An Excerpt from "Rejoicing in Lament"

J. Todd Billings
Friday, May 1st 2015
May/Jun 2015

The Reviews section is usually reserved for critical engagement with important books of interest to our readers. We're changing gears slightly in this issue by featuring an excerpt of our friend J. Todd Billing's new book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015), which tackles the tough issues of grief and suffering. We often turn to Dr. Billings for his wise and winsome insight, and for those reasons we commend this excerpt of his new book to you.

On the morning after hearing the news that a precancerous malady was likely, with cancer possible, I was downstairs, shedding tears of pain and anxiety. Rachel came downstairs with our seventeen-month-old son, Nathaniel, while our daughter continued to sleep upstairs. At the breakfast table, I told Rachel that after researching online, I found that a precancerous malady would be very likely to eventually move into cancer’whether after ?ve years or ten years. This is not what we wanted for our family. This is not what we wanted for our lives. The fear, the uncertainty, was palpable.

As we wept together, Nathaniel started bawling in his high chair as well. He didn't know why Mom and Dad were crying, but he knew that this was not the normal breakfast routine. Rachel and I dried our tears and attempted to console Nathaniel. But his crying continued, big tears rolling down his face.

Several weeks later we received news that rather than a benign yet ominous precancerous malady, my illness was already cancer. Not only that, but the cancer had already been eroding my bones. After receiving this news, my doctor and I could see a likely explanation as to why I had been sick so many times in the last few years: pneumonia, bronchitis, a constant cold, and several other infections. My immune system had been compromised’a common symptom of my cancer. But within a week of this diagnosis, I was to start chemotherapy, which made my previous list of symptoms seem miniscule.

Chemotherapy is poison. Good chemotherapy is poison that is focused quite speci?cally on a particular cancer rather than a more "general" poison for the body. But many of the medications that I started that week were to counter the side effects of the chemotherapy itself. Overnight, the number of pills I took each day multiplied, and my schedule quickly ?lled up with visits to the cancer office to receive an IV and chemo shots. I was usually the youngest patient at the cancer office by decades.

There is nothing introspective about physical pain. I recall one procedure, a bone marrow biopsy, where I was lying on my stomach on a paper sheet on top of a treatment table. A large needle was placed into one of the bones in my back. Even though there was a local anesthetic, the pain shot throughout my body's bones like an electric shock. When I sat up, there was blood on the table and on the ?oor. My friend, who had given me a ride to the cancer center, gave me a forced smile as I stood up. The paper sheet was wet with sweat.

When the pain hit, all I could do was focus my mind in a certain direction. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me . . . through Christ who strengthens me, through Christ . . ." Paul's words to the Philippians came to mind (Phil. 4:13) and became my mind's focus point during the pain. It wasn't a meaningless mantra. I needed to be confessing a truth that made such endurance of pain both possible and purposeful’going before God's presence in the raw pain.

At other times during chemo, I struggled with the effects of steroids, which would make my mind race like . . . it was on steroids! For some myeloma patients, the effect was not just an undesired mental alertness but a burst of physical energy: the wife of one patient told me with a smile that she would wake up the morning after her husband had been on steroids, finding that he had been up all night cleaning the house! For me, the steroids caused a ?ood of mental activity for a few days and then a steep slide into deep fatigue on other days. My dosage varied, but on some days it was ten times the dosage ordinarily prescribed for steroids. The steroids helped to make the chemotherapy more effective without adding further toxins. It was required, not optional.

On many evenings, when I was trying to settle my energetic mind, I lay down on the living room ?oor and repeated the following words from the opening of Psalm 27.

The Lord is my light and my salvation’
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life’
of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked advance against me
to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
who will stumble and fall.
Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then I will be con?dent.
One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple. (vv. 1-4 NIV)

This prayer was hard work. I had to repeat these words many times for them to become my prayer. Gradually, my mind would focus, tense muscles would release, and I was brought into a place that was not just the story of my cancer, my steroids, my chemo. By the Spirit, I was led into God's presence with my fear, with my anger, and with my hope being recentered on life with God, to "dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to see him in his temple." The ?ght with cancer was not repressed or left behind: "though an army besiege me . . . though war break out against me." But in praying the Psalms’in soaking in its words’I was moved toward trust, and even hope. "My heart will not fear . . . even then I will be con?dent." In the busyness of day-to-day life, I was not always in touch with my fear, anger, and need for hope during this time on chemo. But praying this psalm both put me in touch with these realities of my life and helped those realities to be reframed as I moved to trust in the Lord and his promises.

Friday, May 1st 2015

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology