The emperor wears no clothes. Somebody tell the kids!

I was 12 when Jimmy Swaggert stood in his televised pulpit and wept a confession into my living room. “I have sinned against you, my Lord,” he said with a quivering voice, tears streaming down his cheeks.

And I remember the image to this day.

Jim Bakker, Robert Tilton and a few others were equally invaluable in ensuring that I grew up in a setting of polished preachers falling short of their own sermons. And I think I’m better off for having witnessed it.

I quickly dismissed a version of air-brushed Christianity whose purveyors were nothing more than the timid wizard behind Oz’s smoke and screens. Instead of holy men and prophets, I saw corrupt human beings with impeccable hair.

So while the circumstances surrounding Ted Haggard’s dismissal from ministry are disturbing, complicated and sad, I am far more troubled by the fact that the children of his congregation were dismissed from the sanctuary before his written apology was read out loud.

Granted, his position is uncomfortable and embarrassing–a prime example of the realities from which we try and shield our kids.

But the leadership of New Life Church missed an important teaching moment, a didactic opportunity to explain to their children the full complexity of what it means to follow Jesus in a world overflowing with competing interests.

Part of the problem with our suburban American Christianity is its gloss, the ways in which we turn Jesus and his disciples into smiling white men who fit much more neatly into a Max Lucado storybook than into the real world. We then build spotless mega churches (some equipped with food courts and movie theatres), arrive at those buildings in TV-equipped SUVs and leave our kids with the impression that following Christ is clean, hip and air-conditioned.

But it’s a flimsy barrier. Within those walls and, indeed, within our hearts, is a reality that would not fit very nicely on a church brochure, regardless of how clean we look on Sunday morning or how media-savvy our church websites are.

Ours is a messy faith because we are messy people, and if we are honest with ourselves, we do little more than stumble after a carpenter King and his ragamuffin band of sinning disciples.

Yet we posture ourselves as if we are something different. We become so holy, such crusaders against the very demons that snake around our souls.

And the mega church pulpit and its preachers only serve to deepen the facade.

But when Ted Haggard had his remarks read to an adults-only audience on Sunday morning, he gave one of his most powerful and authentic sermons to the grown-ups, while hiding it from those who needed to hear it most: the kids.

“I am a deceiver and a liar,” read the statement. “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.”

The kids should have been allowed to hear.

The kids should have been allowed to hear those words from the very pulpit where a powerful, seemingly perfect man taught them their faith. They should have been allowed to see and hear that just beyond the church’s smoke and lights, the emperor is not only naked, but he is also a sinner, a human being, a broken follower of Christ.

Just like them. Just like the rest of us.

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