Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings

[A full disclaimer is needed at the outset. Todd Billings is a friend and neighbor. In fact, at the time of his diagnosis he was our next door neighbor. It was a diagnosis that hit us hard, as at that time our youngest son was in the midst of treatment for the cancer that would eventually end his life. It is my son, Oliver, that Todd refers to at one point in the book. While this relationship would incline one to think I’ll find favor with the book, it actually creates more risk for me to be hurt by what he writes. If that had happened, I would have remained silent. Instead, I offer my reflections on a book that helps me to wrestle with the loss in my life.]

rejoicing in lamentI’ve read many books and articles dealing with loss and the Christian faith. While some of these have addressed core questions, most offer glib advice and cliches. A notable exception is Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Revealed, which combines his own grief with his faith in a way that is both authentic and enlightening. Add to the list of essential works on grief and our faith, Todd Billings’ new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Billings uses the Psalms as the basis for exploring his own diagnosis of multiple myeloma at the age of 39, and the result is a call to believers to embrace lament as part of their faith. Well, it says much more than that. Still, finding someone who shows how scripture gives us permission to mourn, rage, cry, and beg to our God, in the midst of the covenant relationship, is inspiring.

I’m not a theologian, so I’ll leave the deep theological arguments to those better equipped for such a discussion. I approach the book as a Christian father who lost the youngest of his four children to neuroblastoma cancer. A father who watched helplessly for nearly three years as the disease killed his little boy; a father seemingly helpless to help a family move forward after losing their son. Billings has my attention early on as he addresses the question of evil in the world. So much of what we think revolves around the question, how could this happen? How could God allow my little boy to die? How could God allow a young father to develop an incurable cancer? Any explanation of this that I have seen falls dreadfully short of a satisfactory answer. Personally, I expect no answer and have to come to see my lack of understanding as my inability to comprehend God.  Billings, I was thrilled to see, agrees.

“…in my view the biblical ‘answer’ to the speculative problem of evil is this (drum roll, please): we don’t have an answer. It’s not that the Bible hasn’t addressed the question so that we as humans are left with a shoulder-shrugging ‘I don’t know.’ The Bible has addressed the question, and God’s response–as in the book of Job–is that humans don’t have an answer to the problem of evil, and we shouldn’t claim that we have one. It should remain an open question, one that we continue to ask in prayer and in our lives in response to the world’s suffering”(21). [Although I will not go into detail here, Billing’s exploration of Job in Chap. 2 should not be missed].

Billings sees this question laid bare at my son’s funeral. Our priest, Billings writes, repeatedly said “God has called Oliver to himself,” and “God has chosen to call Oliver at this time.” Billings response to this is honest and insightful. “Wow. A part of my heart cried, ‘Surely not!’ …The priest was confessing that God is sovereign King even in the suffering and death of Oliver. There was sting to this–implicating God in the struggle with Oliver’s cancer and his death at a young age–but also a reassurance. The sting is the theodicy question as an open question. It hurts. The death of a child is not the way things are supposed to be–why did God allow this to happen? Yet the reassurance is that Oliver did not just slip through God’s fingers. In life and death, Oliver was in God’s hands…We trust in the goodness and power of the Almighty, even though the reasons for the suffering are beyond human wisdom”(66).

Note that Billings does not say we should joyfully accept it as “God’s will” or just say “trust in God.” Instead, he challenges us to continue to bring the question to God in prayer. We must not ignore the question, but faithfully approach God for understanding in the midst of suffering. Billings refuses to let us retreat to a fatalistic approach to life. “We protest, lament, and act with compassion even when we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem”(76). We are called to compassionate action in the midst of an evil world. We do this not because we can change the world, but because our faith calls for action in the midst of evil. “As our lips say ‘They kingdom come,’ we pray–and act–as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4)”(76).

Of course, such prayer may not touch those in crisis. How do we respond to people who face evil, indeed horror, when tragedy strikes their family? Billings points us back to scripture.
“Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
        my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
        my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
        and my years by groaning;
        my strength fails because of my affliction,

        and my bones grow weak” (Ps. 31:9-10)

Billings says that since his diagnosis, “I’ve found that my Christians know how to rejoice about answered prayer and also how to petition God for help, but many don’t know what to do when I express sorrow and loss or talk about death”(41). This is difficult for people in general, but as Christians it shows the limits of our faith. Are we afraid to acknowledge our inability to respond to grief with anything but lament? As someone who struggled through his son’s illness and death,  I didn’t want assurances of his happiness in Heaven or God’s love. It is preciously because I love and worship God that I can cry out to him, and I want others to join me in that lament. That is difficult to do, and prior to my son’s illness, I failed others in that area.

This is not a pessimistic theology. Billings wants us to celebrate all that God has given us through praise and rejoicing. The Psalmists balance their laments with songs of praise. But they still lament. “A theology of the cross is not a joyless path but one with tears of joy and celebration as well as tears of lament” (177). In a wonderful passage, Billings shows how his moments of joy (his wedding, the arrival of a child) sometimes highlight times of lament. “You need to live as a mortal” (93). In doing so, we more fully recognize God’s sovereignty in all areas of our life.

Billings also explores the power of prayer in the midst of tragedy. He recalls that the prayers of healing for my young son were not granted. How could God allow this?

Again, this brings us back to the theodicy question, and Billings points us to Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. Jesus prays for the cup of suffering to be taken away. “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death”(Heb. 5:7). God could save Jesus, and he chooses not to. God could have saved my son’s life, but he did not. God could cure Todd, but still he suffers. What does this mean? “The problem is not God’s lack of power, nor a deficiency in God’s love. The denial of Jesus’ petition does not arise from a failure to ask for another way than the cross or a lack of faith in the God of power and love. Jesus presents his heart to the Father in Gethsemane as a way to bring his will into alignment with the God of power and love who wills and works in mysterious, hidden ways: through the cross” (127).

Those seeing God as a vending machine — insert the prayer and get what you paid for, are at a loss when their prayers are not answered as expected. Billings says such an approach misses the understanding of Christ crucified. “we can open our hearts before our loving Father in prayer, but as we pray, we pray on a path toward a particular end: ‘Thy will be done,’ like our Lord did in the garden”(128).

This book is important for many reasons, but what strikes me most is Billings call for an understanding of lament in our Christian faith. “Lamenting with the psalmists is a practice that is counter to our consumer culture. Lament fixes our eye’s on God’s promises and brings the cries of confusion and pain–our own and those of others–before the covenant Lord” (177). What Billings has given us here is the ability to cry out to God in lament, and know that we do so with the voices of all those before us. The psalmists show a people groaning in pain, but doing so with an understanding of God’s promise.

If you want to learn more about this important book, visit this blog and watch the video below.
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How to Handle Adversity

how to handle adversityWell, I hesitated about blogging on this book. If you take a look at my blog, you’ll note I do not follow any set format. Poetry, fiction, essays, and non-fiction books fit in a variety of genres. As a Christian, I’ve also never hesitated to write about books I read pertaining to my faith. The “problem” with being a Christian is that many people typecast you, which we are better at doing to others rather than having done to us (I know I am). Yet, I like stretching out, so here I look at a book written by someone likely typecast as a fundamentalist.

Background: My youngest child (I have four) was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer at age 4. After over 2 1/2 years of the best treatment he could get, he passed away just over a year ago (May 7, 2013) at the age of 6. I remember sitting in the waiting room everyday while he was going through radiation, and I would pick up Charles Stanley’s “In Touch” magazine and read his column. This is not something I would normally read, but when waiting for your child during radiation, you grab something. Anything. The typecast of the fundamentalist is that of fire and brimstone, but Stanley’s work was always friendly. Grandfatherly even (and he is in his 80s, so that makes sense). He wrote as one who knows his beliefs are right, and is comfortable talking with those who may disagree with him. In other words, instead of being defensive, he was open minded.

Because of what our family has experienced, I’m naturally drawn toward writings addressing grief, evil, and the Christian faith. When I was offered a Kindle deal on Stanley’s book, How to Handle Adversity, I decided to take a more serious look on how Stanley would address my way of life.

Stanley pulls no punches, and I appreciate his honesty. I certainly did not agree with him allSermonCentral-Contributor-Charles-Stanley_160x190 the time, but he does not hesitate to state his beliefs. A question that often arises in the midst of adversity, and certainly in the death of my little boy, is “why?” Why did this happen? Why to this child? Why to any child?

[Note: Given the context, I’ll follow Stanley’s reference to God as a male, and the capitalization of the pronouns.]

I’m comfortable knowing that such an answer is beyond my grasp. I don’t know why this happened, but I still believe in the goodness of God. Stanley is more clear in his thinking: “Some things are so important to God that they are worth interrupting the happiness and health of His children in order to accomplish them.”

As a result of this thinking, Stanley sees adversity coming from three different areas: God, Satan, and sin. The sin area is the easiest to understand, and answers the “why” clearly. If my sinful life leads to my adversity, I do not have far to search in finding the problem. And it is easier to address and overcome.

As for coming from God, Stanley offers many ways we benefit from adversity.  “Adversity, however, is not simply a tool. It is God’s most effective tool for the advancement of our spiritual lives.” Not surprisingly, Stanley often turns to Paul’s letters and life as an example of someone who saw adversity as God’s working in his life (including shipwrecks, prison, betrayal, and the mysterious “thorn” in his side).

Stanley (who keeps his arguments based on a rather literal interpretation of Scripture) also points out what he calls “the old standby” of adversity Scripture, James 1:2-4

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

While noting that these verses are often used to oversimplify sermons on adversity, he sees the foundation for our thinking in this verse. It clearly impacts his direction as he explores the areas where we benefit from adversity: we focus attention on God, are reminded of His love, pushed to self-examination, see His faithfulness demonstrated, and allows us to comfort others.

I’m not sure why God cannot do all this in less painful ways, which is where I see Stanley’s argument falling apart. He can give us reasons he thinks we suffer, and he can back it up with how he sees Scripture supporting that, but no one really knows why. If it was that clear, there would be a lot fewer books written about it.

Stanley goes from here to talk about our response to adversity, which he obviously states needs to be positive for our faith. Becoming bitter, withdrawn, and angry are ways we turn away from God, at the very time we need to be trusting in Him.

One area which surprised me was Stanley’s take on Satan. “You know that if God is behind it, He is going to use it for your good. If Satan is behind it, you know he works under God’s supervision.” In other words, even the work of Satan falls under God’s domain (which makes theological sense), but quite often we see this as the battleground: God vs. Satan. I’m glad Stanley does not slip into the error of blaming all bad things on Satan — but it is still confusing as to why God would allow Satan to do this (except, for Stanley, the reasons given above explain why). My view of Satan differs greatly, but is not the focus of this review. Still, it seems Stanley’s theology does not match his literal reading of Scripture, so he hits a wall here.

In the end, perhaps the book can be judged on its success. As someone dealing with adversity (to put it mildly), I do find much of what Stanley saying to be true. My faith has grown, but on the other hand, I’ve see other people’s faith destroyed by similar events. Stanley’s advice will help some, and miss the point with others.

I was impressed by Stanley’s writings, since people with so many books to their credit often get sloppy. His tone is friendly and welcoming, he knows his Scripture passages, and he knows that some of what he says may sound glib — he is concerned about hurting people. In the end, that is why I like the book. I may not agree with all of it, but Stanley seems like someone you can talk with and instead of becoming angry with disagreement, he’ll engage you in conversation. That is a way I would not mind being typecast.

Makoto Fujimura’s “Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture”

Refractions_coverE-380x570Makoto Fujimura is one of those rare animals — a Christian and an artist thriving in the secular world while holding firm to his faith. Born in Boston and trained in the United States, he received his MFA from Tokyo National University as a scholar in Nihonga, a Japanese-style of painting. His excellent work there earned him a chance to be the first non-Japanese citizen to take part in their lineage program. While studying, he became a committed Christian, which changed his direction in life and art.makoto fujimura

This book is a collection of essays, mainly culled from his “Saturday morning essays.” As with any collection of essays, some will strike the reader more than others. In addition, many are stronger within their cultural context, while others escape such limitations. Nevertheless, all of them raise questions and offer insight which will challenge the reader to re-see the world.

One of Fujimura’s greatest strengths is seen in an essay such as “Dances for Life,” in which he makes an impassioned argument for the importance of dance. Although a visual artist, Fujimura clearly loves art of all genres. “There is something primal about dance that transcends all of the conventional concerns. Dancers embody the very ideal of the arts and fuse the spirit with the body. In other words, dance incarnates, and dancers bring this fusion into their bodies.” Many Christians are uncomfortable with dance companies and dance as an art form (and I say this as someone who has booked many dance companies in our Christian community), and Fujimura challenges them. “Christians should be the first in line to see and applaud this fusion of body and soul. Christ is not an ideology, a sentiment, or a mental image, but a fusion of body and Spirit.”

From his "Grace" series

From his “Grace” series

A natural educator, Fujimura also sees art teaching us how to live daily. In “Surfacing Dolphins,” he talks about visiting art students at a college, and their reluctance to share their art. When he asks for works they are not proud of, they bring out plenty of examples. “We live in a culture of perfection, or at least in the superficial resemblance of things perfect….Failures teach us more than successes.” As he does in all these essays, Fujimura relates his experiences to his faith, and with failure ties in the idea of repentance. “I have learned from Scripture to pay attention to works in my life of which I am not proud. They speak to teach me. I have learned that what the ancients called ‘repentence’ is a journey of coming home to a place where all our wretched works rest, but also where that our wretchedness is overcome by light.”

four quartets a

From his “Four Quartets” series

Perhaps Fujimura’s commitment to art is summarized best in a speech he gave in 2005, published here as “Why Art?” “By continuing to create and imagine a better world, we live. We have no alternative today. The path of apathy, the path of cynicism, and the path of terrorists have incarnated their realities in our backyards. To have hope is no longer an optimist’s escapism–it is the only path to the future.”

A reader will find a range of topics, including many essays on the visual arts, in these 23 essays. After reading these (or before) visit his excellent website at http://www.makotofujimura.com/  and watch his 6 minute video on his latest work (which also gives you some background on him).

As is clear, this is a book I highly recommend. It is refreshing to see Christian faith and art seen as supporting one another. Side note: Having just finished Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, I’m curious if Fujimura has read the book (and if so, his thoughts on it). The struggle to balance faith and art are essential to that novel.