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This week the Springfield community desperately seeks to get our hearts and minds around the fact that one of our own neighbors decided to extinguish the vibrant life of an innocent ten-year-old. These neighbor-to-neighbor conversations have taken place all over the region in churches, workplaces, gyms, retail stores, sports practices, classrooms, and so many other places. Hard questions, tender questions, poignant questions, whispered questions, tearful questions, just questions. No one is immune to the heartache and sadness of these events. All of us wonder how best to respond to this atrocity.

So we respond. Porch lights all over the world burn bright in Hailey’s memory. An entire region dresses in pink and purple to show solidarity with each other and her family. Memorial funds bulge with individual contributions in an effort to ease the family’s pain. Restaurants offer special meal deals in an effort to raise gifts for the Owen family. The anticipated crowd continues to grow in an upcoming candlelight march down Commercial Street. We as a community respond.

So what do we do when the Westboro church threatens to picket the candlelight march? How do we respond to our emotions and thoughts of just hearing the possibility of their attendance?

Recognize What We Feel…

No doubt, as this community hears of Westboro’s possible involvement at the candlelight march, the news itself adds additional hurt on top of hearts already ripped open by hurt. Anger…absolutely. Disappointment…yes. How could some mindless group from another state think they have a right to come here and share their hatred in this community? How dare they consider violating our time together grieving as a community over senseless evil by piling on additional evil? How insulting.

Recognize Who We Are…

One of the major keys in our ability to respond right to this group is our awareness of who we are. We are a community with a purpose. Our shared goal is in solidarity as a community to publically demonstrate to a grieving family and all else who observe how we love, care, and support each other. Although some ne’er-do-well group may want to come demonstrate, we must not forget our intentions. With singleness of heart and mind we say with one voice that we honor the memory of Hailey Owens. This night, this march, this time is set aside by selfless members of the community to in essence embrace a hurting family while together embracing each other in our own hurt. This night, this march, this time thunders a better message, a loving message, and a community’s message. We together remind each other that we love our neighbors. We hate evil. We protect the innocent. We honor each other. We put a stake in the ground that we are for the innocent. Evil is not tolerated in this community and will not win.

Recognize Who They Are…

So who are these people who may come to Springfield to picket the candlelight march? For the sake of honoring God in our own efforts of communication, let’s just consider their words and actions or their message and means. They go where they are not invited to share a message that no one has assembled to hear. In essence, they are legal squatters. The events they attend are not about them, not interested in their message, and not designed to give them a voice. In many ways, they function much like a mosquito at a family picnic. Yet, without apology and with the backing of the United States Constitution, they spew their hate. Their message is a false message. They say that God allows individuals like Hailey to be murdered as punishment for the sins of the community – especially in regard to homosexuality. However, the Old Testament makes it clear that God considers it prideful and rejects those who make assumptions about God or His character (Job 38-42). In fact, God holds individuals accountable about what they say or teach regarding God (Job 42:7; James 3:1). God rejected the idea that man can look at a particular calamity, such as Hailey’s death, and connect it to some kind of general, unknown, or nonspecific sin of the community. (This doctrine is known as the doctrine of divine retribution.)

To try to connect any sin of the community or its leaders to this senseless murder is unacceptable by God and by this community as a whole. The authorities have arrested the alleged murderer and it is solely his responsibility this atrocity took place – not the community’s. Therefore, the message of this bad-mannered and disrespectful group is to be rejected as false. In fact, the Bible would suggest that if this group is in anyway associated with God through Jesus Christ, this group’s message would only speak truth in love (John 15-17; Ephesians 5:15-16).

Recognize Who Jesus Is…

Jesus Christ came into the world to love sinners, to pay the price demanded by God’s holiness for their sin, and to be the anger-bearing sacrifice for people (1 John 2:1). Those of us who have a personal relationship with God recognize the selfless sacrifice of Jesus for us (2 Corinthians 5:14-21). In fact, Jesus’ love motivates us to love Him and love our neighbors. Our message is a message of redemption and reconciliation. It is this love demonstrated by Jesus on the cross that forgives the sinner that must motivate us to love others also – even those uninvited people with wrong motives and wrong messages, as well as those who murder senselessly. By the power of Jesus with the motivation of the love He demonstrated on the cross, we strive to be people of forgiveness, mercy and kindness (Ephesians 4:29-32).

So what do we do then?

We need to show up as a community on Saturday to physically demonstrate the compassion, strength, and resolve of this community. Our message of love and desire to show this hurting family that they are not alone motivates us to put in the extra effort to be involved. There may be those at the march that do not share our message. We cannot let them, nor will we let them, make us lose our focus on what we are there to do. A determined kindness motivated by our greater purpose and Jesus’ humility means that some will be part of a peaceful, human shield if necessary. However, we do not want to allow the motives, message or means used by any group to in essence force us to stoop to their level. Instead, we want to live consistent with the real life and message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as evidenced on the cross – even toward those who mock, insult, and accuse. We need to show all who observe the kind of character we have in the Ozarks and remain focused on what we intended to do from the start. Our night, our march, our time is greater than this pesky distraction; our night, our march, our time is in honor of a sweet ten-year-old ruthlessly murdered for which we genuinely care.