The grandson of evangelist Billy Graham has resigned from his Florida megachurch pulpit after admitting he had an affair. “I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues,” Tullian Tchividjian said in a statement to The Washington Post Sunday. “As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated.”
Continued Tchividjian, 42: “Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign. Both my wife and I are heartbroken over our actions and we ask you to pray for us and our family that God would give us the grace we need to weather this heart-wrenching storm.”
On Father’s Day afternoon I preached the worship service at the Fowler Communities. Keeping with the Father’s Day emphasis, I told them that I had prayerfully scoured the scriptures to identify the Biblical father who I thought might have the most to offer us gathered there that afternoon. I was intending on preaching one of those familiar – “This is (insert the name of a name of a Biblical character here). Are you a (insert the name of that same Biblical character here)? Be more like (insert the name of the same Biblical character here)” kind of sermons. And where my heart finally settled was on “Father” Abraham.
Now, I chose Abraham because I knew that the room would be full of people in their twilight years. I have an aversion to “pious platitude” sermons for every occasion. And so I approached my Fowler Father’s Day preaching assignment thinking seriously about the kinds of things that might be on the hearts of those who were closer to their endings than to their beginnings – people who know something about limitations, who had faced disappointments in their lives and who undoubtedly had some regrets. “Father” Abraham struck me as the perfect Bible character to spend Father’s Day with at Fowler, not because he is such a striking example of what spiritual success looks like, but rather because he’s not, and yet he is still judged by Scripture to be faithful, the veritable “Father of Faith” in fact!
The Scripture I preached from was Hebrews 11:8-10; 13-16 –
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God…
…All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
What I appreciate so much about this text is the way that it describes Abraham’s complete failure to actually arrive at the destination of his journey of faith. In an observation that deeply resonated with me when I first read it a month or two ago, Os Guinness in his book Renaissance (IVP 2014) wrote about Christianity’s “doctrine of its own failure” as the source of its real spiritual power (79). Christians and churches are going to fail, and fail in appalling ways. “We all often go wrong” Os explained, and so human sinfulness “is always a possibility and never a surprise.”
We expect it, we watch out for it, and whenever we can, we guard against it… If we all admit that all of us can always go wrong, it still challenging but far less difficult to face the fact that we have done it again… Christian faith calls for an open and voluntary confession of our wrongs, whenever we are wrong. This too is challenging and it may certainly be embarrassing for anyone who has to do it, but it is in fact an act of moral courage. For in confession we are called to do what no human being does naturally and easily; to go on record against ourselves.” (80)
Morally and spiritually, we will simply never “arrive” in this life. That’s the lesson I wanted my Fowler congregation to hear from me on Father’s Day. I’m a father. I tried to be a good one. But on the day when culture fawns over us and promulgates its unrealistic standards of what fatherhood looks like, what I personally become most aware of is not how “good” I was at this most important of my life’s assignments, but when, and where and how I failed. Without a “doctrine of its own failure” already well-established in my head and heart, cloying celebrations like Father’s Day could very well drive me to despair, exposing me as a fraud. In my secret place, I know that I’m not the guy that those Father Day cards I received describe and celebrate. And that’s okay, because I come to the party already knowing that “none of our endeavors will meet with unalloyed and lasting success,” and that very few of them if any of them at all will be complete in this life.
This doesn’t discourage me, for unlike Sisyphus who was condemned to the absurd rolling of the same stone up the hill only to have it to roll back down on him again and again, “under God and after the resurrection of Jesus” I know that although incomplete, “my work is never in vain… my endeavors will not be futile or forlorn but worthy and solid” (95). Just like Abraham, my “father,” from a distance I can see and have greeted God’s promise, and that helps me manage the incomplete reality of my present.
And so on Father’s Day in my message to my Fowler congregation I described a button that was popular on the campus of the Christian College that I attended in Oregon in the early 1970’s. “P B P G I N F W M Y” is what it read. “Please be patient with me God is not finished with me yet” is what it meant. That button always had the feel of the Gospel on it to me, and in my imagination I have tried to keep it pinned to my soul as a pastor. In my ministry I have worked hard to avoid what Francis Schaeffer called “the cruelty of utopianism.” “The Bible is a realistic book” he explained. The stories of the men and women in the Bible are not tainted with false veneer of a shiny romanticism. They are not sugarcoated. They cannot be read through rose colored glasses. He explained –
The Bible is ruthless in speaking about the lies of Abraham, the great father of faith. At least twice Abraham said that his wife Sarah was his sister. Some critics have foolishly maintained that the instances of deception are really repetitions of one story, but they do not understand what God is communicating. God is stressing that Abraham did not lie only once, but a number of times.
This is the “realism” of the Bible according to Francis Schaeffer. “Even after redemption, we are not going to be perfect in this life.” God’s servants are weak. We are going to sin. God does not excuse it when we do, but neither is God finished with us when we do. Biblically, sin is always serious business. It is never minimized nor negated by Scripture. But an expectation of perfection is not the standard that it sets for us either. While sin is “serious and terrible,” God does not abandon us when we sin. God deals with it. God convicts, corrects and redeems us. And God’s people need to cultivate this same kind of spiritual realism about themselves and others, and then consciously and consistently practice both patience and compassion.
Utopianism can cause harm. In the home, in the man-woman relationship, nothing is more cruel than for the wife or husband to build up a false image in his or her mind and then demand that the husband or wife measure up to this false romanticism. Nothing smashes homes more than this. Such behavior is totally contrary to the Bible’s doctrine of sin…
Utopianism is also harmful in the parent-child relationship. When a parent demands more from his child than the child is capable of giving, the parent destroys him as well as alienates him. But – and this is a special twentieth-century malady – the child can also expect too much of his parents… When a parent does not measure up to a child’s concept of perfection, the child smashes him.
Utopianism is also destructive with a pastor and people. How many pastors have been smashed because their people have expected them to live up to an impossible ideal? And how many congregations have been injured by pastors who forgot that the people in their churches could not be expected to be perfect?
Francis Schaeffer said that Biblically informed Christians “should never have the reaction designated by the term ‘shocked.’” He explained, “There is a type of Christian who constantly draws himself or herself up and declares, ‘I am shocked.’” And then he added, “If you are then you are not reacting to reality as you should, for it is as much against the teaching of Scripture to romanticize people as it is to try to explain sin away.”
And that was the gist of my Father’s Day message at Fowler on Sunday.
“Father” Abraham teaches us that faithfulness is not about arriving but rather it’s about always moving forward. As Paul told the Philippians – “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:12). Now, what I didn’t know on Sunday as I was preaching this message about Abraham’s faithfulness despite his glaring imperfections and persistent incompleteness, was the story that was just then breaking about the moral failure of Billy Graham’s grandson, the high profile Florida megachurch pastor Tullian Tchividjian.
Tullian’s supporters will no doubt be “shocked” by this news, and his critics will use it to mock his convictions and the convictions of those like him, and to delight in his very public disgrace. But neither of these two responses, it seems to me, show much real awareness of the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A healthy Christian “doctrine of its own failure” will save us from the incredibly inadequate and unattractive alternatives of shock and mock when a Christian fails (and we all will), and it can open wide the door of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ that really is the only thing that we have to offer anybody anyway. DBS+