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Fred Phelps is in the news again this week - this time because he is reported to be dying. According to a post by his son on a social media site, Phelps is under hospice care and “on the edge of death.” Phelps is the founder of the Westboro Baptist “Church,” the infamous “church” known for its slogan, “God Hates Fags,” and for picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepherd and others whom they identify as sinners worthy of Hell.
It has been interesting to see the responses that folks have expressed to this news on Facebook. They have ranged from prayers for his peaceful transition and for his eternal soul to one person’s very succinct, “F**k him.”
For me, this is an example of when my human reality is trying to catch up with my spiritual ideal. A part of me wishes I could tell you all that I love Fred Phelps. The truth is that I don’t, and another part of me is perfectly okay with that. He is/was a hate monger. I remember the first time I saw photos of his group outside of a church where a funeral was underway. The cruelty displayed on the signs they carried was breathtaking. How does someone stand beside a limousine, in which I grieving mother is sitting behind the hearse carrying her son’s body, and hold a sign in front of her window that says, “Your son is burning in Hell right now!”? What kind of heart is that? And why am I wrong to want to see an end to that kind of vicious activity, even if the only way it will end is for those who perpetrate it to die? Even if given the opportunity, I would never kill Fred Phelps. I oppose capital punishment and other forms of murder, so I would never want his life to be taken by another person or government. But a natural death, surrounded by like-minded family and friends who love him, while under hospice care and (presumably) receiving pain reducing meds? Honestly, that strikes me as a very gracious exit for someone who inflicted so much pain on so many, and intentionally fueled the hatred of others toward LGBT’s. That is my human reality; the truth about my feelings in this moment.
But then, there’s the spiritual ideal. Here is an excerpt from a press release issued by our MCC Moderator, Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson:
MCC members do not celebrate the coming death of Fred Phelps. We have lived under the shadow of his hateful messages, and we will not follow in his footsteps. Today, we pray for his soul and for his whole family. . . Our love for all of humanity compels us to pray for Fred Phelps as he prepares to face God and to comprehend all the harm he has done in this life. . . What pain or sorrow left Fred Phelps with only hate to give to others is not known. We can only pray for him and his family, that redemption and forgiveness becomes a reality for each of them.
Okay. I know a great example when I see one, and Rev. Elder Nancy’s example here is definitely one to which I aspire. And I’ll share one more comment which penetrated my resistance to reaching for my spiritual ideal. This was from my friend, Rev. John Gage:
The “grace” we talk about Sunday after Sunday isn’t real until it’s extended to someone we can’t stand, until it really pisses us off. And that’s not “cheap grace,” by the way. It costs God dearly.
I’m tempted to say that trying to grow into my spiritual ideal is costing me dearly, too. But, in my deepest heart, I know that the “cost” is spiritual growing pains, and I know that I owe it to God to yield to the work of the Holy Spirit, who will empower me to love my enemies.
Now, you might not believe this, but at this very point in the process of writing this, I learned that Phelps has died. And I find that I do not feel happy about that. I’m “feeling around inside” trying to be sure about this; and no, there is no joy over his death. I’m thinking that there are people who loved him who are crying and grieving, and their grief is as real and as painful as any that I have felt. And I’m reminded of my absolute belief in Divine mysteries - we really do not know how God deals with people in comas or with souls during and immediately after transition. So who knows? It is possible that, by now, Phelps has been lovingly corrected and made fit for Heaven. It is possible that someday he and I will love each other and praise God together there. In any case, it is no more my place to judge him than it was his place to judge me. So I guess I’ll just have to get on with spreading the antidote to the spirit-poison Phelps put out into the atmosphere - Love. God’s Love and God’s grace. Intended for and available to everyone. Even Fred Phelps.
Well played, God. Well played.