On Thursday, June 16, the Salt Company met for the first time since the fatal shooting two weeks earlier. These are the verses their director, Sol Rexius, shared with them.
Last week, I had the terrible privilege of planning and speaking at back-to-back murder funerals. It was the worst week of my life.
Maybe you saw the news stories: on Thursday, June 2, Johnathan Whitlatch shot and killed Eden Montang and one of her close friends, Vivian Flores, in the church parking lot as they were walking into our first college ministry gathering of the summer. He then turned the gun on himself.
Once the confusion and chaos subsided, trauma, grief, and sorrow set in. Three people. Dead. At church. How? Why? What now?
In legal terms, it’s called a double-murder suicide.
In biblical terms, it’s called the valley of the shadow of death.
I’m not out of the shadow yet. But I’m walking, and somehow, each day, God meets me with new morning mercies and daily bread for the path ahead. I have been learning to lean all of my weight on God’s promises found in the Bible.
I have been learning to lean all of my weight on God’s promises found in the Bible.
Many things in life have a weight limit—trampolines, bridges, bicycles, skateboards. Exceed that capacity and they will bend, snap, and collapse. God’s promises are not like that. There’s no weight limit. They’ll never break. They won’t even bend. They can sustain all the weight you can put on them—and not just yours, but the weight of your entire community. Even the weight of the world.
Here are some of the promises we’ve been leaning on as a community of mourners over the last 10 days.
1. ‘And they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).’ (Matt. 1:23)
A week before this incident, I was reading Managing Leadership Anxiety by Steve Cuss. I didn’t know how timely it would be. One idea stuck out to me and is helping me through these dark days: “Jesus is already there.” Whenever you’re walking into a confusing, scary, or painful moment, it’s helpful to remember—Jesus is already there.
When the shooting happened, I was across town coaching my son’s baseball team. Standing in the outfield, I received multiple calls, then looked up to see police cars speeding down the highway. I ran to my truck and followed them. As I approached the church and flashing lights of tragedy, the only thing that came to my mind was this: Jesus is already there. I was not there when it happened, but Jesus was. Because Jesus is Immanuel. He is always there.
Whenever you are walking into a confusing, scary, or painful moment, it is helpful to remember—Jesus is already there.
He was there when I gathered more than 100 students in our auditorium to tell them three people had just died.
He was there when students, staff, elders, and counselors gathered on Iowa State University’s campus to debrief the trauma we had all experienced.
He was there when I met with the two families at two funeral homes to plan two memorial services for their beloved daughters and sisters.
He was there when a thousand people gathered at our church for the first funeral on Wednesday, to hurt and heal together in the same place where the hurt began.
And he was there on Thursday when we did it all again.
Jesus was there for me every moment and every step of the worst week of my life. And when the day comes for you to face the worst week of your life, he will be there for you too.
2. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ (Matt. 5:4)
Mourning does not feel like a blessing, but if Jesus is right—and he is—then it is. Mourning is a blessing, and grieving is a gift. It’s not a gift that’s fun to open, but it’s a helpful part of the healing process. Grieving allows us to integrate a tragedy into our human experience. It becomes part of our story.
Mourning, for me, has been both planned and unplanned, ritual and spontaneous. There are some ceremonial mourning times like prayer gatherings, memorial services, burials, and monuments. But there’s also unplanned grief, like crying in the middle of a staff meeting because the weight of loss hits you out of nowhere. We all mourn at different times and in different ways, but mourning is not the problem. Mourning is your soul telling you there’s a problem.
Mourning does not feel like a blessing, but if Jesus is right—and he is—then it is.
It’s not just OK to mourn—it’s holy to mourn. Blessed are those who mourn.
And remember, there is a promise on the other side of the mourning: “for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes that comfort looks like a soul-level peace that surprasses understanding, the kind of peace only God can give. But more often that comfort looks like a friend who sits with you in the silence and lets you soak their shirt with tears.
Sometimes God sends peace; sometimes God sends people.
Countless comforters have offered their support and service over the last 10 days—church members praying for our staff members, local businesses giving away goods and services, counselors who cleared their schedule to meet with traumatized students, law enforcement caring for our grieving community while they also grieve, pastors and leaders from all over the nation offering prayer and guidance. To all the seen and unseen comforters who have walked with us, thank you.
3. ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1:5)
The Monday after the shooting, our church’s Bible reading plan brought us to John 1. I couldn’t get past verse 5. There is light, and there is darkness, and there is a winner, and it is not darkness. There are a thousand applications of this verse, but I want to share one way our community is leaning on this verse in a tangible way.
For some of us (like me), our first instinct was to “never return” to the place where it happened, to avoid the darkness of that physical location. That was one of my first thoughts: “We’re never doing Salt Company in this location again.”
But rather than avoid it, I’ve been encouraged to redeem and reclaim that space in Jesus’s name. So, one week after the event, my wife and I went to church with some of those who were there on June 2 to pray, sing, and heal in that location. We even walked through the space and asked people to narrate their experiences of those frightening moments. It was a physical act that displayed the spiritual truth of John 1:5. We stubbornly refuse to let darkness take ownership of our hearts, our ministry, or even our parking lot.
If God can transform an instrument of torture—the cross—into a symbol of hope and healing for generations, God can do something beautiful with our parking lot as well.
It is a holy place. We’re not going to give that away. Light wins.