“Incline your ear, and come to me, listen, so that you may live.... Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.... For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:3, 5, 8-9
A number of people have asked me, “How was your vacation this summer?” and I have stumbled on my answer every time. I suppose I could simply say “fine,” but that would be a lie because it wasn’t anywhere close to fine. It was one of the strangest, anxious vacations I’ve ever taken. I needed a vacation from my vacation. Oh, the first week was uneventful – we spent it hanging out with friends doing a little work on the property, playing a little golf, enjoying some great meals and sunsets together. But no sooner had our company left that everything turned south in an instant.
It was a Saturday afternoon and Sue and I decided to take a trip into town to get a few supplies and meander through the sidewalk sale the merchants were having in town. We might have been gone two hours in total. On the way home, Sue received a text from our sister-in-law saying that the police were in the bay. Sue replied: “you mean on the lake?” (they sometimes bring the police boat on the lake to check one everyone’s water safety – proper number of lifejackets, etc.) Our sister in law replied: “No, in our bay! You might have trouble getting in here.” We suspected they were at our neighbor’s cottage because there was a big crowd of young people there for the weekend. Perhaps the police had received a tip about drugs or something. We decided we should take our time heading back across the lake in our boat, hoping that the police would be gone by the time we arrived.
No such luck. As we approached our bay we had to weave through a flotilla of three boats that were stationed at the mouth of the bay where the passengers could gawk down into the bay at whatever was going on. We approached our dock at the bottom of the bay, and to the left we could see 8-10 police officers over on our neighbor’s property and they had one person apprehended on the ground. One of the police officers turned around and saw us coming and motioned us out of the bay. Sue pointed to our dock and said “But that’s our dock. We just want to go to our cottage.” He turned to another officer who shrugged and so we continued on. We quickly docked, grabbed our shopping bags and headed up to the cottage trying not to seem too nosy. All the while we could hear the apprehended fellow yelling like a fire and brimstone preacher at the officers.
The penny began to drop that this was more than a drug bust next door but what was going on? Our sister in law came over from next door to share what she had witnessed. She had been asleep but was awakened by lot of yelling and screaming from our neighbors. She got up and went outside but the only person she could see was a man lying on the ground near their dock calling out for help. He appeared to be unable to get up. She wondered where all the rest of the young people had suddenly gone and why nobody was responding to his cries for help. Suddenly she saw four police officers speed into the bay in a boat, jump out onto the dock wearing bullet proof vests and armed with rifles. They pointed their guns at the guy on the ground and instructed him to show them his hands. He did not comply, so they fired upon him (rubber pullets), tazed him and then quickly apprehended him.
About this time, we started receiving social media posts about a murder on Kahshe Lake. There were different stories about exactly what happened but what seemed clear was that our neighbor had been murdered by his own son in a fit of rage. Most unsettling were the reports that he had used an axe and not only killed his father but dismembered him.
The police took away the son in short order. Soon after the detectives secured the crime scene, interviewed all the witnesses inside the cottage who were finally free to leave. The last boat left after nightfall carrying the victim’s body out under the cloak of darkness. And for the next week, the police kept a 24-hour vigil on the property – bringing in a drug-sniffing dog, a high-tech drone, and dive team to search the water.
The murder of my neighbor had a traumatic effect on the entire lake. How could this happen in such a peaceful, idyllic place? And the way trauma works is that it renders us all silent. All of us in the bay fell quiet for about a week ‒ we talked in hushed tones whenever we were outside, we didn’t laugh out loud or operate noisy machinery. And even the birds seemed extraordinarily quiet that week.
It’s hard to believe anything good could come out of something so horrible as that, but it did. God started talking to me. I was awakened at 4 a.m. every night that week. I didn’t have much to say at that hour, but God certainly did, so I just listened. Why so early in the morning? Good question – they say that 4 a.m. is the loneliest hour of the day, so maybe it’s true for God too. He just needed to talk, and I was the nearest pastor to the scene. Or maybe God’s been trying to communicate with me at other hours and not getting through. Whatever the reason, he had my attention at 4 a.m.
And what surprised me as I listened is how upset God was with what had happened. And by upset I don’t mean mad so much as grieving. God grieved the death of my neighbor at the hands of his own son. Clearly, the world was running according to God’s plan and he was most upset about that. We hear about shootings and murders all the time on the nightly news and it de-sensitizes us. It occurred to me that God doesn’t get de-sensitized.
So, I listened, and I thought about what I could do – after all, I’m a minister and I’m living right next door to this place where a murder happened. I thought about all the young people who were also experiencing the trauma of that murder and how to minister to them. I thought it would be good to organize a candlelight vigil on the property with them and perhaps lay some flowers. It would be a way to reclaim that space for God and help bring some healing to those who most needed it. But I didn’t know how to reach any of those young people and had no way of contacting them. So, I did nothing... and felt lousy for doing nothing.
The 4 a.m. meetings with God stopped for a while when my grandkids arrived the following week, but they’ve started up again this fall. I’m still listening. It’s the same concern, just expanded to include the church.
Yes, the world isn’t going the right direction but where is the Church in this whole process? God is counting on us to share the Gospel with the world and it’s not happening as it should. And the Church seems woefully inadequate when it comes to reaching out to young people today. The millennials in particular seem not to be hearing the gospel. Where are the millennials? Where are the young families? Why are we not reaching out to them and connecting with them?
I try pinning the blame on someone or something other than the church – “But God, young families living life in the fast lane aren’t making time for church anymore. And Sunday sports is a real problem – it’s drawing people away from us.” But God wasn’t buying any of it: “Young people are my people too! Why have you given up on them?”
“You’re a neighborhood church but you don’t even know the people in your own neighborhood anymore! It’s not the same place it was 30 years ago! So, what are you doing to re-connect?”
And, “Young families are looking for vibrancy and passion – so where is your vibrancy and what about some passion in your mission and ministry!” It reminded me of a quote from preacher and author Howard Thurman, who wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
So, God’s has me looking deep within myself and the church for a way forward. The last 4 a.m. session gave me words from Isaiah 55 to contemplate: Originally, they were spoken to the people of Israel when they were being held captive in a foreign land – Babylon. Their past seemed bright, but their future did not. They could not see any hope when they looked forward. But God comes with a word of a future full of even more hope than before. God would glorify Israel such that all nations would be drawn unto them. But they would have to listen to God and follow his instructions: “Incline your ear and come to me, listen so that you may live! Listen because my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
The connection is obvious. We can see the glory of former years when the pews were full and the congregation was younger, but now the future seems less certain. But God has a plan for a future that is brighter than our past – a future where all peoples will be attracted to the glory of God’s church once more. But we need to listen to God and follow God’s leading... because God’s ways are not our ways.
There’s a grass roots group in our church that has been talking about this very subject in recent days and they are trying to discern the way forward. Today, Dana Stowell is going to share with us what they’ve learned so far. The group is asking us to enter a season of discernment ‒ listening for God’s voice for direction. I think we should listen to them because I think God is eager to share his thoughts with us and show us the way forward... if we will just listen. My prayer is that we will do that – who knows – after today, it maybe you’ll be the one awakened at 4 a.m. Maybe God will be speaking to you too!