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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Rejoicing in Lament" (J. Todd Billings)

TITLE: Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ
AUTHOR: J. Todd Billings
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015, (224 pages).

What happens to your faith when the doctor said you have cancer? Where can one turn to? How can one deal with this personally and within the community? Not easy we may say. The author of this shares with us his own journey through cancer, chemotherapy, and frequent bouts of lament in the Lord. Diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 39, scheduled for chemotherapy treatments, and forced to reckon with limited time, scholar and theologian, J. Todd Billings, Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan shares a personal reflection of theology applied to life and impending death. When he shared about his cancer, the most encouraging comments he received was by a girl who wrote him a card with the words: "God is bigger than cancer." That sets him in perspective and a journey to praying through the Psalms, reflecting through the lament passages of Scripture, and learning to read passages on suffering as a cancer patient.

In his first six months of chemotherapy, Billings describes his spiritual learning in the first six chapters. He begins with his initial fog experience, not knowing what to expect when he shared about his cancer. He shares about some questions about life do not really have answers, at least during our time on earth. Those who tried will tend to give wrong answers, like the friends in Job. As far as pain, suffering, and the problem of evil goes, there are more questions than answers, more mysteries than solutions, and a greater need for personal comfort rather than an impersonal argument.  He clings to the lament psalms and other passages even as he endures the painful effects of chemotherapy. He realizes the loss that churches suffered when they simply bypassed the lament psalms during regular worship time.

Gradually, he weaves together praise, petition, lament, and prayer into one basking in the presence of God. That all 150 psalms point to God of hesed, or loving kindness and faithfulness.  He struggles with occasional guilt. He pours out his helplessness before God, stuck between a terrible disease and the apparent silence and non-action on God's part. How can one see the good in a situation when everything looks pretty bad. He moves to longing to be with God. Caring is not only limited to altruistic motivations but can also be an act of protest. It is a personal journey to counter the prevailing moods of evil by protesting with good works. He notices the underlying religious beliefs on American teens that believes in a distant god; a do-good life; about happiness as the primary construct of life; of God not needing to intervene/interfere unless necessary; and of good people going to heaven. He reflects upon death, and see death and dying as "surprising gift" to the Church. Like the question to ask a church-hopper or shopper: "Who would you like to bury you?" His perceptions on death and dying seem to be heightened. This contrasts with the death-denying attitude among many in the Western culture. He finds himself face to face with how the martyrs of old viewed death and dying. Behind the suffering is that longing for something better.

The final four chapters of the book start to look beyond the present suffering toward the future and the present reality. Billings gains several fresh insights on prayer, healing, and matters concerning what to do with illnesses like cancer. As far as healing is concerned, it has more to do with God's agenda and timing instead of ours. In prayer, we acknowledge that God is free to heal or not to heal at man's stated point of time. He observes how "quick-fix" spirituality tends to be tied to a "theology of glory" rather than "theology of the cross." With chemotherapy comes the side effects of balding. It is heartwarming to know of Billings's colleagues coming forward to extend solidarity by going bald themselves! Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn; be bald with those who are balding. Then there is prayer through honest cries and painful pleas. Learning to pray like Jesus on the way to the Cross is profoundly felt as Billings struggle with cancer continues. He battles with cancer and questions whether the chemotherapy drugs are "strong medicine" for good or "poison" for the body instead. Most significant of all, Billings learns more of what it really means to live in Christ and to die in Christ. For to be united with Christ means dying to self and putting to death our sinful nature. He reflects upon transplant, upon being given an engraftment, and see how the imperfect man receiving a new transplant. At the end of it all, it is clear that no one can suffer more than Christ. No one can claim to be in a worse shape than Jesus. That is why clinging onto Jesus remains one of the most comforting hopes.

As I read through the chapters, I sense a gradual sense of the author surrendering his future, his cancer treatments, his communities, and himself to God. Even as he feels losing control of himself, he grows in trust that God never loses control. God totally gets it. The Psalms and the laments enable him to look at life with new perspectives that are wider, more holistic, and very comforting. That is how one can move toward rejoicing even in lament. Thank you Dr Billings for sharing this painful and personal journey of yours with the rest of us. There is little on apologetics or vigorous argumentation. There is simply more of wanting to know God through the path of lament.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Brazos Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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