One of the most hateful, homophobic, nasty, mean, miserable and despicable people in the United States passed away yesterday. And I did not rejoice.
Fred Phelps, Sr., the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church famous for picketing funerals with signs that read "God Hates Fags" has died. He was 84. Ironically, the family will not hold a funeral. His widow says they don't worship the dead, so "there'd be no public memorial or funeral to picket if a member died." Obviously, they must have had some concern that there would be those who would want to do some payback for the hurt this group has inflicted on so many.
No doubt, there are those who harbor hatred in their hearts for Phelps. I very easily could. But something strange happened to me on Tuesday while leading Morning Prayer that I had not expected. There is a point in the service, after offering many petitions and collects, that the prayer leader invites the congregation to "pray for our needs and those of others either out loud or silently." The first words that popped into my head were, "Lord God, I pray for the repose of the soul of Fred Phelps."
What?! Seriously?! I found myself stopping to do an internal double-take. Did I really just pray for this horrible person, the bigoted Baptist pastor?
Answer, yes. I really did just do that. And I realized that, of course, it was the thing to do if the man was near-death as was being reported. As the prayer leader, and as a matter of personal practice, I recite the Prayer for Our Enemies every day. It is my constant reminder that while I cannot change the person who hates me, I can change my heart and how I respond to their hatred. If I ground myself in Love, I can better deal with those who insist upon hate and the spread of fear. So, I had already recited these words:
"O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from cruelty, hatred and revenge, and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
And then came my own petition to God for the safe return of Fred Phelps' soul. Obviously, the words of the above prayer are becoming embedded into my being. Not that I am perfect. Not that I don't find myself giving in at times to the powerful pull and allure of hatred, cruelty and revenge. But to follow that path, a road to Hell which Fred Phelps and his family seemed drawn to go down, is not a place I want to go. And wherever Fred Phelps' soul has gone from here, I leave it to God to deal righty and justly with those details.
Interestingly, Phelps' death occurred on the same day that Lisa Kurts-Crume, president of the PFLAG Memphis chapter, passed away. In my imagination, what better spirit companion guide could Phelps have than a dedicated and loving PFLAG mom as they entered into the next realm.