"Rejoicing in Lament" by J. Todd Billings. A Review
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
C.S. Lewis once stated, “If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones – bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas” (“Mere Christianity,” 128). But for many people theology is simply dusty, drab, dispassionate, desiccated drivel. And then into the mix life happens, or death, bringing tragedy and theology to meet and clash in the sparring ring. It’s right here, in all of the sweat, the grit and the grappling, that J. Todd Billings, research professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, presents his own, very personal , tussle with life-threatening cancer and life-enriching theology . His soon to be published 224 page paperback, “Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ” displays the beauty of how his Reformed and Calvinist theology worked into, throughout, and along with the shock of the diagnosis, the grueling treatments and the fatiguing recovery. This is a book where calamity and creed come together, all scuffling and brawling, which then morph into dancing and pirouetting.
The chapters of “Rejoicing in Lament” sequentially walk the reader through the autobiographical scenes of Billings’ crawl along his ongoing experiences with multiple myeloma, periodically incorporating entries from his CarePages. As the author takes us through each stage, he ties in salient theological aspects, tackling subjects like the problem of evil, the mystery of divine providence, the place of faithful lamentation while longing for the new heavens and new earth, the significance of the church, the right emphasis in prayer, regeneration, and God’s impassibility. The author’s goal in pulling together tragedy and theology is to shake us loose from the dreamy middle class American mirage that says we have a divine right to the good life, the pain-free life, the prosperous life, the health-filled life. And once set free from this entitlement myth to draw us upward into our heritage in Christ, a durable heritage we have even when faced with disease, dying and death; “Our lives are not our own, and our stories have been incorporated into the great drama of God’s gracious work in the world in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. As we come to sense our role in this drama, we find that it is a path of lament and rejoicing, protest and praise, rooted in trust in the Triune God, the central actor; we can walk on this path even while the fog is thick. For God is bigger than cancer. God is bigger than death. The God of Jesus Christ is the God of life, whose loving promises will be shown as true in the end. Until that time, we wait with the psalmist for the Lord and hope in his Word” (15-6).
One recurrent focus in “Rejoicing in Lament” is the use of the Psalms, with all of their hope, anger, complaint, lament and rejoicing. In some very tangible ways this is a “how-to” book with regard to integrating the Psalms into our prayers, our cries of “why?” and “how come?” and “how long, O LORD?”, as well as our prayers on behalf of others who find themselves flooded by misfortune. “…praying the Psalms allows every part of us to come before the Triune God, to be seen by him as his adopted son or daughter – to praise, complain, and even vent before the Almighty. God can handle our laments and our petitions. Our laments pivot on God’s promises” (14). To take up the Psalms on our lips, and in our prayers, is to wrap up our griefs, woes, joys, and delights and hand them back to God in the words of Scripture. To do this is not an act of irreligion, but an “act of faith and trust” (55). And as Christians united to Christ, we also do this Psalm-praying in solidarity with Christ Jesus himself. This means that we “don’t have to suppress anger or confusion or misery before coming before the Almighty. With an open heart we bring all of this before the covenant Lord, entrusting him to hear our cries and moving toward trust in his loving-faithfulness and covenant promises. Moreover, since we pray the Psalms with Christ and in Christ, all of our prayer resonates with the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” ( . . . ) we are displaced from our old self, which seeks autonomy, to find our true life in that of the crucified Lord, the One to whom the Spirit conforms us” (172). From one end of the book to the other, praying along with the Psalms is helpfully displayed, encouraged, and modelled.
“Rejoicing in Lament” addresses several relevant theological categories as they tangle around his tragedy, as mentioned above. But two of the subjects that I found genuinely exceptional had to do with God’s providence, and God’s Church. In Chapter 4, “Lamenting to the Almighty,” the author goes toe-to-toe with theodicy, God’s providence in the face of evil. Here Billings challenges both those who raise “the problem of evil” and two Christian answers that cause more trouble than they resolve: Fatalism and Open Theism. In the end, the author – rightly it seems to me – leaves the problem of evil open: that God is utterly good, truly sovereign, genuinely employs humans free-choosing, does not automatically use mechanistic algorithms of “evil is always the result of badness, or weakness of faith,” and finally, at the end of the day, God simply doesn’t answer our questions about why there is evil in the present world. “The biblical practice of leaving suffering as an open question before God can be difficult to maintain, particularly as we consider the providential care and power of God. Yet leaving the problem of suffering and evil as an open question is essential if we are to affirm Scripture’s testimony about who God is and who we are” (57).
“Rejoicing in Lament” also picks up the role of the Church in this clash of calamity and creed, but the way the author approaches the subject will likely surprise some. In the sixth Chapter, “Death in the Story of God and in the Church,” Billings carefully describes how the Christian congregation is one – if not the only remaining – institution that mingles together in a single community births, baptisms, bridals and burials; “It’s a marvelous gift that the church who baptizes and celebrates new life in Christ also does funerals, mourns with the dying, and celebrates the promise of resurrection in Christ. For some young people, the church is one of the only places that they are exposed to death in a real, personal way – where someone they knew has died” (99). The author recounts how death and life, grief, betrayal, joy and loyalty come together in a congregation’s worship, through Word and Sacrament; through the Gospel declaration, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, ( . . . ), he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.3-4); and the Sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, which both announce Christ’s death and ours, and Christ’s resurrection which gives us life! Therefore the Christian congregation is “a gathering of sinners who are both old and young, healthy and sick, growing and dying. But, by God’s promise, the church is also people who move through birth, health, dying, and even death on a journey to resurrection because they belong to Jesus Christ” (101). In an unexpected turn, all of this brings the author to ask “church shoppers” one conspicuous question; of all the congregations you have visited, “who would you like to bury you” (99)?
“Rejoicing in Lament” is a book where calamity and creed come together, all scuffling and brawling, which then morph into dancing and pirouetting. As readers work their way through each page and chapter, they will likely come to places where they will stop and weep, blush, give thanks, reflect on their own collusion with the entitlement mirage, repent, and cry out with the father of the boy with the convulsing, destroying spirit, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9.24)! I warmly and heartily commend to you “Rejoicing in Lament”
My earnest thanks to Brazos Press who generously provided a copy of this book for this review.
[Feel free to print, post or publish this review; but as always, please give credit where credit is due. Mike]
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