I first met John-Michael Ritchey in September of 2005 when he was in the 8th grade and I was the new Student Life Director at North Cobb Christian School. He came to my attention as part of the trio JM, Lucas, and Amain. I came to learn pretty quickly that the three of those guys were responsible for the majority of the hilarity and good hearted mischief in the middle school at NCCS. JM had a real knack for coming up with a pretty awesome shenanigan…and then knowing just the right moment to step away before being found out. He carried that skill into adulthood quite well! There were a lot of people back in those days that struggled with what acceptable behavior really looked like. I’m grateful that those days have shaped my thinking on students that march to the beat of a different drum. It was evident even then that God had amazing plans for John-Michael’s life. I count it one of the greatest joys in my life to have watched that calling unfold over the past 10 years.
When John-Michael was wrapping up middle school and heading towards high school, he began to realize that God had given him a gift and a passion for preaching the gospel. He surrounded himself with Christ-followers that were much farther down the path than he was and he soaked it all up. John-Michael was known as a prayer warrior amongst his classmates and loved nothing more than a hearty theological debate. Even as a young man, he always had a sharp intellect that paired nicely with a quick wit and a knack for good old fashioned mischief. Some of my favorite conversations with him about grace and the gospel occurred on the bench while he was waiting to see the principal. That would turn out to be quite ironic several years later!
At the beginning of JM’s freshman year of high school, we started our first fall retreats for the entire school by taking the high school and middle school to SharpTop Cove. The high school went at the beginning of the week and middle school followed up at the end of the week. I’ll never forget how excited he was about that time to worship together with all of his classmates and teachers. He came up to me at dinner one night and begged me to let him help lead worship at the campfire that night. Sounded like a plan to me. The picture of me and JM leading worship together by the campfire is one that I’ll never forget. The passion on his face comes directly from the desire to worship God with everything he had. JM continued to lead us in worship all year as the drummer for our worship team. That was a special group of students!
JM left North Cobb Christian School after 9th grade to head to Kennesaw Mountain High School. When he told me he was leaving, he said that he believed that God had a plan for him at KMHS. I’ve heard different things from kids over the years that leave NCCS for one reason or another…but I really believed him. I really believed that he felt that God was calling him to share the gospel at Kennesaw Mountain. I was so grateful that our paths often connected throughout those high school years and I was able to see the Lord continuing to use JM in a mighty way. One highlight in particular was going over to Eagle Pointe Church one Wednesday night to hear JM preach at a revival. What a treasure to see the way that God used JM during those critical years in the lives of high school students!
In January of 2012, JM came back to NCCS as a part of Exodus, a worship team from Liberty University. JM was the drummer and that made it super special for us to have him back on campus. After the band led a few songs, it was time for the message. JM grabbed his Bible and stepped to the front of the stage and gave a message on what it meant to truly treasure Christ that kept our attention the entire 40 minutes he was speaking. I’ve never forgotten that message…or how incredibly excited I was to see the way that God was giving JM such a platform to share the gospel. He was never interested in making it all about funny stories and cutesy illustrations. His focus was always the gospel and whatever it took to convince a person to run into the arms of Jesus and be totally wrapped up in His grace and mercy.
We kept up off and on over facebook until April of 2013 when JM reached out to me via email. He said that he was about a year away from graduating from Liberty and he had no doubt that the Lord had called him to be a Christian school teacher…particularly in the area of English. He wanted to know what he could be doing then to set himself up to be an ideal candidate for a Christian school when he graduated in a year. I sent him an email back letting him know that I knew he’d be an incredible teacher and that I’d like to go ahead and claim him for NCCS! I followed up with some book suggestions and invited him to come observe some classes on campus at NCCS. I get quite a few emails like that each year…but he actually followed up. I put him in touch with our English Department Head. By the time he came to meet with Amber and me in person, he had already read the books and was eager to learn more. Amber and I were both excited about the opportunities that lay a year ahead when he graduated from college!
I finished up a degree at Liberty University in the summer of 2013. I had to go up for a week long intensive class. I emailed JM to see if he knew of anywhere I could stay for cheap while I was up there for the week. He told me that he and a friend had leased an apartment for the school year, but wouldn’t be up there for the summer as they were both back home working. His friend had sublet his room to a young lady and JM’s space was empty. They weren’t even moving in until August…so my need for the 3rd week of June was an easy one for him. He told me to bring an air mattress and stay at his apartment since he was back in Atlanta and the space was available. I stayed in the apartment that week and had the best time hearing about JM from other people on campus at Liberty. God used him in a HUGE way on that campus for God’s glory and the good of others.
We hired a new British Lit teacher at school for the 13-14 school year and she was doing a great job! Amber and I started to realize that we might not have a spot for JM and started watching for opportunities at other schools. We figured if we got him a job, that would at least keep him close! In the 11th hour, our Brit Lit teacher realized her dating relationship was getting serious and she moved home to be closer to the man that she ultimately ended up marrying in a beautiful wedding this past summer! We immediately reached out to JM…and then didn’t hear back for several days. We were worried that he had found something else! We started interviewing other people and then finally heard back from him. He had been working on a major paper and had gone offline for several days. JM quickly made plans to fill out our application and come in and practice teach over his spring break. He came in for his practice teaching and we were ready to hire him within the first 5 minutes. He grabbed the hearts and minds of the students in the room and never let go. He won the adults over as well and we hired him that day.
John-Michael became the British Literature teacher in August of 2014. It was such a joy to welcome him back home to NCCS. A month before he started teaching at the school, he married his beloved Alex. To all of his students, he always referred to her as Queen Ritchey to demonstrate how grateful he was that the Lord blessed him with such a precious gift in his bride. JM and Alex quickly become a part of the family at NCCS and endeared themselves to the faculty, students, and parents in a way that was much deeper than we realized at first. That was the beginning of amazing conversations about the gospel, grace, mercy, John Piper, Tim Keller, Tullian Tchvidjian, and even his favorite Baptist…Russell Moore.
JM had a great first year of teaching at NCCS. He always had a keen sense of what mattered the most. He might not have been able to tell you where his car keys were at any given point…but he knew that if he had 10 minutes in between class, that meant 10 minutes he had to give to invest in students and his colleagues. He connected with everyone…students he taught, students he didn’t teach, teachers from across the school, and parents. No one was too insignificant for John-Michael. He loved people quickly and deeply. And…he had a blast with them. There are way too many stories to share about some of the awesome shenanigans he got into out in the Annex with his colleagues and his students. His facial expressions and imitations are legendary and he always knew just what to say to encourage someone.
Many people saw the hilarious exterior and didn’t realize that JM was fighting a battle within himself of depression and anxiety. He shared about that during our Life Hurts. God Heals. series at NCCS in the Spring of 2015. His honesty in sharing this struggle and pointing people to Jesus helped many of our students and faculty gain victory in this area. He took something that people have made to be shameful and brought it out in the light to show us what God’s best looks like for our lives. It was my distinct honor to host the day that JM shared recognizing that my biggest responsibility was to get out of the way and let the Lord speak through JM!
This past summer, Nathan Wright, our NCCS Student Life Director, and I spent a lot of time talking about who would speak on the NCCS high school retreat. It was sort of odd since we normally have that wrapped up before we break for summer and it was getting close to the end of July. We had about 3 weeks to go before the retreat. One morning I was brushing my teeth and the Lord reminded me of recent conversations with JM about Ephesians. I texted Nathan and said “We need to ask JM to speak on the retreat.” Nathan quickly agreed and invited JM…fortunately he agreed too!
JM spoke on our high school retreat in August about “But God” moments from Ephesians 2. He challenged us with the gospel and pointed us straight to Jesus. He pored over the labels in Ephesians 1:3-14 and begged us to wear those labels instead of the garbage the world tries to put on us. He dove into Ephesians 2 and shared with us that God often brings gospel interruptions into our lives to help us see Him more clearly as He points us towards His best for our lives. JM also reminded us that there are no outsiders…that, in Christ, we are all insiders. It was a powerful time for our NCCS family. He immediately followed up the retreat by writing a guide to Word Centered Devotions to share with our students that wanted to take the next step in their relationship with Christ.
After we got back to school and regular life got back underway, something really cool continued from the retreat. Kids kept encouraging each other to grow in their faith. Many kids came to several of us to ask how they could grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. It was the beginning strands of a movement of God on our campus. JM’s prayer for our community on the retreat had been that God would bring us together. You could really start to see that unfolding on our campus.
On Friday, September 18, I sat down to talk with JM and Beth Clark about a student that they were both investing in to talk about some specific areas where they could pray for her and support her. I’ll never forget what an active listener he was for that conversation taking everything in and asking questions to learn more. As a young man, he was wise and thoughtful beyond his years. JM walked out of the room to observe a math class…always learning…and told me that he’d be praying for me on my trip to Haiti the following week.
I was planning to be in Haiti this week as part of a group to look at how Christian schools could partner with third world countries to help develop curriculum and support teachers. I flew to Haiti Saturday evening, September 19. I woke up early the next morning to a text message asking me if I knew if something had happened to JM. I had not heard anything, but I quickly checked around on social media and still came up with nothing. I texted the person back and said that I’d be praying that there was nothing to it. I couldn’t shake the thought that something had happened as we loaded the van to head for our first church/school visit early Sunday morning, September 20. We drove over an hour up into the mountains of Haiti to visit Canaan Christian Church. God filled my mind during that drive with a slideshow of some pretty incredible experiences with John-Michael over the years. I prayed for him, his beautiful bride, and his family…and for the hope that everything was alright. As I sat in worship that morning, I realized that JM would have really loved that church. I couldn’t understand anything being said or sung in Creole..but it was so obvious that the Spirit of the Lord was there and that He was being praised and made much of.
God reminded me during that time of a funny conversation that JM and I had about the book of Philemon a few weeks back. We agreed that Philemon is such a rich text…but that it sadly gets overlooked a lot in the page turn between Titus and Hebrews. In those moments of uncertainty about what was going on back home, I turned to Philemon and the Lord led me straight to this passage…
I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. (Philemon 1:4-7 ESV)
I immediately highlighted that passage and wrote the date and John-Michael’s name in my Bible. The Lord gave me such peace and comfort in those words and I turned my attention back to the church where we were worshipping. We had a great visit and came away with several pages of ideas of how we could help in that specific area. Upon returning to the guesthouse for the afternoon, I received the devastating word that John-Michael had been killed in a camping accident on Saturday. I almost threw up from the feeling of being absolutely kicked in the gut. I just really couldn’t believe it. The texts and emails were flooding in. No one wanted to believe it. We were all hoping it was just a bad nightmare.
I immediately started throwing my stuff in my suitcase. I had to get home to my NCCS family…no matter what it took. The others on my team were quick to come to my aid in brainstorming possible solutions. We had flown down on Delta, but the return Delta flight had already left for the day. We were really just minutes away from the last American Airlines flight off the island to Miami. One of my teammates has a sister that is a doctor in Haiti. She and her sister rushed me to the airport and sweettalked the gate agent into selling me a ticket for a flight that was taking off in 20 minutes…as in already boarding and highly out of the ordinary (in man’s way of thinking). They got me on a flight to Ft. Lauderdale and then I was on my own from there. As I was running to the plane on the tarmac, I scrolled on my phone to a Spirit Air flight from Ft. Lauderdale that would get me in to Atlanta around midnight that night. Of course, there was only one seat left…and I immediately booked it before hopping into my seat on the Port-Au-Prince to Ft. Lauderdale flight. I sobbed all during the preflight and takeoff. My poor neighbor…she seemed alarmed to be stuck by me. I kept my sunglasses on and just pulled out my Bible and notes from the retreat. I was immediately struck by the reminder of “But God” from Ephesians 2. I clung to that promise and prayed during the flight. My heart was completely broken..and yet so hopeful about what God had in store for all of this. I dozed off at some point in the flight and woke up to a warm chocolate chip cookie the flight attendant had left for me noticing my distress. Don’t you love those awesome gifts of grace? Who knew that God bakes cookies for brokenhearted friends??!! My God does!
When I arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, I was able to make some phone calls and touch base with friends and colleagues to learn more about what happened. While I was in the airport in Florida, the NCCS family was gathering in the gym for a sweet time of worship and prayer. I was able to jump in on plans for a special chapel to honor John-Michael first thing Monday morning. Amber picked me up at the airport at midnight to drive me home. We laughed and cried the whole hour home. We just couldn’t believe it was really over. John-Michael was still mid-prank with so many people…how were we ever going to find all of our stuff that he had hidden??!!
Monday morning arrived with a special time just to be with our NCCS faculty and staff for a time of worship and prayer as we prepared to walk through the day ahead. Even by that point we were so encouraged and hopeful for what God had in store for all of this. When we walked onto the campus, we noticed a large gathering at The Rock. The Rock is part of our NCCS community and people often paint it for birthdays or other silliness. The Rock had been painted white and the words But God were carefully painted on the top. Students stood in a huge group writing messages of encouragement and prayers about what JM had meant to them and how he had pointed them to Jesus. The tears began to flow in a way that I really don’t think I’ve experienced before. It was sweet though…gut wrenchingly hard…but oh so sweet to see our kids clinging to the truth of the gospel that JM loved so much.
As we moved into the gym, the morning turned into one of the most special times of worship I’ve ever experienced. Our student band led us in “Good Good Father” to kick things off. We shared about JM and then we turned it in to an open-mic opportunity for anyone to share that wanted to. We sat there for 3+ hours as close to a hundred students, colleagues, and others came forward to share about the way that John-Michael had impacted their lives. The best part? JM’s lovely bride, his parents, and his siblings were right there on the front row to grieve and celebrate with us. It was powerful. I’ll never forget it. The healing was beginning even in the midst of such deep sorrow. God was doing a new thing in our midst.
After the service one of our senior boys prayed to receive Christ. In that moment, we knew that JM would have counted it all worth it for the sake of that young man’s soul. It was a young man that JM cared a great deal about and had prayed fervently for.
Tuesday and Wednesday were somewhat of a blur as we walked together as a community. We quickly realized that God was using our students to lift up our faculty and staff during this time. They realized we were mourning the loss of a friend and in the midst of their own grief…they reached out to us rather than withdrawing into their own sadness. I’ve never heard “I love you” uttered as clearly and easily as it has been this week at NCCS. I pray that never changes! Students were writing notes to faculty, staff, and other students with encouragement and Scripture. We were worshipping in a new and exciting way. That carried over into the visitation Wednesday evening as we had an opportunity to visit again with JM’s family and close friends. His family was so gracious to share this special time with our NCCS family. They stood and listened to our stories and begged for more. There was much laughter in that room that is meant for mourning. It was a sweet, sweet time.
Thursday morning was spent in shortened classes before we headed to the memorial. I thought I had gotten myself together Tuesday afternoon when I heard from our police chief asking me if we would let them provide a police escort for our school buses to the memorial. I lost it…again…I think that was time 40,000 for the week! What a gracious and honorable act of service! We loaded 7 buses headed towards the church. 7 buses packed full of high school students and faculty and staff behind a police escort is an eerily honorable experience. JM’s mom had told me that she wanted to make sure that we did whatever it took for all of us to be in the worship center. She wasn’t hearing anything about overflow space…JM would want his kids there. So…we did just that. We walked in together…Party of 350…we came to worship! In order to leave the seats available for family and other guests, I had told our students that we would stand up against the walls for the service. And stand they did…for two and a half hours. These are kids that often can’t sit still for 5 minutes. They stood proudly and in honor of their dearly beloved teacher and friend John-Michael Ritchey as one man after another got on the stage and proclaimed the way that they loved Jesus more because they had been impacted by JM’s life. None of us will ever forget that service and the chance to worship together and send off a saint who was already dancing and doing cartwheels at the feet of Jesus!
Some of us had the privilege of spending some time with JM’s family after the memorial. That was another great time of laughter and great stories. The healing continued to feel like a huge hole in the heart in the midst of the laughter and fond memories. JM and his bride had been married just over a year and here she sat laughing with us in the midst of the horror of this loss. She knew that God will provide…and provide He has. Prayers of encouragement and Scripture at just the right moment have carried her through this week that she never would have chosen for herself…but one that is refining all of us into God’s best for our lives.
Today we saw laughter return to North Cobb Christian School. We saw the love of Jesus overcome the sadness in our hearts.
Psalm 30:11-12a, “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.” (NLT)
Psalm 18:28, “You, LORD, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.” (NIV)
We will never forget. We will always be reminded of the imprint that God made on our lives in the shape of John-Michael Ritchey. This weekend we rest and we remember.
This week has been a “But God” moment. We have seen the Lord do far more than we could have ever dreamed to ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). I’ve never personally been so crushed and so hopeful at the same time. We truly believe that God is good and He has proven Himself time and again this week as we have had students come to Christ and many others who have taken a new step in their relationship with Christ. Our prayer is that this is only the beginning of a great revival in our community as we continue to walk through this. There are a million stories that I could tell you all about John-Michael, but the most important one is that he spent his life for the sake of the gospel. It’s been an incredible reminder to challenge me not to waste my life.