SP19. Fred Phelps: Sifting Through His Tragic Legacy

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According to a Twitter post by Fred Phelps’ son Nathan, the 84-year-old patriarch of Topeka’s infamous Westboro Baptist Church is in hospice care, near death.  Phelps’ tactics of spreading his “God Hates Fags” message were so harsh that even the churches that are outspoken against homosexuality deplored what he was doing.  Phelps, a disbarred lawyer, a four-time political candidate, an Eagle Scout and a civil rights activist in earlier years, will likely be forever known and remembered as the leader of that little gay-hating funeral-protesting church in Kansas.

 Fred Phelps is a tragic figure, a life lived in such a way that few will mourn his death, and millions are likely to celebrate it.  His “Fags Die God Laughs” picket signs are forever embossed on the public mind, the same public that will laugh with joy in the face of his death.  The tragic irony.

 Yet, it has been wisely stated that there is something to learn from every life, and Phelps is surely no exception.  A man with gifts, a man who made some contributions to the world in the past, but, by his own choosing,  a man who sold out along the way, maybe for fame and what he might have perceived as power.

Most church leaders with Phelps’ level of name recognition are mega-church leaders and/or TV evangelists, with their fame bringing even more growth to their churches; but Westboro Baptist Church reportedly has about 40 members, most of whom are family members of Phelps, and their media attention has not added parishioners to their pews. To add to his tragedy, many of his other family members, including son Nathan and three other of his 13 children, left the organization, and, according to Nathan’s Twitter report, the elder Phelps has been excommunicated from the church since August 2013.

Fred Phelps’ life seems a wasted one, but for those of us on the outside looking in, there is much we might learn if we will, first from Phelps’ own life, and second, from those of his followers.

Power.  Not an unusual motivator, but always a dangerous one, for when power is gained too quickly, it almost always becomes abusive. Phelps was a failure in many ways.  He was disbarred from his law practice.  He ran for several political offices but never won.  His church has not been successful.  But -  maybe it started with the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard  –  the “God Hates Fags” picket signs caught the media’s attention, and Phelps’ name and face were soon recognized everywhere.

Did Phelps really hate gays that much, or was it all about personal power and media fame?  Who can know?  But we have all seen power take over people’s lives, especially those who seem to feel most without power.  Administrators who abuse their staff, white supremacists, those who concoct elaborate lies online just to see how far they’ll spread, those who physically or emotionally abuse their spouse or children, gunmen who kill school children, those who troll blog sites with the goal of stirring people’s anger . . . The desire for power and fame is dangerous.

Then there’s the question of those who followed Phelps.  Why?  How does Phelps, Koresh, Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela, Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Falwell, Sun Myung Moon, Joseph Smith, MSNBC, Bill O’Reilly, the Dalai Lama, or Hitler attract followers?  People follow people usually for fear or for attraction, and we are all people.  We are all, by nature, learners, and we learn from those we “follow” – our ministers, our friends, our favorite talk show hosts, our favorite basketball players.

My pastor told a story Sunday of three neighborhood boys playing in the newly fallen foot-deep snow.  The father of one of the boys challenged them to a competition.  Positioning himself at the far corner of the yard, the challenge was to see which of the three boys could walk to him with the straightest path.  One carefully watched his feet as he trod to the father.  Another carefully watched the other two boys as he trod.  And the third, the actual son of the father, kept his eyes on the father the entire walk.  They finished with two very crooked paths and the last one straight.

When we “follow” our trusted mentors, even our trusted religious leaders, we are all susceptible to being led astray.  The goal on which we focus should be carefully chosen.  As Christians, while our pastors and teachers can be helpful guides, constant focus on the Christ from which we get our name is what will make our path straight.

Phelps was a misguided soul for whatever reason, as are all of us to some degree, ever seeking our own ways.  May we not forget out own faults as we react to the sometime-in-the-future news of his passing, and may we find the grace to leave all judgment in the hands of God.   

Two final personal questions to be sure our developing legacy is not like that of Phelps:

1.  Are we oppressing or putting down others as we find our way?

2.  Are we misusing the name of God to push our own agendas?

 

Would that our legacy be one of grace and love.

 

 

 

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.  (Prov. 3:5-6)

I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  (Phil. 3:14)

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)

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SP18. Duck Hunting, Defrocking a Minister, and Other Gay Tidings

All in the same day, New Mexico became the 17th state to legalize gay marriage, Olympic figure skating gold medalist Brian Boitano came out as gay, the United Methodist Church defrocked the Rev. Frank Schaefer for refusing to denounce gay marriage, and, receiving by far the most social network attention, the A&E Network has suspended Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson indefinitely for his published comments against homosexuality (in GQ Magazine, Jan. 2014).

Let’s address the public outcry of the latter first Many are claiming that their favorite duck hunter lost his job for sharing his faith.  You know, the war against Christians thing.  If this were the case, I would be among the loudest to protest, but this was not the case.  Others are claiming that his first amendment rights were abused Again, a great cause to be upset, but this was also not the case.  Phil Robertson and all of us have the right to say whatever we like without being arrested for it.  Phil was “indefinitely suspended” from his high paying high profile tv job, not prosecuted.

Faith in America said it well. “The Phil Robertson/Duck Dynasty/A&E issue is not a question of Phil Robertson not being able to express religion-based bigotry towards gay and lesbian people. It’s a matter of his employer choosing not to allow Robertson to espouse and promote this uniquely harmful form of bigotry under the A&E brand.”

Not only do we have a right to choose our own public image, our employers have that same right, and those who work in the entertainment industry making millions of dollars, like many of our actors and athletes including Robertson, have the opportunity to use their positions to influence the world for good, or the danger of putting forth an image that their networks, teams, etc. do not want attached to their name.  A&E had every right to suspend their star’s employment in the name of protecting their own reputation.

It was not Robertson’s statements of religious faith that brought his suspension.  It was his ignorant and offensive declarations about homosexuality (and maybe his race rantings or his ridiculous musings about vaginas and anuses).  While indeed certain extremist Christian groups have embraced such ignorance into their teachings, there is no legitimate connection between anti-gay sentiment and the Christ of Christianity.

The Duck Dynasty stars have always been outspoken about their Christian faith, becoming iconic figures to many of their viewers, and the show itself ends each episode with a prayer.  Politically, while the Robertsons have independently campaigned for Republicans, the show itself has drawn a following in both red and blue states and has managed to remain largely nonpolitical and to avoid issues like race and gay rights, according to the Chicago Tribune.

We all have our favorite public figures, and especially if we have just purchased Duck Dynasty t-shirts for everyone on our Christmas list, and have embraced them as Christian icons, we are hurt by this suspension.  My prediction is that he will be back after the dust has settled.  That’s my personal interpretation of the “indefinite” suspension.  If not, he will surely surface soon somewhere else.  We have not heard the last of Phil Robertson.  Besides, next season is almost all taped, so it’s pretty likely he’ll be there.

Perhaps those who are most enraged by Robertson’s suspension would most applaud the United Methodist Church for the second piece of news today, the defrocking of the Rev. Frank Schaefer Rev. Schaefer brushed against the Methodist powers for conducting a wedding ceremony for his gay son in a state where gay marriage is legal.  One month ago he was given a choice of abiding by the denomination’s entire Book of Discipline which would mean committing to never conducting another such service, or of being defrocked, and he was given one month to think about it.  That month ended today.  He chose to be defrocked.  

A courageous move on his part, challenging the status quo, the way it’s always been, forcing the establishment and the public to face the issue again.  Schaefer is not the first and surely won’t be the last, but he has lost his job for standing firm for his beliefs.  Again, just as with Robertson and A&E, the United Methodist Church has every right to choose their positions and to employ only those who comply.  Schaefer will have to find a way to minister outside the UMC. Rev. Jimmy Creech has written an excellent memoir of his similar defrocking, and his ministry has broadened tremendously.

I am not Methodist, I do not live in New Mexico, I was not familiar with Brian Boitano, and I have never watched Duck Dynasty, so I am not personally tied to any of these four stories.  Yet, I am very tied to all of them for two reasons.  One, I live and interact in a world of people on all sides of these stories, and two, I am a Christian.

As  citizens of the world, living and working together, we can be assured we encounter gay people every day.  The American Psychological Association has estimated that 1 in 10 males is gay and 1 in 20 females.  Many are choosing to live openly, but many more are just living their lives among us without our knowledge.  Maybe we could just be kind.  To everyone.  Without trying to figure them out or judge them.  Just plain “be ye kind one to another.”

As Christians, we do not know and understand all things.  There is much we have yet to learn, and there is much we, like everyone else, have been incorrectly taught.  Unlearning is far more difficult than learning, because, studies have shown, once we hear something seven times it often has become a part of who we are.  In many religious circles we have heard that homosexuality is a sin, not seven times, but seventy times seven. 

Today’s news shows a changing world with the wheels of justice ever spinning, sometimes forward, sometimes back.  Sexual orientation, the social justice issue of this generation, is widely misunderstood, especially in certain religious circles.  

My challenge to us as Christians is that we educate ourselves by listening to voices outside our own constructed boxes.  Use the news stories not just to seek argument, but to seek growth and understanding.  The media storms that follow news like today’s are a good place to find all kinds of voices, or the gay person in the next cubicle might be an excellent and enlightening voice. 

At the very least, as Christians and as human beings, let’s admit to ourselves that we really don’t fully get the orientation thing, and leave open the possibility that our understanding might, maybe, just could possibly be not entirely correct.

 

photo credit: Assignment Editor

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SP17. Happy 95th Birthday, Rev. Graham!

Throughout history there may not have been a more respected Christian leader than the Rev. Billy Graham. He has ministered for a lifetime without serious controversy or compromise, focusing on preaching the message of Jesus Christ and keeping himself clean of all political factions.

In the 1970s when Jerry Falwell changed the face of American Christianity by marrying it with conservative politics, Rev. Graham refused to be a part of it. Although a Southern Baptist and a registered Democrat, he never let either of those distinctions rule his life. Graham willingly pastored all presidents regardless of political party, from Truman to Obama.

He refused in 1979 to join Falwell’s Moral majority, saying, “I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left.”

In 1981 he told Parade magazine, “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Happy 95th birthday to a wise and honorable man!

 

 

excerpted from: http://kathyon.blogspot.com/2012/10/b50-franklin-grahams-religion-is-not.html
photo from sojo.net

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SP15: I’m Humbled, Probably Not

“It humbled me to accept that award,” we might say.  Or “I was humbled to be asked to take that position.”  Really?  What does that mean? Does it just mean “I don’t want to brag, but”?  I see nothing wrong with sharing our achievements, and it is good to soften our words so as not to sound like we’re bragging, but if this is all humility has come to mean, I’m pretty sure we have missed it.  If we have to tell someone we are, we probably aren’t.

Humility is a Christian trait.  No one would argue that point, and the word itself is not lost to us.  Whatever it used to mean though, I fear has been lost and replaced by something easier for us to handle.

How would you describe humility?  Think about it.  Serving at the homeless shelter maybe?  A good service no doubt, but is it really a picture of humility? Do we serve because we feel the humanity of the homeless, see a part of ourself there, and feel compassion for them?  Do we want to sit at the table with them and listen to their stories, or are we only comfortable on the opposite side of the serving window? Either way, let’s keep doing it, but maybe we can’t use it as the definition of humility.

If I see a homeless woman sitting in front of the post office and offer to buy her a meal at the fast food restaurant across the street, do I order something for myself too and sit with her?  Do I listen to her stories, or just offer her my “wisdom”? What if someone else comes into the restaurant who knows me? Do I feel compelled to go over and explain to them that I don’t really know this person, that I’m just helping her because she’s homeless?  If so, let’s continue to do what we’re doing, but let’s not call it humility.

Think of your last mission trip or mission project.  Why did you go?  Why did you participate? Was the “mission trip” more of a “mission” or more of a “trip”? Did you see yourself as somehow above those you were serving – as the helper, the one with something to give?  Or did you see yourself in the others, on equal ground, listening and receiving as much as sharing and giving? Did you give because that’s what mission projects do, or did you give from a deep compassion that overflowed from within you?  Either way, let’s keep doing the mission projects, but maybe we can’t use them to define humility.

Humility comes from within, and it is those “within” traits that we are most likely to lose. We substitute the acts that come out of humility for the humility itself, running straight for the tangible but bypassing the more important intangible.  More important because if the humility is there, the acts come naturally, with no effort, no matter where we are.  The tangibles are easier.  We can touch them with our hands and see them with our eyes. The intangible is more difficult to find.  Thus we water it down and pretend it is just in saying the word, or in performing the deeds.

So where do we get a true picture of humility?  In Jesus.  Seems we always have to go back to Jesus.  Look at him as the woman washes his feet with her hair.  Unbelievable, even for his culture.  The disciples were appalled.  How could he allow such a woman to touch him like that?  Completely socially inappropriate, and an embarrassment to the disciples.  Jesus felt no embarrassment and received the heartfelt action in the spirit in which it was given, unconcerned with what others were thinking.

Look at him with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Another socially unacceptable encounter.  Speaking to a woman alone, and a Samaritan woman at that! What would people think of him?  Wouldn’t it tarnish his reputation?  Wouldn’t it ruin his chances of hanging out with the affluent people?  To Jesus, there were no outcasts, no people groups to avoid – not women, not lepers, not tax collectors, not homeless people, not adulterers, not the mentally ill, not Samaritans.  Jesus’ actions flowed from the intangible compassion within him.

But if we are doing the right things, does our motivation really matter?  It does, for while outer actions can give someone a meal or a coat, it is only true humility that can change the world. It is only when we see our own reflection in the face of the homeless man, the Muslim with her head covered, the undocumented immigrant, the gay teen, the drug addict, the abused child, the promiscuous young woman, the man in the wheelchair, the child with cancer, the person who can’t find a job, the man with HIV, the black/white/Hispanic woman, the mentally ill, the lonely soul in the nursing home, the rebellious child, the woman holding up the line with her food stamps . . . it is only when we can see our own connection to every human life, our own potential to have shared his/her circumstance, that we can find the endangered humility.

These Bible passages can help us find it: Deut. 8:2-32 Chron. 7:14 (we hear this one a lot, but we skip over what might be the most important word), 2 Chron. 12:12Prov. 11:2Phil. 2:5-81 Pet. 5:5

I propose a challenge for us.  Let’s pray for the seeds of humility to germinate from within us, and let’s privately commit to not say the word “humbled,” but to just allow God’s work within us to do the speaking.  How long will it take for anyone to hear?  The wait might make us humble.

Who Am I? – Casting Crowns

 

 

Photo Credit: oakcreekag.org


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SP14. Ex-Gay’s Exodus

The ex-gay myth has crashed.  Fallen.  Shattered.  Exodus International president Alan Chambers announced last night that Exodus is shutting down.  Tonight in a televised interview with Lisa Ling (OWN 10pmET), he will publicly apologize to all who have been harmed by the organization.  (See apology here)

The ex-gay house of cards has been falling for some time.  Over a decade ago, Focus on the Family’s Dr. Dobson was advocating the use of so-called ex-gay ministries.  Prior to 2000 Focus on the Family broadcasts featured their own John Paulk, “the story of how one man overcame homosexuality.”  In 2000, however, when Paulk was spotted in a gay bar, he quickly disappeared from the organization family.

A most interesting Focus on the Family story you may have missed was in 1997, when Focus on the Family co-founder Gil Alexander-Moegerle, having left the organization, wrote a letter of apology for the organization’s stands on homosexuality and women’s issues. (This story of course was not broadcast, and Dr. Dobson certainly did not endorse it.) He could no longer keep silent. In his words: “I apologize to lesbian and gay Americans who are demeaned and dehumanized on a regular basis by the false, irresponsible, and inflammatory rhetoric of James Dobson’s anti-gay radio and print materials.”

Likewise, leaders and founders of Exodus international have been leaving and apologizing for several years. (You can view many of these on YouTube.)

The message that must get to our churches: There’s no such thing as ex-gay.  Anyone can “change” and believe himself changed for a period of time, even a few years, especially when he wants so badly to please his church and his family, and when he has been convinced that being gay is a sin before God.  Ultimately though, despite marrying, having children, becoming a perfect church-going family man, no one can escape his orientation.  It will always resurface.  And before you argue with me, show me someone who has been “ex-gay” for 10 years or more and who claims he is “cured,” and ask yourself as a straight person if you could pray away your attraction to the opposite sex.

Many wounded Christians have been hurt by so-called ex-gay ministries.  Their churches have for many years sent them to organizations like Exodus to be “cured,” only to be confused and harmed emotionally.  Some tell stories of electric shock, others of being forced to masturbate while looking at opposite-sex pornography, others of being taught to play “manly” games like football, all being told over and over that they are a disappointment to God.  If you pray hard enough and have enough faith in God, God will heal you, cleanse you, make you heterosexual, many churches likewise have preached to those who are gay.  It has been in error all along, and now the Exodus ministry itself is humbly saying, “We are sorry.”

Those churches that will be bewildered by the closing of Exodus are those who have embraced the misguided belief that a person’s sexual orientation is a choice and that being gay is a sin.  All of us have believed wrong teachings, especially when we have heard them over and over by religious leaders in whom we place so much trust, who likewise were taught repeatedly by their leaders, who likewise were taught by their leaders . . ., but there comes a time when we all need to question and re-examine our teachings, measuring them against the example and the teachings of Jesus himself.

And if we open ourselves up to really listen to the hurting people, we will hear through their tears the same stories over and over – stories of believing the church’s preaching of condemnation, and praying for years to change, stories of wondering why God doesn’t change them, why God doesn’t love them, stories of leaving church in sadness, and feeling like a broken human being, not worthy of God’s love.

The American Psychological Association has estimated that one in ten males is gay and one in twenty females, and this percentage is consistent across lines of time, race, culture, and even religion.  The reason we don’t see this percentage in many of our churches is because they leave before adulthood, having suffered in silent pain throughout their childhood and youth, listening to the condemnation.  Fortunately most just leave the church (as if that’s not sad enough), but many choose in hopeless desperation to leave the world.  We cannot wash our hands of these lives, churches.  We probably will never hear the reasons, because their families have been taught to be ashamed.  Parents are taught to believe their gay children are “lost.”  Thus, not only are the church’s misguided teachings on homosexuality hurting those who are gay, but also all those who love them.  Entire families are grieving and hiding in shame that their children are gay.

Without this “stop-being-gay” ministry to send them to, what now can a church do to help those who are gay?  Exodus’ closing is actually a blessing, because it gives churches a great opportunity to seek meaningful understanding and response.  It gives us an opportunity for real dialogue, for listening to gay people’s stories, for examining Christian organizations that are ministering to gay people in helpful ways. Gay Christian NetworkSoulforceEvangelicals ConcernedMore Light PresbyteriansPink Menno, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, The UCC Church, The EpiscopalChurch . . . the list of Christians reaching out with Jesus’ love and compassion is growing every day, and these are excellent sources for churches to begin to honestly seek direction.

Now is the time, churches, to ask ourselves if we indeed have failed in this area.  Now is the time to hear the very real cries of those we have personally hurt despite truly meaning to help.  Now is the time to make a choice.  We can continue to quote the Leviticus abomination passage and pretend we already know all there is to know, or we can humble ourselves before those we have hurt and before God, and say “we are sorry, deeply sorry.”

 

Recommended for prayer and meditation: Acts 10:9-19

 

photo credit: blog.mysanantonio

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