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Church Planting Under the Burden of Grief

I’ll never forget telling my wife.

I woke up early that Thursday morning—still energized over our first public service the Sunday before—for a 7am meeting. Glancing at my phone before heading out the door, I saw the missed calls and texts. The voicemail from my mother-in-law told me my wife’s younger brother had died.

I forged a deep bond with Jonathan. Our conversations ran the gauntlet of serious to absurd and back again. We shared life—our delights and dreams as well as the darker parts of our hearts and struggles. And then without warning, he was gone. In the same week our church was born, our brother died.

Waking my wife to convey that news was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We packed our bags and our newborn son into our car for the last minute trip. We drove—shell-shocked—to a place of childhood memories where the pines grow tall and the red clay stains deep.

We received family and friends. We wept. We prayed. We went to the funeral. Wept and prayed some more. Then, we drove back to Chattanooga and got back to work.

But my energy and drive didn’t seem to make the return trip. My capacity was wiped. Tasks that would have taken minutes took days. For the first time in my life, I experienced some social anxiety and dreaded hanging out with people. Areas of church planting where faith once flourished now seemed to flounder in fear.

I experienced firsthand what C.S Lewis wrote, “I never knew how much grief could feel like fear.”

For years, I wondered why God didn’t preserve my brother-in-law’s life. I questioned God’s timing to call us to plant a church only to burden us with grief. I questioned God’s wisdom and goodness.

I’m the kind of guy who likes to know why things happen. I wish (with everything in me) that I could write an article with profound clarity on how to carry on in ministry while straining under the weight of grief.

But I can’t.

Years went by. Week by week, the grief lifted. Faith returned, and my capacity to serve grew. I didn’t do anything different; I just kept clinging to Jesus and His Word.

And maybe that’s the point.

God calls us, sends us and then breaks us. And then, lovingly reassembles the pieces into something weaker. A jar of clay with a wider opening for more power. “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.”

I have no idea how our church held together when I was such a wreck. But then again, I guess I do. Jesus did for us what He’s done for His church for two thousand years—He held us together.

Our church is still here because the power of Christ is seen most clearly when we’re broken in weakness—because redemption is the sweetest when the pain is too heavy to carry. We’re here and functioning because Jesus loves and cares for the brokenhearted.

I love my brother-in-law very much. I think of him often, and his death has changed me (and my family) forever. Grief over his death—though less than it was—still visits like a storm that dampens the soul to the bone.

This side of heaven, I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand the “why” of that tragedy. But I’m slowly beginning to be okay with that—because ultimately it’s not about whether I understand the plan but whether I trust the One who performs it.

We trust His wisdom, His grace and His love. And in the moments we doubt it, all we have to do is behold His wisdom, grace and love in the cross. There His Son hung, bled and died for us. Then He rose, just as we will too.

So even in moments when the cloud of grief breaks upon me, the whole world still makes sense.

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