Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Book Review: "Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ," by Todd Billings

At age 39 and as the father of two children, Dr. Todd Billings, theology professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, learned that he had a cancer of the bone marrow: multiple myeloma. The disease accounts for about 1% of cancer diagnoses and 2% of cancer deaths in the United States: the first number points to its rarity; the second relative to the first, to its lethalness. Indeed, while multiple myeloma remains without a cure, the extensive amount of research given to the malady over the last couple of decades has resulted in a doubling of the median life span from diagnosis:  it is now about 5 years. However, Billings is much younger than the typical myeloma patient, and some of his doctors think that his chances of living a decade are good.

He was 39 at diagnosis. The optimistic only give him a decent chance of making 50. In that case, he won't see his children reach junior high.

In the modern west, it is difficult not to regard longevity as a right -- and early death as an assault on human dignity. In addition, even those who are ardently opposed to the prosperity gospel will often feel the tug -- either internally or externally-- of the notion that adversity is a form of retribution and that ongoing adversity proves a lack of faith. For those who struggle against such views -- and for those simply trying to get their feet back under them after being jolted by hard realities, Billings has written this spiritual memoir combining theological reflection with his own ongoing experience of treatment for incurable cancer. The result, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, is a wonderful gift to those enduring similar suffering -- and to those that would minister to them.

"Rejoicing in Lament" is a book of theological reflection discussing big issues: how a good and powerful God can permit evil, the nature of prayer, and so forth; however, it is not reflection that takes place in a vacuum. Every section of the book mingles meditation on these themes with Billings' experience as a cancer patient. In fact, much of the discussion was taken from his CarePages entries written contemporaneously with the experiences that he is describing. 

And, much of what he describes provides insights that much of the church is in danger of losing, at the peril of its members. Billings emphasizes more than once that diverse sections of the church -- Reformed, Arminian, Roman, Eastern Orthodox -- have expressed truths now largely forgotten.  A large portion of the book is given to discussing the Psalms of lament, with lament involving both expressions of sorrow and protest that things are not as they are supposed to be. The Kingdom, while promised, has not yet come in its fulness, and in the meantime, things are not as they ought to be. In much of the modern western church, emotional expression has been reduced to celebration -- we even say nowadays that we go to funerals to celebrate. Whereas Calvin referred to the psalter as "the anatomy of the parts of the soul," the modern church now has a songbook that is, even projected, paper thin. The result is a hollowing out of the emotional life of the church in a way that also makes her superficial, particularly to those that are hurting.

Any Christian reflection on suffering would be expected to include a section on the Book of Job, and Billings does not disappoint. It is commonly said that Job tells us why there is suffering, though Job himself never learns that. In addition, Billings notes that Job's friends display the same redistributionist thinking about prayer and faith as is common in the modern world. To the contrary, God speaking out of the whirlwind tells us that frequently we will not know why He permits evil and suffering. Rather, Job's conclusion serves to remind us that God is God, and we are creatures. This theme is important to understanding much of the Bible beyond Job. Billings  writes, "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. It enables us to embrace two sides of the psalmists' testimony: that the covenant God of Israel is the sovereign and benevolent King, and that, because of God's covenant promises, we are to thank the lord when we see his promises come to fruition and complain to him in lament when we do not.... As the New Testament testifies, lament is part of the Christian life until the final kingdom comes." 

Perhaps Billings is at his most poignant when discussing Christian prayers for healing. While not denying the power of God to heal (and while not wanting to come across as the prayer police), Billings says that some prayers in that regard leave the one being prayed for feeling alienated. He pointedly notes that we don't typically pray for the restoration of amputated limbs while asking why a prayer that medicine will bring the cancer into remission shows a lack of faith. He contends that prayers should be more informed by the pattern of lament and trust found in the Psalms, as well as the kingdom focus of the Lord's Prayer.

One of the treatments for multiple myeloma involves transplants of one's own stem cells. In his final reflections following a procedure that was both difficult and successful, Billings writes, "[T]his process of displacement of our old self and incorporation into Christ is a long journey.  It is long because of he persistence of our sin, our love of life that moves away from God's ways and seeks out autonomy rather than communion with God and neighbor. But as I discovered anew during my time of recovery after the transplant, it is also a long journey because until the kingdom comes in its fulness, our lives will be ones both rejoicing and lamenting before our covenant Lord."

I highly recommend this book.