According to a recent USA Today article, Westboro Baptist Church’s Fred Phelps is “on the edge of death.” In another article, Fred Phelps’ estranged son further reports that his father had been recently excommunicated from the very church/cult he founded.
A man rejected by his own hate group, now facing death’s doorway mere months later? The whole thing is just bizarre. While many will undoubtedly cheer the death of a man who singlehandedly made GOD HATES FAGS an infamous “thing,” I find myself standing at a crossroads.
The complicating-but-not-really crossroads of justice and grace.
In a strange sort of way, Fred Phelps’ impending passing reminds me of Osama bin Laden’s death. While the immediate reaction included shouts of acclimation for the death of a man who spurred suffering onto untold thousands, I silently wondered how I should react.
Should I feel joyous?
Should I feel victorious?
Goodness — should I feel sad or distraught, if only a smidgen?
I’m not saying Osama bin Laden didn’t deserve justice. I’m not saying it was right or wrong to kill him. I’m not even saying he wasn’t a bad person.
But Osama bin Laden wasn’t a “monster.” He wasn’t an “animal,” and he wasn’t some otherworldly alien. He was a person. And Fred Phelps is a person, too. A person personally crafted in the image of God like you and I and every last one of us.
A single person among billions loved equally by God.
A decade ago, I wouldn’t have believed or even understood that kind of “illogical” love. Growing up in the church, I’ve long thought “grace” this cutesy Christianese buzz word. Truthfully, I never quite “got” it.
I often heard grace defined as “getting what we don’t deserve,” but what did that even mean? I couldn’t explain the word to myself, let alone anyone else.
In recent years, though, God has been restoring the meaning and power of this pivotal word. I feel like I’m just beginning to grasp the lavish limitless levels of grace in my own life. Of friends and family and earthly blessings aplenty, yes, but of eternal hope and purpose.
Grace is not just a word; grace is the only word.
Grace is the only thing that keeps this world spinning. Grace is what gives us love and gives us life.
Something altogether jarring happens when you first grasp there’s nothing you can do to make God love you more — not saving sex for marriage, not serving the homeless, not attending church each week and tithing 10% or 20% or 90% your income. After all, God’s already abounding love cannot “grow” into something fuller, leafier, lovelier.
But something similarly unsettling occurs when you realize there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any less — not having sex outside marriage, not mocking the homeless, not skipping church and spending 10% or 20% or 90% of your income on alcohol or heroin. Not even killing another human being.
It doesn’t mean our actions don’t have consequences. But it does mean that when Jesus said “It is finished,” He actually meant it.
When we finally grasp that God’s grace covers everything we’ve ever done, the good and the not-so-good, we encounter more than a mere game-changer. We swim upward and break the water’s surface and inhale the big bold breath of a veritable life-changer.
I’m still very much wrestling with this messy matter in my own life: that my selfless and selfish deeds alike have had zero impact on God’s grace and love for me. It’s made me wonder how I view humanity over the years.
Do I view others with the same grace God sees me? Homosexuals and heterosexuals and Christians and Muslims and atheists and Donald Miller and Jimmy Fallon and Fred Phelps?
I hope Fred Phelps inhales this radical grace before he dies. I hope God’s grace crashes into him and leaves him facedown on the bed, not because of anything he’s done or not done, but because that’s who God is.
A God who blasts His grace upon us because that’s just who He inexplicably is.