Joshua Chamberlin, The Apostle Paul, & Bayonets: The Art of Surviving Grief

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?

Bayonets

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. 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.

Our Hope

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…

My Top Reads of 2022

I am all for new books. I just ordered one the other day. Still with each passing year, I find my heart increasingly aligned with C.S. Lewis’s rule to never allow oneself to read another new book “till you have read an old one in between.” Indeed, old books that make it to our time deserve our attention. If nothing else, we should be curious to know why they have survived when other volumes did not. I also suspect the more we read old books the more we will come to understand that the refinement of time ultimately furthers the stewardship of our time and thought today. As one can now guess, the books that most resonated with my soul this past year are rather well-seasoned if not downright ancient. If you are in the market for book to fill the space between the newer volumes on your shelf, I invite you to consider the following 3 options:

Link to My Goodreads stats for 2022

Being a Pastor

By: John Wycliffe

This small volume serves as a fantastic introduction into the stream of gospel-based theological discourse that shaped the theology of the Middle Ages. As Wycliffe’s principled defense of the authority of Scripture makes clear, the dark ages still contained many rays of truth (Click here for a brief introduction to Wycliffe’s life and ministry). Admittedly, Wycliffe remains very much a man of the Middle Ages. He possessed views on marriage and church-state relations that do not translate well into our modern theological discussions.

Thankfully, this book introduces readers to Wycliffe’s gospel convictions without distractions tied to the age of knights and princesses. The 102 pages that compose this volume clearly and concisely convey Wycliffe’s conviction that priests should stay with their sheep, should live pure, humble lives, and should preach the unadulterated gospel. In addition to repeatedly addressing the dangers of worldly greed, this book conveys Wycliffe’s passion for powerful preaching, a preaching that would replace the stories and poems that dominated so many sermons of his day with clear reflections upon the text of Scripture designed to produce biblical and lasting change. Lastly, the text provides readers with a sense of why the Catholic Church found Wycliffe so unsettling. The pages detail Wycliffe’s belief that priests, princes, and lay people should defy the pope and his officials whenever they violated the commands of Scriptures. Those who possess an interest in pastoral ministry, in English history, and in understanding how theology developed in the years leading up to the Reformation should grab a copy of this book…this window into the soul of the Middle Ages.  

Excerpt

We should take as an article of faith that God’s law surpasses all other in authority, in truth, in intelligence…Therefore, God commanded his apostles not to preach man’s law but to preach the Gospel to all kinds of people. Accordingly, those who preaching is a matter of jokes and telling stories are all the more to be blamed. For God’s Word must always be proclaimed faithfully if it is to be understood.

Christmas Thoughts

By: J.C. Ryle

This concise 128 volume written by Anglican Bishop J.C. Ryle blessed my soul the past Christmas morn. Ryle’s focus upon the complete and never-ending promises of God warmed my heart which has been cooled be dampness of deep grief. He displays his genius in explicitly warning his readers of the perils of unbelief while also showing his readers how the human longing for perfect community finds it fulfillment not in Christmas gatherings which prove fleeting and forever incomplete but in the new heavens and new earth. That wonderful meeting will consist of all God’s people from ever age and will never end. There will be no more goodbyes. No more sense of loss. Ryle’s helpfully ties the glories of Christmas to the community of the Church (all belivers of all ages), providing a small and needed correction to the Western over preoccupation with family at the holidays. In other words, if you open to the possibility that a book could stir your heart to long for Christ, to love God’s people, and to evangelize the lost all while putting up your Christmas tree, I encourage you to read this small volume at Christmas.

Moreover, it’s application does not end with the holidays. As the book’s editor, Andrew Atherstone, noted, Ryle republished several of the tracts without the Christmas references, revealing the truths contained within to be appropriate for the holiday and yet to possess the ability to reach far beyond the bounds of December 25th. The truth of the gospel is powerful both in and out of season!  

Excerpt

But, thank God there is one great family whose prospects are very different. It is the family of which I am speaking in this tract, and commending to your attention. The future prospects of the family of God are not uncertain. They are good, and only good – happy and only happy.

Surprised By Suffering

By R.C. Sproul

For most of my life, I have spent my time meditating on how to live well. But on May 31, 2022, I abandon my preoccupation with life and began contemplating in earnest how one dies well. As April and I came face to face with the cruel truth that no cure, no medicine, no hope of life remained for her, I came across R.C. Sproul’s volume. Sproul’s discussion of death being a vocation, a calling, helped me to understand that April’s last weeks had a glorious purpose. They were a time for her and me to praise God. A time to call others to repentance and faith…to the hope of Jesus. A time to once again battle sin. A time to redouble her faith in her loving Father, trusting that he would forever hold her fast. In other words, a time to finish well the last race that God had set before her.

In one sense, we should all begrudge death. And yet in another sense, Sproul shows us that we can embrace it without fear. For the believer, death does not end in the sorrows of grave. As Sproul noted, “Ultimate healing comes through death after death.” The first half of the book resolutely reminds the hurting Christians that God is with us even at death, transforming tragedy into our greatest victory.  

The second half of the book which explores heaven grows a little more speculative therefore little less insightful. The book then concludes with a series of questions and answers that cover topics such as near-death experiences and what happens to babies when they die. Regardless of what one thinks of the second half of the book, the first half of this book which applies the balms of the gospel to the pain of death more than covers the price of this volume.

I believe this 158-page volume will bless both those who are facing the prospect of death and those who seek to love the dying. And if we are honest, that is all of us.

Excerpt

Teachers argue that there is healing in the atonement of Christ. Indeed there is. Jesus bore all our sins on the cross. Yet none of us is free from sin in this life. Likewise, none of us is free from the sickness in this life. The healing that is in the cross is real. We participate in its benefits now, in this life. But the fullness of the healing from both sin and disease takes place in heaven. We still must die at our appointed times.

2 Bonus Picks

Charity and It’s Fruits: by Jonathan Edwards

Grief: Walking With Jesus: by Bob Kellemen

Why We Should Worship on Christmas

Oddly enough, the decision regarding whether Christians should gather for worship on Christmas morning has become controversial and even contested in some circles. I believe local churches should generally meet on Christmas. But before we discuss why, let’s stop and extend grace to four categories of Christians whose consciences should not be bound by this year’s church calendar’s concerns.   

Who Can Skip/Cancel Church This Christmas?

First, I am not talking to those who must dig through 50 inches of snow this Christmas morning to get to church. If you are snowed-in, God’s grace extends to you as it does to shut-ins, those sitting in jail for their faith, and others who find themselves physically kept from worship by God’s providential hand. Instead of condemning such souls, I believe we should empathize with them. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body (Heb. 13:3).” When God providentially keeps us from meeting, we have the freedom to cancel or miss services.

Secondly, I am not addressing those who are traveling this Christmas season. If you are attending Aunt Sally’s church instead of your home church, well done! Praise the Lord for the opportunity to experience another part of God’s kingdom!

Thirdly, I am not talking to those who gather for worship on days other than Sunday. Though the early church generally met on Sundays to commemorate the Jesus’s resurrection which took place on the first day of the week, neither the apostles nor Jesus commanded believers to worship on that day. They did the opposite and gave us freedom. As Paul told the Colossian churches, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath (Col 3:16).” Local congregations have the freedom in Christ to worship on Saturday, Friday, or any other day of the week that they so choose. Such congregations should feel no pressure to change their worship service to accommodate the church calendar, however, helpful it may or may not be. If this is you, this is not your conversation.

Lastly, I am not addressing first-responders, soldiers, and others who must work on Christmas morning. Though as believers we should be slow to give up congregational worship, we should also extend grace to those who must work on Sundays to care for others or to protect the civil order. In Matthew 12:12, Jesus clearly stated that those protecting the innocent, healing the sick, and generally loving their neighbor can be graciously excused from worship at times. The sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. We should also freely extend such grace to those who miss services because they choose to care for a loved one in hospice or because they decided to stop and help their neighbor change a flat tire. If this is you, this is not your conversation.

Who Should Not Cancel Church?

So, who am I speaking to? I am speaking to those who will skip church on Christmas because of their church culture or societal concerns. The first group will cancel church on Christmas or skip their church’s Christmas service because their church’s parade of special programs in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas has exhausted them. They will pass on church to get some R&R and to enjoy some quality family time.

The second group will cancel church not because they have worn people thin, but rather because of social pressure. They will close because they fear (and perhaps legitimately so) that they will not have enough people to help in the nursery or to set up chairs or to lead music. Many of their key leaders will travel this holiday season. Others will not come because their extended families have guilted them into attending the family dinner in place of Sunday worship.

The Purpose and Power of Sunday

But these two lines of reasoning fail to account for the purpose of the church and its power. Why does the local church get together? To borrow from the Reformers of old, the local church gathers to facilitate the preaching of the word and to practice the sacraments. And if we understand both baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be mini sermons of their own and understand the singing of songs to contain an element of communal preaching, we could simplify the definition above even further and say that the church exists to preach the gospel. To borrow from the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 4:11 and 13, the elders of the church are to, “Command and teach these things… [and] Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” The church exists to save and to edify through preaching. As the next letter to from Paul to Timothy makes clear such ministry is to happen both “in season and out of season (1 Tim. 4:2).” Even this Christmas season.

Secondly if we arrive at December 25 and find ourselves too exhausted to worship or fearful of what will happen when we have fewer volunteers, I suspect we have forgotten that the success of service resides not in us but in Christ. Yes, we may be short staffed on Christmas. Our execution may not be up to our usual standards of greatness (whatever that might be). We may have wiggly preschoolers, mismatched chairs, and off-key songs. Distractions and challenges may abound. But that should not stop us.  

What does Christ require of us? Does he require perfectly synced transitions and complex worship arrangements? No, he requires us to faithfully preach the Word through sermons, sacraments, and song. A sermon poorly delivered that faithfully presents the gospel will do far more for the soul than Rudolph, white elephant gifts, and apple cider. Remember how Spurgeon came to faith under the preaching of a clumsy lay preacher who spent most of his sermon simply rereading Isaiah 45:22, offering only the most basic of reflections. Still that unnamed man’s faithfulness in a midst of a snowstorm that had prevented his pastor from reaching church and Spurgeon from reaching his home church produced amazing fruit. Friends, the success of the gospel’s proclamation depends not upon our skill nor upon how many are in the room but upon Christ. God’s Word is powerful and will not return void even if culture is against us (Is 55:11).

Moreover, the refusal to meet to worship will leave those who feel the pressures to abandon Christ for the sake of family tradition more venerable to cares of the world and to sorrow. For as Christ makes clear, life comes not through identifying with family but with Christ. He said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:37-39).” Let’s meet this Christmas and encourage the weak and the wavering to find the joy of Christ afresh which comes through a clean conscience shaped by obedience to the Word! Let’s preach the Word!

A Heart For Worship

In other words, the heartbeat of the Christian should be to worship! We are saved not to go off and meditate with our biological family as we sit around a fake tree but to worship Christ in the great assembly of His sons and daughters who have been adopted from every age and every people group. When faced with the choice to worship or not to worship, the believer (and those covenant groupings of believers known as local churches) should by default choose to come and worship Christ the newborn king if they can physically do so (See above for a list of exceptions). Or to quote King David, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” Worshiping Jesus on Christmas should not be a burden but the greatest joy…a privilege to be cherished!

In other words, I believe most churches should meet this Christmas!