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.  

From Grief to Hope and a Lifting Fog

As the soft rain struck the ground atop my late wife’s grave with the relaxing rhythm of summer tranquility, a rather clarifying if not somewhat cruel thought snuck into the recesses of my brain. April’s closest earthly friends were now those grimy little worms wiggling about that damp Virginia soil. We who once were one in the most glorious and wonderful of ways were now forever separated by time and space until such measurements are no more. She under me, and I under her.

But instead of allowing the dark clouds hovering above her grave to stain my face afresh with tears, I just gazed out at the cemetery and sighed…a deep abiding sigh. I miss her deeply. But at that moment, I could not conjure up the wailing that had defined the first 6+ weeks that followed April’s death.

During those first 40 days or so, I cried and cried profusely. Everything from the pictures in my office to the pillows on my bed shattered the composure of my soul. I hated family meals. Instead of being able to share my day with my purplely person, I had to banish my thoughts to the confusing realm of inner dialogue while my kids bantered about the finer points of steam locomotives and the proper way to eat ketchup. Grief even accompanied the sweet joys of ministry. Those moments indirectly highlighted the wretched truth that my spiritual helper and greatest source of earthly wisdom was gone. As Lacey told me when she presented me with a new portrait complete with tears, “Daddy, you cry a lot.”

Being the planner and muddled visionary that I am, I attempted to estimate the ebb and flow of my grief almost from the moment April died. Though I now know such an enterprise is doomed to fail, I could not help myself. I predicted then that the dark misty cloud of sorrow that swept over my soul the morning after April’s death would remain over my heart at least into the early months of 2023.  

But shortly after the 6-week mark while driving home, that dark wet flog unexpectedly lifted. The hope of God blew afresh into my soul through the ordinary means of Christian fellowship, scripture memory, and prayer. That afternoon, I suddenly and inexplicably felt the goodness of God afresh for the first time in months. As Psalm 42 says, I could, “again praise you. My salvation and my God.” He was no longer a painful mystery to question but a loving Father to trust. On that Tuesday afternoon, I had tasted the goodness of God. That following Wednesday proved to be the first day without tears.  When Thursday arrived, I just sighed.

I do not believe that week represented the end of my grief, but rather the unpredictable changing nature of my sorrow. The external tears of those first weeks have seeped into the depths of my soul and formed a never-ending stream of loss. At times and without warning, it will still rush to the surface of my consciousness. The last few days have been particularly brutal. In years past, I never minded getting older but celebrating my 38th birthday as a single dad with three kids proved to be a vicious reminder of why death is so evil. I have lost a lifetime of goodness. The tears still come. I suspect they will continue to flow until I am reunited with my dear April in heaven which dries up all tears and sorrow. In other words, grief will undoubtedly always be my companion in some form. She cannot be buried. She cannot be escaped this side of heaven.

But, I also learned a few weeks back that grief has no right to banish hope. Rather, the two emotions work in tandem. We see this in the grand scheme of the Christian gospel. The grief of sin leads to the joy of faith and holiness. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted (Matt 5:4).”

The same proves true for this widower. When I come across our wedding photos, I cannot help but stop and appreciate the goodness of God represented in those mementos of love, joy, and happiness. October 20, 2012 was a good, good day. The loss of that goodness rightfully leads to tears. But, I must not remain forever in the sadness of that grief. No amount of tears spilled (not even a years’ worth) nor of time traversed can heal the heart. But hope founded upon the character of our God who promises to bottle our tears can.

When resting with Him, I am reminded that the blessings of time past do not represent the limits of God’s love but rather his great ability to bless me afresh. His love for me did not end when April died. In other words, the grief of today increasingly fills me with hope for tomorrow. I have come to understand that April’s story which so gloriously shaped my story points to the reality that Jesus is still working in my life for my good today. As the Psalmist reminds us, “By day the Lord commands he steadfast love and at night his song is with me (Ps 42:8).” In other words, the sorrows for what has been increasingly give me hope for what could be – albeit in a new and varied form. Grief must accompany my soul but hope also proves to be an equally close friend. She too will never be buried. And so…as I walk into tomorrow…I embrace the sorrow of today trusting that its end will be joy. May God be merciful.