Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving, Joy and Peace

It occurred to me that today might be a good day to take a break from my blog. And reach out to all of you who read this work. Because you are on my heart every time I write. I know the holidays can be a hard time for those of us who came from abuse, so I have been thinking about you all even more.

What I’ve been thinking is how thankful I am for all of you.

I’m thankful for those of you reading this blog who are simply trying to understand my family and the dark story behind what they have been teaching. You are truth seekers and that is so important when combating any lies. I feel especially sad for those of you who have been caught in their cross fires and hurt. I pray you will receive some healing from all they’ve taught.

I’m grateful for you who are caregivers of those who have gone through abuse. Some of you are learners who are seeking to understand more what goes on in the hearts of those who have been abused. Some of the people you are loving through this are people very close to you: your spouses, your best friends, your co-workers and even your children. I pray this blog will provide some new truth or wisdom to help you hang in there with your loved ones as they are becoming whole again. It hurts to go through it and can hurt to watch it. Blessings on your work!

And I am exceedingly grateful for all of you who, having been abused yourselves, are bravely trying to go forward in your lives toward healing. This is hard work! What I want to do right now is just pour all kinds of beautiful truth into your cup until it overflows. I want to tell you that what happened to you does not define you; that you are a precious, beautiful, amazing human being; that your dreams still matter and that some of your dreams may still be fulfilled.

I want to say that while healing is hard it is worth it. It is worth it because some of you have a cup that has been dirtied by an abuser. Or is filled up with lies about who you are and how valuable you are, to all of us . . . and to God. Sometimes we have to get the poison out of our cups before we can truly receive the truth about how amazing we really are. I am very grateful for your bravery in seeking healing.

So many of you are on this healing journey and I am thankful for each one of you. I know it is a hard journey. I’ve been on it. But I know what it’s like to finally be at peace in your soul, and how wonderful it is to be able to smile at today and its blessings. I am grateful for you who have taken the first step and told someone something. Even though it is only a part of your story, Bravo for that first step!

I am grateful for those of you who have done some healing, took a break , but now realize there is more healing that needs to be done. I am grateful you are bravely taking the next step. Perhaps you are ready to tell more of your story. Or perhaps you are ready to tell all of your story; ready to tell it to someone who is safe and able to hear your story in full. Blessings to you as you bring more light into your life. As you let light shine in the darkness you will feel burdens being lifted from your soul. It will be a wonderful feeling for you as you reach those points.

Even with progress the painful feelings can still be present with you. In fact, as you have probably experienced, the pain gets worse, and then even worse, before it gets better. But the hope begins to enter your heart eventually and then it comes more and more. At times you may feel like there is no end and the pain will always be your reality. But as you continue and press in more and more, normal feelings emerge more and more and eventually you have longer periods of peace and your joy becomes broader and deeper.

I urge you to stay the course to the end so your cup can be full to overflowing with joy. Keep pursuing and continue reaching out to those who love you and want to support you. Though it can be so painful and seems so slow, the light will come and peace and calm become more and more the reality of your life. Once your heart begins to heal you can’t fool it like you could in the earlier days because you have tasted the hope and the joy and the freedom from what binds you. Stay with it and your life will only get better. You will have more and more to be thankful for.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPDimGnpv4g

Mark Phelps

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Let The One Who Has No Sin Cast The First Stone

In my mind I am back on 12th Street and Orleans in Topeka, Kansas, at Westboro Baptist Church, where I grew up.

I am picturing the night I walked out of my childhood home, taking an item or two at a time and placing them in a laundry basket in the trunk of my car until the last item is in the basket. Then I walked out, got in the car and drove away.

My body left but the gripping terror and wretchedness remained.

I had nightmares for years. The theme of the nightmares always centered on the streets around my childhood home which was a part of the church building at Westboro Baptist Church. 12th Street. Orleans. Churchill. Cambridge. In my dream I would be driving on one of these streets and come near to the family church building/house. My father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., and my family would rush out to grab me and in my frantic frenzy to get away my car would not start or would not drive forward or the engine would die and I would get trapped by my family. Then my father would drag me inside and beat me. The stark terror was horrendous as I woke from each nightmare.

In the years after I left our family home I could not ever imagine having to see this haunting building again or being on the streets near my house. There was no way I could feel safe in that location in Topeka Kansas. I had seen such brutality there. I could not imagine being alone with my father because I knew if I ever was I would not survive. In a rage he would beat me until I was dead.

That was my nightmare . . . my fear. And it felt real. Very real! Because I knew my father wanted me dead! He told me so with his own words.

Then I did years of healing work. The ‘God who heals’ was with me in the healing and He slowly, ever so gradually, over many years, took the fear and turned it to peace.

A few weeks ago I was in Kansas City working on a documentary about my brother Nate and his present work to help others who have been abused by religion. As innocently as could be the producer of the documentary announced we were going to drive to Topeka and do some filming in Topeka. He said he wanted to do some filming in the Potwin area of town and then he wanted to go to the street by Westboro Baptist Church and do some filming.

I had forgotten all my fears and was astonished to realize . . . I was not flooded with anxiety or an adrenaline rush of fear. Being on 12th Street and turning up Orleans next to the church building; parking just beyond the old driveway I had driven into 1000 times; walking down Orleans toward 12th Street. I experienced no terror! In fact, no fear at all! And all the while the church building/home where I spent all my growing up years was right in front of me.

The hateful signs, the beautiful grass that I used to mow with my brother Fred Jr., the trees that have grown tall these past 40 years since I was last there; it was all surreal, but peaceful for me. The streets seem about half as long as I remember and more narrow than I recall. The distance from 12th street to Churchill is much shorter than I recall. All of it was strangely familiar but the strangest, and most wonderful, part of all was the peace I felt and the freedom I had from terror.

It was an amazing thing to be standing as a free person in front of the place where the nightmares had for years gathered their substance. And to realize that power to hurt me, to strangle the life out of me was just…gone…The Lord had truly broken the power “The Place” had to hurt me. There is a verse in Psalm 10 where the writer is crying out for God to help him fight against wicked people. The writer asks God to break the arm of the wicked. Not a fainthearted prayer! At the very end of the psalm the psalmist realizes God is listening to his prayers and responding. He acknowledges that God is doing “justice to the fatherless and the oppressed one that the man of the earth may terrify no more.” I realized that was true for me! God had made it so that my father could terrify me no more! I had been set free.

My God has restored my heart and my soul at the deepest levels possible. Over the years of healing God has gone with me into all the horror, terror, brokenness and anger and He has walked with me through all the child-like feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, despair and sadness and made all things new in my heart.

My focus that day, at 12th Street and Orleans, was on the conversation we enjoyed with the two wonderful people we met at Equality House which is located right across the street from my father’s church. They chose that location as a way to express symbolically their mission of reaching out to and helping individuals who are being brutalized and hurt by the hateful behavior of others. I am so proud to know these individuals and so impressed with their hearts of compassion. I wish you could see their desire to serve and help those who are victims of hate and violence. The victims they have helped, they told me, include some of my nieces and nephews who are experiencing abuse at their schools because of the hatefulness of their family.

The hateful signs displayed this day in the front of the house/church where I grew up proclaim the same hate we lived with on the inside of that house/church all the years we were growing up and that was hard-wired into my brain as a young child. But now, and for years now, the hate and violence and abuse have been turned outward onto society at large, including targeting the innocent and vulnerable.

I was glad when I comprehended even more fully the work my brother Nate is doing to reach out to and try to help these innocent and vulnerable people, and quite pleased to be a little part of his work.

This experience confirms for me, again, the light and hope that comes from love in contrast to the despair that comes from hate. I am reminded again how the Bible says God is love and all love originates from God. God is the restorer of broken hearts; He binds up the wounds and heals the hearts of all who turn to Him in faith. Hate is the work of Satan and healing is the work of God. Those who say they know God, and then act with hatred toward others, don’t really know God, because God is love. It is easy to read over the statement that God is love and miss its meaning in our lives. Said another way, it means if you are doing the work of God you will show love . . . because that is God’s character and His essence. If you are showing hate, to anybody, you are de facto NOT doing the work of God.

It is a miracle to me that I can now be at peace while standing next to the place on earth I once feared with all of my being. The healing hand of the Lord has done this work in my heart. This place and the fear I had living here had a gut-wrenching power over me. But the power of God broke that fear and its power over my heart and replaced the fear with peace and strength.

As I walked on Orleans toward 12th Street, with the house and church where I spent the first 19 ½ years of my life right beside me; when I saw their signs and flashing lights heaping hate and filth onto all who see; several questions began to stir in my heart. These questions have remained and I have been reflecting on them since my visit.

What all had God actually set me free from in my life?

What do I have in my life that is good that I haven’t been given as a gift?

What have I been set free to do in my life?

Who am I to judge another human being?

How am I to treat others, as a follower of Christ?

If Christ commanded me to love my enemies how can I justify hating anyone?

Can my response to God’s love be anything less toward others than the love God has shown me?

How does a person who has lost their way find their way back to God?

If I am not to judge others; how do I accomplish that and show others love instead?

Since Christ has commanded us to love our enemies and to do good to those who spitefully use us, we have no license from God to hate any human being. No matter what our personal views or feelings may be about the behavior or actions of another. We are free to love them because of the love and power of God in our hearts. But we have no right or permission to hate or condemn another human being. Not when we have been given eternal life when we deserved a death sentence.

Our privilege and responsibility; our response to the great love God has shown to us; is to testify about that love and the sacrifice He made when He gave His only Son to die in our place to pay for all of our sin and mistakes. We are witnesses to His great love and the work He did to save us. Because of that we are compelled to tell others so they can see and hear and understand the hope and the life that is in our God. He is light and life. This is our privilege – to testify to the greatest love the world has never known.

The terror and death put into my heart by my father controlled and consumed me for years. It took an awesome power and strength to change this in me. It took enormous strength and tenderness and kindness and love to enter into my heart and mind to undo the lies and the horrific terror. That’s the work the Lord has done in my life. Truly it has been an amazing work in my life and I am the recipient of it every day I am alive. God replaced all the poison and deadness that were buried deep in me with the fragrant beauty of his love and the luscious fruit of his Spirit, in the deepest part of my being. The fruit of hatred and evil is a poison to our souls – the fruit of our God is a delight; it is joy and peace. How can we not offer that joy and peace to others?! How can we not tell others of His great love and power and ability to heal and restore our lives?!

This is some of what I have learned about my God: God never calls it quits on His creation, ever, not on any of us! He is patient, kind, merciful, good, lowly and humble, gentle, always at peace, ready to help and to respond to our cries. He waits for us continually. He is not willing that any of us perish but that we all come to a true understanding of Him. I am so thankful my God did not quit on me before I had a chance to get to know Him, truly know Him.

As a child living in Westboro Baptist Church on 12th Street and Orleans, I lived out the hatred and meanness I learned from my father. I looked for opportunities to judge people and speak of a hateful, vindictive, mean god who was arbitrary and capricious and pernicious. Many people would respond and react negatively to this hateful, stinking poison that poured forth from my mouth and my life. But their responses did not change me. I expected their hate and anger! In fact I used the hateful angry responses to confirm I was on the right track. That is how I had been taught by my father. My father gave me a grading scale for Christians that said if you offend and mock people and they respond negatively, then you have succeeded with high marks.

It was not until the day when, instead of mocking and ridiculing and attacking (which I expected and was used to) a young lady in my junior English class told me ‘You don’t know the first thing about the God of love!’ That response stunned me and stopped me cold in my tracks. Then a few months later I met a young lady who knew this God of love and demonstrated this love to me. That was the beginning of God’s work in my life to change me. Thank God! Though it was many years later before the in-depth changes took place these experiences started me on the road to new life.

So I know the hate. I know the meanness. I know the desperate wretchedness that soaks deep into the fabric of the heart, and colors everything a horrible, ugly color. I know how it feels inside to believe and speak forth such hatefulness. I know the desperate despair and the need to conceal this despair with haughty arrogance! And how lost a person can get; swallowed up with the hate and meanness, and unable to escape. These were the memories that flashed through my mind as I walked on Orleans toward 12th Street. And I was taken back to what it had been like to be a part of my family and a part of their hate.

See, I remember needing to hate in order to stay safe from my father. Because to hate meant a child in my family could stay off of my father’s radar a bit. (Those of you who have read previous posts know this is precisely why my brother Nate was always in so much trouble with our father. Nate questioned the hate! Then and now!) And I remember how natural hating became for me, even if I did it out of self-preservation. It soon became my own hatefulness and meanness; it became who I was! And I remember how stuck I was in all of the hate and vicious treatment of others. As if my knowing the truth about God’s great salvation somehow gave me license to hate and condemn others. What a perversion. What deceitfulness.

Isn’t that whole lifestyle my family espoused pretty counter intuitive? Wouldn’t you expect people who supposedly feel immensely blessed by God to pass that beautiful blessing on to others? Instead of telling others about God’s great love and great salvation, I used this knowledge to be hateful and condemning of others! Can you imagine?! This really makes no sense if you haven’t experienced the power of hate from within, but it becomes a disease that consumes the person who is doing the hating. The destruction happens on the inside and moves outward.

Who better than those who have seen and tasted and known the love of God to spontaneously tell others of His love? How can someone who even knows the words of truth (even if it is not in their heart) twist that truth and speak such hate and lies?! But that’s how it was and that’s how it still is for my family who are lost in it. Apparently believing they are doing good and doing right. It shows how far lies and deceit can go when stark terror and darkness engulf a human heart; when your own father perverts the truth of God and turns His truths into lies.

I want to say, thankfully, that I am no longer compelled to hate as I once was. Now I am compelled to love others, no matter what. I can no longer justify hating any other person. I believe anyone who knows the truth and knows the living God will learn, if they have not already learned, they cannot hate another human being.

And please don’t tell me that condemning others by telling them they are not living up to the law of God is really showing them love. That won’t work with me; not anymore! Why? Because I know it is God’s kindness that changed me. And I know it is God’s kindness that leads me still, to change and turn towards him even more. It is God’s kindness and gentleness and compassion, experienced in very real ways that change any person’s heart and helps any person turn toward God. Not hatefulness! Not cruel condemnation! Not rancid displays of self-righteousness! It is God’s kindness and love that softens and changes our hearts and opens our mind toward the truth and the hope . . . and the love of God. Hatred shuts down a human heart. Love opens it up.

It is the work and power of the Holy Spirit that saves and rescues people from their propensity to choose sin over love and kindness. It is us telling others of God’s love and our need for His Son - THIS is the power of God that draws people to believe in Him and His goodness and kindness! Any other legalistic tripe only serves to harden the heart and push people away. And it should! You who know God and His love, you know well that it was and is God’s love that drew you and compels you to follow Christ. Not the law. Not meanness. Not judgmental attitudes. Not self-righteousness. Ever!

Christ said He was the end of the law. Following the law, i.e. following rules, was likened in the Bible to a school master helping children grow up. And the Bible says the following of the law helps to bring us to Christ. I know that is not an intuitively obvious thought! Reading the laws in the Old Testament and trying to live up to these laws; and failing; tends to bring despair. So how was bringing people to despair supposed to be a good thing? Legalism at its core is dumping a bunch of rules on people without giving them the power to obey those rules. And any of us who have been on the planet for long know that to love unloving people takes immense power. I would suggest it takes the power of God!

We don’t need the letter of the law. We need the Spirit! For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. There is a new law now: The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.

Rules tend to make you feel bad, because invariably, no matter how hard you try, you cannot live up to them. And you can feel after a while like not even trying. So how on earth does this bring you to Christ? Well because when you realize you can’t live up to the rules, and that Christ came to pour love into your heart to give you the strength to do good things it hits you. That the following of rules tends to squeeze the life out of people . . . eventually. But having God’s love poured into your heart and living in the amazing freedom of being a son or a daughter of God is completely different!

One analogy the Bible uses to describe what happens when a person responds to God’s gift of eternal life is like going from a hired hand to a beloved son or daughter. A son or a daughter who is well loved lives their life from that security and love. Not from the fear of breaking a rule. THAT is what happens to people who come to Christ. They realize they can’t follow the rules, that they are always going to mess up, and they just ask Christ to pour life into them. With His life and love in you, you are free to love. It is an amazing feeling to have God’s love for someone when you previously have only had judgment for that person. It is SO freeing and SO good!

So the gift Christ gave us when he came to earth was that he lived sin-free, died on our behalf and was raised from the dead. When he accomplished that the law and its requirements were completed. Christ did what no one else could do. It brought people who wanted to back into a son/daughter relationships with God. Let’s tell people about this great salvation! Let us stop judging and condemning others. Let’s let God be God and let’s love people as we have been commanded to do.

When Christ comes into your life you are given a new identity. You become a beloved son or daughter. You have a new identity. And as you start living out that new identity you are going to think differently, act differently, and you are going to start loving people. You will! It is so fantastic to have God’s love pouring through you. You will be able to love people who were your former enemies. You will be able to act kindly toward them and do them good. And nobody will be more blown away by that than you!

You and I are not equipped to judge another person because we do not know their heart. We have no way of knowing the invisible magnificence of how God may be working in any other person’s life. God knows this. We don’t! We need to learn this lesson. He commands us to take the good news to the world. Not the law. Speak of the good news and stop judging people.

God is drawing people to Himself continually, gently, beautifully; and no other person can see this work of God from the outside until it blooms in the person’s heart. Let us love people as we have been commanded to do, all of us who know Christ personally. Let us stop judging and condemning and this very God of love and kindness and compassion may allow our love of somebody to be a part of His work as He draws the person to Himself. Reflect just for a moment, on how God drew you to Himself. Almost all of us remember people who reached out to us in the middle of whatever mess we had made of our lives and loved us. THAT is what drew us. Not their judgments.

I have spent years debating these matters in my own heart and mind. As a child I learned to hate; to use God and God’s word to hate others. My father taught me how to hate people! The very ones God made to be in relationship with him! My family still hates people on behalf of God to this very day. But now I know better. I have been given truth in place of the fear. I have been set free from the lies of my father by the truth my God has put in my heart. I no longer debate the question whether hatefulness is right or appropriate or condoned by the God of love. I know my God has left no room for hatred in my heart. His love has set me free to love others. I pray this for you too. It is so freeing to be set free from your own judgments of others! That is such a burden to bear and one you were never meant to carry.

The peace in my heart is palpable evidence of the healing work of my God! Being on 12th Street a few weeks ago and knowing I am loved by God and by people is a huge miracle in my life! And this God who healed my heart and put His peace in my heart . . . He is worthy of my honor and praise and glory toward Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!

The haunted house of my youth no longer haunts my soul. It no longer harms my heart. The power of God’s love has set me free to praise Him and to love others. And this change in my heart is something the Bible says will happen to us. One place it says “Anyone who believes in Christ is a new creation. The old is gone! The new has come!” When it happens to you, you really will feel like a new person on the inside.

The way God made me; I am unable to be at peace if my heart knows something is not true, because my brain won't work that way. So I know the peace I have in my heart comes from knowing the truth of God’s word, not just from working through hurt feelings that came out of my years in counseling. Working through my feelings of wretchedness was a gift to be sure. But the profound peace I now feel? That was the work of God. I now have an intimate relationship with the living Lord and that is what brings peace - and I know His heart – and His heart is love - and that brings peace deep within.

Christ said ‘If you hold to my teachings you are really my disciples and you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free’. I have held to Christ’s teaching, which is at its core to love people! That makes me his disciple. And that truth has really set me free. It is God’s word that has set me free and God’s healing hand on my life. And he has set me free for freedom’s sake. I am now free to love others.

So I say:

Love people. Love your neighbor as yourself! You know Jesus loves every single person as much as He does me and you. Instead of harboring hate for others we need to love every person and faithfully pray that every person will come to know Jesus!

Let us take another look at Christ and how he treated people. Christ went out of his way to love people who society said were unlovable. He sought out people who found themselves on the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of what the judgmental folks thought. And he seemed to relish doing this! Reaching out to the people others wouldn’t give the time of day to. As his children we need him. All of us need him. Our children need Him. And we need to love every person we meet, seek out the ones our society has decided to shun or condemn and when possible, testify to them about our Savior.

If we use the Old Testament law and its stiff requirements as a weapon against someone we believe is living in sin, perhaps we are forgetting the death and resurrection of Christ, and the power of His resurrection. Instead of using the law against someone we believe is living in sin, let’s tell them about our Savior. Forgetting to tell sinners about Christ is like forgetting to tell the drowning person there is a lifeboat. It just makes no sense not to tell others about the great work Christ did to save people.

And while we are at it, let’s remind ourselves that we were once sinners ourselves, by nature, and if I am not mistaken most of us have sinned by lunchtime. If we are willing to have all this compassion for ourselves we must have it for others or we are hypocrites. Jesus had more to say about hypocrites than most of his warnings. Christ had immense compassion for people who found their lives in shambles. That was not the problem. What he did not put up with are people who acted as if they were better than the ones who admitted they needed help. We dare not fall into that trap. What we should choose to tell others (and ourselves!) is that this good news is the power of God to bring the gift of salvation to everyone who believes! Sin can be conquered but it gets conquered by God!

Perhaps we have misunderstood Jesus’ purpose in coming to this world – this power of God to forgive us for our sin and set us free from its consequences. Perhaps we have misunderstood what Christ actually did on the cross and how powerful its impact was on human beings. Oh I realize, we tend not to misunderstand what Christ did when he saved us. We are very willing to apply God’s great salvation generously to ourselves! We love God’s grace! We love his mercy! But perhaps we choose not to see this great saving work going on in another person’s life.

Or maybe if we’re honest we don’t really think the person who has just irritated or hurt us really deserves the second chance we were given by God. Have we considered the idea it is just barely possible that Christ has died for the exact person we are condemning?! Have we considered the possibility that we may be misapplying God’s word toward the person we believe is living in sin? Perhaps we would do better to concentrate on the 2 x 4 in our own eye and stop worrying about the splinter in the other person’s eye.

Even if we consider the person who is living in sin to be our enemy (for whatever reason, real or imagined), Christ leaves no room for hating, even room for hating our enemies. He did not leave that option on the table. We are to be like our Father in heaven here on the earth. Yes, we are to show others the love God shows us. Our Father in heaven makes His sun to shine on the just and the unjust alike! Therefore we are to love our enemies and do good to those who spitefully use us. Yes! Our marching orders while we are on this planet!

Perhaps we are offended by what we perceive as another person’s life of sin. Well I would like to say, we are no more offended than their creator! And what is their creator’s response to their sin? He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For He did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world but that through him the world might be saved. People . . . need the Lord! Before God’s final righteous judgment . . . People need the Lord!

The Bible has a warning about our judgments of others. One verse says “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Do any of us really think this verse through? Do we realize any time we judge others for something we have done we are judging ourselves? We should be telling people about this gift of eternal life Christ came to offer us.

Those who do not know this salvation, and don’t know their identity as a son or daughter of God, may have cause for treating people hatefully. But surely those who know about this great gift God wants to give us do NOT have cause for treating people hatefully! Each of us has the potential to lose our perspective and become judgmental when we forget the great salvation with which we have been saved. Because it is a gift none of us deserves based on our actions! Have you noticed that after we get the gift of new life from Christ we start to think we deserve it? And think we’re somehow better than others who haven’t heard Christ’s truth? It seems absurd, I know, but there is this wretched tendency to think we deserve the gift!

When I use the word salvation I am meaning the gift of eternal life Christ gives to anybody who believes in Him. And once we accept this gift it doesn’t just mean we have an amazing life with him after our death, although that is certainly true. It also means God will begin work in our lives immediately to make us into new people on the inside. We will become people who love, who reach out to others, who help others, who don’t condemn others. The Bible says we will become new people. And it is true. I am a completely different person now than I was before I knew Christ. And it will be the same for you. You only need to respond to his gift of eternal life. No matter how messed up you think your life is. You just say yes to him.

Ephesians 2 makes it clear where we ALL come from. It says we are all spiritually dead. And need help to be revived spiritually. Christ provides the healing balm for all of us! Let’s not act as if Christ has never saved us. Let’s not act like this great salvation was our own idea or that we somehow deserved it, okay?! Let’s not act like our own sins were never forgiven and are not still having to be forgiven! Salvation belongs to the Lord. What this means is that God understood we were in a spiritually dead condition that only he could revive us from. It’s like a person who has just “coded” in the hospital taking credit for what the doctors and nurses did to revive him. And bragging about it! Let’s remember this great way God saved us was truly a gift and keep it forefront in our minds so we are able to love the people of this world! May we never misrepresent our Savior to others who need him!!

Christ had an interesting response to Peter when Peter cut off the ear of one of the soldiers taking Christ away to beat him and crucify him. When Peter took out his sword and cut his ear off Christ picked the man’s ear up and put it back on his head. What did Christ tell Peter then? He told him that people who live by the sword will die by the sword. He had to tell his disciples that fighting other people was never his way. And he certainly modeled the power of healing in the midst of a person’s crisis! We want to fight people and tell them off and make war with them. We are fighters. Christ teaches us to be healers and peacemakers and do the hard work of helping people who were once our enemies. Who could do this kind of work without him!?

It occurs to me that God is serious in His word when He tells his followers we are to be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves. I know this does not come naturally to us. But the way I see it is, we are not of this world and our commission is to be ambassadors for Christ, standing in His place and saying to anyone we meet, both by our behavior and our words when necessary: ‘Be reconciled to God’.

The Bible says we are called to live our lives with humility. That we must continually realize that anything good we have we have received . . . from God! And we stand continually in need of God’s love and grace and mercy and kindness. Sometimes Christians act like we have forgotten we were saved and have forgotten our own need; the need we have and still have for Christ. Sometimes Christians act like we don’t know Christ at all! If we Christians are doing okay it is only because of our Savior. It is not because of our doing a bunch of good things that we have been saved, or keep ourselves saved!

2 Peter 1:5-9

5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

This is God’s plan to protect us as Christians from becoming nearsighted and blind! He expects us to grow in beautiful traits of goodness, and affection and love. And if we don’t grow in those things he tells us it can get to the point where we are almost blind in our understanding and it’s as if we had never been saved.

When we condemn a sinner, or pronounce judgment on a sinner we are no different than the Pharisees who were ready to stone the woman taken in the very act of adultery. God has given all of us a second chance. We are happy to receive our second chance aren’t we?! And God is faithful and just to provide for cleansing from unrighteousness when we sin after we have been saved, if we confess our sin. Have we not each been blessed by this incredible gift of grace, at least once or twice since we were first saved from our sin?

Why, then, are we so reluctant to allow this same grace and mercy for others?! Christian brother or sister, let’s examine ourselves honestly and see if this is something we have allowed in our thinking. The next time (today or tomorrow at the latest) we find ourselves struggling with some sin, let’s remember how God responds to us when we sin, even after we are born again. Let’s not presume we are righteous by our own might and power. Let’s remember the same power by which we were drawn to our Savior and rescued from death . . . this same power is available for the sinner we are condemning.

Let’s faithfully offer that salvation, that free gift, and cease from condemnation and judgment! The Lord must continually change us to be more like him. Others who we may perceive as dirty sinners need the same salvation we have received and will need the same cleansing work we find ourselves in need of.

Let the one who has no sin cast the first stone of hateful, incriminating, rejecting, crushing, shaming, accusing, indicting, shunning, terrifying, lethal condemnation, contempt and judgment! It only hurts when you are on the receiving end of a big jagged stone. Think twice before casting such stones at others.

So great a love my heavenly Father has lavished upon me that I should be called His child; His son. Such an amazing gift compels me to love others without exception and without reservation. I keep in the forefront of my mind the great love my heavenly father has for me, and all he has brought me through. God demonstrated his own love toward us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. God’s love changes everything!

By keeping God’s love in mind, and remembering how gracious and loving He has been toward me, I try to never forget his great love and his great offer of salvation for others. When I remember what my heavenly father has saved me from and reflect on how much he loves me, I cannot hate or condemn another human being. I must not! I must REMAIN unable to condemn another human being in the very face of the love my God has shown me.

When I went back to my childhood home a few weeks ago I realized how many stones had been cast at me when I lived there. My father had cast the first stone of hatred and brutality toward me and just kept casting them for all of my 19 ½ years until I was one day able to walk away. I had never once been shown love by my father. And he kept preaching that hate from the pulpit hoping to draw me back into the fold of hate, but his plan failed. God gave me the power to walk away from the grip of "The Place".

I realized as I stood there I had had a 40 year break from home. And in that break God had turned my life upside down. Cleaned out lethal poison from my soul and replaced it with His kind of love. And the love He has given me is that one that wants to reach out to anybody I meet. And I hope when I do, I am able to say, to anyone I have the opportunity: “I ask you to come to God, in Jesus name, for he loves you more than you will ever know.”

Mark Phelps

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sniffing After Whores - Party of Four - Part Four

Many of you who have stayed with this last 4 part blog are probably hanging on to hear the end of the story of my relationship with my girlfriend. And you are wondering, and rightly so, how our two worlds and our two backgrounds could ever meld together.

As I mentioned at the end of last week’s blog, my father made me quit the job I had taken to earn extra money. He had no idea I had taken the job so I could pay for dates with my girlfriend. And it wasn't my study hours my father was concerned about. My father was completely against any time we spent working elsewhere since it took time away from work we could be doing for 'The Place'. He simply did not want me focusing on ANYTHING other than what HE wanted me to do! He wanted control. It was not about my earning money; it was that he did not want ANYONE working ANYWHERE or doing ANYTHING that was not at ‘The Place’ under his immediate and direct control.

So, I had to shave a dollar here and there off my candy sales and summer yard work to court my girlfriend. I would sneak the car for a few hours and take her to a movie or dinner at a fast food restaurant.

Once, we were in the Taco Tico, a fast-food restaurant at 15th and Lane, around 9 p.m. when the place was robbed. Two men in ski masks came in, and my girlfriend and I took off out of the place. We didn't want our names involved as witnesses because my father would have heard about it on the evening news and the jig would have been up - my secret life of dating.

My now wife adds, laughing "Trouble was, after we hit the sidewalk running, only then did it occur to us everyone would think we were the ones who'd just robbed Taco Tico."

Despite my girlfriend’s quiet demeanor and biblical mane, I soon realized she was not plugged in to the world according to Pastor Phelps. For example, one day after Debbie had died, Nate, Jonathan and I were out in the car selling candy. Following Fred Jr.’s habit, I had brought my girlfriend along with us, and we sat and smooched while the two younger boys worked in the neighborhood. (I learn quickly!) When Nate came back to report scant sales for that day, I gave the command by reflex: "Chin chin!" And Nate put his chin on the back of the front seat.

With my girlfriend sitting beside me, I punched Nate painfully in the face for his sales shortfall, as usual. In equal reflex, one from another moral world, my mild-mannered girlfriend immediately slapped me hard enough to bring stars. "Why did you..." I asked in stunned bewilderment. "Why did you do that?" she demanded. Soon the esteem I had for this petite firecracker-five-feet-two, eyes of blue, and with a fist like my father - caused me to begin opening my heart to her radically different view of human relationships.

For several years before I met my girlfriend, I had been my father’s assistant master-at-arms: when there was a beating due one of my siblings, sometimes my kind father would order me to do it. "At first I thought it was a great idea," says Nate, who received most of his elder brother's ministrations, "because he didn't have my father's violent spirit when he swung the oak mattock handle. However, that was short-lived. After a few less than satisfactory beatings-from the old man’s viewpoint-he threatened to beat Mark instead. Suffice it to say that afterwards I couldn't tell the difference between one of my father's and one of my brother's beatings - except maybe in their angle of attack."

I agree with Nate. My father would tell me to do it and then he'd go upstairs and yell down to us in the church: 'If I don't hear it up here, it's you who'll get the beating!' Now, however, confused by my new feelings for this remarkable girl I was getting to know, I began to slam the oak mattock handle onto the pew cushions instead. It sounded sufficiently similar to the sound when I did hit Nate and Nate would just howl in pain every time I hit the pew. It worked perfectly. But it wasn't until my new girlfriend and her influence that it would have ever occurred to me to do that.

In a matter of months this teenager with her radically different world view was making a major crack in the crumbling fa├žade of my father’s hatred. Love and its power to conquer hatred were being shown to me by a young teenage girl. And once my father’s wall of hatred and control started to fall my life would change. Forever!

I've been told children from abusive homes are unable to develop empathy. Boy that was us. It was survival . . . period. Save yourself. Remember how I said I felt when Mom used to drive off with everyone in the car, and Nate would get left behind, running alongside my window, begging not to be left alone with my father? I literally could not feel for Nate at that moment in my young life. I had only enough energy and stability to put one foot after the other and do what was required to stay alive and not be beaten myself.

God puts in us strong instincts of self- preservation. What it takes to care for others and do selfless and courageous acts must be taught by strong committed adults. In our abusive world nothing was being taught that would build our character, or our love for others, or our compassion. I didn't even know how to consider what Nate might be going through. I was just glad I was getting out of the house for a little while, and that was all that mattered.

But, after I'd been around my girlfriend, what was going on inside other people suddenly started to matter to me. I guess you could say she kissed me and changed me from the frightened little frog my father had made me. After I fell in love with my girlfriend, it made me begin to want to care about others. She gave me the courage to become much more of a person as she modeled a good life. Even at her young age. I have come to see how the Savior of the world, Jesus, would use a principled and loving young lady to be my savior to pull me out of the cult. To say I am eternally grateful to both of them is truly not thanks enough.

Little wonder my girlfriend is Nate's favorite sister-in-law still today. Though my girlfriend refused to join my father’s church, she continued to attend Sunday services there for nearly two years. "I knew if I didn't, Mark's father would make it even harder, if not impossible for me to see him" she says.

"During that time, I learned things about Fred Sr. I didn't like." Such as? "That God hates. It seemed to me he was putting his own words in God's mouth. I mean, Mark's father was a pretty disturbed guy. I could see that and I was only 15. It's just sad he didn't have the self-knowledge to leave religion out of it and get some help. Also I didn't like his attitude toward family. His belief in beating children, and that women were servants to men. As a future wife and mother, that left me little motivation to join his claustrophobic community."

Toward the end of my girlfriend's two-year ceasefire with the pale-hearted Pastor, she arrived for services early one Sunday--too early. My sister Katherine was getting beaten with the oak mattock handle upstairs. In shock, my girlfriend listened to my sister's screams of pain and sobbing pleas for the good Pastor to stop. He didn't.

My girlfriend turned on her heel and walked out. Shirley Phelps, who always wept hysterically whenever her father went into his beating mode, ran after my girlfriend. At the door she grabbed her arm.

"Please . . . please...," she sobbed. "He doesn't mean it . . . he doesn't know what he's doing..." I remember my girlfriend stopped, whirled around, and looked Shirl dead in the eye. 'No, Shirl,' she said, 'you're wrong. He does mean it.' And she left.

Shortly after, my father decided to dish my girlfriend some of the abuse he'd used on Debbie Valgos. Following Sunday services, while my girlfriend waited within earshot in the church, my father collared me for a 'talk' in the law offices adjoining. He was punching and kicking me, and yelling in crude, filthy anatomical detail everything he said he bet I was doing to my girlfriend when we were alone. He knew she would hear, and that's why he did it. The level of my father’s crudeness and callousness toward the people of his church was astounding.

And that was my girlfriend's last Sunday at the Westboro Baptist Church. She walked out and down to the shopping center on Gage Boulevard where she called her father to come pick her up. The girl with the knowledge of right and wrong had had enough. My father had stepped over a line.

My girlfriend knew that day that she needed to leave the church and in doing so had to leave me. When she told me it was over she never asked me to leave the church. She didn't believe I could. She knew I had been taught that, if I left, I would be taken by God during the first night while I slept and that I would wake up in hell. My girlfriend didn’t want me to have to face that terror. She was looking out for my good then and she has never stopped.

For my part, I was in despair. At age 19 I flung myself face down in my girlfriend's front yard and cried. I cried because I was losing the person I believed was the best person ever to have come into my life. And there I remained for two hours, embarrassing her parents in front of the neighbors. My girlfriend's dad even came to her and told her, "I didn't realize you were so hard-hearted." My beached whale impersonation did not sway my girlfriend. Have I told you how strong my wife is?

Such emotional firmness in a 16 year-old was remarkable. But my girlfriend didn't know what else to do. She had no intention of joining the Westboro family cult and raising children in that kind of environment. And she knew I wouldn't leave. Meanwhile, one can only imagine the kind of talk this generated among the deeper keels in my girlfriend's cheerleading set. She was certainly a girl with a foot in both worlds. And a firm, mature head to know how to navigate each!

After the break-up, neither my girlfriend nor I slept or ate for days. I walked around in a fog. Then I found out I was going to get a 'B' instead of an 'A' in one of my college courses at Washburn University. That meant I was in for more trouble with my father. Somehow the idea that my father might now hurt my body after making my heart so miserable . . . it just seemed insane and ridiculous . . . and if all this misery was to please God, I was beginning to think it was awfully mean and petty for a Being that had created such a majestic universe... and that's when I began to hope my girlfriend might be right. That God might really be a loving God, and not full of hate like my father. . .and that if He was made of love . . . then he wouldn't send me to hell for loving her so much, would He? Oh the power of the truth coming from my girlfriend’s knowledge of her God was beginning to set me on a path that would one day set me totally free!

So I did it. I just grabbed some clothes and left. An acquaintance had told me if I ever wanted to leave, I'd be welcome to stay with his family the first few days. Little did he know how much that simple offer was to challenge and encourage me that one day, maybe, I would do it! I just showed up on their doorstep and they took me in for one night.

It might seem funny now to some who did not grow up in the brainwashing our family was exposed to, but those were some of the most terrifying hours of my life. I lay awake most of the night in their guest room, in cold, absolute cold terror; waiting for God to kill me. Afraid if I fell asleep, I'd wake up in hell. Literally! The ultimate nightmare! But I didn't. I woke up in the same bed the next morning. It was then I realized God might be nicer and the world bigger than my father had taught. Oh, what a glorious morning of beginning that was! And I thank my God for that day!

I landed on my feet, renting a room from a retired couple and worked; first as a busboy, then as a salesman in a downtown shoe store. My girlfriend and I were reunited, dating on weekends and talking every night on the phone.

However, I was in a serious car accident six weeks later and miraculously escaped injury. That shook me up. I thought God was giving me one last chance before He did what my father said He'd do. So I high-tailed it back home. And my girlfriend broke it off again. “This time I wasn't so strong," she recalls. "I was totally miserable. I almost went over there many times." I really cannot communicate to you the depth of my gratefulness to my wife for remaining strong during that time. And it must have been so difficult for her!

By this time my father had taken to calling my girlfriend 'the Philistine Whore.' So now life with my father and a broken heart soon had me willing to play tennis with death once more. After two weeks, I returned to my new life, only to have my father swoop in to snatch me back, as he had with my sister Katherine and my brother Fred Jr.

That time, however, a miracle happened. Just as we pulled up to the church on W. 12th Street, some of my father’s law clients pulled up too. It was like a Hitchcock film: My father couldn't do anything in front of them, so I just got out of the car, walked through the front door of the law office (housed within the church building along with our family residence), and out the back door. Nobody stopped me. Freedom!

After that, I held on to my independence and my dreams tenaciously.

I knew I made enough money for only two of the following: an apartment; a car; and college tuition. I needed the car; and - now that it was for me and not my father - I really wanted to finish college.

For a year, I slept in my car or in the backroom of the print shop where I worked all day. In the evenings I took classes, and on weekends I worked as a waiter at Flaming Steer steak house just south of 37th Street on Topeka Boulevard. I took my showers at the YMCA downtown and did most of my studying while running the offset presses on the job. My girlfriend completed her junior year and senior years at Topeka High, and we dated on weekends. Despite my father’s curiously vivid and explicit imagination, our relationship remained chaste and unconsummated.

When my brother Fred Jr. asked me to be his best man at his wedding, I was thrilled and agreed. But when I showed up at the Westboro church for the ceremony, my father demanded I recant and return to ‘The Place’ or depart before the wedding went forward.

It was a trap! If my father ever missed a beat at being a jerk he did it before I was born.

I departed.

I have never been back. Well not until just a few weeks ago. That story will be in a later blog.

Nor did my father miss a beat damning me to the fires of hell. When I refused to die in my sleep, my father sent me my notice of eviction from the assembled elect of ‘The Place.’ I was cast out and banished forever from ‘The Place.’ My father then tore up both my picture and Katherine's picture in front of the rest of the family. (Katherine was also gone by then; she was working as a waitress and living with a soldier near 12th and Topeka Avenue. Apparently the GI took a dim view of anyone kidnapping his girlfriend, and the Phelps quick-reaction team left her unmolested.)

I did see my father again however. Once! At the YMCA gym one day, my father took the time to stalk up to me, close so no one else could hear, and whisper, glistening with hatred: "I hope God kills you."

God didn't.

In May, 1976, I graduated from Washburn University with a business degree. In August of that year, I married my childhood sweetheart after a courtship that had lasted since 1971. I was 22. She was 19. Though the family Phelps was all invited, none of them came. Many of them might have wanted to be there, but they had been forbidden to attend. My father, the good Pastor, had threatened anyone who did attend my wedding with being banished from ‘The Place’ and from the family.

My father’s methods involved erasing people from his life who did not live up to his code and then he moved on to demolishing them verbally for years. Does that sound like a man with the courage of his convictions or someone who is convincing himself?

The cramped apartment at 15th and Lane quickly became the headquarters for Phelps exiles. At one point, both my brother Nate and my sister Margie were living within its tiny confines alongside my wife and me. We didn't have much time to ourselves. I brought half my family out with me! Fortunately, Nate and I have always been friends. And, back then at least, Margie and I were too.

Later my wife and I would be the consolation and support for Paulette, Jonathan's girlfriend, who was driven from Westboro Baptist Church when she became pregnant by my brother Jonathan. Abandoned by Jonathan and rejected by his family, Paulette went through some pretty tough times.

Certainly today, if any of my family; if any of my nephews or nieces or brothers or sisters truly needed help, for refuge, for unconditional love, my wife and I, and Nate, would make ourselves available. Sadly the poison runs mighty deep in the hearts of those who have been abused and been blinded by hate. I doubt they would feel comfortable getting solace and comfort from us. But if they wanted it, it would most definitely be theirs.

So far, we haven’t had any takers on our offers. It’s understandable, certainly, that none in our family would want to associate with the one who chose a life with a woman who my father did not have on his “approved list.” I mean, who would want to associate with a ‘Philistine Whore!’ But from where I sit after 38 years of marriage with the one who was responsible for delivering me from a destructive cult and abuse, she has the highest approval rating I think a husband could ever give one woman. She has my undying admiration, love, respect and esteem. She is the heroine of my story. Our story.

Some of you reading this blog are longing to change your own stories. Many of you have poison in your souls just like I did and you want to begin to heal. And to bring to the surface the pain and agony of that poison and be set free. If I can be of any help to you as you take steps along that journey please let me know. A soul that is set free is an amazing thing of beauty! It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!

Mark Phelps

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sniffing After Whores - Party of Four - Part 3

In my last blog we ended with the untimely death of my brother’s beautiful girlfriend. This was a tragic death that would shake my brother at his core. But you remember the problem for Phelps children. We were not allowed to express normal feelings, true of many children of abuse. My father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., simply had no place in his world for others feelings, either good or bad. He allowed only expressions of soldier-like support or the animated retelling of stories where we were the victors in fighting my father’s ideological battles for him. So when Fred Jr. needed to find comfort and solace to mourn for Debbie he would have to seek out someone other than my father, once again a perpetrator of wrong in my brother’s life.

Fred Jr. came to visit Mom, secretly. No one knew Fred Jr. was in the house. My brother Nate came into a room inadvertently and saw Fred Jr. and Mother sitting in chairs, facing each other. The eldest son had his head in her lap and she was stroking his hair. I have never talked to Nate about what that meant to him, but it must have been an unusual moment for him to see the great needs of a child being met by a parent.

Fred Jr. was crying for Debbie.

There's no question that my brother wanted to spend his life with Debbie. She was who he loved. And I knew her well enough to say my brother was the first light of hope she'd had in her life. When he left her, that light went out.

I think of Debbie sometimes. Debbie had a hard life before she met our family, and all she really needed was someone who would value her. If my father had allowed that, Debbie might have really found some hope and blossomed in her life.

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'. These verses are talking about people who are at a very low place in their lives and need extra special care. It was Jesus' desire to make it very clear He wanted to reach out to people whose lives felt close to being “snuffed out.” He wanted to bring them hope they might never have received before.

Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. He was modeling very clearly what he expected leaders to do. When you read about Jesus’ life you sense his tremendous compassion for the downtrodden and the weak but he had very strong words of warning to religious leaders. When you look at the evil and the hurt my father caused during his lifetime, my father had no right to the title of 'pastor'- never mind 'guardian of ‘The Place’.’

Two years later, Fred Jr. married Betty, the woman he'd brought home that Valentine's Day. Betty was finally approved by his father.

Betty was music major at K-State when she met Fred Jr. She had perfect pitch and played many instruments. However, she transferred to Washburn for her last two years of college, and went to law school on command. What dreams did she give up in that decision? Or perhaps Betty made the choice to go to law school. I know Fred Jr. did not. Not really! He had a passion for history and wanted to teach history.

I remember a time in 1973, when Betty was visiting Fred Jr. in the kitchen and the pastor started beating our brother, Nate, savagely with the oak mattock handle in the adjoining church auditorium. Betty had been eating a cantaloupe and she jabbed her spoon all the way through it and screamed: “Stop it!" It was loud enough for my father to hear out in the church auditorium. The good pastor came in from the church auditorium where he'd been beating Nate, and he said to Betty: 'You got a problem with this?' Then he turned to Fred Jr.: "If that girl has a problem with this, then I'm not going to put up with it! You better get her under subjection, or you're not gonna be marryin' her!"

In one of his FAX campaigns to the local Topeka community a few years later, the pastor, my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr., stated: "Wives who have strayed too far from traditional family values of home and children need to be whipped into godly obedience. Sparing the rod and sparing either the children or the women is a strategy that fundamentalist Christians reject.”

I do not know of anyone who calls himself a true follower of Christ who would condone whipping anybody for any reason! My father was preaching something that is simply not found in the Bible. There was never to be a time where a husband would lay violent hands on a wife. For any reason!!

Betty was put in her place by my father and she was the butt of numerous negative comments from the pulpit over the following months until she finally displayed the 'proper spirit of subjection and obedience'. Betty sat under my father’s preaching for months having to endure the humiliation he was heaping on her. Finally, Betty chose to willingly cease to be the person she was to meet my father’s desires.

When I think back on the brief life of Debbie Valgos, this amazing 17 year old, I realize my father was frightened of Debbie! He was actually frightened by the power of a life that still had joy and passion in it! It was something my father could never compete with. He knew she'd take Fred Jr. from him. Yes, she might give Fred Jr. the chance of having a truly joy-filled life, but if my father let that happen he would truly lose his son Fred. And my father would lose a soldier in his army. His first born son!

Seeing Debbie's weak spot- her self-esteem - my father did everything in his power to drive a sword through it... right into her heart. Debbie didn't hate life like my father did. She loved life despite all her reasons to despair. She had an indomitable spirit. My father knew she'd never fit in at his stoic doom and gloom ‘church’. Eventually she'd want to leave to go somewhere where life could be lived to the fullest and pull Fred Jr. along with her.

My father could not brook any insubordination in his “church.” It seems that Debbie was a person so full of life, and zest that her very presence seemed insubordinate! My father simply could not stand someone who was happy, or self-possessed, or had a dream or believed in herself or even believed in tomorrow and what it might bring. My father seemed bent on forcing all people into his mold. After he crushed the life out of someone, they were actually worth so much more to him. Because without a will to be one’s own man or woman, and without the ability to at least try to use the beautiful gifts God put in us, we tend to shrivel up into shells of whom we were meant to be. And shells are a whole lot easier to command.

Sitting in her mother's house, the sinking afternoon sun pours through the screen door, casting its soft gold across the widow's tattered carpet. Debbie’s mother offers, a little reluctantly and her eyes bright with guilt, the last moments of her daughter’s life: a First Communion veil; a dried corsage from an Easter Sunday get-to-together, and the photo album Debbie kept at the orphanage. On its cover, printed in the awkward, block letters of a bruised but hopeful new reed, a flickering candle not yet quenched, are the words:

I LOVE FRED PHELPS

"Debbie Valgos was a whore extraordinaire," snaps Fred Jr’s sister, Margie. But the good pastor’s words sound empty and formulaic on the daughter's tongue. What a pathetic justification for the loss of this beautiful, spirited young woman. Bankrupt words from a bankrupt system! And any who knew Debbie simply do not believe those words.

There is a verse in Philippians where Paul exhorts all followers of Christ to grow in love. To really grow in it! He says “This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ Jesus.”

My family did not exhibit love first of all, but they certainly weren’t choosing to let their love grow in knowledge! Or depth of insight! My sister’s comment about Debbie showed a complete lack of insight! And this verse makes it clear that a love that is not growing in knowledge will not be able to discern what is best. My family did not love, so they were never, ever going to be able to discern what is best . . . about Debbie Valgos or anybody else.

And the end of this verse mentions the real consequences if our love isn’t discerning. We will NOT know what is best. We will simply not walk in a pure way or a blameless way. My family sadly has walked in a way FILLED with blame. All because they did not understand that a faith that isn’t filled with love simply can’t “get it right.” Not ever. Said another way, a life that lacks love will be a life filled with blame. That would describe my father’s church and what came from his hatred. And the blame for Debbie’s death is partly on them.

Research indicates that three out of four children in criminally abusive families will be unable to surmount their experience. As adults, they will rationalize their past and will accept abusive behavior as the norm in both the outside world and their personal lives.

It is instructive that nine of the 13 Phelps children, almost exactly the predicted ratio, continue to embrace the pastor's abusive world and ways. I am one of the few who made it over the wall at Westboro. I made it over the many barriers and managed to escape. And I hope my story can be a small beacon of hope to others who have survived abusive families. And who are ready to go on to lead different lives. Lives filled with hope and purpose they have never lived before. That is my strong desire as I write this blog. If I was able to be set free from the poison and pain of my past I know that others can.

I might still be my father’s point man today if it hadn’t been for a pretty 13 year old I met that evening at the skating rink. In May of 1971, a few months after Fred and Debbie had been dragged back from their aborted elopement, Fred Jr. and I met Debbie at the skating rink. Fred Jr. and Debbie paired off, and I remember I was rolling along alone on my rented skates, wishing for my hundred dollar pros Fred Jr. had sold, when suddenly a petite girl, slim and shapely, with long dark hair hanging halfway down her back sailed by. She fixed her beautiful blue eyes on me, smiled and said "You're a good skater!" And she pulled my heart right off my sleeve. I was only 16, and she, 13, but for me the search for my life's mate was over.

Only two months after rescuing his eldest from the charms of the 'whore-extraordinaire', my father found another wily ally of the serpent threatening his second son; my new girlfriend. My father actually perceived all future spouses of his children as allies of the devil. I think this was partly because he knew these spouses would naturally pull us away from him. But also I think my father had such distrust of the human race that he never was able to see any potential for good in our future spouses. In any of them! Even the hand-picked ones! He just had such a profound need to control us and use us as his pawns that all our marriages seemed a waste of time to him. But somehow he couldn’t think of any legitimate way to stop us from getting married. So, he would do his best to try to poison and control our choices in whatever ways he could. So my father saw my new girlfriend as a threat to be sure. And little did he know what a threat she would end up being. And what an incredible force for good she has been for those who have left the fold.

This girl was no fragile psyche, vulnerable and clueless when it came to dealing with abusive authority figures, as Debbie Valgos would be. Raised Catholic, Debbie may have had no criteria by which to identify Protestant heresies, and, coming from a broken home, she might have had no expectations of being esteemed by others or treated with kindness by the outside world.

My girlfriend and future wife to be came from a conservative Lutheran family firmly grounded in the unconditional love of God the Bible speaks about. Even as a young teenager my wife had high self-esteem and a very clear idea of right from wrong. Her parents were as firm about their God of love and their love for her as my father was about his hateful god and his hate for all. Little did my father know that he had just met his match! This girl, though slight and shy, was not going to accept my father’s interpretation of the Bible, his personal myth; nor would she take to being called a 'whore.' But, at first, things went well between the two.

A few weeks after my girlfriend and I had met to skate again and I had been calling her secretly by phone, she came to church. It was on that Sunday in early June that Debbie first came as well. Things went better for my girlfriend because the pastor believed her long hair showed her subjection to God and man. And her naturally shy and quiet way belied the stout heart within her.

If his boys had to have mates, here was a good example of the kind of girl my father wanted to see joining his church. Not the sassy, rebellious, Catholic, blonde-with-the-page-boy-cut Fred Jr. had brought home.

In high school, the disfavor of our family name, combined with the pastor's refusal to allow his children any participation in extracurricular activities, assured the Phelps kids were the pariahs of Topeka West High School. So Fred Jr. and I were both pleased with ourselves that we had the great fortune of meeting such wonderful girls!

Across town under the gothic vaults of Topeka High School, my girlfriend was quite the opposite of a pariah. She had many friends and became one of the school's cheerleaders. It was a mystery to everyone why she insisted on dating a member of the Addams family over on 12th Street. My girlfriend remembers the curious questions and the biting comments she got.

So why did she? She laughs "At first? Because he was a good skater, and he was cute – but remember, I was only 13. That's what 13 year olds notice. Later, it's not so important if they skate or not" she laughs again. "Seriously though, he had so much energy and he was very smart and he was really sweet to me. What chance did I have? Even my dad told me I wouldn't find a better one!"

Because she was just 13, her parents at first would only allow me to visit her at their home. I would sneak out whenever I could, or drop by while on candy sales. After a year and a half, her father agreed to let us date. He even offered to give me enough for dinner and a movie out. (My girlfriend had been attending services every Sunday at my father’s lonely keep, and she had invited her parents several times – and they saw enough for her dad to feel sorry for me.) My father knew nothing about my home courting advantage, or our plans to date.

I refused my future father-in-law’s offer to pay for our date and instead found a weekend job as a busboy in the restaurant at the Ramada Inn on Fairlawn Road in Topeka. That lasted one shift. My father found out about my endeavor to expand my independence and promptly beat me. In fact he punched me in the eye Sunday night immediately before church service. I promptly assumed my position at the church organ that night. I was so angry. My tears of anger made it hard to read the notes. But I did not let anyone see me crying. After the beating, he forced me to quit the job and forbade me to take another.

Perhaps this blog, even though it ends before we go on to its conclusion in #4 next week will help you see what difficulty it would be for Phelps children to follow the dictates of their own conscience and their own spirits. Especially when it came to the spouses we would choose. For those of you who have suffered abuse from a parent especially you may see parallels in your own life.

The abusing parent finds it especially difficult for their children to appropriately grow up and exercise adult decision making because it can signal the end of their reign of terror over that particular child. Often you will see the parent stepping up their fear tactics and making it clear that there is no purpose in telling anyone about the abuse. And to keep the child or fledgling adult tied to them in fear. Keeping secrets is a top priority in maintaining abusive control!

Perhaps some of you find yourselves in fear as you ponder seeking help. Perhaps as you imagine beginning to tell your story that there is just too much pain and that if you ever take the lid off of your rage and anger for the way you were abused you might not be able to contain it. I would love for you to write to me if you want to process this idea. Of beginning to allow light to shine into the dark places of your heart. Where the pain has been closed off, and held at bay, for maybe decades. Oh, friend, I would love to help you begin to consider the process of working toward healing. Or perhaps listen to a part of your story no one has ever heard.

Mark Phelps