Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Friday, December 29, 2006

Winding Down

It's been quite a year around Colorado Springs. All the city's religion writers -- um, me -- were kept pretty darn busy. The beat feels a bit different now than just a few months ago. One of the city's most media-friendly pastors is gone. Colorado Springs' political-religious influence appears to be on the wane, at least temporarily.

But there'll be plenty to write about in 2007. Issues of human sexuality will continue to rage. I think they'll get even bigger, as the Episcopal Church struggles to stay together and evangelicals wrestle with it in their own way. Tensions between Christianity and Islam, Christianity and secularism -- heck, Christianity and folks of all manner of faiths -- will probably escalate, too, as our increasingly pluralistic society continues to evolve.

But on a personal note, I hope to find more sites like this -- posted earlier, but it's still my fave. Have a great new year.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Lightning watch

Hey, folks are just lookin' for karmic trouble if they steal from a church -- particularly when they steal funds earmarked for needy children.

But trouble follows stupid thieves, too.

Take the case of the not-so-mysterious theft of $25,000 from the Church of St. Mel's in Flushing, N.Y. According to an account from the New York Times, the burglary took place as the church was filling up for Christmas Mass: A priest saw a man lugging a big, metal box from the church out to his Lincoln Navigator with Vermont plates. Witnesses asked the guy what was in the box. The guy said elevator equipment.


The box, of course, held a Christmastime offering, which the man put into his Lincoln -- one with Vermont plates -- and drove away.

Police arrested the vehicle's owner, 25-year-old Daniel Morales, and an accomplice a few days later. Morales had reported that someone stole his Lincoln hours after the robbery, and the Times story doesn't say whether police have recovered the vehicle. But the story does make it pretty clear the police feel they got their man.

The church apparently came out of the theft OK. About $6,000 in cash was recovered. Most of the donations were in checks, which can be rewritten. And several congregants and businesses have offered to replace the cash still missing.

Which leaves me with two pressing questions:

Is there really a St. Mel? And does he own a diner?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Away in the Box Office

According to this morning's Gazette, we Colorado Springs folks just can't get enough of "The Nativity Story." While the film fell out of the top 10 nationally, it's still going strong here, holding down the No. 4 spot.

What The Gazette's story didn't note is that the film got stronger as December wore on.

"Nativity" earned $38,358 last week, compared to the $23,585 the movie earned when it was released in late November. All told, Springs movie-goers have plunked down $104,551 to see the film.

Granted, "Nativity"-goers will drop dramatically now that all their Christmas presents have been unwrapped, and the film's monthlong take wasn't close to the $157,655 "Night at the Museum" made in one week here. Still, Colorado Springs residents have an appetite for faith-driven films -- even when they know the ending.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Barbara Walters: Heavenly Bouncer

Well, it's official. Ted Haggard's officially out of "Heaven" -- at least the Barbara Walters version.

Walters' blockbuster special "Heaven: Where is It? How Do We Get There?" will be rebroadcast at 8 tonight on ABC (Adelphia channel 12). Makes sense, really: The show was ABC's highest-rated program last year, according to, and it's a nice, religion-themed program suitable for Christmastime.

But Ted Haggard, founding pastor for Colorado Springs' New Life Church, didn't make the final cut. His interview was replaced by one featuring Houston-based pastor Joel Osteen.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Fallout from the Fallout

Ross Parsley, acting senior pastor for New Life Church, told congregants via e-mail that he was sorry some learned about the church's latest staff resignation through the media. He also said that while New Life is all about forgiveness, that doesn't mean forgiven pastors get to keep their jobs.

"Redemption is available for every single one of us," Parsley wrote. "But redemption is not the only qualification for ministry leadership."

The letter, e-mailed to congregants this morning, addressed issues surrounding the resignation of Christopher Beard, leader of New Life's young-adult leadership program called twentyfourseven. Beard admitted to having a sexual encounter with "another unmarried adult" several years ago.

Parsley said that Beard was honest with the board investigating New Life Church's leadership, and he added that Beard's resignation was made necessary by several "remarkably poor judgment calls," of which the sexual encounter was one. Parsley said the church was treating Beard and his family with "respect and care," but he added that pastors are -- and should be -- held to higher standards.

"Grace, forgiveness, redemption, and restoration will always be hallmarks of New Life Church," he wrote. "But there will be healthy soul searching at every level. We are taking steps to ensure that New Life Church will continue to be a place worthy of the community's trust."

Here's the full text of Parsley's letter:

Dear New Life family and friends,

As events unfolded this week regarding Christopher Beard's resignation, some of you learned of this from news reports before you heard from us. I regret that this happened. Personnel issues of this nature require wisdom and sensitivity and even though we had begun to communicate with those closest to the situation, we were still working towards a general church announcement when some of you heard the news. I deeply regret that you did not first learn of this directly from us. Please know that we will do our best to communicate with you in a timely manner in the days ahead.

These are unprecedented events for our church and we are all new to this process, often figuring it out "in real time." We are dealing with media questions, privacy concerns, and timing issues with every decision. Please forgive us for putting any of you in an awkward position with our community.

As a result, I'd like to review some of the important elements that led to Christopher's decisions. After meeting with the Overseers, it became increasingly apparent to Christopher and to us that he should resign. With several remarkably poor judgment calls as context, Christopher began to realize that resignation was the best decision for himself, his family and the church. With the arrival of a new baby, he and his wife, Lisa, had been discussing possible changes in their future and these considerations, taken together, helped Christopher decide to resign.

Christopher held nothing back when he met with the Overseers and the Senior Staff. He was neither resistant, nor protective. He spoke openly about the sexual encounter that happened several years earlier and he has been truthful throughout this entire process. I respect and appreciate his honesty during this difficult time. After considering all the factors, the Overseers, the leadership team, and I concluded that it was right to accept his resignation.

In the days ahead, we all need to remember several things. (1) God is good. He loves our church family and he will continue to guide us. (2) Forgiveness is eternal. God has forgiven Christopher and we humbly forgive as we have been forgiven. (3) Gossip is always under-informed talk. It can hurt a lot of innocent people and it's just better not to gossip. (4) Healthy communications are direct. The Overseers are available through our website for any concerns you may have about this process or our staff members. (5) Redemption is available for every single one of us. But redemption is not the only qualification for ministry leadership.

Church leaders are held to a higher standard than others because the consequences are greater when that standard is violated. Leadership is mostly about modeling, but because we understand that no one is perfect, discipline must be measured with wisdom. I can assure you that we will not permit a "witch hunt" mentality to invade our church. Grace, forgiveness, redemption, and restoration will always be hallmarks of New Life Church. But there will be healthy soul searching at every level. We are taking steps to ensure that New Life Church will continue to be a place worthy of the community's trust. This is a healthy process. We invited it. We'll see it though. We'll be better for it.

The church has treated and will continue treating Christopher Beard and his family with respect and care. We will be faithful and gracious to them as we help them successfully transition to the next season of their lives. We love them and want to see them succeed.

I know this is painful. God's pruning process usually is. But it is good! Please trust this process. The Overseers are trustworthy. The Trustees are wise. The Selection Committee is working diligently. The Staff, our Elders, and Group Leaders are serving people throughout our church. As dark as this season is, we must remember the light that shined on that lowly stable in Bethlehem and follow it to that innocent and pure child who was born in adversity to save us all.

Thank you for your love and faithfulness,
Pastor Ross Parsley

Holy Biblical Heroes, Batman!

Biblical action figures, believe it or not, are old news. I have one at my desk -- a fairly reverent representation of Moses, looking very Charlton Heston-like with his beard, staff and commandment tablets.

Now the original creator of G.I. Joe has come up with his own line of biblical action figures: No grey beards for these He-Men: Moses -- seen at left -- looks like he could smite Pharoah's butt all over Egypt if he had the urge. Obviously, this Moses has undergone some serious weight training, and has put away his God-blessed staff and commandments for a beefy sword and shield.

The figures, most available for $12.99 here, include a slingshot-weilding David, a Fabio-like Sampson, and a youthful-looking Noah toting a crossbow and accompanied by a wolf. Oh, there are also two Barbie-like girl action figures, too -- Deborah and Esther -- but alas, they don't come with swords.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

No Controversy Left Behind

Ah, 'tis the season for Christian stress. While local faith-watchers may be eyeing New Life Church to see if additional shoes will be dropping, a local superstar author has also backed into a bit o' controversy.

Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the phenomenally popular "Left Behind" books, will defend a videogame based on the books on the Hannity and Colmes show Wednesday (Dec. 20), and on Good Morning American Christmas Day. Now that's a fun way to spend a holiday.

Critics say the game, "Left Behind: Tribulation Forces," not only glorifies violence, but the game's heroes spend their days attacking non-Christians. In fact, apparently Jenkins has heard some people suggest that the supposed goal of the game is to mow down Jews, Muslims, gays and even (according to a release by Jenkins) "Christians who disagree with Dr. LaHaye ("Left Behind's" other co-author) and me over various theological issues."

Well, says Jenkins, that's pure bunk.

"This is ridiculous to the point of lunacy and clearly comes from people who have not seen the game and have an obvious agenda," Jenkins says. "If you have wondered why Dr. LaHaye and I would have anything to do with a game that would target the very individuals we are commanded to love and persuade, you are not alone. We are as puzzled as you."

I have not played the game. But my understanding is that it's a showdown between the forces of good and evil. In this scenario, the good guys are Christian. The bad guys are in league with the antichrist. And there are a heckuva lot of "free agents" who both the good guys and bad guys try to "convert" to their side.

So is the game intolerant? Does it fit in with the traditional Christian doctrines of evangelism and redemption? Is it both?

Not often does a videogame make you think very deeply about the clash between faith and a pluralistic society. As such, I think I'd like to play the thing -- just as soon as I finish "Grand Theft Auto."

Monday, December 18, 2006

Another New Life Pastor is Gone

Christopher Beard, who led New Life Church's twentyfourseven leadership program, resigned Friday under a cloud of sexual impropriety. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that he's the second New Life pastor to fall from grace over there -- the first being its senior pastor, the Rev. Ted Haggard.

Beard's situation is a little different, of course. Though officials at New Life aren't saying much about what Beard did with whom -- an attempt, they say, to protect the "other" involved -- they are saying that it was a one-time encounter that happened several years before he was married. Haggard's alleged relationship, of course, lasted three years (according to his accuser), and all the while he was a husband and father.

Still, it's a tough week for this scandal-weary congregation.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Clippin' Those Wings

Clarence, the angel from "It's A Wonderful Life" would not be pleased.

According to the Liberty Counsel, a conservative group fervently scoping the country for signs of the Christmas Wars, a Florida retirement home has ordered its workers to clip the wings off an angel on top of its Christmas tree.

The tree itself was defined as a secular symbol, so it was allowed to stay: Same with various Santa Clauses, wreaths and Hanukkah menorahs.

The release didn't say whether the home was also banning "Touched by an Angel" reruns.

Top Stories

Members of the Religious Newswriters Association -- including me -- voted on what they considered the biggest faith-oriented news stories of the year. The results show just how little my fellow religious newswriters know.

Ha ha! Just kidding. Actually, I think I voted much the same way my colleagues did, with a couple of exceptions.
The RNA's list went like this:

1. The Islamic uproar about the Danish cartoons mocking Mohammed
2. Pope Benedict XVI's inflammatory comments toward Muslims, which linked Islam and violence
3. The ongoing struggles within the Episcopal Church, including the election of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori 4. Ted Haggard's dismissal from New Life Church after allegations of gay sex and drug use
5. Candidates backed by the Religious Right lose their foothold in Washington, D.C.

My No. 1 story was Ted Haggard, of course -- and not just because I've written about 20 stories on the issue in the past 45 days. I also ranked Pope Benedict's comments lower. I felt that his anti-Islamic comments -- pulled from the ramblings of a medieval scholar, I believe -- were taken a bit out of context.

But looking at the RNA's top five, it's interesting to note that two of the five deal explicitly with tension between Christianity (and, by extension, the Western world) and Islam; the other two focus on tension within Christianity over sexual identity; and the fifth item, frankly, has some roots in both.

Neither of these meta-issues are going away in 2007, and I think both could grow in scope and importance. I think that an understanding of religion -- and religious motivations -- is crucial to understanding the world these days, and it'd be wise for us all to take notice.

To read the RNA's complete list, go here.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Pen Envy

Mike Jones, the male escort who brought down New Life Church's founding pastor, the Rev. Ted Haggard, has inked a book deal with New York-based Seven Stories Press. The as-yet-untitled book will be released in June.

Officials from Seven Stories wouldn't disclose how much the book will be worth to Jones, but they said it'll likely be the publisher's most high-profile release. The company doesn't publish a lot of memoires, apparently, but does specialize in stories of "social justice."

"That's the way we see (this story)," said Ruth Weiner of Seven Stories. "In a way, Mike speaks for a lot of undocumented and voiceless sex workers."

Jones says he had a three-year sexual relationship with Haggard.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Awww, Futs., an online center for satire, has released its year-in-review video titled Nuckin' Futs. Ted Haggard, lucky guy, gets a cameo in it.

Check it out here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Faithful Newsmakers

The Associated Press is asking journalists to vote for the most important stories in 2006. Of AP's 43 suggestions, several have some pretty obvious religious themes or undertones, including:

"Widespread Muslim protests, violence sparked by Danish cartoon and papal speech,"
"South Dakota voters reject toughest-in-the-nation abortion ban,"
"Gunman attacks Amish school in Pennsylvania, kills five girls and himself,"
"South Africa becomes first African country to recognize same-sex marriage,"
"Female bishop becomes first woman to lead the Episcopal Church."

They also mentioned something about a guy named Ted Haggard and a male prostitute, whatever that's about.

Hey, we may live in a secular age, but religion is a massive motivational force in this curious world of ours. As a religion writer, I'm biased, but most stories on the list -- from the African AIDS crisis to mounting concern over global warming -- have a religious hook to them. Heck, even the fact that the one-time planet Pluto lost its planetary status has a tentative religious spin. I can see the headlines now: "Roman God of Underworld Booted from Solar System."

Monday, December 11, 2006

Another Closet Opened

An evangelical pastor has admitted to sexual improprieties with a man, tearfully leaving his church.

Sound familiar? It should, only this time, it happened a bit farther to the north.

One month after prominent Colorado Springs pastor Ted Haggard left New Life Church following revelations of an alleged tryst with a male escort, the Rev. Paul Barnes of Douglas County's 2,100-member non-denominational Grace Chapel has voluntarily stepped away from the pulpit, saying he's had sex with men.

According to The Denver Post, Barnes addressed the church via a 32-minute video, saying he struggled with homosexuality since he was 5 and repeatedly asked God to take those tendencies away from him.

Though Barnes didn't have the visibility of Haggard, the story will surely generate another barrage of name-calling and finger-pointing. Barnes, like Haggard, believed and taught that homosexual actions are sinful. In that light, certainly some will call Barnes a big ol' hypocrite.

This issue goes deeper, I think, than pastors preaching one thing and doing another. I think Barnes and Haggard both firmly believe what they taught, but they were apparently unable to stop their own tendencies even though they felt it wrong. Will the evangelical movement soften toward homosexual behavior? Doubtful. But I think it could broadly change its strategies as to how sexual orientation is dealt with and talked about. We'll see.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Apocalypse Soon?

With Mel Gibson's bloody film "Apocalypto" in theaters tomorrow, several folks have apparently dusted off their old Mayan calendars and discovered that (gasp) the world is set to end Dec. 21, 2012.

This would be a serious mellow-harshing event, and the ancient Mayans weren't the only folks who felt 2012 might be the end of the road. According to a list of end-of-the-world dates compiled by The (fairly creepy) Interactive Bible Web site, "The Bible Code" author Michael Drosnin says a comet's due to crash into the earth about then, and an alien reincarnated as a guy named Scott Mandelker claims the "big day" will happen sometime in 2010 or 2012.

But don't put your 2013 travel plans on hold just yet. According to the site, there are 220 dates pegged to the end of the world, and most of them have come and gone already. Still, one of 'em's got to be on the money one of these days, right?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Nebulous Faith

Don't believe God is smiling on the Pikes Peak region? These pictures may change your mind.

Or not.

Frankly, I had a hard time finding the face of Jesus in these two pictures, taken near Eleven Mile Reservoir. I was more moved by the grilled cheese sandwich that bore the image of the Virgin Mary -- auctioned off to a Las Vegas casino a couple of years ago.

But the pictures are kinda pretty.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bring On the Split Pea Soup!

This just came across my desk via the GetReligion blog -- a site that examines how faith and the media intersect. It involves James Dobson, Colorado Springs' most prominent evangelical, who said during a recent television interview that the Ted Haggard story got everybody all worked up.

“Everybody gets exercised when something like this happens, and for good reason,” Dobson said.

Alas, a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News translated the word "exercised" into "exorcised" -- as in Pastor Ted was in need of one.

The headline in the Rocky said: "Dobson: Haggard not a hypocrite, just in need of exorcism."

Thank goodness I never make any mistakes ...

Fractures and fissures

The Episcopal Church U.S.A., in the midst of a slow-motion crisis over human sexuality, is losing constituents. About 115,000 members have left the denomination since 2003, when it installed the actively gay Rev. Gene Robinson as one of its bishops. Now, many parishes are mulling a split, and the Diocese of San Joaquin (Calif.) is working toward a formal break with the denomination.

The San Joaquin action is a big deal: The diocese represents nearly 50 parishes in central California, and the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church U.S.A., responded with much sadness and a hint of menace.

"I deeply lament the pain, confusion, and suffering visited on loyal members of the Episcopal Church within the Diocese of San Joaquin, and want them to know of my prayers and the prayers of many, many others," Schori said. "I continue to consult with others involved in responding to this extracanonical action."

In Colorado Springs, the debate is calmer. While one local parish recently shut its doors at least partly over the issue, Bishop Robert O'Neill said its the only one in the state to do so, and he has previously said he'll stay with the U.S. denomination. Grace Episcopal Church and St. Stephen's -- Colorado's largest Episcopal congregation and among its most conservative -- will let the debate play itself out.

" ... we have no intention of running off into (a) sort (of) alternative relationship to the communion," said the Rev. Donald Armstrong. "The one we have through our own bishops remains the most complete and catholic way to be an Anglican Christian available to us."

Monday, December 04, 2006

'Tis the Season

Last December, we (or at least I) heard ad nauseum of the "war on Christmas" -- malls shunning the big "C" word for the more inclusive "Happy Holidays" slogan, schools renaming "Christmas Break" to "Winter Break," et cetera. Traditionalists fretted that "Christmas" would eventually vanish from the secular lexicon altogether. Others thought that it's time America tried to be a little more inclusive.

I got pretty sick of writing about the issue, frankly, but that doesn't mean the Christmas Wars are over. Wal-Mart actually trumpeted its return to "Merry Christmas" in hopes of attracting X-mas-sensitive shoppers back to its stores. Now, in a new spin, some activists in Fort Collins say the city's been too Christmas centric, refusing to allow a menorah to share city space with a Christmas tree.

So far the city has denied the request, saying the Christmas tree is more secular than religious. It also refused to erect a menorah during the eight days of Hanukkah in Fort Collins' Old Town Square last year.

Friday, December 01, 2006

"I'm a Reformed Northeastern Premilleniallist Conservative Seven-Day Episcopalian!"

Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI called Christian divisions a "scandal to the world" while visiting Istanbul, Turkey -- spiritual home to the Orthodox Church. Orthodox and Catholic Christians have been estranged from one another for nearly 1,000 years.

Any quick glance through the New Testament will tell you divisions within Christianity are nothing new. But if you're hankering for a glance at just how divided Christianity has become, take a gander at the Association of Religion Data Archives. The Archives now charts the divisions within various protestant denominations. My favorite "family tree" features the Baptists, which looks like a cross between a spider web and an organizational flow chart from "Dilbert."