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OPINION - A small man and his small god

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)  The Apostle John witnessed that “God is love”. Paul, more analytical in his preaching, talked less about the law and more about divine forgiveness towards the end of his recorded life. St. Peter, zealous, impulsive, and very human while following Christ, ultimately opens the Christian church to gentiles in Rome – the ultimate act of inclusion and love.

And then there is Rev. Fred Phelps Sr, who left this mortal coil yesterday. You know him by his works. His Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of soldiers, claiming their deaths was God’s wrath for our nation’s permissive attitudes towards gays. His calling card: placards that proclaim “God hates fags.”

His “ministry” made appearances in Wausau several years ago. His supporters picketed outside my First United Methodist Church, suggesting that it was one of many congregations that “had gone astray” on the issue of homosexuality. That same day Rev. Phelps’ flock picketed the funeral of a fallen soldier. An honor guard of bikers shielded their signs from the mourners – similar to the human angels that blocked Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators at Mathew Sheppard’s funeral, as depicted in The Laramie Project.

Lessons about God’s love didn’t seem to be part of his ministry. He preached of a God of judgment and retribution. He was a minimalist concerning grace and forgiveness.

Hypothetically, let’s concede the point that gay sex is sinful. Reverend Phelps becomes even less likable, spending his entire ministry pushing sinners further away from salvation. Almost no one would want to know the God that Phelps spoke of.

The Old Testament depicts a God of retribution. Cities are destroyed, men are turned to salt, and floods pour down as God’s patience expires. The Christianity of the New Testament speaks of divine mercy that no man can earn. Does God’s grace run out? If so, we’d put limits on the Almighty --  placed in a box by narrow beliefs. That’s what Fred Phelps was like: a small man who prayed to a small God. If not for the hurt he’d inflicted on others, I’d feel pity for him. Yet the best Christian traditions are of a God without limits; the alpha and omega, from the depths to the heavens, the author of all things.  My prayer tonight is that Rev Fred Phelps is with a God that is greater than his expectations, and that grace flows abundantly beyond my comprehension.

Chris Conley
3.21.14



Image: Fred Phelps, REUTERS via wsau.com