From those who religion requires bigotry, deliver us O Lord.
When I put this sign up last week I had a totally different blog to this one in mind. I had another rant about those who exclude people from their community because of made up, spurious reasons. I had it all drawn up in my head, ready to go. Since then I’ve learnt that Fred Phelps is ‘near death’ and it’s changed what I think I should say.
For those of you who don’t know who Fred Phelps is, he is the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, possibly the most evil and pernicious cult that I’m aware of. They lower intolerance to a whole new level. Along with their very well documented hated of homosexuals (the church website is godhatesfags.com) they also admit to racism, mainly of Jews. WBC is most famous (infamous) for the way it pickets military funerals and those of celebrities and media people. As an example of their ideals – on January 15, 2006, Westboro members protested a memorial for 2006 Sago Mine disaster victims, a disaster in which 12 people died, claiming that the mining accident was God’s revenge against America for its tolerance of homosexuality. This is the ‘church’ that Fred Phelps founded.
So when I heard he was ‘on his deathbed’ I will admit, along with many others I’m sure, to being quite happy about the news. I read the ideas spreading over the internet about how groups of people from various communities (including various churches, gay right groups and even the American Military) are going to picket his funeral. And I agreed with them – and then I went to Bible study last night and was Godsmacked by one isolated comment, in fact one isolated word.
In our Bible study, we’ve just started reading through the Gospel of Mark (in fact last night was our first study and we looked at chapter 1). We began by reading the first verse, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” The question was asked, “So who was this Gospel written for?” I had my answers ready, as did my co-minister I’m sure, something like “A first century Jewish community, most probably”, when from the group a voice said, “Everyone.” It sounded to my ears like, “Durrrrr, everyone” said in that tone of voice that tells you that that’s something everyone knows, and I’m an idiot for not seeing it. And I am – a complete idiot for not seeing and understanding it.
I have thought about that one word all last night and all today; everyone – the Gospel was written for everyone; the Gospel is for everyone; God’s grace has no boundaries, no limits, no stop signs, it is for everyone. Just because I don’t love Fred Phelps, and all his ilk, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t. He does and that one word, said in passing at a Bible study, has forced me to confront the limits of my grace and the limitlessness of God’s.
Now it’s quite easy for us in the Church to learn who we should love – and so we love those poor people in Africa, South America and Asia, the downtrodden, the marginalised, even the homeless and the Asylum Seekers. But for bigoted, gay hating racists – now where is my love for them.
You see what I realised from that one word last night is that God loves Fred Phelps. As hard as it is for me to grasp this totally bizarre concept, God loves Fred Phelps and all the members of the Westboro Baptist Church. Despite of Fred’s hatred of practically everyone in the world, God loves him. It is not my place to judge Fred. I may hate what he does and what he stands for; I may (profoundly) disagree with pretty much every theological view he has ever expressed; I may stand completely opposed to his view of God and his actions in God’s name; I may (and I will) speak out against his views of homophobia, racism and hatred but I have zero right, absolutely none at all, nada, zilch, zip to deny that God loves him and God’s grace is broad enough to encompass him (though not his views, of course. I don’t believe that God agrees with them at all). The God I serve is big enough and broad enough to love everyone, everyone.
This is the story of the cross, the story of Easter, the core of our faith.
In my mind Fred Phelps is a bigot and his views are things from which we all need delivery. His ideas and ideals directly contravene what I read in my Bible and the faith that I hold so dear. But what one word, mentioned in passing, has done is confront me with God’s love and confound me with God’s grace. I must realise that what God offers is for EVERYONE, and it doesn’t matter one jot what I think – this is what God’s love is and this is what God’s grace does.
He gives it freely to all humanity, even to the Fred Phelps’, the Siôn Hughes’ and the (insert your name here’s) of this world. And I’ve been taking it for granted that I was, at the very least, on the right track. But….
My love, my tolerance, what little grace I have are all limited. Finite. As hard as I may try all my perceived goodness has limits (quite narrow ones if I’m honest). But here’s the big thing; the massive lesson I learnt this week; the Godsmacking truth that we must all grasp if we’re going to change this world – GOD HAS NO LIMITS. To impose limits on him is to become another Fred Phelps – confining God to love only those you love, and the Almighty is far bigger than that.
Think on these things as we journey through Lent. Think of the worst person you know of; someone who, if push came to shove, you would say you actually hated. Well, guess what? God loves them every bit as much as he loves you. It’s a very hard idea to wrestle with and an even harder one to live out. Let’s pray we can.