Monday, November 13, 2006

Ted Haggard and Humility

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted in with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Mark 12:38-40

I imagine that many of you, like me, have been following the unfolding tragedy of Pastor Ted Haggard. The media and, perhaps, the public it ostensibly serves, have a voracious appetite for scandal, and the combination of sex and religion makes for a rich feast. Add a touch of hypocrisy, and you have a gourmet meal.

Haggard was a leading evangelical clergyman, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and pastor of a one of the largest mega-churches in Colorado. Time Magazine named Pastor Haggard one of the most influential evangelicals in America; and in our country, that is saying something! One of the ways in which he used his influence was to scapegoat and demonize lesbian and gay people; using us as a wedge issue to promote a conservative theological and political agenda.

Sadly, Pastor Haggard’s denunciation of gay and lesbian people masked his anxiety and self-loathing with respect to his own sexuality. Unable to accept his same-sex desire with honesty, he split off his sexuality and projected it on to gay and lesbian people in a distorted and monstrous form. He attacked in others what he could not admit about himself. His desire went underground, becoming a dirty secret to be acted upon in ways that became a self-fulfilling prophecy of shame.

It is hardly surprising, then, that we should discover Pastor Haggard in a tryst with a male prostitute, fueled – I imagine – in equal parts by selfishness and self-hatred. It is easy to condemn Pastor Haggard, whether conservative or liberal, gay or straight. Most condemn his infidelity and dishonesty. Some condemn his same-sex desire. Many, especially, perhaps, many lesbian and gay people, condemn his hypocrisy. He does seem to press a button for a great many people, though the buttons differ.

This morning I would like to hold up Pastor Ted Haggard, not as a scapegoat in reverse, but rather as a mirror. Instead of making him the object of our own projections, let us have the courage to see ourselves in him. The truth is that we all have our secrets. We all carry around more shame and pride than we care to admit. Surely, those of us who have known the suffocating confines of the closet can understand the weight of confusion, secrecy, and self-hatred burdening Pastor Haggard.

Pastor Haggard, who devoured gay and lesbian peoples’ houses while making long prayers for the sake of appearance, has received already the greater condemnation. It is the condemnation of his conscience. He does not need us to stand in judgment of him, nor are we fit to do so.

What strikes me is the way in which Pastor Haggard’s story reflects my own grandiosity. There is something within me that makes me want to be less than human, or more than human, but never simply human. Perhaps you know what I mean. How much time do you spend thinking about how you are better than, or worse than, those around you? How much time do you spend comparing your "insides" to other peoples’ "outsides" in ways that make you feel inferior? How often do you find yourself judging or belittling others in order to make yourself feel superior?

This see-sawing back and forth between pride and shame, between victimization and entitlement, leads us into a web of illusion, dishonesty, and self-centeredness that makes it very difficult to see ourselves, or God’s will for us, with much clarity. It leads us to act in ways that violate our conscience and harm others. We convince ourselves that we deserve whatever we want, regardless of the cost to others. Grandiosity is to individuals what imperialism is to nations, whether its stems from a sense of inferiority or from a sense of superiority. How do we come to see ourselves whole? How can we integrate the shadow and the light within us and within our world? What is the remedy for our grandiosity?

We would do well to recall the words of St. Anthony the Great: “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’ Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.’”[1] The great masters of our tradition have always taught that humility is the chief virtue and fruit of our spiritual practice. “Humility is the only thing we need,” said Elder Herman of Mt. Athos, “one can still fall having virtues other than humility – but with humility one does not fall.”

Humility is the state of accepting our condition as human beings. Authentic humility is the virtue of having a right sized opinion of ourselves, of seeing ourselves as we truly are. It isn’t about thinking that we are less than we truly are. Here I think of Pastor Haggard’s letter of apology to his congregation, in which he described his sexuality as “so repulsive and dark that I’ve been warring against it all of my adult life,” as “the dirt that . . . would resurface” after periods of abstinence. This is “all or nothing” thinking. It reflects the kind of grandiosity that is just the opposite of humility. With humility we accept that we are no better and no worse than anyone else.

In a sense, humility isn’t something that we achieve or acquire; it is simply accepting the reality of who we are. Brian Taylor notes that “The word human is related to the words humus (organic and animal waste) and humble. To be truly human, therefore, is to be of the earth: an earthling, if you will. To be human is to be humble, to know that we are children of the earth and nothing more . . . This is true humility: to know whereof we are made, what our limitations are, and our importance in the perspective of all of life.”[2]

This is why Elder Herman says that humility is all we need, and that with it we cannot fall. With humility, we can make decisions rooted in the truth about ourselves and God’s will for us, free from the pride and shame that fuel grandiosity and illusion. So, humility is simply acceptance of our true condition.

And yet, such acceptance can be difficult to – well – accept. Thus Abba Tithoes said, “The way of humility is this: self-control, prayer, and thinking yourself inferior to all creatures.” That is to say, there are certain practices, concrete actions we can take to cultivate humility. Self-control, prayer, and “thinking yourself inferior to all creatures” are not ends in themselves, but ways to become humble.

Self-control is the practice of guarding our thoughts, of living with awareness, so that we can exercise freedom in making decisions rather than simply compulsively acting out unconscious drives. It is not only self-denial, though it does mean saying “no” to destructive thoughts and actions. More positively, it is about developing the capacity to say “yes” to those thoughts and actions that are grounded in truth and bring balance, peace, and joy to our lives. This is the fruit of a regular practice of meditation, and of accountability to a trusted spiritual director, friend, or community.

Prayer is the means by which we offer our self - all of our self - to God the Holy Trinity, becoming mindful of the divine matrix of relationship in which we live, and move, and have our being. Praying for ourselves and for others makes us mindful of our needs and of our gratitude. Ceaseless prayer is a way of staying connected to all things in Christ in a conscious way, providing some perspective on our place in the whole of life.

“Thinking yourself inferior to all creatures” seems to flatly contradict what I said earlier about not thinking ourselves better than or worse than others. I think, however, that Abba Tithoes is not speaking of “inferiority” in a moral sense, but rather in the sense of being willing to be of service to all. It is analogous to the practice of some Zen monasteries, in which the abbot is the only one who takes out the garbage. The point is to cultivate a healthy detachment from status consciousness, which creates barriers to service.

Self-control, prayer, service: these are the practices intrinsic to humility, to the acceptance of our humanity. When we are humble, it is then that God’s power can work through us. “God descends to the humble,” said Abba Tekhon, “as waters flow down from the hills into the valleys.” Humility is the natural state of receptivity to God’s presence in our lives.

The presence and power of God working through us is like the widow of Zarapeth’s jar of meal and jug of oil that could not be emptied; it is like the poor widow’s penny worth more than the large sums of the rich. When we are humble, like the widows in our scripture stories, then we open up space in our lives for God to be all in all. Then all our invidious distinctions, our comparisons, our judgments (including our self-criticisms), are entrusted to God’s infinite mercy. True humility allows us to write the kind of letter to Pastor Haggard that our brother, Christopher Evans, sent this week.

Dear Mr. Haggard,

I cannot pretend to know the struggles you have undergone, nor the pain you have endured these many years regarding your sexuality. I cannot imagine the sorrow and exhaustion you must experience after all these many years. I cannot understand the fear and anxiety you must be facing at this time.

I am sorry for the way fellow Christians are treating you as untouchable, an outcast, an irredeemable sinner, willing to set you aside outside the camp. I am sorry for the way you are being portrayed by members of the gay community as the hypocrite incarnate. I am sorry for your many years of struggle and suffering and self-loathing.

God dearly loves you, Ted Haggard, without reserve or “yes, buts…” or conditions or programmes to reshape you in others' images. As the Book of Wisdom found in the apocryphal readings declares, “Yes, you love everything that exists, and nothing that you have made disgusts you, since, if you had hated something, you would not have made it.”

You, your wife, and your children are in our prayers. If you are ever in San Francisco looking for a house of Christian worship, you are most welcome to join us at St. John the Evangelist at the corner of Julian and 15th Street. Worship begins at 11:00am. Ask for “Chris”, and I’ll be glad to worship alongside you.

Your brother in Christ,


[1] Quotes from the Desert Fathers are found at
[2] Brian Taylor, Becoming Human, pp. 51-52.
[3] From

1 comment:

Katie Sherrod said...

This is so on target, John. Your remarks on our grandiosities was very thought provoking. Thanks.