The pastor believes in his heart that God saw the bullet leave the gun. God saw the bullet strike a stud on its way through the closet wall. He saw it break into three pieces. He watched one of the pieces race ahead of its own sound waves, through a church built to honor him, after a Sunday service held to glorify his name. God looked on as the tiny fragment made its way toward the skull of the pastor's 20-year-old daughter, Hannah Grace Kelley.
God saw it strike her in the head.
In his 23 years as pastor of Grace Connection Church, Tim Kelley has counseled people through suicides and stillbirths. He comforted a woman who saw her husband murdered. Nothing prepared him for losing Hannah.
After her death Feb. 18, 2012, he didn't blame the man who accidentally fired the Ruger 9mm, but he wanted an explanation from God.
"Even before the accident I prayed, like most parents, that all I wanted was to raise my family and see them grow." He questioned God relentlessly, "You could have intervened. What do you want from me? How can I do what you asked me to do when you've made me crippled?"
He still believes God intervenes in the ways of man. He testifies that he has seen it in his own life.
Eleven years ago he saw the test results that showed his wife had kidney cancer. That Sunday after services, he clasped her in prayer and beseeched God to free them from their fear. Four days later he saw the doctor place the results of a second test on the wall next to the first results and say clearly: "It's gone." The doctors had no explanation.
"Does God heal? Yes," the pastor says. "Does he heal every time? No. Why? The answer to that is above my pay grade."
After the accident Kelley, 54, the pastor to whom others looked for answers, found he had none for himself. He took a sabbatical from the church and began spending time at Hannah's grave every day. Sometimes 15 minutes. Sometimes hours. He noticed that the grave to her left was for a 3-year-old child. The one to her right for a 103-year-old woman. Why did one get a century more than the other? Over days and months he spoke with Hannah and wrestled with God. Neither replied.
One day last summer he stared down at the marker on her grave, as he had scores of times before. On it was a Bible verse Hannah had stuck on a Post-it note to her bedroom mirror.
"So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! Patient endurance is what you need now so that you will continue to do God's will. Then you will receive all that He promised. Hebrews 10:35-36"
He reread it as slowly as he could, letting each word settle in. And something clicked.
"The words opened up to me in a completely new way, and I thought 'I can do that, God. I can show up. I can get up and walk,' " he remembered. " 'I have no strength. No purpose. I feel like an old rag, but I will get up and walk.' So I started going forward with half a brain and no heart."
His church had been wonderful and supportive, but they needed their pastor.
• • •
On a rainy Wednesday night, Kelley held Bible study for seven young men and women in a small room full of fold-out chairs behind the kitchen of the St. Petersburg church they now call home. (The congregation moved there from Lealman after the shooting.) For 40 minutes he laid out evidence that the Bible is an accurate document. He gave historical manuscript evidence, archaeological evidence and cited prophecies. The room felt like a lecture hall, and the students knew they were there for the professor as much as the professor was there for them.
His closing point was survivability. Truth and faith survive the fires.
"Voltaire, Diocletian, the Roman emperors. These guys, they all tried to stomp the Bible out," he said, straightening his spine. "They did everything they could, from burning the scriptures to burning the Christians."
He started locking eyes with people. His voice deepened a bit as he pulled on his convictions. "It didn't much matter. Here we are 2,000 years later and we still have an accurate . . ." he searched for the right word, "arsenal . . . of Bibles in the world. The Bible has survived every man-made attempt to destroy it." He paused, and asked the quiet room, "Any questions? Comments? No?"
• • •
He counsels people, but most of their problems seem trivial to him. They seem like stubbed toes compared to losing Hannah. He preaches, but the words are academic. Nothing comes from his heart. He reads theology voraciously. He searches. He prays. But in the end he is walking in the dark.
"When Hannah breathed her last breath on Earth, it was her first breath of eternal air. I know my last breath here will be my first breath of eternal air, too, and Hannah and I will be together. I believe she is cheering me on and I want her to be proud of what I did on earth."
Kelley counsels himself daily from the same library of books he uses to counsel others who have lost people they love: Grief is like a wave. You have to lean into it or it will knock you over. Death to us and death to God are very different. He is merciful and he loves us.
"God never promises us we won't be without tragedy. What he promises is he won't waste our pain," he tells himself.
And waits for God to agree.