reflections on fred phelps and the wbc

This morning I got a news notification on my phone that Fred Phelps the founder of Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) died.  Like most people my age I remember seeing the people he sucked into his delusions, protesting military funerals and especially the funereal of the young gay man who was murdered horrifically in Texas.  Seeing WBC band of followers has branded my conscience deeply.  How can people who claim to follow Jesus be so unloving?

Photo Credit: Steve Hebert for The New York Times

Photo Credit: Steve Hebert for The New York Times

I get frustrated with the WBC because when you look at movies, TV shows and other media forums, you always see the crazy radical Christians.  Always willing to kill an abortion doctor or yell at someone for not believing the way that they do.  All of these writers have to show Christians in a recognizable way so they use the classic militant Westboro Baptist personality.  WBC and Fred Phelps have given material to countless writers working on TV or movie scripts.  It is frustrating to me that so few Christians are this way and we all get painted with the WBC personality in media.

I get frustrated because the WBC does not make following Jesus attractive.  I actually have a feeling of disgust when I think about what they do in Jesus’ name.  Countless people who have attended funerals that the WBC has picketed will always associate the church and possibly even Jesus with hate.   Any clear reading of the gospels shows that Jesus would be grieving at these losses, not protesting their life.

It is moments like this when I am reminded that we ought to be praying for the WBC folks.  These are people living under the most severe mind control imaginable.  Although they all are complicit in the actions of the church and therefore share a responsibility, I truly think that there are many who “know not what they do.” There are many that have been bread to be members of WBC.  Those who have fled from the church have told the stories of mind control and oppression.   All of the reports say Phelps was excommunicated from church he founded because he began to advocate more kindness to the members.   The monster he created truly devoured him.  Kindness is dangerous in the WBC system because with kindness, forgiveness is sure to follow.  When forgiveness rears its beautiful face, reconciliation is next to come.  Then, love.  I hope Phelps was on a good path when he died, who knows?  But it appears that the WBC was too afraid of losing its identity and going down the slippery slope of “kindness.”

I know that I cannot put feelings in you, but I can tell you mine.  I have a deep sense of pity for these people.  I really believe that they are so brainwashed that they cannot see the harm in what they are doing. I feel pity because I feel sorry for the children who are now adults advocating hate in Jesus’ name.  I feel pity, not mercy, not compassion; I feel pity for these people because pity allows me to, cut them some slack.  Jesus too pitied me.  My favorite author, Dallas Willard reminds us that pity makes you wince when you hear the word.  Pity cuts the ego down quite effectively.  In the Divine Conspiracy Dallas reminds us, When we give someone mercy it saves the ego and its egotism.” In other words when we use the word mercy we are allowing the ego to continue to thrive.  When we pity them, we help the work of reconciliation to happen, by both loving and cutting down the ego.

In this situation it is so tempting to bash Phelps and the WBC.  They have heaped up quite enough reasons for criticism.  Let us as a church call for the WBC to re-examine the gospel.  Let us call for the WBC to reconsider their positions.  Let us call for the WBC to repent and apologize and to begin reconciling with the communities they have done irreparable harm to.  Let us pray that they would be overcome with grief for their actions.  Lets us move toward embracing people that provoke hate so that them might truly see the love of Jesus.

It would be my hope that in the years to come when people see crazy Christians on TV or movies, that they wouldn’t have a frame of reference for it.  What would it say to the world if the Christian church came around the small cultish WBC and held up signs that say, “we pity you,”  “We will forgive you, ” or my favorite “Let’s hug it out?”

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eager expectations

Does our culture want the church to succeed? I mean do they even want the church around?  IMG_2997From where I sit, it does not look that way.  But what if the opposite were true?  There is this little line out of the book of Romans that has harassed me for at least a year.  It is simply this,   “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” In the context of what Paul is writing, “creation” is all of humanity and the “children of God” are those people who have placed their confidence in the person of Jesus.  The “children of God” are the church.  So what Paul is saying is that the entire world is waiting for the church.  The entire world is waiting for the kids that look and sound just like their father, Jesus.

The only problem with this is that the entire world seems a little burnt out of the “children of God.”  Instead of being the kind of people that others are waiting in eager expectation for, we have become atheism’s best argument.  We continue to find our identity in ourselves.  We continue to strive toward self-sufficiency, which is not wrong but if taken to its logical conclusion, exalts ourselves as our own deity.  We continue to embrace Christian celebrity as the de-facto leadership paradigm.  Our leaders continue to act like CEO’s, the good ones and the bad ones.  We continue to act like people who look nothing like the Jesus of the Gospels.  We have remade Jesus in our own image.  It is no wonder that the body of Christ really begins to look like someone else rather than the one who died for it.

So what is the world waiting for?  The world is waiting for church that has the grace of Jesus.  The world is waiting for the church that loves its enemies.  The world is waiting for the church that blesses its persecutors’.  The world is waiting for the church that is overflowing with generosity.  The world is waiting for the church that leads and heals with the authority of Jesus.  I am waiting for the church that doesn’t sit around and criticize the world but offers something better. We are all waiting for the church that overcomes structures of evil in a way that is life giving not life taking.  The world is waiting to be surprised by grace.

You can’t change an entire system, but God has given you authority over yourself.  You have the dignity of choice.  You know what and who are formative in your life.  There is a battle raging over your character and your formation.  Everyone wants a part of you, marketing firms, big business and even churches lead daily brainstorming sessions on how to get you in the door and smoke what they’re selling.  They want you to organize your life around them. What you allow yourself to be influenced by informs things that are very deep within, like your character and your identity.  We must be honest about who and what actually influences and forms us.

What if we each made a decision and a concerted effort to look more like Jesus? Jesus organized his time in such a way that he spent most of it with very few people.  He invested himself into others. Maybe you’ve accepted Jesus as your savior but you’ve never accepted him as your teacher. How might the trajectory of your life change if Jesus was your constant teacher?

If Jesus were your lifetime teacher it makes sense to me that your character would reflect his.  It makes sense to me that you would then make it your ambition to help form others as they follow Jesus.  It makes sense to me that as this happened more and more, we would begin to see our culture become happy that God made this world and put you in it.  Jesus’ life, being revealed in your life, is what all of creation is eagerly awaiting.

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