Monday, April 13, 2015, will be a day that I will not soon forget. In fact, I’ve lived that day over and over in my mind.
I was in the church office getting some projects done. It had been a difficult season for us. My wife, Tammy, had been diagnosed with stage three breast cancer eight months prior and was still undergoing treatment. I found myself in that season wanting to get alone with God much more frequently.
Truthfully, I felt like a modern-day Job. Just five years prior, we lost one of our youth worship leaders, Sam Stephens, to a drunk driver. Then, months after that loss, one of our healing intercessors contracted stage four lung cancer; he too was ushered into His presence. Another parishioner, Gary Slick, was also killed, by a meth addict while walking down a road.
The tragic losses and difficult trials seemed to be piling up. I wasn’t quite questioning my theology about God’s love and protection, but truthfully I was getting close.
Then came the call.
At 10:10 I received a call from one of our parishioners regarding a tragedy that had just taken place in our community. The news channels were showing video footage of a black Toyota pickup that had been completely crushed by a partial bridge collapse on Angeline Road, which runs under Highway 410 in Bonney Lake, Wash.
The reality is that we all, at some point, will face the unthinkable. Situations that are so egregious that few dare talk about them.
Immediately I was thinking, “Who from our church travels that road?” I knew many families lived in the vicinity, but none with a black truck. Then, at 10:17, I received another call, one that would forever change our lives. My heart sank as I heard the voice on the other line. It was my good friend, Pastor Chris Bassett, a local pastor and police chaplain.
“Hey James, this is Chris …” Immediately my heart sank deeper. “Have you been watching the news?” I told him I had been informed that there was an accident. “James, that truck is registered to Josh Ellis. Do you know of anyone who may have borrowed Josh’s truck this morning?”
I knew the answer to his question. I also knew that on Mondays, Josh, Vanessa and their 8-month-old baby, Hudson, were inseparable. Hours later, my dreadful suspicion was confirmed. Our youth pastor and her entire family had been crushed by 40,000 pounds of concrete. One half of one second either way would have been a complete miss. The timing of the collapse was precise. It was precision at its worst.
My heart was broken. My legs gave way. I found myself in a sorrowful heap of tears, on the carpet, screaming things to God that a pastor should never say. Tragedy had struck again.
While on the carpet, sobbing and throwing a righteous tantrum, I asked God the proverbial question: “Why?” And: “Why again, God?” “Why them?” “Why us?” His answer to me was astounding. I was shocked and somewhat dismayed. But truthfully, in that moment of despair, I heard the gentle, tender, loving voice of King Jesus say back to me, “Why not?”
I got up, wiped my tears, then began to contemplate the next steps. Just because of the nature of this tragedy, I knew this would be a huge story not just locally, but also nationally. I felt the Father say to me, “Lead well and love well, my son.” I asked God, “What is the narrative?” In other words: “What do You want me to say to the world? God, what are You wanting to say to the world?”
His response was almost audible: “Make my name known, and tell people of My goodness.”
The days that followed were somewhat of a blur. They were filled with the constant barrage by multiple media outlets, calls from radio stations and TV interviews. Perhaps the most important task was to help navigate hundreds of youth and thousands of adults throughout our community and church through the pitfalls of tragedy. Sometimes I had to remind myself to just breathe.
We knew the Lord would want to somehow, in some way, receive glory through this mess. So, we immediately called for a vigil the following day. We invited not only our church family, but also the first responders, civil leaders and the entire community. We wanted to ensure we controlled the message. That is, the message of God’s goodness.
The reality is that we all, at some point, will face the unthinkable. Situations that are so egregious that few dare talk about them. Truth is ... stuff happens. Often, leaders are defined by crisis. How we maneuver through difficult times can often determine the larger outcome.
Our church is healing. Our community is healing. We have seen so much good come from such great loss.
Although I do not claim to be an expert in anything, the following are a few practical suggestions that may help you navigate tragedy should it come to your church or community.
Choose to respond, don’t react.
Give yourself permission to cry, to be angry, or even toss a fist toward heaven. Trust me, God can handle it. No matter what the news is, take it immediately to the Father. It’s easy to react. Responding requires getting God’s opinion. That only happens through the secret place.
Ask God the right questions.
The “Why?” question may never be answered until we see Jesus face to face, but asking Him “What now?” can prove invaluable. For us, we knew that the Ellis family embraced our motto with passion: “To know God and make Him known.”
Know the narrative, then make it known.
For us, the narrative was, “Make His name known and tell people of His goodness.” This determined literally everything. The media wanted access and interviews, yet we would only oblige if they “got the story straight.” Because this tragedy was framed with the truth of God’s goodness, hundreds upon hundreds of people gave their lives to Christ.
Talk about it, often, and with everyone.
We can’t gunnysack tragedy. As difficult as it is, our people need to process it. It’s OK to question God. It’s OK to be angry and confused. It’s OK to want to retreat ... but don’t let them! Retreating to “talk to God” is one thing, but isolating oneself is another. There will be a time when you will move on from the mess; but beware of moving too quickly. People work through the stages of grief at different rates. Be sensitive.
Get outside help for your church.
Our Foursquare family pounced on us—they offered help, and we accepted. Whether it be grief counselors or a large venue for a memorial service, the Foursquare family wants to help.
We all as leaders want to help others walk through tragedy; after all, life can be messy. But we can only give as much as we have received. We also as leaders must learn to get help. This spring, my wife and I will be staying a few days in Los Angeles at the Center for Spiritual Renewal’s “House on the Hill” to get some extra help and perspective ourselves.
Our church is healing. Our community is healing. We have seen so much good come from such great loss; it’s hard to put it all into words. In fact, we are still seeing fruit. 1Thessalonians 1:8 states: “The Lord’s message rang out from you ... your faith in God has become known everywhere” (NIV). We are still making noise and will continue to do so till Christ comes.
Watch a 20-minute documentary, available in December 2016, on this story of tragedy, faith and triumph. See it at alwaysgooddoc.com.