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I clearly recall the day I saw the gathering on the sidewalk. Several police officers were stationed on the opposite side of the street watching the men, women and children who held pickets splattered with messages depicting a belief that it is somehow God’s will for anyone who doesn’t fit within a narrow spectrum of behavior to die a horrible and painful death. Furthermore, if we show any love or compassion for their targeted population, we should share the same vengeful fate. Additionally, our national acceptance of all people is in jeopardy as proven when our military men and women die while defending, amongst other things, our right to speak as viciously as this famous group of people who erroneously call themselves a ‘church’, ‘believers in God’, and, I choke on the word, ‘Christians’.

It was all I could do to keep from driving onto the walkway to permanently silence them. How could they infect children with this distorted perception of God and how God feels about humanity? Children are born beautifully open to people of all colors, religions, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and abilities. They can only enter the box of prejudice with instruction from the adults they look up to. This group of adults damages the innocence of their children as they attacked people unknown to them, an attack generated simply because they did not share the group’s distorted religious beliefs. The day I saw them, they stood in front of a building that served Jewish believers on Saturday and offered Christian services on Sunday. It wasn’t their traditional venue of tormenting grieving families at military funerals; yet, it exemplified their perverted position that God sees life the way they see it.

Then it happened. Their patriarch and church founder died. His passing has permeated not only the news, but also clutters social media sites and seems to be the topic of choice for many, like myself, who write or preach about spiritual matters. I didn’t intend to write about his passing. But, it has been gnawing at me. The thing is, I like to think I’m not writing about his life; rather I am meditating on how his life has affected our society. The only significance I find in his life and death is in the overall goodness of society and the pervasive attitude that we must never stoop to his level of hate. News reports and social media comments share a general message of compassion for his family as they mourn their loss. A few have threatened to picket his funeral just as he did to others. But, each of these remarks have been met with reminders of a loving God and encouragement to show the family compassion. Even the church I mentioned above had a message in their signage asking for peace as he enters eternity.

What I see in all of this is God’s hand. God was in the crowds who created barriers at gravesides to protect grieving families from their venom. God is present in the goodness and peaceful wishes extended to his family as they grieve. God is in every heart that weeps for this man and the life he lived never knowing the love and grace God extends to all. God himself (herself?) probably weeps with intense sadness that this man, God’s beloved, never knew the joy God showered around him throughout his life. He only knew the deity of hate he created in his mind to support his fears and prejudices about people who were not like him.

The problem is, this man is not totally unlike us. His example is of a life lived without compassion. Yet, we have the potential to live in his world when it is convenient for us. We claim we would never teach a child to hate, but what are we doing to teach them to love? What do we teach them when we are angry with someone and rant about that person’s less desirable characteristics? What if those attributes include an ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities that the child transfers to all people with those traits? Further, we think we would never stand in the midst of another’s grief and shout scathing epitaphs about their loved one deserving to die. Yet, we might find ourselves unwilling to forgive someone who has wronged us and secretly hope they experience pain.

I like to think I live out of compassion for all of God’s creation. Yet, I am sure there are times when God shakes his (her) head at my choices. My prayer is that as I continue to navigate this crazy thing called “life”, I grow increasingly aware of God’s love and presence in all things…so aware that I have no choice but to make the right choice.

As for you Mr. Phelps, I believe in the power of God’s love. It is because of that belief, I pray you will rest in peace, finally knowing yourself as God’s beloved, fully aware of the pain your hate rendered and equally conscience of the incredible mercy God shared with you when God called you home.

Epilogue: The family of the man picketed again last night. On the other side of the street was a group of people with a single banner that read, “We are sorry for your loss.” Some hear God’s gentle nudge to meet hate with compassion and some are deafened by the noise of their own prejudice. Most of us fall somewhere in between…