He wasn’t just our pastor; he was a folk a hero. In the middle of George W. Bush’s second term, Pastor Ted was so close to POTUS that he had a video conference call (we hadn’t heard of Skype back then) on Sunday morning to playfully banter about the state of the nation and what is the better truck: Chevy or Ford? He got Mel Gibson to come by and reminisce about the best scenes in Braveheart. William Wallace himself shared about this Jesus movie he was working on. Pastor Ted met with world leaders and was called “America’s Pastor.” In the midst of his enormous responsibilities he still had time to officiate our weddings and pray for our babies.
We didn’t put him on too high of a pedestal; Jesus was still Lord of our lives, which is why we thanked Jesus for bringing us Pastor Ted. We didn’t expect him to part the Red Sea, but we wouldn’t have been surprised if Pastor Ted walked on water.
That’s why when a stranger named Mike Jones came out with accusations we knew they were ridiculous. Unfounded. This was a smear campaign.
A throne of lies.
In the midst of the chaos there was a wedding. A good friend of ours, with a heart of gold and a voice like a goat, was getting married on a Thursday of all days. Pastor Ted was supposed to officiate but he never showed up. The lack of his presence was like a ghost on that day. If he as innocent (and we knew he was), why wouldn’t he show up?
This wasn’t the first attack against his character. You can’t get that high up without someone trying to pull you down. It never mattered. His bright smile was bulletproof and his laugh was body armor. There were other attacks and this one shouldn’t have been any different. But it felt different.
We tired to put the whole bizarre story in the back of our minds at the wedding. We danced, and toasted, and sung “Ice, Ice, Baby” at the top of our lungs. Some of us had gone to the church for a meeting to handle the crisis. The rest of us stayed to celebrate the newlyweds.
At the end of the night I couldn’t bring myself to drive home. My car wandered—it seemed like the vehicle had its own willpower—into the parking lot of a building we called The World Prayer Center. The evening was crisp and clear, but felt like it should have had spooky fog like the stuff they put in graveyards in 1950’s B Movies.
I walked into the empty building normally buzzing with sounds of prayer and worship, but tonight it was silent as a library at closing time. I saw Pastor Ross, our worship pastor and my former summer camp counselor, in the middle of that hallway. He was leading us through the crisis and if there were any news he would have it. He was like a big brother to me. I expected him to put his arm around me and say, “This is just a speed bump. We’ll be oaky.”
As I got close I could see his eyes were tearstained and his face was gaunt with weight of the earth. He looked at me considering who I was and how he should say this. “Some of the allegations are true,” he said. The ground crumbled and I went toppling into the earth’s fiery core. At least that’s what it felt like. In reality I just stood quietly in the church building and nodded. Then I asked a bunch of questions because that’s what I’ve always been good at. I’m more of a man of questions than answers.
Pastor Ross answered me the best that he could, but as we walked outside our conversation was interrupted by a group of reporters from CNN and CBS. They aimed bright lights at his face and held microphones up to his mouth. The reporters asked many of the same questions as I did. Maybe I would have been a good journalist in another life. Or maybe those were the only questions we could all ask.
For the first time ever, everyone was early to church. We passed each other in the hallway, slowly, unsure of what we were supposed to say. Could we talk about what was happening? Some of us did in whispered voices. Others of us talked about more ordinary things like the Broncos, the upcoming election, and life’s promotions and demotions. A week ago we felt like the most influential church in the world. Now we were the circus, but no one had ever trained us how to act.
As my wife pulled up to the church with our best friends from California and our newborn daughter, our car died. It would never start again. It took an army of interns to move it from under the awning to a safe place in the parking lot. It would cost me thousands of dollars I didn’t have, and many inconveniences, but it felt like that didn’t matter anymore. The sky was falling.
When service started people sang songs about how God is in control, Jesus is Lord overall, and there is grace and redemption for us all. I didn’t have the strength to sing those songs. I didn’t know if I believed them anymore. After that many pastors and leaders from around the country came and shared thoughts and words. I don’t remember anything they said.
What I do remember was a letter Pastor Ted wrote to us all. He said, “The fact is I am guilty of sexual immorality. And I take responsibility for the entire problem. I am a deceiver and a liar. There’s a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it for all of my adult life.”
I didn’t cry, though I wanted to at that moment. It seemed like everyone else was crying or angry or stunned or shocked or bitter. The letter poured kerosene on our feelings and the embers of our emotions burned white hot.
That night I lay in bed. I looked over at a picture of Gayle and Ted on the front page of the Denver Post—the paper was still on the nightstand. I started reading it a few nights ago and didn’t have the strength to touch it again and throw it away.
I was a brand-new father and wondered what kind of world I brought my daughter into. I understood how things would play out. I happened to be writing a book about the rise and fall of a pastor, it was a novel processing my first thirty-years of being a Christian. I knew I would be fired for writing that book.
I closed my eyes and pictured New Life Church overrun by weeds, its windows broken, and its parking lot a graveyard for used cars. I knew within the next year New Life Church would shut its doors. There is no way it could withstand this sort of tragedy.
I knew the sun would not rise the next morning. God had abandoned us, turned his back on us once and for all. I hugged my wife and then held my newborn daughter on my chest. I didn’t have the strength to pray, didn’t have the strength to feel any hope, and didn’t have the courage to say any comforting words to my family. I just laid in bed feeling horrible for the shame and sadness Pastor Ted was wrestling with somewhere; feeling awful for this stranger Mike Jones who tried to do the right thing; feeling pain for the pastors of my church who had to deal with all of the stress and trauma of the media and lawyers; and most of all feeling sorrow for all innocent bystanders cut up by the aftermath of this head on collision.
Then I didn’t have the strength to think anymore. So, I lay on my back and listened to my newborn daughter take baby breaths with her tiny fragile lungs. Somewhere in those moments the darkness completely overtook me and I feel asleep.
I was shocked when sun rose the next morning, right on schedule.