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Today marks the fateful day, one year ago, that a precious ten-year-old, innocent girl was ruthlessly and brutally snatched away from us by the hands of a cold-blooded murderer. The day moved so quickly, yet moved so slowly. As the AMBER alert went out, we as a community responded. We forwarded messages. We searched. We volunteered. We hoped. We prayed. We lost our breath. We cried. We came together. We mourned.

One year later, we shutter as we reflect on Hailey’s murder. We contemplate how life has been for her family the past 365 days. We take a few moments to reflect, to remember, to recall. We pray again for Hailey’s family.

Questions and Paradoxes that Remain

As a community, our lives have moved forward. The pressures of daily life remain in spite of this terrible memory and our desire to remain close and sensitive to our other hurting neighbors. Yet in the midst of progress, questions remain. Our minds still struggle grasping the paradoxes of life after Hailey’s murder.

Life and Death

Day after day pile up in the rearview mirror to only realize an entire year has passed. We paused our lives to reflect on sweet Hailey’s life. We marched. We attended. We watched. For most of us in the community though, the interruption in our lives was momentary.

Life goes on.

That’s the way life is. A merciless murder helped us slow down, consider, and ponder our lives. All wise people do; wise communities do. Solomon wrote, “It is better to go to a funeral than a feast. For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). So we stopped and recognized how life is so short. We determined to never take a day for granted. We committed to never leave the house without an extra “I love you” or at least a hug and a smile. We desired to change and get away from the status quo of living as if life never ends. We resolved to never take days for granted.

But life goes on.

Hope and Despair

Oh if things would have just turned out differently! Early in the evening when we heard of the abduction, we hoped for a heroic end. And did we hope! We laid down for the evening only to lay awake in prayer, anxiously awaiting good news. We longed for our local police chief and officials to tell a story of victory that would go down for the ages. But it was not.

Our police and other officials were heroic. They worked at break-neck speed. Hailey’s neighbors responded heroically as well. But it was too late. Craig Michael Woods wasted no time. He abused her, killed her, and mutilated her. Our hearts were broken as we began to even consider the details. Despair loomed.

Hope and despair – two roommates that often inhabit the same space. We hoped that God would allow a different outcome, yet in His plan He chose to take Hailey to heaven to be with Him. The only thing that keeps us from falling into despair is our faith in God. The psalmist wrote, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you upset? Hope in God!” (Psalm 42:5). He further recorded, “The Lord will command His loving kindness in the daytime, and in the night He gives me a song, a prayer to the living God” (Psalm 42:8).

God is the only person that can take our despair and turn it again into hope.

Trust and Fear

What a joy to live in the Ozarks. This community abounds with kindness, thoughtfulness, and compassion. Neighbors love neighbors. Strangers become friends. People help people.

Yet one year ago, our trust of neighbor quickly turned into fear. Front yards and neighborhood playgrounds once churned with activity. Shared community space teemed with children and laughter. Now not so much. Parents think before granting permission. Caregivers relentlessly watch. Grandparents worry.

Why? Because a once-respected school employee broke the confidence and trust of this community. The unimaginable happened. This left us with taking second looks. Our skepticism abounds as we engage those around us. When a truck, van, or car slows down, we stare. We scrutinize our neighbors first, then, and only then, do we allow ourselves to grow in trust.

But grow in trust we must. We begin by trusting God and then by trusting our neighbors. Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). We recognize our fear, go to God for help, and confidently do what honors God in trust of God’s provision and care.

Therefore, we wisely engage people with a desire for friendship, kindness, and respect. We protect our children while simultaneously striving to meet a friend and be a friend. We long to trust while protecting the trust of those who depend upon us – often the most vulnerable in society, our children.

Love and Hate

This is by far the hardest paradox. We hate murder. We abhor the slaying of the innocent. We detest abuse. Hailey’s life mattered. Her killer’s choice snuffed out her future potential and dreams. We hate this.

We hate that an energetic, fun-loving ten-year-old died at the hand of her killer. Hailey like every person born since the Garden of Eden was made in the image of God (Genesis 1-3). As we contemplate her short life, her grotesque murder emphasizes the sanctity of every human life. Furthermore, God holds her murderer responsible because he kill another person in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). Again, we hate murder. We hate this murder. We hate sin and meanness. We hate hatred.

God chooses to use the government to hold individuals accountable (Romans 13:4). Craig Michael Woods faces his day in court, his day of judgment. For many of us, this day cannot come soon enough so that justice is served.

This is where the paradox grows harder. God expects us to trust government to avenge God’s wrath on the one who did evil. God also expects us to leave the vengeance up to Him – to not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:19-20). Instead, our responsibility is to love each other. Paul writes, “Owe no man anything but to love one another” (Romans 13:8).

The paradox: as much as we would like to hate Craig Michael Woods, we are responsible to trust God with justice and love our neighbor. So, how do we love him? There are three ways you can love Woods. First, trust God to avenge Hailey’s death both now and in eternity. We do not have to carry the load of vengeance as an individual or a community. God and government handle that for us. Second, pray that Woods will be reached by the Gospel. His only hope both now and in eternity is that he would respond to the message of the Gospel. Finally, pray for Wood’s family as they still try to grapple with the realities of this case, the anger and disappointment of a community, as well as his unlawful actions.

Looking Forward and Remembering

We move forward. One year later, days still pass. We still hurt as a community. We know there is a family in our midst that misses a daughter, granddaughter, sister, and cousin. We recognize there are friends who play on a playground named after Hailey while they loathe her absence. We grieve together as a community. We remember.

Let us not forget to be kind to each other, say an extra word of prayer, share a smile, and be generous toward others. Let us move forward in life with hope and trust in God while we strive to love each other as neighbors (Romans 13:10).

One year later…we still share the hurt but long to use her memory to make our community a better place for so many others like her.

For my original “Reflections on the Murder of Hailey Owens” click here.

For “What do you do when Westboro shows up at your memorial?” click here.

For my message: “‘Why?’ Sermon Reflections on the Death of Hailey Owens” click here.