I have to eat lunch with Fred Phelps, or Why I must practice what I preach

On New Years Day, Jan Edmiston, she of A Church for Starving Artists fame, issued “a special challenge” at the end of her post, “How We Will Change Our Minds This Year? [aka The 2011 Love-Your-Enemy Challenge].” If I were a suspicious man, I would have assumed that she was firing a shot across the bow of the SS Metanoia Project.  If I were prone to paranoia, I would have thought that she was staring at a picture of me when she was writing.

Alas, I am not paranoid, merely egotistical.  And so, when I read her post about how exactly were were going to metanoia (“change our minds”) this year by actually engaging with a member of a group we’ve denigrated in 2010, I read it as the Holy Spirit kicking me in the shorts again.


A Special Challenge: I would like to hear personally from the person who can have lunch with anyone named “Phelps” from the Westboro Baptist Church this year – especially if your meeting involves prayer.This is not a sarcastic request. I am totally serious and I will feature you as a Guest Blogger AND send you your favorite snack food if you can accomplish this holy feat in 2011. I’m thinking that members of Westboro Baptist are not readers of this blog – but if you are, you cannot have lunch with yourselves. Although I will still send you your favorite snack food AND would like to have a friendly conversation with you over mochas. I will fly to Topeka.

I live 45 minutes from Topeka.  45 minutes.

I have to do this.  I mean, I really feel like I have to do this.

I’m close. I write about changing the world through changing minds.  I believe that God loves them just as much as me.  Oh, and I can’t really stand them.  Seriously, they make me angry.

Also, I’m an introvert who has been committed to not arguing for several years now.  So what do I do?  How do I do this?  I need help.

I need you to help me figure out how to approach this.  I don’t want to lie to them.  I want to be honest.  I’m not a fool – they’re aren’t going to change their minds by meeting me so, in essence, this is probably an exercise in futility.  But the Gospel is not often about effectiveness. It’s about witness.

So help me out.  How do I do this?

12 thoughts on “I have to eat lunch with Fred Phelps, or Why I must practice what I preach”

  1. Pretty sure I would end up stabbing someone with a fork. Lemme know when you set a date for lunch that I may send my prayers…

  2. Landon:
    I think it is simple. Call him up and invite him to lunch. Offer to pay. In fact, if it would help, I would be willing to join you and pick-up the tab — seriously.

    Not that any minds would be changed, but we might help tone down some of the rhetoric and at least he would see that we don’t have horns.

  3. Oddly enough, I had a conversation like this recently. The key is to look at it as a detective would – you neither agree nor disagree with what is being said, but ask questions to get at the source of the beliefs. Help them flesh out a theological understanding, and where there are inconsistencies, push for greater understanding.

    This keeps it from being personal attacks (and thus retreating behind walls) and takes it into a realm of personal belief and exploration, which can be much more mutually beneficial. Be prepared to answer questions of your own belief structure, too!

    Also: Don’t engage in “Idea warfare”. Ask about the PERSON first. What their story is, where their background lies. As a 5 (on the Enneagram), this is advice I have to give myself often.🙂

  4. Isn’t this more about changing your mind than theirs? It would indeed be an exercise in futility, not to mention arrogance, to walk in there with the intent or hope of changing them. I think the point of Jan’s challenge is to open yourself up to authentic encounters with others, even when you can’t stand them. That’s more about “you” (and “me”) than “them”.

  5. Our church’s Adult Sunday Class did a whole month of studying the Phelps, mostly for the purpose of the Supreme Court hearing and how law and faith converge. After watching video and listening to preaching and conversations with the Phelps clan, I think the whole situation would be dependant on who you got to sit down with you. While all of them have the same belief system, some take a rational and calm approach to the matter while others are screaming harpies who could go on and on for hours screaming at you. I say contact them, tell them your position as a pastor, and tell them that you want to have a conversation to better understand their position. You may get a great conversation or you may get a nutjob, but either way it will make a good story.

  6. I must confess I have always wanted to ask one of them to explain their understanding of the story of the good Samaritan and their answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”

  7. Landon,

    These folks picketed my wife’s great aunt’s Lutheran church in Topeka, Kansas for their openness to gays. You couldn’t show up to worship the Lord of creation without signs that read, “God hates fags,” and “Fags will burn in hell.”

    They make me angry too…mostly because there are those who by looking at these will make judgments about Jesus. ;-(

    Reaching out is the right thing to do.

    How about a phone call: “I’m a pastor and I live 45 minutes away. I vehemently disagree with what I perceive to be your angle on faith, but I’d love to understand you better. Can I buy you lunch?”

    Who knows what would turn up. Probably nothing that would surprise you. Saw a 60 Minutes or 20/20 interview recently. It made me even sadder.

    The open heart and open arms of Christ have already changed the future for us all. Maybe an open heart and open arms here in the middle of history would help mend the present…


  8. I’ve used the approach Lucus recommends in my own marriage. My husband and I don’t hold the same political views, and when Bush and Clinton were running for office, the “debates” (that’s too dignified a term for the way we normally mild-mannered people conducted ourselves) became so unpleasant that we finally banned all discussion of politics from our household. Some time later, a friend who is a newspaper reporter and I were talking about another political issue, and my friend helped me understand how he investigates and writes about people with views he doesn’t hold–and sometimes finds repugnant. He does exactly what Lucus suggests, and I decided to give it a whirl. The result has been that my husband and I both hold the same views we did years ago, but I have greater respect and appreciation for him. This one aspect of him used to make me wonder how I had managed to marry a guy who seemed in most ways to be an outstanding human being–but who was “obviously” a closet nut case! I’ve been able to let go of my judgmental attitude–and that’s very positive for us as a couple.

  9. Hi Landon, it was great to meet you and hear you speak earlier today. Phelps’ people picketed my home church in Worthington, Ohio, oh gosh, probably 14 years ago or so – my college freshman daughter was probably about four at the time. It was one of the great joys of my life to be able to cross their picket line with my family and go into church that Sunday morning.

    For your lunch, I’d suggest you just focus on using the empathetic listening that you undoubtedly picked up during your CPE, if nowhere else. So the lunch conversation might sound something like, “So, Fred, when you say ‘God hates fags,” what I hear you saying is…” well, anyone who could come up with the idea of a rock opera version of Fiddler on the Roof should be able to pick that up and run with it. Good luck!

  10. Landon, if you’re still interested in making a connection here I have a couple of degrees separation between myself and a Phelps granddaughter. She might be willing to have conversation or help make a further connection.

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