Thursday, October 9, 2014

Assailed To The Breaking Point - Part 2

All of us have rules we live by. Some of us are aware of our rules and some of us aren’t. My father’s rules for how to interact with people were forged throughout his lifetime. My father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., set the stage for family relationships in our growing family by looking to the way he handled his family of origin. My father’s stance was to reject everyone in his life who did not agree with him and support him in whatever he was doing. And this stance would eventually include all the friends he ever had. His rule was simply to reject them and slander them as soon as they “crossed” him in any way.

My father even made it clear to all of his children that it was right and proper to reject; banish and never speak with again; any of his own children (our own brothers and sisters) who chose to exercise the freedom to live their lives as they chose. And he taught that there would be public humiliation from the pulpit for any who left ‘The Place’, his church. This was a threat my father made good on within the full view of all of his children who stayed with him.

I do not think you will be surprised to learn that there are now Phelps grandchildren who have left my father’s church, and so by necessity have been banished from their own families. I am sure the choices to leave were for a variety of reasons, but at the very least those reasons reflected the unique, made-in-the-image-of God precious people they are. Individual decisions made by individual people simply wanting to live their lives.

But the serious, life-changing consequence of those decisions was that these individuals were required to be shunned. My father taught us that to leave him meant the person who left must be shunned. By the entire church! And that the shunning had to include their own parents and siblings. For the remainder of their lives! Simply because they want to live out their lives by their own conscience and their own dictates. So because of this teaching each of my siblings, who have had a child leave, must now shun his or her own children. Forever! This is what my father required.

And because the brainwashing of my father is so profound and so effective it is almost certain my siblings truly believe they must follow this command . . . that they must show no love and no respect for their children who have left, and have no contact with them whatsoever! And who are committing the “crime” of wanting to follow their own dreams. Is it possible there is some faint impulse in these parents of being just a little proud of their children for having had the guts to do something they never could? I wonder. Late at night or in a moment of reflection, do they find some small satisfaction that their children are living their lives in the way each child believes is best? To follow their own hearts and their own best idea of how to live a life of love, and integrity and following the gifts that are in them . . . gifts that are different from those of anyone else they know?

I weep for my siblings who have had to shun their children. And who believe there is no other response to their young adult children’s desire to have their own lives but to shun them. This is what my father required of those who stayed in his church and who had to watch others leave and be given the opportunity to live out their dreams. Shunning and shaming were required for the audacious behavior of wanting to be an adult in a free society. And my siblings seem to be following that family code set down by my father. It hardly matters that our father has passed from this earth because his teaching on this was woven so deeply into the fabric of their souls . . . this code that says they are to do exactly as their father tells them to do in every particular, forever, if they want to remain safe from hell fire!

God does not want any of us to experience hell. The truth is He wants everyone to spend eternity with Him in complete freedom and joy. But God created us with a free will, like his own. And He wants more than anything for us to come to Him with a willing heart; to come to Him out of true desire and freedom; and to be able to respond to Him as the most loving being in the universe. God has never wanted people to come to Him out of fear. Or as puppets and pawns who are not able to use their brains and their gifts and their talents.

My father, on the other hand, was happy with puppet behavior from his followers. He wanted no honest questions or discussion. Ever! He wanted complete obedience and submission to any and all of his commands. My father preached about hell constantly. But he never, ever preached about a God who wanted to rescue all his children from this hell and give them amazing lives connected with Him. My father never preached about the real, loving God of the universe. He just tortured us with a terribly twisted view of God that to this day makes it very, very hard for my siblings to come to the real God.

As for my father’s teaching on shunning children . . . I still hope in my heart, that somewhere deep down is a spark or an impulse in these precious parents that allows them to see how this is still my father’s hand of hate directing their steps. Even after his death. And that they are free to do otherwise. Free to love their children, even if their children disagree with them. Free to love their children and stay in contact with them as these young people search out their own faith . . . and truly make it their own! This is a concept that was completely foreign to my father.

My father’s fear of anything less than immediate mechanical compliance to his rules made him seek to dominate even his adult children’s lives. He warned us that we didn’t even have the right to live our adult lives as we chose. My father did not seem to want children who freely chose the life he was offering, so that he would know they willingly joined his efforts. My father seemed perfectly happy to create puppets that did his bidding even if out of fear and bondage to him as a kind of slave master. Slaves never admire nor do they love their slave masters. I believe my father knew in his heart we could not love him because he beat us so cruelly and that he would have to have a slave-like compliance to have any followers.

But, I believe there is a spark or an ember that may still be alive in the hearts of my siblings who have had children leave their families, and their grandfather’s church. And I hope that ember gets slowly fanned into flame and that they reach out to their children . . . in love and in kindness. Knowing that with all of their hearts that is the treatment they longed for from their own father when they were young people.

I pray that my brother Fred Jr. will pursue these precious daughters he has lost, if necessary to the ends of the earth, and seek to build a bridge with them. I know this brother of mine. He has a heart of compassion. He showed that heart toward me many times . . . and to his daughters, I am sure. I only wish I still had a connection with that heart! Hearts are amazing things. I pray for the rejuvenation and healing of each of my siblings hearts as they try to stay connected to the amazing children they have. Even ones who disagree with them! It has always taken bravery to let our offspring be who they are, but there is so much blessing in it!

Sometimes I wonder. What might have happened if my brother Fred Jr. had been allowed to follow his dream and be a history teacher? And bring a love of learning and wisdom for life in the way history teachers can do so well? What might have happened in the lives of students Fred Jr. would have poured into? But the world got one more lawyer. And one unhappy one I am sure.

And that was the method my father used always; to squeeze the life out of young people. Clearly he had no zest for life, no love for life or people and it must have been too hard for him to bear to see a young one with a different bent; young ones with liveliness in their step and a twinkle in their eye. Once again my father did not push past his own negative emotions to allow others to live. And his cult leader status for years gave him a sense of the right he had to crush others.

In Matthew 12:20 Jesus says, 'the bruised reed I will not break; the flickering candle I won't snuff out; instead I will be your hope'. Jesus was very clear here that He would be especially kind and gentle to people who had suffered greatly and were barely hanging on.

My father, on the other hand, bruised his children . . . then he broke them! He did both of these things to his children! My father did everything he could think to do to cause the candle of his children’s hearts to flicker and then flicker weaker. And then he snuffed them out. It was as if he was raising an army; all privates in Fred’s army. The fact that they were unique, valuable human beings in their own right just never crossed his mind. His children were fodder to sacrifice in his hate battles, his pawns for playing, but never, ever people who had a right to themselves, their thoughts, and their dreams. Never!

These facts provide a clear insight into the horror coming of age held in the house of the preacher, my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr. These words I have written are an expose of a man who gained a following from his own offspring and then saw those precious souls writhe in agony from the evil he would do to them. It is a look behind the veil of a false prophet who, with investigation, appeared more and more as a new type of serial killer. My father was too clever, too cowardly, and too lawyerly to kill the bodies. His life was a trail of murdered souls. And his worst victims were his own family. These words may sound strong to you, but I can tell you as one who lived it that this is exactly what it felt like to grow up in my family. We felt like we were being systematically exterminated as thinking, feeling people, exploited by my father strictly for his desires.

No man or woman living in the Phelps compound has been allowed to become the person they longed to be. We were never allowed to figure out our own gifts, talents, desires and longings. Any hint my father saw of one of us not being completely prepared to give up his or her dreams; and their very soul was summarily squashed. This short writing is meant to reveal the betrayal and murder of the spirits of his children by my father.

Katherine’s brother, Nathan, has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is quite likely that Katherine suffers from it also. Today, but for the statute of limitations, the brutal beatings and torture this pretty teenager experienced would bring a long jail sentence to her perpetrator.

But nothing was ever done. And as far as I know, nothing has ever been resolved for Katherine. I have not had contact with my sister Katherine for 40 years. I could be mistaken, but as far as I know, she has never received the kind of help that reaches deep into the spirit that is needed for the level of abuse she endured. Perhaps no one has ever come alongside her to process the depth of the abuse and the lies she was told. And the toll this all took on her beautiful spirit. And to weep with her over it! As far as I know, my sister Katherine remains in her brokenness and, despair to this day, still believing that God hates her and her father despises her.

I was certainly in a similar state for years myself and know the horrendous agony of your soul being filled up with poison that you have believed about yourself and your life. And for which you believe there is no escape. That is the sense of despair I lived with for years before I got help and I believe Katherine probably suffers far more than I did with what she has been through. I heard she had tried to return to my father’s ‘church’ from time to time and been treated with disdain. So as far as I know, she has found no consolation, no resolution . . . and no truth, except for her father’s ‘truth’! The damage is the same today, I fear, as the day it was perpetrated.

If Katherine is where I was before I got help in healing she is still terribly broken, as are any of us who grew up under my father’s abuse. Because the betrayal and broken trust in her case are so complete. She was assailed continually, over and over, and then assailed again . . . by my father and by his religion, and by his church; and by her family, until she no longer has life in her. Victims of lengthy abuse often say they feel invisible. As if they are just going through the motions. Oh, as far as I know Katherine is still breathing. But she doesn’t really live. She is terrified of hell and she is terrified of this present evil world. It’s as if she has been suspended in a permanent state of anguish and despair that has locked her into a private hell.

I don’t know if Katherine has ever been able to comprehend how much her God loves her. She has not been taught the truth of that by anyone. Certainly not by my father! She has been so mangled in her soul, and been so abused by the deceitful use of the Word of God, that she is unable to sort out the truth. And there is no one to console or even reach out to her. That’s what her life feels like to me. I hope I’m wrong. But I am probably not wrong.

Katherine, wherever you are, I hope you call me or email me. I would love to begin a dialogue with you. With the beautiful sister I never got to know. And I would love to start right now getting to know you. The real you . . . in all your brokenness Katherine! Maybe we can compare our brokenness and do some healing together. I would love that. We have stories to tell and stories to hear, and much healing to do.

Here is the reality: The victim of abuse takes the guilt and shame of the abuser deep into his or her own heart. It all gets buried deep down in the heart of the child. And often the adult survivor of abuse can’t analyze it or get down to it to fight back. To challenge the lies and the damage the lies have done. It's a feeling of filth and worthlessness and horrible dirtiness and ugliness and shame that goes deep into the heart of the child, and remains and putrefies deep down inside there, way down deep in their heart. And the child has no way to filter all that out because it came from the people whose job it was to help her and define her not as one who is worthless but one who has amazing worth. And what a child hears from a parent as a very young child she believes in a way different from all other teachers and voices in her life.

My father left no room for his children to make mistakes, no room for grace, no room for humility, no room for learning and failing and trying again, no tolerance for humanness; and no need for faith in the one true God. All the while we all fell further and further into grave theological error because my father had no accountability outside himself, anywhere in his life. We learned nothing of humility, godliness or truth. Instead, we learned cruel, crushing dogma; that everything he said was right and was not to be questioned. Learning was punished and mocked, if it deviated from what he taught. Attempts at understanding or developing relationships outside father’s control were annihilated.

The truth is, my father is not like the Lord. My father is nothing at all like the Lord!

There is a place in the book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament where God is telling the prophet Ezekiel what to say to the leaders of the day. And the words God has for bad leaders are worth hearing.

“. . . But I (God) want you to condemn these leaders and tell them:

I, the LORD God, say you shepherds of Israel are doomed! You take care of yourselves while ignoring my sheep. 3 You drink their milk and use their wool to make your clothes. Then you butcher the best ones for food. But you don’t take care of the flock! 4 You have never protected the weak ones or healed the sick ones or bandaged those that get hurt. You let them wander off and never look for those that get lost. You are cruel and mean to my sheep. 5 They strayed in every direction, and because there was no shepherd to watch them, they were attacked and eaten by wild animals. Ezekiel 34:2-5

God is making an analogy about sheepherders doing a poor job of taking care of sheep. But he is very serious about the leaders of Ezekiel’s time understanding that a leader’s foremost job was protection and taking care of any of his people who needed things; things that would be for their well being.

The Lord of the universe feeds and strengthens and heals and binds up and seeks the lost and does not break a bruised reed and does not extinguish a flickering candle. He does not weaken anyone, or make anyone heart sick, or drive anyone away, and ignore anyone when they are lost or crush anyone or put out the light in anyone’s heart. That’s Satan’s job. It’s not who God is. It’s who Satan is. My father spent years telling us qualities of Satan and attributing them to God. And my father made it extremely difficult for us to ever hear the truth about the real and loving God.

He will not crush the weakest reed, or put out a flickering candle, finally He will cause justice to be victorious. Isaiah 42:3, Matthew 12: 20

There it is again! Here again is a statement about God’s character where He acts in kindness and gentleness towards the weakest in society. We in the Phelps family never learned of this kind of God. And never knew how much he loved us and wanted to care for us.

Fred Jr. never became a history teacher. He left the law profession to work for the Kansas Department of Corrections. A quick survey of the curricula vitae of the Phelps children shows my father’s astonishing success in getting his children to conform to his wishes. In fact, the Fred W. Phelps, Sr. Plan became a factory for loyal and legal support of one man's ambitions – his own: Of the 13 children, 11 got law degrees-nine of those from Washburn University; of the nine loyal offspring and four approved spouses, all but one received law degrees; eight have undergraduate degrees in Corrections or Criminal Justice. One can only wonder why the pandemic fascination exists about prison among the Phelps loyalists.

For the nine kids who stayed with my father, God provided only three spouses from within his church. Fred Jr. and my brother Jonathan had to provide for themselves. They became Westboro outlaws to find mates among the damned. When they eventually returned to the fold, these 'tainted women' were only accepted after a long probation and apprenticeship at being a wife-in-subjection. Six of the Phelps daughters remain at the compound. Two of them were betrothed to Chosen already residing in The Place. I have no idea if any of these marriages are happy and lively. Or if they are filled with honor, respect, love, openness and maybe even a little fun. But if I know my father that was something he did not care about in the least. He wanted soldiers. Who wants a soldier with a personality or one who is enjoying his life, I ask you!

Research indicates that three out of four children in criminally abusive families will be unable to fully overcome their experiences. As adults, they will rationalize their past and will accept abusive behavior and its fruits as the norm in both the outside world and their personal lives. With all the detriment to themselves and anyone they come in contact with if they are unable to get healing help.

It is instructive that 9 of the 13 Phelps children, almost exactly the predicted ratio, continue to embrace my father’s abusive world and ways.

We were the only members of my father’s church; and we had no choice. When we got old enough to make our own decisions, choose our life's work, and our life's mates, did you think my father would permit that?

My father’s bizarre behavior toward his children as they struggled to become adults is as disturbing as it is revealing. To my father, adulthood for his children meant soldiers for his wars. To accomplish this, he attempted to arrest and redirect each child's path to fulfillment. We were not to leave his nest, nor learn to fly: "The Bible may say you're gonna be the head of your house. But I'm tellin' you right now, goddammit, that ain't gonna happen! I'm gonna be the head of your house! And you better start gettin' that through your thick head right now!”

It was emotionally degrading. And it was the misuse of religion. And it was most decidedly abuse! It was spiritual abuse!

But how was my father able to maintain control of the lives and dreams of his children? There were some formidable forces working against my father’s desire for a family who would willingly be an extension of himself. One was the adolescent's yearning for independence; the pull of hormones and the heart of another to love and care for was another. In addition, the harshness of our upbringing left us with little genuine respect or love for our father.

Then what produced such amazing levels of conformity with people who feared and even hated my father? There were two major obstacles for Phelps children being able to exercise the freedom to live their own lives and dreams, both too high for 9 of the 13 to surmount. These are the twin secrets of my father’s sway over his troubled flock.

First, in our firmly brainwashed belief system, the ones my father said were “chosen” were the only ones who could reach heaven. And he taught that one could only reach heaven through the portal of ‘The Place’. What arrogance my father had in believing he was the only one who held the entrance into heaven. But that’s what he taught. That he who runs ‘The Place’ holds the keys to the gates of Paradise. My father said it, and we believed it. But our belief came from years of repetition that started when we were too young to even understand. And the teaching was always followed by brutal beatings. This type of violence is what many cult leaders find is the only technique that can keep thinking people in a cult. We were terrified to oppose the will of heaven's gatekeeper and imperil our souls. It was the fires of hell we felt in all our choices. So my father didn’t talk softly but he carried a very big stick! And that stick was hell.

So once my father had been able to get us in complete fear of hell, he could almost stop with the brainwashing. The deed was done. The fear he instilled was destined to keep most of us from ever leaving him to be sure. It also sadly kept us from ever having the son/daughter relationships with God that the real God wanted us to have! My father truly set us up to not be able to receive love from God and understand that God wanted us to be His beloved sons and daughters. In my father’s desire for a kingdom of his own in Topeka, Kansas he was attempting to keep us away from the only Father worth trusting for Phelps kids, a heavenly one. This is the thing that nearly crushes me when I think of the real damage of religious abuse.

My father established early on the expectations of each child in the family. My father didn’t say what many fathers do and set expectations till a child was 18 or graduated from college or could go out on their own. No. My father set up his expectations for each child’s entire life, and the consequences to each of us if his expectations weren't met. According to my father, each of us would finish college, get our law degree, work for him, and marry whomever he chose, when he chose. By no means were we allowed to leave ‘The Place’, or it would be seen as 'abandoning the church'. (Or if he were honest, abandoning him and his dream of fiefdom?) If we did that, we'd be excommunicated. Cut off! And we would go to hell! Can you imagine the power over a child who was brainwashed with this thinking year after year, from birth? Little children do not have the capability to fight off that kind of relentless conditioning.

Besides being groomed as lawyers, we were constantly told we were “different”. We were taught we were “special” from the time we were able to learn. And we were taught that the rest of the world out there was evil. And inside ‘The Place’, people were good and going to heaven. Outside ‘The Place’ they were all damned and going to hell. And, if that other world ever got us down, or argued back, or poked holes in our rigidly constructed façade, we were taught to find strength by imagining the terrible horrors that would happen soon to everyone outside ‘The Place’.

‘The Place' was how my father referred to his church. If you left, you were ‘forsaking the church’ (his, of course!) My father spent an enormous amount of time trying to frighten us and threaten us into doing what he wanted us to do. He had two separate preaching time slots a week to harass us and intimidate us but it didn’t stop there. He even had letters delivered to those of us who left with legal stationery with a list of our grievances to try to get us to come back to him. And always, my father manipulated various passages in the Bible to get us, and try to keep us under his thumb.

One passage my father chose to manipulate refers to a child 'leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife'. My father interpreted this to mean a child was not to leave his parents until he was married. But, since he decided who and when we were to marry, he controlled this, too. If my father had truly understood the word “cleaving” he would have known his days were numbered with all of his children. He either didn’t understand or chose to ignore the meaning of the word cleave. Cleaving to one’s new spouse was to be something like the most powerful glue in the world; stuck to them by choice and by vows to stick with THEM and no longer with parents. My father completely misunderstood how much the next generation’s marriage trumped anything that came from their family of origin, no matter how much you loved and honored that family. And that misinterpretation was to profoundly hurt and injure 13 children and their future spouses. The happiness, autonomy and blessings of 13 homes my father could never and would never support.

Another passage mentions 'not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together'. Since my father had long ago established in our minds that his church was where the Chosen ones came to assemble, that it was 'The Place', he could lead us easily to the belief that to leave home was to 'leave' the company of the Chosen, to join the innumerable multitude of the damned! My father did not understand that passage meant that people who loved God should spend time together, nurturing, supporting, and helping each other through life’s difficulties. The Bible is filled with people who belonged to God and were able to pick up and travel to the far flung corners of the world, with the full knowledge that God would be with them wherever they went.

My father had no trouble “whiting out” large chunks of the Bible that did not suit him. And because he himself “forsook assembling with others” – others who might have challenged him in his conceit and arrogance and very strange interpretations of the Bible - he might have been slowed down in the implementation of some of his terribly wrong views. Or turned in another direction! Had Fred W. Phelps, Sr. followed the meaning of that verse and “assembled” with people beyond his own family some of the protections of that verse might have been there. For him and for us!

The second of the twin secrets used to keep us all in line was to cast the world beyond The Place as evil and fatal to the soul. My father spent a lot of time telling us how wicked people on the outside were. Never mind we had a father who was a vicious abuser, and wicked beyond most of what we would ever encounter on the outside. But somehow we believed what he said.

Then my father would follow up with his claims by manipulating the local community so they would react with hostility and aggression whenever a kid would venture out. It's why my father insisted we go to public school. Thanks to him, we were hated before we even got there on Day One. And people were so mean to us, that, when we came home, my father could say, 'See, I told you so. They're evil and reprobate. They're not like us.' It is hard for me to say this, but my father was both evil and brilliant. And I doubt he could have pulled off the level of his evil intent upon his family and his culture had it not been for his brilliance. And of course his willingness to use violence to maintain compliance in his chosen group.

Growing up in our family we were told we did not believe in Christmas because there is no mention of it in the Bible; nowhere does it say Jesus Christ was born on December 25. Seriously? The birth of Christ could not be more central to the truth of who God is. And my father chose to leave that truth out of our upbringing! That truth was not preached at his church!

Jesus shared deity with the Father. But somehow, out of the great love they had for the human race, it was decided that Jesus would set aside the privilege he had in heaven and come to earth to be born as a baby. What a humbling thing for Jesus to do! Leave all His glory and majesty in heaven and come hang out with the human race and be a baby and then be a little kid and grow up and be a laborer and finally be given the task of paying the price for the moral wrongs the human race would commit. All of them! God the Father sent his son to rescue the world from the moral wrongs we had committed that would separate us from the Father. If you think about the picture that the Bible shows us about God’s love it’s a Father knowing his kids are going to sin and make morally wrong choices and sending someone else to actually pay for the consequences of that sin and wrong instead of the children. Sound like a pretty typical loving father?

So a question comes to mind for those of us who knew my father and the lengths he went to in recreating God in his own image. Is it possible my own father simply could not stomach the amount of love that was shown by the Father in sending His son so he chose not to tell us?!? His actions now strike me like someone finding buried treasure but being so selfish as to not want to share it with others. Why on earth would my father not want to share that Jesus Christ came to earth as a baby to one day pay the price, on a Roman version of Death Row, for all of our sins and moral wrongs? Was it too loving for my father’s comfort? Too extravagant? Too outrageous a love?

When I think about how often my father tried to downplay or white-out of the Bible any loving acts by God, it occurs to me that what my father could not stand was God’s love. Did God’s love infuriate my father? My father seemed to have such an adverse reaction to God’s love that it compelled him to eliminate the truth of God’s love at every turn. But deep down do some of the rest of us feel a little uncomfortable with unconditional love? We hear that God’s love is free and for all and we think “now wait a minute God, I think I can help you here. Your love is just a little free and a little too lavish! So, how about I add a bunch of conditions to your love? So I can feel more comfortable with it.” And what my father did was add the final trump card of all conditions that if you weren’t in his church you simply couldn’t receive God’s love.

My father knew, somehow, that there was a gift of eternal life available from God but he kept telling the world they couldn’t have it! How does telling the world over and over again that God’s love is unavailable make any sense? There is a verse in Revelation that shows the complete availability of God’s gift of eternal life. It says “Whoever is thirsty, let him come and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Really it’s an unbelievable truth.

It’s saying to receive this gift you just have to be thirsty. And then it says “whoever wishes.” Whoever wishes? Well, that could be anybody, right? Yes! It could! I think Jesus gift of eternal life just blew my father’s mind. It was too good and too big and too free. And that was just too irritating to my father! How could all these reprobates out there who were sinners deserve God’s kindness? So my father began to do damage control on God . . . the Old Testament God my father somehow found ways to twist to use for his purposes of hate mongering. But, Jesus? He was far too dangerous. And He was always offering the gift of eternal life to anyone! Prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners! So, what I think my father did very early on was essentially write Jesus right out of the Bible. This dangerous and crazily loving God had to be put back in his box. And the best way he knew to do it was to wrap the box in hate.

So when my father did war on Christmas in our household none of us really understood it was war on Jesus Christ and His love. All-out war! So besides being reprehensible to not present the basic tenet of God’s love toward mankind to his own children, my father’s 'bah-humbug' to the season of comfort and joy significantly added to the burden of 'otherness' we shared that caused the world outside to repel us all back to ‘The Place’. My father knew what he was doing and how it would impact the young minds of his children.

And our father poisoned our souls toward beautiful precious parts of the Bible so we literally avoided them as pure evil – and specifically he did this toward all the parts of the Bible that speak of the miraculous birth of our Lord; the angels’ joy and declaration of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men’; and the unspeakable joy of Simeon, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds in the field, the three wise men and others getting to witness and be a part of God’s miraculous plan to bring salvation to the entire earth! This included all the beautiful Christmas songs of faith which declare with great joy and victory this miraculous work of our God! Not once were we given permission to join in with the angels to sing of this miraculous virgin birth of a King who came to earth to bring great salvation to the whole world!!

From kindergarten on we were not allowed to stay in the classroom if there were Christmas activities going on. We always had to go to another room, usually the library. My father threatened to sue the schools if they did not remove us during those times. Our humiliation was constant. And effective! Once when a teacher found out I was a piano player she asked me to play some Christmas carols for a sing-along time in class. I obediently did what she asked but felt like I was doing something horribly wrong the entire time I was playing. Imagine this with me. I am the pastor’s son and I am asked to play songs honoring the beautiful story of Christ and feeling bad about it. What is wrong with this picture?!

From suing the schools to shooting our neighbor's dog, my father’s personal and litigious behavior would ensure his children a cool reception in their community-without an encore as the pastor who stole Christmas. We weren't allowed to participate in any activities at school. Not through most of our childhoods. No choir or musical performances. No sports, not even track; until my senior year. And I have to wonder if that was allowed because since I had become a good runner, I was able to be one of my father’s “trophies” for him to trot out for the sake of his own self esteem. And never, ever about what might be an enjoyable activity for his son.

And there were to be no outside friends. No one was allowed to visit, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere; to birthday parties or anything else. Then, he decided to shave the boys’ heads. My father wanted the world to reject us. It would drive us right back to him; to ‘The Place’; the world-within-a-world; the world that was father-centric. And it worked.

Spouses were not welcome in such a world. There were to be no girls for the boys and no boys for the girls. If my father had his way none of us would have gotten married. He'd just as soon keep everyone away, thanks.

With his private genetic following, my father had found a world perhaps he'd always sought; one where they would care for him and do his bidding and never leave him. To make that happen required the promise that their youth be devoted to settling the scores of my father’s past; sacrificed at the altar of my father’s monumental, albeit terribly fragile, ego. My father crushed the innocence, the joy, and the dreams of his children.

His reputation as a civil rights advocate is at least ironic. My father preached racism that he thought he could justify from the Bible so imagine the surprise of people who saw Fred W. Phelps, Sr. now championing causes in the civil rights movement. Perhaps he saw this as a way to make a name for himself and bring home some bacon. Our pastor/father's chains of bondage over our souls may have been invisible to our community, but were actually far stronger than the iron ones worn by the ancestors of those he often brags he's helped free. The children who were raised in the nightmare on 12th Street carry their shackles in their hearts.

It is their fear of my father’s keys to hell, and their view that the world is hateful and hates them, that made us Phelps kids like the elephants in India. Elephants in India are initially kept shackled by iron until their wills are subdued. Then the flimsiest stake will keep the elephant tethered. And that describes most of us. We kept serving the will of a man who, by now they must realize, is much smaller than themselves and honestly unable to do anything to them. Well, except there were his powerful words of doom. Those hung around…

My father for years hoarded his hell-stunned flock close around his own flickering candle. He pulled them like a threadbare cloak about his old wounds, huddled against the cutting hawk of a cold soul wind blowing from somewhere out of his past. His woundedness was the source of all that would run our lives. And ruin our lives as well.

With the evil he perpetrated and the hurt he caused during his life, my father had no right to the name of 'pastor'- never mind 'guardian of The Place.’ Since the word pastor is called Shepherd in the Bible it is a particularly egregious misnomer to call my father ‘pastor’. A shepherd will do anything to protect his sheep and if necessary risks his own life to do so. My father risked anybody and anything to serve his weaknesses and his wounds.

One of the greatest consequences of my decision to follow very closely in my father’s footsteps was that it sort of made me invisible to his view. When you are right behind the point man he is not looking at you! This was a strategy I think I instinctively used to remain safe as a Phelps son. But it perhaps allowed my father’s actions to go unchallenged and possibly emboldened him further. By pretending to be a staunch supporter; by being the only son who did not fight or resist openly; perhaps my father took even greater license to abuse than he would have. I have spent much of my life wondering about those decisions I made. And I have wept buckets of tears. I have wished I had stood up for my siblings, at least once in a while; that I had been able to communicate my horror at what they had to go through and my sadness too. I wish I could have been a good big brother, looking out for ones under me. Like a big brother should!

My father never taught me that. He never showed me that to be a true man meant to protect the weak and innocent. Nor that it meant I was to lay my life down for others. True manhood is something I have had to learn as I healed from the poison my father used on my soul. Some of you will try to excuse my behavior and say I was caught in a Stockholm syndrome, or fighting back would have gotten me the same internal injuries Nathan and Katherine got; that I was simply a kid protecting myself. But, I have profound grief over those decisions nonetheless. If I get the chance I would like to look each of my siblings in the eye and tell them I am sorry; for what I didn’t do to protect them. And to show them how valuable they are to me.

My father did not allow sibling relationships to develop into much of anything because it would have diminished his power base. It is so much more effective to keep the underlings afraid of everybody including each other. But I would like to try now. To develop what I can with any of my siblings who would like to. I would like to talk. And take a walk around the block and learn of their lives, what they have been through, how their journey of healing has gone, if it has, and encourage them on that path. I would love more than anything to hug some of my siblings and tell them I value them. And have missed them terribly. Whether or not I could have had any influence on my father’s behavior, I can’t say for certain . . . but probably not. I am not aware of any person on the earth that ever had the ability to bring about positive change in my father’s behavior!

I do know my father’s extreme acts of aggression and violence toward his children increased more and more as each of us sought to find our own direction in life. Nothing we did was acceptable to him. And what “might have been” for his children’s lives will forever remain unknown. His destructive impact in our lives changed every one of our lives forever. Some of us have chosen to seek hope and healing. And we have seen amazing changes. But our father’s destructive impact is still something we must fight. Daily!

I mentioned to you that I started this blog with the word assailed to represent my father’s actions. And the word assailant is the noun form of the verb to assail. And from our perspective as growing children we had a deadly assailant in our house.

My father did not understand true loving relationships and did not understand the true, loving God he preached about. God longs to have a relationship with all of us and He showed His love in a way that is incomprehensible to any human being. None of us would give our only beloved child for our enemies! God gave us free will and He stays with us to the very end of our lives in the hope we will give our hearts and lives to Him in relationship . . . willingly with a full heart of love and gratitude! And He makes all kinds of ways for us to be able to do this. To respond as the loved children we are.

The true God would NEVER enslave the hearts of those He loves as a means to gain their love. We do not comprehend the massiveness of the gift of eternal life God has provided. But I know my God desires for me to love Him from my heart, not love Him because He forces me to love Him. He does not shackle my body or my mind or my soul. He sets me free to live and love. This is something my father never understood. My father, who thought he spoke for God, never understood the most basic fact of God and His amazing love for people.

My father had his children physically close to him but was unable, ever, to love them. I am reminded of the warning from the first epistle of John: "He who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen..." By the strong truth of that verse my father does not appear to have ever loved God. The person he claimed he lived his life for; he did not love at all.

In sharp contrast to my father, Christ will heal the brokenhearted. And in whatever state your broken heart finds itself. The Bible speaks of Him granting freedom to captives and new sight to the blind. Among His titles are the King of kings and the Creator of the ends of the earth but it is his strong desire every day to give liberty to any bruised captives, and to heal the broken hearted! And He does it in a way that totally respects the individuality of that precious person. You!

If you are struggling with this concept, that God could truly love you and want to set you free from the pain of abuse and lies, please get in touch with me. I would love to step into this with you. And hear your story. And weep with you and mourn with you. But also look forward to a new day . . . a day when you may be set free from this. And become the person you were meant to be….

Mark Phelps

1 comment:

  1. Mark, I think I found your sister Katherine on Facebook, under Katherine Phelps-Griffin