Number lines and Fred Phelps

Last week, I saw a Twitter announcement on the death of Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist founder. I called this news out to me daughter, up to her elbows in soapmaking in the kitchen. A moment later I added,

Oh, wait. That was in The Onion. So, I guess it’s probably not true. Too bad.”

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My next, immediate thought–I am a horrible human being. I just said “too bad” in reference to a person’s non-death. That is really unacceptable, no matter what.

Her reply, however, was profound. Something good must happen to your thoughts when you’re mixing lye and lavender.

Isn’t it terrible to think of living your life so that when you die, people say, ‘No one’s going to miss that one?’”

And then I could feel truly, honestly sorry that Fred Phelps was, in fact, dead, and The Onion was not making it up. Because while that may seem like a horrible thing to say about someone, it is far more horrible that it was true.

Like the washerwomen dividing up Scrooge’s bedding, people are breathing (perhaps covert) sighs of relief that a life devoted to hate is over. That is the most profoundly sad thing I can think of happening to any human being.

My daughter’s statement made me ponder. What will people say of me? What will be missing? How do we make sure that is never said, or thought, about us?

And it occurred to me that, paradoxically, humbly, the test of whether or not I’m going to be the kind of person people miss is if I can love people like Mr. Phelps.

There’s some kind of continuum, a number line, if you want to go back to 3rdgrade math, with hate on one end and love on the other. We move along it constantly. None of us is ever at the good extreme. But along the way, choices about forgiveness vs revenge, freedom vs bitterness, and charity vs anger move us one way or the other. Daily choices.

Can I feel rejection and accept the rejector?
Can I be offended and affirm the offender?

Can I take hurt and desire good for the hurter?
Can I look anger and hate in the eye and reflect back love?

If I can’t, I’m going the wrong way on the number line. And I don’t know how easy it is to turn back once started down the wrong way. The Law of Inertia tells us that things moving in one direction are tough to stop, extremely difficult to turn around.

But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile,carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies!Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5.39-45

The choice not to be like a hater is to love that hater. It makes no sense. But it makes the only sense. 

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