As the greyish, musket smoke began to clear, Colonel Joshua Chamberlin came face to face with the harsh realities of his moment. For over an hour he and the men of the 20th Maine had successfully repulsed the determined Confederate assault on Little Round Top. In the process, the Mainers had exhausted all their ammunition and themselves. They had already completed the undignified task of scavenging the corpses of their friends and foes for additional ammunition and firearms. The wounded Mainers who could still fire a weapon had returned to the firing line long ago. Even the musicians had picked up riffles and embraced the fight. Still, Chamberlin’s troops lacked ammunition and stood in need of reinforcements. The center company which had begun the day with 84 men now consisted of 24 men. All of Chamberlin’s requests for additional supplies and troops had been met with the same uninspiring response, “Yes that’s nice, but you must hold.” And they must. Were Joshua’s boys to give up the mountain, the Alabamans below them would march straight into the Union army’s rear, sending the whole army fleeing out of Gettysburg in a chaotic mess. But his line also lacked the firepower and men to repulse another Confederate charge. Chamberlin possessed no easy options. And yet, he must act and do so quickly before the rebels below him could regroup and seize the initiative.
When Everything is Hard
When I entered the PhD. program at Midwestern Seminary, Dr. Rodney Harrison warned us aspiring scholars not to quit the program. He pleaded with us not so much from the institutional standpoint but from the relational and ecclesiological perspective. Reading thousands of pages in a few weeks while trying to produce a few hundred pages of readable content can and does push many a would-be-scholar to his or her mental breaking point. At times, the cost to keep going can seem insurmountable. Quitting seems like the easy and even rational option. But as Dr. Harrison explained that day, the option to quit would exact a heavy cost. Sure, we would no longer have to write about the merits of John Calvin’s soteriology at 1AM. Sleep is a good gift! But we would have to deal with the shame of quitting: the disappointed gaze of our spouse whose sacrifice we just wasted, the puzzled looks of our church members who were rooting for us, and the sad faces of our friends who now wonder if we will follow through on the next challenge. In other words, the cost to quit were just as high if not higher than the cost associated with continuing. The question before us that day (and for that matter every day we are in the PhD. program) was not one of hardship verses ease but of which hardship.
The same can be said of grief. Nothing about selecting my dear April’s coffin, sorting through her clothes, or moving to a new house without her has been easy. Each aspect of my life: parenting, pastoring, and finishing my dissertation, has been tainted by grief, disappointment, and loss. My heart hurts when I do sermon prep, when I toss chicken nuggets into the oven, and when I rummage through my stacks of books in search of that next Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s quote. When I survey my surroundings, I feel a kinship with the apostle Paul who cried out, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart?” when the prophet Agabus sought to steer the apostle away from Jerusalem (Acts 21:13).
At times, the intensity of the hurt makes the idea of an organized withdraw from the pressures of life compelling. But where would such a retreat from my calling to parent, pastor, and write end? It would end in sorrow, death, and bitterness ravaging my soul and the souls of my loved ones. You see in the process of seeking to escape my sorrows, I would ensure their very victory and their never-ending reign tyranny. So what does one do when every choice threatens ruin?
Taking a cue from Joshua Chamberlin, we boldly shout, “Bayonet!” In other words, we faithfully move towards our callings even if they lie behind an army of terrors.
The first Mainers to hear Chamberlin’s command were startled by the word. But in a few seconds, it sunk in. By the time the left portion of Chamberlin’s line had wheeled round into position, the whole regiment bravely picked up the shout and begun flying down the hill with unbending resolve. The Alabamians who were still trying to reassemble their formation turned and fled down the hill, “like a herd of wild cattle” as one well-worn confederate soldier later noted.
By charging into the clutches of death, Chamberlin and the 20th Maine preserved the Union army on July 2, 1863. They set in motion a series of events that would lead to Picket’s ill-fated charge the next day, Lincoln’s famous address a few weeks later, and the eventual end of the war at the Appomattox Courthouse during which time Chamberlin accepted General Lee’s surrender. Chamberlin and his men performed their duty and found victory.
Such is the hope of all who grieve! If we faithfully charge towards the tasks that God has providentially set before us – the vocations of work, family, friends, and community – we too will find victory and hope. Undoubtedly there will be cost, pains, and sorrows. But alas, the cost to retreat is far worse. As the Puritan John Flavel noted,
He that runs from suffering to sin, runs from the seeming to the real danger; from the painted to the living lion.
Instead of heading to the lion cage, we, like Paul, must head toward our Jerusalem. We must heed Dr. Harrison’s warning and read the next book and write the next page no matter the cost. As the famed British Pastor J.C. Ryle surmised, “Everlasting liberty or everlasting captivity are the alternative before you. Choose liberty and fight to the last.”
Thankfully such steps forward do not depend upon our resolve. When King David who once faced the challenge of doing the next thing while being watched by a spear wielding manic who just also happened to be his king, he wrote these amazing words, “Commit your way to the Lord; trust him, and he will act (Ps 34:5).” And then a little later he writes, “he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever (Ps. 34:28).” When the child of God heads down that hill, he does so with great surety. Admittedly, that charge may be slow and unorganized at times. It may consist much more of tears and simple prayers such as, “God help me” than of waving flags and thunderous shouts. But even then, God is with us and the victory is sure. Flavel helpfully noted again,
It is not your inherent strength that enables you to stand, but what you receive and daily derive from Jesus.
Our power, resolve, and strength comes not from within but from without. If we trust Jesus – the good shepherd, he will guide us safely through the valley of the shadow of death.
What About Death?
Though the charge ensured the Union victory, Chamberlin’s adventures were not yet over. As the sword-waving Chamberlin stumbled down the hill nursing a nicked foot and a bruised thigh where a bullet had struck his scabbard, he came within a yard or two of a confederate Lieutenant who refused to give his ground. Before the brave Colonel could react, the Lieutenant methodically, pointed his pistol at Chamberlin’s head and then fired. Inexplicably, the bullet missed Chamberlin. Seizing the moment, Chamberlin knocked the ill-fated pistol to the ground and then placed his sword up against the young officer’s neck. The stunned Lieutenant promptly surrendered. Chamberlin was finally safe. His day was finally at an end.
When men point pistols at our head, we too must not lose our nerve. We must not let the fear of great suffering or even of death itself to keep us from doing the next thing that Jesus has set before us. The apostle Paul reflecting on his own times of great peril wrote these encouraging words,
We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself…But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again (2 Cor 1:8-10).
No threat, no hardship, no enemy, or circumstances proves too difficult for our great God and savior. Even if an enemy soldier threatens to shoot us, or an emperor threatens to behead us, or a professor to fail us, or a cancer to destroy us, God is with us. He will not abandon us to the power of the evil one. Those who rely upon Lord will not fall even though they may stumble. Trust him. And even if we die, we need not fear. At that moment, Jesus will transform that which is mortal into that which is immortal. In the words of the apostle Paul, “If God is for us who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)?
If I were to sum up these last seven months, I would do so with the following words: “Life is hard…unbelievably hard; God is faithful….unbelievably faithful; and, Bayonet!
Bayonet, friends. Bayonet…