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?


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.”

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…

5 Weeks Later: A Postscript to April’s Death

The last few weeks have been hard…unbelievably hard. During the last weeks of her life, I told April many times that my heart would forever contain a purple stain. Having lost a son four hours after his premature birth and having buried my own father not too long ago, I thought I knew something of the scars that wound the human heart. But when I awoke on June 26 to a world that no longer contained my purpley person, I experienced a penetrating and soul crushing grief unlike anything I had ever encountered. My heart had not been wounded. It had been severed…wrecked at its core.

The night before, April had been my everything…the source of my earthly happiness and the marrow that infused hope into my future. Even as she slipped into an unconscious state on the evening of the 24th, our marriage was real. Memories of vows, first dances, and nights alone rightly informed my vision for tomorrow. Hope, however precarious, still remained. Relationship existed. Her soft inhale and exhales and the touch of her warm hand brought comfort to my heart. But the moment that she turned cold, I was alone. What had been the most fundamental and essential essence of my life was became but a memory – a treasure chest of joys and wisdom to be stewarded well- but still a lifeless memory. Life to death. Hope to tragedy. Whole to less than whole.

Though my grief is profound, I know that all that has transpired is no tragedy for my dear bride. She has exchanged her frail body for one of eternal peace and her flawed husband for the perfect love of Christ. Though I know her desperate wish and prayer was to stay with me and our children and though I affirm that her love for us still resides within her heavenly heart- albeit a perfected love, I cannot wish her back to this troubled planet. I cannot ask her to exchange Christ’s headship for mine. She has achieved her end. She is glorifying God and perfectly enjoying him forever. Her joy is complete.

And yet, mine remains hidden by hidden a glass covered by shadows.  

In the hours after her death, an unsettling silence settled over our home. As I wandered are room alone, I could not help but fill that forsaken space with the simply cry of, “Where are you?” Though I asked the question often, no reply came. All those pictures that she valued so much just coldly stared backed at my tear-stained face. I miss her. Ten years ago when I stumbled into April at Southern Seminary, I found in her something far greater than any ruby or diamond. Though she has gained all, I have lost the companionship, the wisdom, and the affections of this woman worth more than gold.

These last weeks, I have found a new affection for Paul’s sentiment in Philippians 1:23 which says,

“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Phil 1:23).”

I long for Christ…for the joys that my dear April knows well. Life is hard. Oh, what faith it takes to say, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Lord.”

The Path Forward

Though no prophet or son of a prophet, I suspect my life is not close to its end. At the very least, I know God has not called me to prepare for death as much as he has called me to prepare for and to minister to my children and to my church family. As Paul notes in the next verse in Philippians 1, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Thus, I will cherish the days ahead. I will navigate the dark alley ways of doubt and the swamps of sorrows, knowing that my savior will hold me fast. As the Psalmist says,

“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their trouble. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Ps 34:18).”

Though hard and emotionally complex, the path forward possesses a spiritual simplicity that even the youngest of believers can easily recognize. God asks nothing special of me during this season. He calls me to trust his wise, loving, and all-powerful character. Then, he commands me to live out the gospel within my local church context, attending to the things that he has called me to such as preaching and loving my children well. In short, I am to love the Lord my God with all my heart soul, mind, and strength and my neighbor as myself.

When April and I lost our first-born son, we found simple obedience to be the surest pathway to hope. Even as she and I grappled with her cancer over the last three years, our souls were forever and always reinvigorated by ministry. The very act of caring for our neighbor in the midst of our sorrows often brought us the divine perspective and hope that our hearts needed to make sense of the very pain that only hours earlier had tempted us to withdraw from the community of faith. If I will but obey Christ in the minutia of life as I suffer, hope will come. As Paul wrote,

“Suffering produces character which leads to the hope of Christ that never disappoints (Rom. 5:2-5).”

With this in mind, I have resumed working on my dissertation, returned to the church office, and reascended the pulpit. The pathway to restoration is beautifully simple.

As I traverse the many ups and downs of this path of grief over the next months, I know there will be many more tears…some anticipated – such as the first full week of school – and some not so much. Life will continue to hurt for a time. And I fully suspect some sorrows will not fully healed until the other side of heaven. But I also know there will be new joys…new relationships…new and increasing evidences of grace in my life, in the lives of my children, and in my church family. Christ promises of abundant life have not grown stale. The God who knew April would live but 39 years and ordained that I would have the blessed joy of being her husband (of being one with her) for 9.5 of those years still loves me. The valley of Bacca will once again flow with the streams of hope. By God’s mercy, I will go from strength to strength (Psalm 84:5-7). The clouds will lift. Joy will come in the morning, and I will praise him again.

I greatly appreciate your prayers for me and my family as we continue walk through this valley.  

May God be merciful!  

April Gentry Witkowski Obituary (6.12.83 – 6.25.22)

April Gentry Witkowski enjoyed being a conundrum, a mystery that defied expectation. Despite what her first name might lead one to believe, she was born on June 12, 1983. She spent the first months of her life in one of those sparsely furnished Fort Worth, Texas houses with paper thin walls that could not contain her cries and that had been unofficially reserved for poor, Baptist seminary students such as her father. When April was three, she moved with her parents, Ray and Debra Gentry, from Houston, Texas to Ellenwood, Georgia which would also serve as the first home of her little sister, Allison Gentry. She would become April’s childhood shadow and eventual second-in-command of all crafting projects. April then moved to Ashburn, Georgia where Ray served as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church Ashburn (FBCA). While living in the brick pastorium located behind FBCA, April began to develop many of the interests and hobbies that shaped her life such as her love for the color purple, her passion for crafting, quilting, drawing floor plans, playing the piano, make believe, using sign language, and stitching together her notebook on Georgia history. Her childhood would twist and turn through public, private, and homeschool education circles, giving her the unique ability to relate to children who wore polos and khakis to homeroom and to those who wore pajamas as they studied grammar books on their bed. She would also spend a good portion of her life moving seamlessly about middle Georgia. She knew Warner Robins, Georgia like the back of her hand. And yet, she considered metro Atlanta to be her home, having spent her high school and college years in Lawrenceville, Georgia. She liked being unpredictable.

The one aspect of April’s life that was never a conundrum proved to be her faith. Being a pastor’s kid (PK), she regularly sat in the first pew or two of FBCA as her father preached from the platform and as her mother stared down at April from the choir loft. One summer night as Ray preached the gospel, the Spirit opened April’s eyes, blessing her with an awareness of her sinfulness and of God’s saving grace manifested through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. With tears slowly sliding down her well-defined dimples, she prayerfully confessed Jesus as her Lord and savior. Though only seven at the time, the Spirit wrought a change in April’s life that led her to build friendships across the racial boundaries of the Old South, to evangelize her little sister through mentions of how everyone in her family but her sister would be in heaven because they loved Jesus and Allison did not, and to debate her grade schoolteacher when she taught April that the dinosaurs had died off before humans arrived.

In the years that followed, April’s faith continued to blossom as she went on her first mission trip with the Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church youth group and developed a passion for children that made her the go-to babysitter for many and a fantastic preschool volunteer at Hebron Baptist Church. While in college, she came into contact with the rich traditions of reformed theology and biblical counseling through the influence of her mother. Buoyed by the security of God’s sovereignty and the sufficiency of the Scriptures, April determined to support local churches committed to expository preaching and to living out the doctrines of grace. This conviction led her to develop a sweet relationship with Providence Baptist Church that she has maintained throughout the years. After completing a business degree through the Liberty University distance learning program,  dabbling in the Atlanta real estate market, and mastering the spiritual gift of office work while on staff at Sandy Valley Baptist Church and Central Baptist Church, April left Georgia for Louisville, Kentucky. There she earned a Master of Arts in Biblical Counseling at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) for the purpose of being better equipped to serve the local church.

After completing her seminary degree in 2011, God’s kind providence directed this girl whose dislike for football and sports mirrored her love for coke and Cheez-Its to a position at the SBTS Health and Recreation Center. As she facilitated basketball tournaments and managed swimming pool schedules, she unsuspectingly met another seminary graduate, Peter Witkowski, who decided to ask her out because she had the kindest of smiles. Their courtship began January 7, 2012, with a date at the Hill Billy Caffe and ended in a marriage ceremony on October 20, 2012.

Immediately following her marriage to Peter, April moved to Eastman, Georgia where she labored alongside Peter, seeking to expand and develop the children’s ministry at First Baptist Church Eastman (FBCE). She taught Sunday school classes, planned lock-ins, and designed the children’s ministry logo for FBCE. Though she proved gifted with children, she also delighted in counseling the women of FBCE both formally behind a desk with Peter and informally on her sofa as her babies played around her. She embraced hospitality and all the wonderful aromas of cooking that can go with it to encourage others in their pursuit of holiness.

She also experienced great heartache in Eastman. In July 2013, she buried her first-born son, Peter Alexander who died from complications of his premature birth.

Though she knew much heart ache in 2013 and then again in 2015 as she suffered a miscarriage and then once again as she battled cancer, April’s God never failed her. He sustained her through her grief and then blessed her and Peter with a second son, Luke Alexander, and then two daughters Lily Vienna and Lacey Ruth.

Her four children proved to be her greatest joy after Christ. From the moment they entered her womb, April bonded with her children. She delighted in teaching Luke how to shoot basketballs into laundry baskets, in having dance parties with her girls, and in picking out cute and yet affordable outfits for all three kiddos. But the greatest evidence of her love proved to be her unceasing prayers for her children’s salvation and the many hours she devoted to telling them of the God who had transformed her life all those years ago.

In 2018, April and Peter came to Virginia to revitalize Amissville Baptist Church (ABC). April had always wanted to support her husband as God used him to expand and sanctify a local church through the preaching of the Scriptures. With a clear calling from above, April came to Virginia intent on sharing her life with this sweet congregation. As her health declined, she gave her all to attend ABC, lamented how her cancer limited her involvement at church, and encouraged her husband to faithfully fulfill his divine charge to shepherd these sheep whom she loved dearly.

During these last years, April’s heart clung fiercely to her Lord and Savior, her husband and children, and her church family. For her family and friends, she battled breast cancer for more than three years, longing to be a part of her husband’s sanctification story, her children’s salvation story, and her church’s restoration story. On June 25 at 9:15PM, her glorious story came to an end. Though her official biography is now closed, April’s story will continue on within the stories of those who had the joy of calling her their friend, sister, daughter, mommy, and bride. Wise King Solomon lovingly wrote, “The memory of the righteous is a blessing (Prov 10:7).” April was a blessing to all who knew her.

April never wanted to be boring. Her alter ego was that of a Russian spy named Natasha. But for all her wonderful complexity, her final legacy, her memory now entrusted to us, proved to be gloriously unmysterious. She loved the Lord her God with all her heart, soul, and strength and her neighbor as herself. May we all go and do likewise.

April is survived by her husband: Peter Witkowski; her children: Luke Witkowski, Lily Witkowski, and Lacey Witkowski; her parents: Ray and Debra Gentry; and, her sister: Alison Gentry. She is preceeded in death by her son, Peter Alexander Witkowski.

Funeral Details

The funeral will occur at Amissville Baptist Church on Friday, July 1, 2022 at 3:30PM. The family will host a viewing from 2:30-3:30PM and a dinner will follow the internment. The service will be livestreamed on ABC’s website and facebook page.

Instead of flowers, the family asks for donations to be made to the April Witkowski Memorial fund either online or through the mail at: Amissville Baptist Church P.O. Box 158, Amissville, Virginia 20106.