Thursday, March 20, 2014

Phelps Helps Show God's Grace

I thought about writing a eulogy today for Fred Phelps, the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church who died last night, in the style of Hank Kimball.

You know, from Green Acres?  The absent-minded county agent from that classic TV sitcom, who was always contradicting himself, yet sometimes with revealing frankness?  His eulogy for Phelps would probably begin with something like this:

"Uh, hello, ladies and gentlemen.  We are here today to celebrate the life - well, no, we're not here to "celebrate the life" of Fred Phelps, as much as we're here to celebrate his death...  Fred was the founding pastor of Westboro Baptist Church - well, actually, he wasn't much of a pastor, and it wasn't much of a church..."

And he'd grimace, stick out his tongue, and rock back and forth on his heels for a moment, with a blank expression settling across his face.

Yet, as easy as it would be to poke fun at somebody like Phelps, better people rise above such an opportunity, don't they?  It's not easy, though.  The folks at Westboro embody so many paradoxes, and repudiate so much orthodox Biblical theology, making light of them - or venting hatred at them - seems entirely appropriate.  Almost as if they deserve a bit of their own medicine of mockery.

Under the vicious leadership of Phelps, they've wasted untold opportunities to honor God.  Nevertheless, that's no excuse for us to do the same at their expense.

Actually, you might be surprised to learn that Phelps used to be considered a brilliant lawyer, and earlier in his career, he vigorously advocated for civil rights, boasting that his firm "systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws" in Topeka, Kansas.  He fought against school discrimination and police harassment of minorities.  He even won an award from the NAACP for his successful representation of black clients.

Against such a progressive backdrop, the prejudice, antagonism, and hostility for which Phelps is infamous today is confounding.  Yet there's no disputing the fact that his hatred, and its manifestation extended through his followers, has become legendary.  Their small yet potent band has pilloried people and institutions as varied as Ronald Reagan, gays, Swedes, Mr. Rogers, the Irish, the University of Kansas School of Law, Jews, Muslims, and victims of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis.  The scope of Phelps' scorn would be ludicrous in its breadth, if it wasn't so plainly repugnant.

In fact, it could have been that God allowed Phelps and his followers to so egregiously misrepresent the cause of Christ so their hatred would spark a compulsion by many evangelical churches to ditch whatever proclivities they might have otherwise felt to be cavalier towards the gay community.  Instead, seeing how ugly bigotry can be, evangelicals have been able to draw clear lines of demarcation between bigots masquerading as Christians, and genuine Christ-like concern for sinners, despite whatever sin they may publicly advocate.  There have been many examples of conservative churches publicly denouncing Phelps and Westboro, and what they stand for.

And speaking of public sin, how unBiblical is it for Westboro's demonstrators to say things like "God hates fags"?  God hates sin, yes, and ultimately He "hates" unrepentant sinners who do not claim His Son as their Savior.  But does God hate "fags," in the sense that He utterly despises every person who's currently a professing, practicing homosexual?  Absolutely not.  In fact, just as He hates the sin of homosexuality, He hates the condescending attitude people exhibit when they use terms like "fags". 

Phelps and his flock may have hated gay people, but he remained a registered Democrat for all of his voting life, and even unsuccessfully ran for office as a Democrat.  How he reconciled his theology with his party of choice remains a mystery, although he claimed to be the loyal Democrat, instead of all the left-wingers who've changed his party.  However, it also says something about the Democratic party that, because of his staunch support over the years, he was invited to both of Bill Clinton's inaugurations - although he protested at the second one!  Maybe a Democratic president could get away with risking such awkward diplomacy, while a Republican almost certainly could not.

Of his 13 children, four have left Westboro over the years, and disavowed their father's doctrines.  Those of his family who remain in the church insist that there will be no funeral for him, claiming they're unnecessary, and besides, American society has made an idol out of funerals.  Which begs the question why they've protested at so many of them around the country.  Obviously, they've strategically picketed the funerals of service members, knowing that doing so would be an easy way to garner attention.  And in that regard, they acted in the best spirit of carnal, hedonistic Hollywood:  "there is no such thing as bad publicity!"

The police department in Topeka, where Westboro is based, has likely heaved a huge sigh of relief at the news that there will be no funeral for Phelps.  Can you imagine the crowd control - make that riot control - that would have been required for such an event?  Phelps has been called the "hateful preacher Americans love to hate" and it would be so tempting to let his public epitaph erupt into one sarcastic, bombastic orgy of condemnation by people Phelps and his congregation have themselves enthusiastically reviled.

As it is, I simply feel sorry for the lot of them.  The people who Phelps and Westboro have targeted at funerals and through other demonstrations, as well as Phelps' woefully misled family and congregants.  I can't say for certain that Phelps isn't enjoying an eternal reward in Heaven, but little in his public life gives me hope that he is.  For all the distortions of the truth that he flaunted and perpetuated, and in which he led his congregation, the grace of God can be greater still, if he, even on his deathbed, accepted Christ as his true Lord, and repented of his sins.  If he did that, then those of us who are in Christ will actually see him again, someday.  But if he didn't, then we won't.

That the grace of God is greater than all of the heinous things Phelps did here on this Earth should amaze us.  After all, it's the same grace that saves us, we whose sins would be calculated at the same weight as Phelps' in God's eyes, were it not for our trust in Christ's shed blood on our behalf.

It's not a comfortable thing to contemplate, but how far different are we from Phelps, anyway?  We look at outward actions, and assume they reflect what's in a person's heart.  But is that an accurate estimation of our sinful nature?  Or are we simply taught to politely hide what we think?  Meanwhile, Phelps simply didn't bother working very hard at hiding what was in his heart with religiously-correct words and actions.  He reflexively acted out the sin in his heart, even if the rest of us have been trained not to.  Perhaps that raw manifestation of his sin is what made his deportment so bizarre to us.  But God still looks at all of our hearts, and whether we think a sinful thought and leave it in our head, or demonstrate it physically, we've still sinned.

That perspective kinda narrows the difference between Phelps and us, doesn't it? But take hope!  The power of the Holy Spirit works in the lives of God's people to lead us in ways that honor Him, even if our hearts are still vile inside of us.  Perhaps there are things that you and I have thought of, and desired, and maybe even acted upon, that Phelps never did.  We already know the opposite of that is true.

See?  The problem with sin is that we can't compare ourselves with each other, and guesstimate which of us are better, or worse.  We need to look to Christ for His assurance that despite our sins - whatever they are, and however many there are - we are saved from being punished for those sins through faith in Him.

As sober as Phelps' death is for us in this context, we are the ones who have hope!  We also have the Fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, meekness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Let's not dwell on the ones Phelps didn't demonstrate in his life.  Instead, let's concentrate on how we can demonstrate all of them in ours.

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