Friday, March 21, 2014
Fred Phelps is Dead and I am Not - Is This God's Will Too?
What if Fred Phelps is right and we can see God's will in the deaths of others? What then does it mean that Phelps is dead and I am alive? Is God letting us know that pastors like me, with disabilities, who are gay and transgender are his hope for the future?
Having walked through a Fred Phelps picket line to go to church, I know it's not as fun as people think when they post to their Facebook wall that they would like to "live their life so that Fred Phelps would picket their funeral." It sticks in your guts like gum on the bottom of your shoe. It shapes you. And if it doesn't deflate you, it helps you become stronger in your faith and able to stand up to everyone who lies when they tell people that they are beyond God's love.
Although many people have given up on the church because of the kinds of hate theology that some Christians have loudly spread with the help of consenting news and radio shows. Fred Phelps was a self proclaimed preacher of hate, who used lawsuits against individuals who were unable to control their anger and their fists during his protests.
For me, the most enduring vision of the group is not their fiery hate speech or their sexually explicit posters, it's the vision of young children holding these signs. Many if not most of the protesters who went out in the name of the Westboro Baptist Church were his grandchildren.
For others it was the exploitation of the AIDS epidemic, the death of soldiers and the protest of mourning families who helped many see through the thinly veiled "theology" to the true core of the message - hate.
I firmly believe that it is important for people of faith to live out their beliefs, to follow the call that they discern from God. I believe this even when I think God has called me to live out opposite beliefs. This comes from my Lutheran roots and from wisdom that ascends through the years from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
When I preach and teach I do so based on my faith. But, I always leave open the possibility that I am wrong. I listen and sometimes engage in dialogue with those who not only disagree, but believe that I am evil.
Because, unlike those who are holding signs and yelling on tv, I am the one whose relationship with God is at stake. Contrary to their assumptions, I care more than they do if God loves me or not.
I choose to believe that the children's song is true: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells Me so." Those who think I'm wrong would say that I'm just believing what makes myself feel better. Thankfully, Paul has a better answer than I could ever give:
"38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, 39Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8)
Phelps and I are/were convinced that our interpretations of the Book of Romans is what God wants us to share with the world. So let's pretend for a moment that Fred Phelps is right and that you can tell God's will by who is alive and who is dead. Then this transgender pastor, serving at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Francisco is all the proof you need that God LOVES .... well, all us internet using, people who write with typos, occasionally trip on the sidewalk, do our best to love, trying to pay down our debt folk.
You can also add any of the other labels that people get grumpy about:
LUTHERAN GAY TRANSGENDER DISABLED FEMALE BODIED OVER WEIGHT
SAN FRANCISCAN DIVORCED ADHD
AUTISTIC SPECTRUM LEFT HANDED .... or whatever other label moves you
For those who haven't noticed yet, the world has shifted dramatically since that day when Matthew Shepard's passing brought brother Phelps fame and led to my eventually getting kicked out of my home congregation in Sioux Falls, SD. Beyond my ability to serve as a pastor, there is expanding marriage equality, a welcome for LGBTQ folk on both sides of the altar and an expanding number of gay and lesbian bishops in mainline denominations.
My journey to become a pastor was fueled by a young man who was six and trying to commit suicide for the twelfth time. He wanted to die before he was so bad that he wouldn't be able to go to heaven. I wanted to become a pastor to no children of God (of any age) would ever hear a message like that from their pulpit.
Most of us have more than our fair share of shame and self-doubt. We look in the mirror and see all the flaps and lay sleepless at night thinking of all the flubs in our speech and long to redo our past and live better.
But, no matter what anyone says, the good news does not point to a hateful God who bullies us. I believe, the good news is that Jesus came to earth and made it possible for God to know what it is like to be vulnerable, to go through puberty, to try to love in an imperfect world and this bodily knowing compels God to be with us.
Today I pray that the love of God find you and particularly those who gave up on the church because of the words and protests of folk like Fred Phelps. May these hateful words pass away from our memory. For it is really true this day, as it always was, that God's love for us endures forever.
Love to all that come to read this, whether you see it as words of hope or something to be scoffed at,
Pastor Megan Rohrer