As Lent began a couple of weeks ago, I had the humbling privilege
of marking the foreheads of those attending the Ash Wednesday
service with ashes, both as a reminder of our shared mortality and
of God's unchanging, unlimited love and grace, speaking the ancient
words, "Remember you are dust, to dust you will return." Then I
preached about the call to love, that call which Jesus taught and
embodied as he cared for and welcomed all people, without
exception...seeing them all as children of God. And since I usually
find myself preaching what I most need to hear, I spoke honestly
about the need, the challenge in our world, in our daily lives, to
see ALL people, everyone we encounter, as a beloved child of God...
which means caring about them, praying for them, even those we
consider our enemies. So much easier to say than to do...
Fast forward to Sunday last, when I read on the Huffington Post
site about Rev. Fred Phelps being near death in a Kansas hospice...
and the rubber of my faith hit the road of reality. Here is a man
whom I have long abhorred for his out-spoken, judgmental, hate-
filled rhetoric against the LGBT community...against Jews...against
the military...against victims of natural disasters...against Catholics...
against the U.S. government. He and the members of his Westboro
Baptist Church have, for several decades, picketed the funerals
of gay or lesbian people, carrying signs shouting in bold capital
letters, "GOD HATES FAGS"...have picketed military funerals of
those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, shouting that these deaths
are God's punishment upon this nation...and on and on and on.
Fred Phelps has spewed hatred in the name of God for much of his
84 years- and now he is dying in a Kansas hospice- and what is
my response as a person of faith to be? A person called to love
and pray for my enemies? If I spew hatred of my own, am I not
falling into the trap of doing the same things I have so roundly
criticized and condemned in Phelps and his followers? And where
does it all end, such hatred?
Years ago, I was a hospice nurse, and I sat at the bedside of
many people who were dying, offering them companionship and
love, accompanying them as far as I could on this final earthly
journey. And I did this gladly, offering my prayers that it might be
a holy passage, and offering my blessing for the journey. And now
Fred Phelps is dying...and I am terribly conflicted. I want to pray
for him, to offer a blessing, to see him as a beloved child of God...
but, oh, how difficult that is for me. To surround someone who
has spent his life spewing hatred with the mantle of God's loving
grace seems almost too much to bear.
And yet- it's not up to me, is it? For the reality is that it is God's
loving grace that will surround Fred Phelps, with or without my
assent. It is God who will recognize him as a beloved child,
whether or not I can. And with this awareness firmly before me,
my prayer becomes simply that he may rest in God, who is both
merciful and loving, and that in the holiness of that love, Fred
Phelps' eyes and heart may be opened. May he have a holy