Saturday, March 22, 2014

Two Freds and the Nones

The largest affiliation among 20-somethings today is no affiliation at all. The
term nones has been used to group these folks who are choosing "none of the above." The number one reason that this group names for their choice of non-affiliation is that the church is judgmental and the primary place they see that judgmentalism in action is in the opposition to homosexuality. 

This week saw the passing of the personification of this hateful practice, Fred Phelps. For more than two decades, he spewed vile vitriol against his homosexual neighbors. Although his practice was to protest high-profile funerals in hopes of drawing attention, I saw only a few comments on my Facebook feed calling to protest his funeral. For the most part, people agreed that it was tempting to make signs that say "God Hates Fred," but in the end it would be wrong to lower ourselves to his level. Remarkably, the more common sentiment I saw was a call to prayer for and forgiveness of Fred Phelps. Among my clergy colleagues, if they expressed an opinion at all, it was this one. There was an ironic sadness in watching what judgmentalism there was coming from some who rejected church for that very reason while simultaneously watching the church practice true love of enemy.

It caused me to wonder what it would take to get the nones to see that there is a good portion of the church that preaches love of neighbor, even the gay ones, and is regularly trying to live out that love. I wondered if there might be a partial answer buried in the another irony. The day of Fred Phelps' death was the birthday of a very different Fred, Fred Rogers. This Fred was better known to the world as Mister Rogers, the man who consistently taught a couple of generations about loving our neighbors. What fewer people know is that this second Fred was the Reverend Mr. Rogers. Not only did the Presbyterian church ordain him, the ministry that they ordained him to was Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Yes, the church was wise enough to bless the work of teaching children how to be kind and gentle, while not needing to package it in religious terms or contain it within church walls. The church continues to hold that wisdom today, and also continues not to make a big deal about. Perhaps that is the problem, far too much attention is far too quickly given to a hate-mongering Fred who labels his sinfulness the work of the church, while a saintly Fred is rarely understood to be the face of the church being loving in the world.

I believe that God is so much larger than any ideas we can use to try to define and contain the divine. I do believe that closest thing to a complete definition of God is in the simple statement, "God is love." That truth leaves no place for Fred Phelps' claims that God hates. God hates no one. God does not even hate Fred Phelps. God's love for him, now that he has died may be seen in judgment. If so, then I picture that judgment scene this way:

As Fred Phelps approaches the gates of judgment, he sees Saint Peter, who tells him to enter a room where he will be judged. He opens the door and seated at a table on which sits a birthday cake is Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers says, "Hello neighbor, I've been waiting for you. Will you come sit with me for a while? I'd like to talk."

"Are you serious? Why would you want to talk with me? I picketed at your funeral for heaven's sake!"

"Well, I doubt that it was for heaven's sake, but I still want to talk. Please, sit down and have a piece of my cake, it's very delicious."

Then as Fred Phelps sits down with Fred Rogers they begin what will be a very long conversation about the terrible things that he did in his earthly existence. The horror of facing those terrible truths must be a hell as awful as any Dante could imagine. I can't guess how long it will take, but then time is irrelevant in eternity. What I can guess is the outcome...forgiveness.

Why does Fred Phelps deserve forgiveness? He doesn't. No one ever deserves forgiveness, it is always the gift of the one doing the forgiving. In this case the forgiveness comes from the one who is love itself, God. If there is anything that God hates it is sin, not the sinner, and I'm not even sure that there is room at all for hate inside perfect love. I pray that Fred Phelps has now learned the truth that God loves everyone, a truth he can only learn by learning first the truth that God loves Fred Phelps.

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