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.

Processing Grief: Making Sense of Funerals & Weddings

Among pastors a well-known maxim exists that funerals are better than weddings. While weddings can be destroyed by bridezillas and can be dissolved quicker than they can be planned, funerals universally succeed in their mission. No one pops out of the ground two years later, declaring that they never truly were in love with that piece of ground or that they found death to be a rather antiquated idea derived from one’s patriarchal forefathers. The above maxim transcends denominations for it rest upon the certitude and the inescapable finality of death. But for all its common sense, the maxim fundamentally fails to account for one basic reality of death: those saints left behind have every reason to envy those who have gone before.

Marriage, Singleness, and All That

I have never stood up for the bridal march and thought, “I wish I were the groom.” Sure, I rummage through the rhetorical questions that everyone asks such as, “Him and her…how; she’s seen his dumbo ears, right; and surely, he knows about the doll collection?” But, I never once wanted their relationship or their wedding.

Once while at a ‘seminary’ wedding, I had the good fortune of being seated next to two other former boyfriends of the bride. Seemingly, we all earned our invitation through having sacrificially feed and entertained the bride-to-be in the months leading up to her relationship with her soon-to-be husband. Though we collectively spent that wonderfully awkward afternoon mulling about as the seminary version of the lost boys, none of us objected to the marriage. None of us shared her desire to ‘redeem’ October 31 through a Christian marriage service. (Again, score one for the seminary bubble). But thankfully, the bride had found a man who did and rightfully became one with him.

And the three of us? We were all the better for their decision. You see, the glories of marriage depend upon the object of that marriage just as much as they do upon the institution itself.

Over the next few years, that conclusion became solidified in my mind as I watched poor marriages sideline men from ministry and women from the mission field. Few things prove more damming and destructive to one’s life than marrying poorly. In other words, what do those who trade their whole life for honeymoon sex or a ticket out of mom and dad’s house get in return for their sacrifice? Not much. As wise king Solomon noted a few thousand years ago, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house share with a quarrelsome wife (Pr. 21:9).”

Still the thought of being single and thirty seemed rather depressing to my very, single and aging twenty-something self at that time. In addition to adopting some very sad dating strategies, I also decided I would head off to the jungles of the pacific if I reached thirty with no wedding ring. In my mind, the solution to the loneliness of singleness was to maximize the usefulness of that singleness. As the missionary and martyr, Jim Elliot, famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Why not hold my single life loosely and give all for Christ or die trying? In one sense, that sentiment was a jest. But in another sense perhaps, it was more real than most realized.

Thankfully, I never reached that moment of decision as I encountered the glorious and very purplely April Gentry at the seasoned age of 27. I got that ring and a marriage far more wonderful than I could have ever imagined with more than 22 months to spare. God was kind.

But with the passing of my dearest love, the thought of seeking an opportunity where I might once again give all for Christ has become more appealing. My soul resonates with the idea of being a chaplain in the killing fields of Ukraine or of working discreetly in Afghanistan to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why not risk it all for God?

Of Puritans and Dying

The Puritan writers of old spoke of death as being a harbor from the of storms life…a kind of Ellis Island like portal to heaven. Indeed, those who have trusted in Christ at death get to leave their ships riddled with temptations and infected with the lust of the flesh. At death, the Christian exchanges all that misery to gain residence next to Jesus for eternity. As Thomas Watson noted, “Death…takes away a flower and gives a jewel.”

And what of you and me? We remain in the storm, bracing for the next wave of trials and temptations that is sure to come crashing over us. The choppy seas of sorrow churn without end.

While I would never swap places with any other soon-to-be husband no matter the bride’s looks, bank account, or character, I would eagerly trade places with any saint now at my Lord’s side no matter how impoverished their faith was in this life. The glory of heaven has one object, Jesus Christ. In other words, death contains a universal object while marriage has many ends. Thus, we have every reason to be envious of the dead for our path to heaven proves to be the same as there’s. To quote John Flavel, “[We] are yet rolling and tossing upon the tempestuous sea, but your friend is gone into the quiet of the harbor; desire rather to be there than that [she] were at sea with you again (71).” Oh, to be in the harbor with my late wife.

What Now?

Though I long for heaven, I suspect I still have a good many days left. I won’t be running off to the wilds anytime soon. The Father has lovingly anchored my life in the sholes of normalcy next to my three precious children and my loving church family. Said another way, my life will not be shaped through the extraordinary storms of bullets and bombs but through the ordinary storms of less-than-stellar family meals and full laundry hampers. I also suspect this route to be the harder of the two since my imagination projects the battlefield as being the path of least resistance. But alas, here I am.

Still, I concur with Thomas Brooks who said, “all the strange, dark, deep, and changeable providences that believers meet with shall further them in their way to heaven, in their journey to happiness.” While to die is gain, to live is Christ. I very much believe that new joys will continue to accumulate. New loves will come. To quote King Solomon again, “There is a time to mourn and a time to dance (Ecc 3:4).” And just as God guided David when he fought Goliath, I know he will walk with me as I make a mess of my girls’ hair for umptieth time in our quest for a new normal. My battle is the Lord’s just as much as was David’s. His steadfast love will guide me. Hope remains.

But the realities of the storm will also continue. New waves of grief, temptation, and sorrow will come. Funerals will still find me out. And when they do, I suspect I will once again leave envious of the saint in the coffin before me. Indeed, the end of the thing is better than the beginning (Ecc. 7:2; 8).