TJ Johnston is a Limitless Ministries Contributor in the area of Leadership, and he is also my pastor. Our church is in Mount Pleasant, SC, just across the bridge from the Eastside Charleston community where the recent Mother Emanuel A.M.E. shooting took place. Our church is actively involved with this community in friendship, in love and in mission.
The morning after the shooting, TJ shared a letter with our church. As I read his post, I was thinking what a great example of strong, wise and timely leadership it was and that it might be a helpful resource for others in leadership who might find themselves in similar circumstances. With TJ’s permission, I am sharing it here with one important note…This is not about TJ’s greatness as a leader. It is about the greatness of our God and how, in His amazing grace, he cares for us and guides and directs us through faithful leaders. Here is TJ’s letter:
A Response to the Murders in Our Community
Last night someone struck terror and death into what was designed to be a moment of faith and community. As I write this, at least nine people have been senselessly murdered. As men and women of faith, how should we respond? This has been my prayer and question this morning – and I am sure that it will continue to be so for the next several days. So I offer no answers, but some general guidelines to take us through this process of questioning, mourning, and responding.
First, Jesus wants us to mourn. He wants our hearts to be connected to the pain of the world around us. Jesus mourned. He wept over the sins of others. He wept at the death of a friend. He wept over the city of Jerusalem that was forsaking her God.
He wants us to be prepared to mourn over those things that break His heart, that destroy His creation, and that destroy the world that He has entrusted to our care. And then He wants us to be prepared (as the people of God) to bring His healing and hope to a people and to a moment that so desperately needs it.
So how do we do that? Let me suggest several things for you to consider and pray through, understanding that each of us will deal with tragedy and express grief in very personal and differing ways.
1. Release my grief.
When you go through a tragedy, the first thing you need to do is to release your grief. Tragedy always creates strong emotions: fear, anger, worry, grief and sadness. Don’t pretend they are not there or “stuff” these natural and healthy emotions.
Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. It’s ok to grieve. It is essential and healthy to release and display your emotions. It is faithful to share your hurt and pain and anger with God.
Psalm 34:18 The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
Psalm 62:8 . . . pour out your hearts to [God], for God is our refuge.
2. Receive from others.
Galatians 6:2 Share each other’s troubles and problems, and in this way you obey the law of Christ.
Hebrews 12:15 Look after each other so that none of you will miss out on the special favor of God.
It is a mistake to isolate yourselves from others when you’re dealing with tragedy, grief and pain. That is one of the reasons that we place such a high value on building and growing authentic community here at Saint Peter’s. God uses people like you and me to comfort and bless those who mourn. So pray for those who suffer, talk with those who hurt, and reach out to those in need.
3. Refuse to be bitter.
Every time that you and I face tragedy and pain in our lives, we are going to be faced with a very basic choice. You will either allow yourself to get bitter or you will pursue healing and restoration. Either way, the pain is real and the tragedy is real. No matter what you choose – bitterness or getting better – you will have to deal with the pain and tragedy. But with bitterness, the pain will never leave you.
Pursuing restoration and healing in the face of tragedy and death will always involve at least two things:
1) Accept what cannot be changed.
Faith is not pretending everything in your life is great. It is not. Faith is facing reality and trusting God in the midst of it. Faith is facing the reality of life and not being beaten down by it. Faith is facing the reality of life and not giving up hope. Faith is living with hope that God can be and is in control, even when you and I are not.
Psalm 27:13 I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
2) So at some point, you must begin to focus on what’s left and not on what’s lost. Remember, however, there is a normal and essential grieving process that cannot be avoided. Eventually, you will have to focus on what’s left and not exclusively on what has been lost, if you want to avoid bitterness in your life.
1 Thess. 5:18 No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
Gratitude and bitterness cannot exist in the same body. You cannot be grateful and bitter at the same time. Begin to focus on what’s left and not simply on what has been lost.
4. Reclaim essential values.
Tragedies have a way of clarifying values. They have a way of pointing out what matters and what really doesn’t matter. They have a way of drawing men and women who lead otherwise separate lives to gather together, to cry together, to once again walk together and to pray together.
Moments like this horrific shooting in our Community call us to slow down and value once again: Life as a gift from God; Relationships that are not to be taken for granted but that are to be enjoyed, nurtured, and valued; and Death that is real and that needs to be prepared for.
With the encouragement we have in Jesus and that is given to us through the Holy Spirit, be reminded that you can love more; that you can give more; that you can care more deeply and share more profoundly in the lives of others. Pray for this grace from God and let this tragedy encourage you to move deeper in your relationship with Jesus and with others.
5. Rely on Christ.
Ultimately this is the foundation that will never be shaken, the hope that will never be disappointed, and the life that death can never overcome.
Phil. 4:13 For I can do everything with the help of Christ who gives me the strength I need (. . . to live at peace with him and in my circumstances).
Psalm 112:6-7 Such people will not be overcome by evil circumstances. Those who are righteous will be long remembered. They do not fear bad news; they confidently trust the Lord to care for them.
As a community of faith, as the people of God, I encourage you to pray for those in grief and pain in our Community and also to pray for our leaders – civic and religious leaders – that they will be led to right understandings and actions as they address the needs and response of our Community.
Lord Jesus, draw near to those who mourn and comfort us in our grief and troubles. Lord, we pray for the power and wisdom to face the days ahead in hope and the promise that you are our Lord and that you have taken authority over our lives and circumstances. Lord Jesus, let your hope and promise define our lives. Amen.