by Jim Tucker
“Each time we encounter a painful experience, we get to know ourselves a little better . . . Pain prompts us to face who we are and where we are. What we do with that experience defines who we become.” John Maxwell
“The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; and He knows those who trust in Him.” (Nah. 1:7 New King James Version)
A Clear Crisp Morning in Tucson
The plan for January 8, 2011, seemed simple enough: I would get a haircut before we attended the Congress on Your Corner meet-and-greet sponsored by Representative Gabrielle Giffords in front of the Safeway grocery store, and then go to the Home Improvement Show at the Tucson Convention Center. We arrived early, met several of the congresswoman’s staff, and signed the registration list. My wife, Doris, was number two and I was number three, so we would speak with the congresswoman and then be on our way.
We had just started talking with Giffords when there were some loud bangs and a whirlwind of air. The first two shots were a blink of an eye apart, then a flurry of shots began and I found myself lying flat on my back, looking up at the roof under which we had been standing.
After hearing about our involvement at the incident, a friend of over 50 years commented by e-mail: “It is truly amazing and a miracle that at three feet away you weren’t killed. You obviously had a guardian angel standing between the shooter and you and Doris. Although from the way things turned out, it looks like he was standing a little closer to Doris.”
Flat on My Back
I was shot twice. The first bullet struck my upper right chest, knocking me backwards. The second bullet entered and exited my lower right leg.
The shooter had emptied his extended clip in less than 20 seconds. I turned my head to the left and saw Doris crouched down a few feet away from me. Miraculously, she was unhurt. I breathed a simple prayer, “Lord, this could have been far worse than it is. Thank you that Doris was not injured.”
Two ladies joined Doris to help stop the bleeding from my wounds. Beverly grabbed a handful of meat cutters’ “whites” from inside Safeway. She helped Doris remove my belt, which was used as a tourniquet on my leg, and then applied a compress to the entry wound. Maryanne placed a white under my head and held another on the wound to my chest.
As I lay on the concrete sidewalk waiting for the emergency responders to be allowed access to the scene, a verse of scripture came to mind:
“For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom. 14:8 NKJV)
The verse was as comforting to me on that morning as it had been two years earlier when my doctor told me that I had cancer.
A physician and his wife, an RN, were shopping inside the Safeway when the shooting started. After the shooter had been apprehended by several witnesses, Dave and Nancy Bowman began to triage the wounded. As I lay there on the concrete, I heard an ominous voice behind me: “Are you still with us?” All I could do was blink my eyes to show some sign of life. Several of us survivors believe that the Bowmans’ quick response and care that day were instrumental in saving lives.
Law enforcement secured the area, allowing paramedics to treat the wounded and prepare them for transport. I was the second person transported from the scene. Some went by helicopter; others, like me, were taken by ambulance. Doris rode in the passenger seat and called our pastor on the way to the hospital.
During the ambulance ride to the University of Arizona Medical Center I was feeling weak from the trauma and the loss of blood. I tried to focus on something as I fought to remain conscious. I repeated to myself, “It’s not about you,” the opening sentence of Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. That’s all of the passage I could remember at the time. What I struggled to recall was the rest of the paragraph:
“It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.”
As the ambulance turned into the driveway that led to the emergency room entrance, I remembered the verse Doris and I chose for our wedding day, 32 years and 23 days before:
“Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but to your name give glory, because of your mercy, because of your truth.” (Ps. 115:1 NKJV)
The Emergency Room
I was transferred from the gurney to a table where the rest of my clothes were cut away, and then wheeled to the imaging machine. I sensed that I was losing consciousness and I told myself, “It’s OK. You’re in a safe place. You can let go now.”
The bullet to my upper right chest blew a two-inch section from my clavicle, sending bone fragments into the brachial plexus nerve bundle and severing many nerves to my shoulder, arm, and hand.
The bullet fragmented into three pieces and ricocheted toward my spine: the first cracked my second cervical vertebra; the second stopped between the C5 and C6 vertebrae; and the third stopped at the base of the neck to the left of my spine.
The two bullet fragments would remain lodged next to my spine because they were too risky to remove. Had either of them traveled several millimeters farther, I would have been paralyzed—if I had lived. The third bullet fragment would be removed five weeks later in a simple 15-minute outpatient procedure.
The second bullet entered and exited my lower right leg as I was falling. Because I lost a great deal of blood from both wounds at the scene, the doctors worried that major arteries had been punctured. I was taken into surgery where incisions were made on each side of the leg to assess and repair the vascular damage. Because of the swelling, the incisions remained open and would be surgically closed five days later.
After the repair of my leg wound, I was intubated and a stabilization collar placed around my neck. My next stop was the intensive care unit where I heard later that my discomfort made me a less than model patient. The medical team maintained a watchful eye for any subsequent bleeding from the chest wound.
Processing the Incident
Late the next day, doctors removed the tubes and collar, and I transferred to a private room in the same wing as several other survivors of the previous day’s incident. My two brothers drove from southern California to be with Doris and me at this crucial time.
That evening after Doris and my brothers left the hospital, I turned on the TV for the first time to learn that six people had died in the shooting. I saw the mug shot of the shooter, and my first reaction was a desire to wipe that smirk off his face. However, knowing how much I dislike standing in long lines and considering that my dominant arm was no more than dead weight, I thought it best to reconsider my choices. I turned the TV off and several thoughts came to mind:
“You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” (Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!)
Now why Dr. Seuss popped into my mind, I don’t know (but I’ll bet the residual effects of the anesthesia had something to do with it). A second quote with more wisdom than whimsy came to mind. Growing up in the Los Angeles area, I was familiar with the late John Wooden, longtime head basketball coach of UCLA. Wooden was widely held in high esteem, regardless of whether his team trounced yours on the basketball court. He taught his players more than just basketball: he taught them about life. And his lessons weren’t just words alone; he modeled the life skills that so many of his players would practice long after they graduated. Wooden once said,
“There is a choice you have to make, in everything you do. So, keep in mind that in the end, the choice you make, makes you.”
I thought long and hard about how the shooting affected Doris and me. Although she was not injured, she would join me in the healing process. How we initially processed things—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and, for me, physically—during the next few days would determine the true path of healing we would take then and for years to come.
Choices to Make
I could identify two choices that Doris and I would have to make if we were going to heal and make any sense of what we’d been through. They were:
(1) Could we still trust God, could we thank Him despite what took place, and could we trust Him for the outcome? and
(2) Could we forgive the shooter for what he did to me?
That night, I began a personal “faith check” to review everything I had learned over the years about God’s character, purpose, sovereignty, justice, love, and forgiveness. Three passages of scripture stood out:
“The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised . . . Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 1:21b, 2:10b NKJV)
“You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” (Matt. 5:43–46a NKJV)
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess. 5:16–18 NKJV)
The next morning I talked with Doris about the choices we needed to make. Although we were not expecting something like this to be added to our bucket lists and did not feel we could forgive the shooter, we knew that we had to trust and thank God. It took a little more time to reach the point where we chose to forgive the shooter. We still wanted justice to take place, but we refused to harbor an unforgiving spirit toward him. It would only prolong the damage he inflicted on us by his tragic actions. Our true healing had begun!
What Do We Really Control In Life?
I also wondered what I could have done to prevent what took place. After some thought, I decided that we had not acted in an irresponsible manner. But that made me think about the broader issue: what can we control in our lives? I believe the only thing we really have 100 percent control over in life is what we think. Doris and I have been taught that our thoughts—and what feeds our thoughts—will lead to our actions.
This concept is so important! Garbage in-garbage out is not unique to the world of computers. It is equally valid for the computers between our ears, our brains.
Ten years before the incident, Doris and I heard a business associate tell of a private audience he and his wife had with Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Great Britain. Something she said really stuck with us, and I was happy to see that it was included in the movie, The Iron Lady. The movie depicts Thatcher’s life through a series of flashbacks. In one scene, her doctor asks her how she’s feeling. She chides him for not asking her instead what she was thinking. “What we think is what we become!” she says. Thatcher then recites a whole chain of results that spring from our thoughts:
Thoughts… Words… Actions… Habits… Character… Reputation
The ramifications for our lives are so great when we realize that this chain reaction originates in our thoughts!
What Does the Bible Say About Our Thoughts?
In Proverbs 23, the writer is describing the behavior of an unscrupulous person, but in the midst of this passage is a truth:
“For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Prov. 23:7 NKJV)
The sinful nature we inherited from Adam and Eve also includes a sinful mind. That’s why Paul wrote to the church at Rome:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Rom. 12:1-2 NKJV)
Changing how we think is not easy. It can sometimes be a real battle, as Paul says:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Cor. 10:3-5 NKJV)
So what kind of thoughts are we supposed to think? Paul gives us some examples to emulate:
“Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Phil. 4:8 NKJV)
The Bible gives us further guidance concerning what controls our thoughts. We do have a choice about what we feed our thoughts and what we meditate on. Those influences include the company we keep, whom and what we listen to, what we read, and what we watch. Doris and I were very careful in this respect. We were even more careful to limit the negativism that was so prevalent in the media and even in conversations with well-meaning acquaintances.
To counteract the negative elements, we even began to pray for the shooter and his family! We found it to be one of the healthiest steps in our recovery. Granted, he messed up his life by his actions, but we also knew that he was not beyond the reach of a merciful, holy, and loving God. In fact, in the months that followed, we even requested through the federal prosecutor’s office that a chaplain be allowed to visit the shooter as often as possible.
What the Bible Says about the Company We Keep and What We Hear, Read & See
The passages of scripture that follow are certainly not exhaustive regarding the importance of whom we hang around with, what we listen to, what we read, and what we watch. But they are representative of what the Bible says about the wisdom of deliberately choosing a righteous path.
The Company We Keep
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” (Ps. 1:1-2 NKJV)
“He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed.” (Prov. 13:20 NKJV)
“Do not be deceived: ‘Evil company corrupts good habits’.” (1 Cor. 15:33 NKJV)
What We Hear
“But whoever listens to me will dwell safely, and will be secure, without fear of evil.” (Prov. 1:33 NKJV)
“My son, give attention to my words; incline your ear to my sayings. Do not let them depart from your eyes; keep them in the midst of your heart; for they are life to those who find them, and health to all their flesh.” (Proverbs 4:20-22 NKJV)
“Now therefore, listen to me, my children, for blessed are those who keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and do not disdain it. Blessed is the man who listens to me . . .” (Prov. 8:32-34 NKJV)
What We Read
“How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to your Word . . . Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you . . . Give me understanding, and I shall keep your law; indeed, I shall observe it with my whole heart. Make me walk in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it . . . This is my comfort in my affliction, for your word has given me life.” (Ps. 119:9, 11, 34-35, 50 NKJV)
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16 NKJV)
What We See
“I will set nothing wicked before my eyes.” (Ps. 101:3 NKJV)
“The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34 NKJV)
Four Key Lessons
Since the shooting incident, my wife and I have learned many things and have shared them with others. There are four key lessons that we found to be most valuable.
First, faith and forgiveness are the result of choices—not the result of feelings or circumstances. They are based on the promises of scripture and not on experience. If we had waited for our feelings to line up with our desires, our healing would have been greatly prolonged or even delayed. In fact, we found that once we chose to believe what the Bible says regarding the placement of our trust and the extent of our forgiveness, the feelings followed!
Second, we can undergo what we cannot understand at the time. Someone likened our lives to a voyage: either we are sailing into a storm, are actually in a storm, or are sailing out of a storm. We will have troubles in our lifetime. Jesus said,
“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NKJV)
Third, God’s character, purpose, sovereignty, justice, and love never change. We chose to step out in trust and took God at His word. Because of His consistency, “The people who know their God will display strength and take action.” (Dan. 11:32b NKJV).
Lastly, God doesn’t waste a hurt. He doesn’t comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters. Once again, Paul tells us how:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4 NKJV)
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“God has different purposes for His own, and He shows Himself strong and gains glory in different ways throughout each of our lifetimes. And if He allows suffering in our lives, He does so for very specific, very important reasons, and He does not do so lightly.” Joni Eareckson Tada
I thank the following authors for their works, which inspired and comforted me during this ordeal.
All scripture verses are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright© 1982 by Thomas Nelson Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Quote from Joni Eareckson-Tada is from A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God’s Sovereignty (Colorado Springs, Colo.: David C. Cook, 2010), 70.
Quote from John C. Maxwell is from The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth (New York: Center Street, 2012), 121.
Quote from Dr. Seuss is from Oh, The Places You’ll Go! (New York: Random House, 1990).
Quote from Rick Warren is from The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002), 17.
Quote from John Wooden is from Wooden on Leadership (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 43.
About the Author: Jim Tucker and Doris, his wife of 35 years, live in Tucson AZ. He currently works as a fire and life safety engineer for an aerospace/defense company after serving 13 years in the fire service as a civilian fire inspector/investigator/plan reviewer. In November, 2012, Jim and Doris joined the Billy Graham Association’s Rapid Response Team as volunteer chaplains.