for shock value; it has been God’s call on us to model vulnerability. We see our stories as good and God-honoring gifts.

We’ve learned a few things on this road to transparency. Primarily we have learned that it comes with a cost. For starters, it is a great way to downsize a church. People don’t naturally know how to hold grace and truth together in the same hand. When folks get honest about their lives, some head for the door. It isn’t the kind of “church” they signed up for. Often, we hear comments like, “We love what you’re doing at your church. We don’t need it, but we love what you’re doing.” As if only some people need truth and grace.

We’ve also learned that by speaking openly about our addictions and habits, we’ve opened doors for people to come to us and become accountable for getting healed. We’ve discovered that you can’t just tell your story and sit down. Every admission is really an investment in the life of someone who will come forward when they discover they are not alone.

Like I said, you have to count the cost.

And although real transparency is not cheap, I don’t think I could go back to “church as usual” now that I’ve experienced this way of doing life together. The love our folks have for each other is rich and the healing we’ve witnessed is real. There is a lot of love and grace in an atmosphere committed to being non-judgmental. We haven’t thrown our theology out the window, but we have learned to embrace the stories as gifts and to use them as instruments of grace.

It is what Jesus said in John, chapter 3. Anything that comes into the light belongs to him. Knowing that, why would we want to leave anything in the dark?

Maybe this thing we’ve found that costs but counts … maybe this is what that guy found in that field. I’m thinking about the one Jesus told about the guy who found a treasure, then went and sold everything he had so he could go back and buy not just the treasure but the whole field. Maybe he discovered exactly what we’ve discovered: that a community possessing the treasure of transparency is worth everything we’ve got.

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