Why I Don’t Talk to April But Pray

When my dear April ceased to breathe, a piercing emptiness settled over my home and my soul. Where once there had been laughter, playful banter, and deep theological reflection now there was only thick, sticky, and suffocating silence.

As my heart broke under the weight of April’s death, I longed to be heard, to pour out my heart without reserve and without concern of time, schedule, or setting. But when I asked aloud, “Where are you, my love?” the air brought back no reply.

Why I Generally Don’t Talk to April

Though some have suggested that I trade my past marital dialogues for a therapeutic monologue, I find the option rather uncompelling if not troubling. I have no idea how April would respond to the experiences, concerns, hopes, worries, and fears that I now carry about with me. I can certainly speculate about how she might react to this or that. But as all good historians know, such speculations prove to be anachronistic and wholly inauthentic. They are nothing more than the manifestations of our imaginations on to reality which by logical necessity distort reality. We cannot project out without either adding to or taking away from what would be real. Such imaginary interactions with our dead loved ones are to reality what orcs are to men.

But even if she were to interact with my ramblings from heaven, she would have little to share with me for she is perfect, and I (as my kids will happily attest to) am not. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” The struggles, fears, worries, hopes, and desires that I wish to process aloud with her, the things the make me yearn for her open ear, derive from my incomplete knowledge of the Lord and from my sinful frailty. April no longer shares in those things, nor can she relate to my incompleteness for she knows the eternal joy of completeness. She has crossed the Jordan. Even if she could respond to my mumblings, I could no more understand her knowledge than a three-year-old could understand the terminology used to develop rocket science. As Paul noted of his vision of heaven, “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” And what she could share with me has already been shared with me through the Scriptures. As Jesus said in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them (Lk 16:29).”

This is not to say that April has no knowledge of me nor awareness of what happens in my life or in the lives of our dear children while she awaits Christ’s return in heaven. Scripture seems to indicate some heavenly awareness of earthly things. But while her love for us and us for her remains, we have no meaningful way to communicate. Death has separated us until it will one day again unite us. Until then, I must embrace the reality of her absence.

Why I Pray

But I do not have to embrace the silence. Though I have lost the companionship of my April for a time, I am not alone. My cries do not go unheard. The Psalmist offers all who grieve a glorious hope writing, “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.” I still process my life out loud. I cry out to the Lord through the penetrating silence that has enveloped my bedroom, kitchen, car, office, and even the church sanctuary. When I am alone and in need of help, I talk to the God who is there in the silence, bottling my tears as I weep through the night, extending grace to me as I argue with him through the day, and filling my heart with hope as I plead for fresh signs of his goodness and love. In other words, I do not bottle up my emotions but rather audibly process them with the Lord. The Puritan John Flavel who discovered the goodness of this process a few hundred years before me wrote,

To whom should children go but to their father, to make their moan…Did we complain more to God, he would complain less of us, and quickly abate the matters of our complaint.

Oh friends, it is sweet to process one’s life through prayer. Indeed, to talk with God is to commune with him and to experience the truth, love, and grace that transforms our lives.

However, such practices are not unique to widowers or to the grieving. As one theologian noted,

Invoking God, calling on him in prayer, isn’t an emergency measure…something that we turn to in extremity, at the hour of death or disappointment or depression. Calling on God’s name accompanies all of human life and all human activity.

Or to borrow from the apostle Peter, all of us are to cast our cares upon Christ because he cares for us (1 Pt 5:7).

What April Knew

Towards the end of her life as April verbally processed her fears with me, she would at times bring our conversations to a conclusion and kindly say, “I don’t expect an answer from you, Peter.” The comment unnerved me. I was her husband…her best friend…her truest confidant…her pastor. Surely, I should have some answer…some hope to offer…some word to say. But with each passing day, I have come to increasingly appreciate her wisdom in those moments. My shoulders could not carry all her burdens. Nor could her’s carry mine. They were not designed to. But Christ’s could. To Him, she turned.

A few weeks later when I lost my April, my heart shattered into a million pieces like a glass striking a hard kitchen tile. Nothing made sense. Everything hurt and was out of place. But I was not alone. Though he crushed me, my God did not leave me nor forsake me. He heard me. He hears me.

Don’t talk to the dead who cannot help us as they await the resurrection. Talk to the God who hears!  

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, April Witkowski & the Myth of the Wasted Ministry

To know something of Martyn Lloyd-Jones is to know that the man yearned for revival. In addition to the sermon series which later became the book Revival, Lloyd-Jones devoted countless other sermons, lectures, and letters to the topic of widespread, simultaneous conversion. More than anything else in his life, he longed to see Wales if not the whole evangelical church experience something akin to what had happened during the days of John Wesley or Martin Luther.

Why Revival

The Doctor’s emphasis upon revival in-part grew out of his understanding of spiritual baptism. In addition to the slow, steady growth associated with the normal means of Christian sanctification, the Welsh pastor taught that God would at times fill a local church with a sweet and special awareness of his spirit which would result in the church members’ exponential growth. This moment of growth would then become the foundation needed for another nationwide revival.

Somewhat ironically, I believe Lloyd-Jones helped to split the British Evangelical movement in 1966 because he so longed to lay the groundwork for such a Spiritual baptism that he pressed his Appeal for the formation of a new doctrinally robust association of evangelical churches with an intense zeal that produced more confusion than action. Thus, his very appropriate call to reform the evangelical church around the essential doctrines of the gospel went mostly unheeded. Sensing that no revival was coming in the years that followed 1966, some Lloyd-Jones’s sermons began to take on a slightly negative undertone. Though forever confident in the return of Christ, he no longer spoke of the restoration of the West but more of how all forms of democracy would eventually end in the tyranny of the French revolution. In one sense, I think Lloyd-Jones went to his grave discouraged for God had not seen fit to bring about a revival in his lifetime.

A Testimony of Faithfulness

Though a national revival never came, Lloyd-Jones’s own ministry in London had not proved ineffective. An old family friend of the Doctor told me the other day that he thought one of the greatest tragedies of Lloyd-Jones’s life was that he so longed for national revival that he missed the extraordinary work that God was doing through Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel. With God’s help, the Doctor facilitated thousands of small revivals all throughout England, Wales, and the world. Thousands if not millions of people came to faith either directly through his preaching or indirectly through his writings and through the ministry of the numerous pastors, missionaries, and church members that he had discipled. I write today of Lloyd-Jones because of his very ordinary ministry at Westminster Chapel produced extraordinary fruit. Lloyd-Jones may have lacked a Reformation, but he did not lack a Wittenberg. The fire of revival burned brightly in the pulpit of Westminster Chapel.

Don’t Discount Today

The fact that Lloyd-Jones seemingly missed the glories of the ordinary forest in his unceasing search for that giant, evangelical redwood of revival should serve as a caution to all of us still in ministry – whether that be professionally or otherwise. The temptation to negate or overlook the glories of today because we are so focused on the dreams of what could be tomorrow did not pass with the end of the last century. How many pastors feel discouraged because their church has yet to cross the two-hundred-person threshold? How many singles discount their meaningful ministry to the senior adults in their church and to the young mothers with those crazy two-year-olds because they are still single and are not engaged in the discipling that come with marriage and the arrival of their own children? How many godly men and women with a bent towards missions believe their lives a waste because they spend their day evangelizing their neighbors a couple of doors down instead of reaching people hidden behinds miles of brush in the amazon? How many faithful brothers and sisters in the secular workforce believe their life counts for nothing because they have yet to start their own business or to reach that corner office from which they could make a real difference in the world?

April’s Fear

In truth, my late wife struggled with this temptation. As her life came to a close, she lamented one afternoon how her cancer had kept her from fully engaging in those things that she longed to do with me as we began our ministry at my current church such as: teach Sunday School classes, coordinate VBS programs, attend services, go on home visits, and counsel the hurting. She felt her life incomplete and feared that she had held me back. But as I told her that day as the sun filled the space around her blue rocking chair in our bedroom, she had stewarded her life well. Over the past four plus years, she had served as my greatest counselor and confidant. With her, I processed life and Scripture. Her life showed up not so much in our Sunday school curriculum or in those stick craft projects that make kids’ ministry so fun but in the subliminal content of my sermons, in the essence of my counseling, and in my visions for the future. Indeed, when she died one of the places, I grieved her loss the most was my office. Though she only set in those black chairs across from my desk sporadically during the last few years of her life, she still shaped all that happened behind that heavy white door the separates me from the back entryway. Ordinary, faithful ministry has an extraordinary influence.

The Power of the Ordinary

But what was true of my dear bride and Lloyd-Jones proves true of all of us. Our lives today will not be defined by our dreams, hopes, or expectations of what is to come (of what may never come) but will be defined by our faithful execution of the life and ministry God has given us in this moment. If we are faithfully serving God today in accordance with his Word and our calling and gifting, our lives are not a waste but rather the very definition of success. In other words, we should not discount the ordinary means of grace at work now, believing that all is a waste until the arrival of the extraordinary. In this respect, I believe the Lloyd-Jones’s insistence upon spiritual baptism proved unhelpful. The normative experience of the early church was not Pentecost but rather the faithful plodding associated with Paul’s missionary journeys.  Indeed, the most extraordinary thing about most of us is our ordinary faithfulness.

If that revival never occurs, or if that spouse never comes, or if the ticket to oversees ministry never arrives, and if we stay at our jobs for another 20 years, our lives still possess profound value in the Lord’s economy. If we are faithful today, we will in time bear extraordinary fruit. Take heart, friends. Don’t grow weary of today.

Don’t miss the forest in pursuit of your giant red wood.  

Just One More: A New/Old Kind of Skeptic

Though academics such as Bertrand Russel have won recognition from their ability to skillfully assault the claims of Christ, the typical skeptic that buzzes around the modern evangelical congregation has spent little time debating whether or not Jesus’s claims in Matthew 16 can be applied to the transfiguration. He or she possesses a different sort of skepticism altogether.

The Essence of Skepticism

Their issue is not so much the intellectual solvency of Christianity as much as their felt needs. I suspect many pastors and faithful church members have heard numerous people on the fringes of their congregation say that they would return to church if they had the time, or if their church had better preaching, more engaging music, or a more lively kids’ program. Others remain distant because God failed to meet a non-church need in a timely fashion. Despite the now skeptic’s prayers, he or she is still single, childless, sick, stuck in a professional rut, and hurting. In other words, this skeptic needs God to do one more thing for him or her in order that he or she might believe. They require another sign: a better preacher, a wedding date, or just something that proves that Jesus is truly who he says he is. Until then, they will happily give their Sunday to the local sports complex or to hiking the blue ridge mountains. Will they get it?

Jesus’s Response

In Matthew 16:1-4, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the spiritual elite of Jesus’s day, come requesting a sign. They want to know whether they can trust Jesus. And their question arises not from their study of the Scriptures but rather from their denial of their Old Testament scrolls. If these men had truly believed their God’s word, they would have understood that Jesus was the Messiah for his miracles fulfilled the promises of old. Matthew makes this explicitly clear when he writes of Jesus’s miracles, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illness and bore our diseases (Matt 8:17).’ In other words, these men want another sign because they have rejected the revealed words of God as found in the Old Testament and Jesus ministry. Jesus condemns them as being “An and adulterous generation,” and then declares that they will receive only one more sign, “the sign of Jonah” the sign of the resurrection (Matt 16:4; 12:39-41).

If the resurrection of Jesus will not convince someone to follow our Savior, nothing else will. If a soul can assent to the reality of their sin, to Jesus’s death as the substitutionary payment for said sin, and to his resurrection which grants us eternal life and then say, “show more me,” it will never be satisfied. Even if Jesus were to comeback and perform a modern-day miracle or bless a church with the most amazing music ministry, or give someone a positive pregnancy test, the skeptic would still not believe. If God’s currently revelation as contained in the Bible is not enough for them, future revelation will also fail to convince them of the reality of Jesus’s claims. There is no greater sign than the sign of Jonah.

Our greatest need is not tied to our love life, or our professional career, or to the efficiency of our church. Our greatest need is deliverance from sin and death. If Jesus’s unique ability to give us eternal life will not draw us to our bibles throughout the week and to our churches on Sunday morning, neither will good health nor a full bank account. The Jesus of our health and family will ultimately prove as convincing or unconvincing as the Jesus of the resurrection.

How To Pursue the Skeptic

Men and women who regularly find Jesus and his church wanting do so not because of some great fault in either Jesus or his people but because their hearts are hard. And if Jesus responds to such skepticism with fresh mentions of the resurrection, then we should follow suit. We should not stress about whether we have the best this or that. Nor should we should spend our time trying to produce a program or event that will positively meet their felt need. Rather, we should continue to lovingly and unapologetically preach the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, the only antidote for the religious skeptic who frequently buzzes about our church is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the sign of Jonah is not enough nothing will be.