Death is always a tragedy. Hate makes it more so.
Today, a man known for hate died. CNN concluded that his infamy was worth a breaking news alert.
But how do we respond? How does this breaking news relate to the gospel's good news?
I've had some run-ins with Westboro, though I don't like to use the words "Baptist" and "Church" when referring to it. (My apologies to the city of Westboro, but your sacrifice is appreciated to rescue the words "Baptist" and "Church.")
I actually have a reminder of the Phelps family that I see every day. If you visit my office, you'd see a nameplate. They called me a "Lying Whore, False Prophet" for believing the crazy idea that God loves people—even sinners. As a result, one of my enterprising team members (Lizette Beard) made a nameplate. Every day I can ponder about Fred Phelps—and how he turned the love of God into hate.
The Phelps family (a better description than a "Baptist church," though even that is filled with tragic irony as they self destruct), protested at my former church.
You can read how we responded here and part of that answer may be helpful here.
We were determined to show and share the love of Jesus in the midst of their distortion of the gospel, explaining:
Our answer to offensive signs was to show and share the love of Christ with anyone in need. Whether speaking to the protestors, counter protestors, or the media, we were prepared to speak about what God is doing in our community... The last thing we have time to do is shut down because five people show up with offensive signs.
I don't think this moment is much different, but since a hateful man has died after distorting a message of Jesus' love, I suggest that we consider three ways to respond:
First, we should grieve for the deceived.
And, yes, the Phelps family was, and is, deceived.
They followed an angry god who hated sinners, not the God who sent Jesus who "proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!" (Romans 5:8).
The false god they follow hates so many. And, as Anne Lamott once said, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." Sadly, the Phelps family members were, and are, deceived and the god they follow does not look anything like the God who so loved the world that He sent Jesus.
Let's be careful to avoid our own self-deception. The Phelps family, and the Westboro clan they started, are full of people that need Jesus. Let's not get Pharisaical here—the Phelps family and the people they lead in worship of a false god are sinners, but so are we. The people who spew the hateful words of Phelps's hateful god need the love of Jesus just like you and me. Pray for them to find peace in Jesus and love as he has loved.
Second, we should take the moment to boldly and promiscuously¹ share God's love.
Tell someone today that God loves them. Do it because the world will talk about a man who hated in the name of "God."
Instead, demonstrate and share the love of Jesus to a broken and lost world, a Jesus that most certainly is not the Son of the god that Phelps claimed to follow.
Perhaps we might even take this moment to love those who we don't normally consider worthy of love, such as a group that works against you, a neighbor who does not like you, or whomever else. Consider that this blog post is on top of one a couple hours old—on caring for illegal immigrants.
On this day, let's do the opposite of what Fred Phelps did, and love the people that we don't like and tell them—or better yet, show them—that God loves them too.
Today, when the world will likely be celebrating the death of a broken man who led a movement characterized by deception and disdain, reach out to others and show them what the unconditional love of God is really like and how it is shown in Jesus Christ.
Third, don't hate the Phelps family.
Why hate those who are trapped in their hate?
Pray for them. Share grace with them. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." There will be lots of hate spewed out today toward the Phelps family. I will not join in.
On this day of Fred Phelps's death—a man who has become a symbol of hateful religion—I choose to find someone to show and share the love of Jesus.
Today, Fred Phelps discovered that God is love. Sadly, he did not know that in his life, making his death that much more tragic.
But, today, Fred Phelps learned that "because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God... The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:7-8).
May we love others in such a way that we reflect the God who is love.