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…

The Inopportune & yet Gracious Nature of Death

The calendar date escapes me but the memory replays vividly in my mind. As April and I headed to Charlottesville for her last chemotherapy appointment, my dear bride once more laid out her hopes for the future. She knew death lurked just around the corner. But she was not ready. She desperately longed to see our church mount the summit of self-sustaining health, to see me complete my doctorate, and to see our children come to faith. She was willing to relinquish the dream of shepherding her children into adulthood, but the rest remained nonnegotiable for her. Perhaps in a few more years, she would be ready to entrust her soul to eternity. But not now.

I openly doubted her conviction. She was such a planner and possessed such a love for others, I could not foresee her ever wanting to leave us. Even if she saw our three kiddos embrace Jesus and graduate high school, I know her heart would have longed to see them married and then establishing godly families of their own. She would have wanted to see our church accomplish this goal or that and watch me complete the next task God placed before me. Even at 45 or 50, she still would have had many a reason to keep on living. As the apostle Paul, she knew that to, “live is Christ (Phil 2:21).”

And so I slowly turned toward her, laid out my thinking, and then gently said, “I don’t think, you’ll ever be ready to leave us.” She smiled shyly and said, “I suppose you right.”

Can there ever be a good time to die?

The Inopportune Nature of Death

In one sense, the answer is no. No matter our age or season of life, death proves unnatural…an interruption of all that is good and right. While officiating the funeral of a dear man who passed in his 80s, I watched as one of his children stood up and tearfully noted that he had left too soon. She longed for a future that would still contain his funny stories and loving antics…things that had enriched his children and grandchildren’s lives for decades. As that day made clear, the human heart remains perpetually at odds with the idea of death.

Where God to come down from heaven in a whirlwind and ask us to name the time and location of our loved one’s death, I suspect none of us would be able to pick a point on the eternal timeline. We know only this world and that knowledge is woefully fragmented and incomplete. We do not see the eternal threads of consequence that make sense of all God’s actions and that make statements like “God works all things together for the good of those who love him,” true (Rom 8:28). Had April lived to be 49, 69, or even 89, I still would not have wanted to wake up in a world without her any more than I do today. As I tearfully told her that day in the car, “We are going to be miss so…so…very much. There is no good time to die.” In one sense, it truly is the greatest of evils.

The Gracious Nature of Death

Thankfully, the knowledge of eternity that we lack God possesses. Though we might be tempted to charge God with taking our loved one to soon whether that be the 1 day mark or the 100 year mark, God’s timing proves perfect. As Psalm 116:15 reminds us, the death of the righteous is precious to the Lord. God takes our loved one home at just the right moment. As Joseph Caryl wisely noted,

Whenever the godly die, it is harvest time with him; though in a natural capacity he be cut down while he is green, and cropped in the bid or blossom; yet in his spiritual capacity he never dies before he is ripe.

God never makes a mistake. He brings us home when he does because he loves both our loved one and us. Jesus delayed going to see Lazarus not only because he loved his friend but because he loved Mary and Martha as well (John 11:5). All things work together for good for both those in heaven and those on earth. No saint above will fault God for having brought them to heaven too soon. As Paul notes, “To dies is gain (Phil 1:21,23).

Why Christians Die

As much as I grieve the loss of my wife, I know she did not grieve her entrance into heaven. The end, the telos, of our existence is not a lifetime of free Starbucks, a winning lottery ticket, nor a fulfilling marriage. As C.S. Lewis noted in his essay the “Weight of Glory,” the very fact that men and women desire a utopia, a heaven, reveals that mankind was made for that eternal destination. To remain forever in the sorrows of earth lacking full access to God and surrounded by brokenness would prove a cruelty and not a mercy. I know a dear man decades my senior who has buried many a friend and family member. Though thankful for his long life, his face grows heavier with each passing year as his sorrows tied to pain and death continue to accumulate.

Where this life never to end, I suspect our sorrows would become insurmountable, and our salvation would remain incomplete R.C. Sproul helpfully noted,

Jesus bore all our sins on the cross. Yet none of us is free from sin in this life…The healing that is in the cross is real…But the fullness of healing from both sin and disease takes place in heaven. We still must die at our appointed times…There is no route to heaven except through this valley.

There is a reason God kicked Adam and Eve from the garden and barred them from the tree of life. An eternity marred by fallenness proves to be the very antithesis of the hope of the gospel. As our hunger for something better reveals, this world does not need to be preserved but remade. For the Christian, death becomes the means by which God ushers us into his presence and thereby satisfies our hunger for eternal goodness. The apostle Paul beautifully writes,

For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4).

Just as Christ went from death to glory so to do all his children the moment their heart stops. To quote the apostle Paul again, “Death is swallowed up in victory. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting (1 Cor 15:54-55)?” Death ends in glory.

Good & Bad

So, can there ever be a good time to die? In one sense, no. I wish my April here with me today and forever. We were supposed to grow old together and have those rocking chairs on the front porch that she always talked of. We were supposed to raise a family together. But in the truest of senses, yes there is a good time to die…that perfect moment when God’s ushers our loved ones to their true end…their true purpose. And for my April, that day was June 25, 2022.

Grief, Thankfulness & The Delima of October 20th

Ten years ago, I approached this day with nervous trepidation. I had never lived with a woman as husband and wife. I fully anticipated that my future with April would be glorious. But I had no clue what my life was about to become.

Turns out all the nerves that got me up and dressed by 5AM on October 20, 2012 were justified in the same way this grade school boy once rightly burst with enthusiasm the morning before his first game at Wrigley Field. But what I experienced these past nine plus years defied even my expectations of what could be.

As we turned the corner into the wedding chapel’s back annex, I kissed my purplely person for the second time and felt pure happiness. All was well with me. I was her husband, and she was my bride. We went on to kiss so much those first few days that we practically rubbed her chin raw. Oh, to love and be loved.

The Last 9+ Years

The sweetness of that first week translated into a lifetime of joy. I got the awesome privilege of watching my bride go from being the girl who put chili powder on our cinnamon toast to one of the best cooks I know. She mastered the skill of chopping fresh vegetables, of making log cakes and of crafting her own recipes not from personal interest per se but from love. Truth be told, she hated to eat and always found the consumption of food to be a chore. But she loved caring for me and our kids and found joy in living out the command to be hospitable. The girl who once thought her home should be a castle helped me see that our home needed not to be a fortress but an oasis for the weary and heavy laden…our brothers and sisters in Christ.

As she grew, we grew. She proved to be my greatest spiritual companion these last years. On the inside of our wedding rings were inscribed the words, “sanctification buddy.” She fulfilled that promise. I benefited greatly from her insights into theology as we talked through the Scriptures that we were memorizing together and hashed out my sermon texts both before and after the service. During those early years of ministry, we also learned together the importance of placing our trust in the Lord as opposed to our feelings. We were the worst of prophets.

Though she possessed a gifted mind that made her a great counselor, her faith was not academic. She patiently bore with my insecurities and failures, extending mercy and forgiveness when I sinned against her. And long before anyone else, she encouraged me to be a senior pastor. She cheered me on through every difficult season of study and church reform resolutely saying, “I don’t know why you worry; I always knew you could do it. I never doubted you.” She had a resolve when it came to her theology and to living out that theology and yet a sweet spirit of submission and charity. She delighted in being my sanctification buddy and I hers.

And she could pray. When she wrestled through her own failures, doubts, and sorrows, she cast her cares on the Lord, trusting him to care for her. She pleaded with God to grow our church, to heal her body, and to save our children.

As the prayers recorded in her journals evidence, my dear April was also the best of moms. She delighted in her children even when they were spilling food, writing on the walls, and throwing up all at the same time. And as she cooked, cleaned, and homeschooled our three children, she took note of their special personalities and delighted in encouraging Lacey’s passion for music, Lily’s love of board games and puzzles, and Luke’s passion for basketball. I loved parenting with her and hearing her joyfully recount all that she and the kids had done.

I also had the privilege of helping her understand that its ok for boys to bleed and that winning a three-hour sit-in with your three-year-old does produce huge long-term benefits. And she showed me how to slowly lean into a hug from a lonely four-year-old and how to patiently delight in a six-year-old’s silly story performed on a makeshift stage. We made a great team.

Perhaps most importantly of all, she was fiercely loyal to me. I was hers. As she would tell me often, “Peter, I chose you.” She was no man’s captive. She dated me, married me, and stayed with me because her heart overflowed with love for me. She sacrificed for me at every turn, allowing me to get my counseling certification, to pursue my PhD, and to serve as a senior pastor. One of her last prayers consisted of a request that God would bless me with a happy PhD graduation. She endured the hardships of ministry gracefully and embraced having to walk through seasons where she functioned as a single parent. She never once resented me for having to visit this person or attend that meeting. If anything, she spent those lonely and exhausting hours praying for me, our children, and our church family. About a month before she died, I knew things were on the brink of disaster because a church emergency arose and for the first time in our marriage, she asked me to stay.  

Even as her breast cancer began to get the upper hand, she pressed forward because of her love for me. She did not want me to suffer the piercing loneliness that I now know all too well. In many ways, she anticipated far better than I the sorrow that was about to crash over me and did all in her power to protect me. She was an amazing woman. She loved me. Oh, what a joy it was to come home to her, to talk with her, to be with her. As I told her often, the only thing I wish I had done differently in our courtship was marry her sooner. Oh, to have loved and been loved by April Gentry Witkowski.

What Now?

And now ten years later… my sanctification buddy is gone. Our marriage is over. There are no cards to write nor dates to plan. Once again, I find my heart on an October 20th filled with nervous trepidation. I have no clue what tomorrow will bring and cannot predict what form God’s deliverance will take. As I noted before, I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. And while I struggle to wait patiently upon the Lord, I face the daunting task of trying to make sense of this day that meant something so very different just a few short months ago.

How does one both appreciate what was and push forward towards what could be? What does one do with what was once his anniversary?

In one of her journals a few months back, my dear April penned these gracious words:

I can’t express…how much my marriage means to me. Peter is more than a best friend or partner; he is the one whom my soul loves. He is the one I always want to be with. I never grow tired of talking to him…You gave me the exact husband that I always prayed for. Thank you! Thank you for giving me something so great!

I suspect that I will never fully know what to do with October 20th. But I know where to begin. I will follow the lead of my dear wife one last time and thank our heavenly father for what was. Or to quote my dear April, “Thank you for giving me something so great!”

May God be so merciful to me again.