Oh, Fred Phelps. We do love to hate him, don’t we? I mean, it’s pretty easy. The man founded The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) (this is a church only in the loosest sense) – founded, it seems, on the belief that God hates homosexuals (only Phelps doesn’t say homosexuals) and Jews. It’s a church made up almost exclusively of members of his own family, and they earn their living by setting up very small protests — at funerals and schools — at which they hope to provoke counter-protesters into violating their civil rights, and then they sue. Three or four of them show up, each carrying between four and six signs saying things like “God hates fags” or “Thank God for dead soldiers”, and often hundreds of counter-protesters show up.
So what’s the big deal now? Well, it seems that Fred Phelps is dying. He’s 84 years old, and he’s in a hospice in Topeka, Kansas. The members of his extensive family (he has 13 children) have apparently been keeping the 20 members of the family who’ve fled the WBC over the years away from the patriarch – whom they’ve excommunicated, by the way. That’s rather ironic – the founder of this hate-filled church has himself been excommunicated from it by his own family. No word as to why.
I have to say that the first thoughts that came into my head when I heard that Phelps was dying were not charitable thoughts. They were, in fact, snarky thoughts. “Hmm…I wonder if this is God’s punishment for being so hateful?” “Could it be that God hates the Westboro Baptist Church?” May God forgive me for the snarky thoughts.
The next thoughts that came into my head were, “That’s just not right. It makes me no better than he is.” Phelps is a hateful, nasty, hurtful man, but he is a child of God, and I am a Universalist. As a Universalist, I am compelled to believe (and I do), that God never gives up on anyone, that everyone has the opportunity to be reconciled to God.
Further, I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13. Now, a lot of people like to use this passage at weddings because it’s about love and it sounds all romantic, and that’s fine, but it’s not about that kind of love. It’s about loving one-another in the church. Loving the difficult people in the church. You know who they are. You do. If you don’t, well, um….moving on….
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is telling us that we have to work hard to love each other in the church. Let’s look at verses 4-7, specifically (this is the NRSV translation): “4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Oh boy. So being smug about Fred Phelps is probably right out. Love endures all things. Wow. That’s a tough one. Now, it’s supposed to go all ways. I mean, the WBC is supposed to love us back. Fred Phelps is supposed to love us back. But we can’t stop being the people of God just because Phelps’ church doesn’t understand what it means to be the people of God.
As it happens, I’m also in a position to understand what his nurses might be going through. That’s because before I was a pastor, I was a nurse. I’ve had to take care of people who were mean and nasty, and I still had to give them good care and make them feel human and dignified. Even if they didn’t return the favor. Because it wasn’t their job to return the favor.
So this is what I can do right now. I can pray for Fred Phelps’ nurses. I can pray that they are able to give him compassionate care, even knowing who he is and what he’s done. I can pray for his family – that they may be reconciled to each other. For regardless of their sins, they’re losing their patriarch and are deeply broken. And perhaps I can pray for the soul of Fred Phelps – that he will come to see the error of his ways. That he will allow himself to be in the presence of God. That he will allow himself to find peace.
That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite. May God’s eternal love surround you.