Rejoicing in Lament Book Review

J. Todd BillinRejoicing in Lamentgs
Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. Paperback $18.99
ISBN 9781587433580

(*I received a review copy from Brazos Press and am not expected to give a positive review. The comments and opinions are my own.) 

I’d like to thank Dr. Billings for writing this book about his faith and health. His honesty in his reflection shines bright. Billings shares a comment from a woman at his church after he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer: “God is bigger than cancer.” Her comment was one that began to remove what he calls “the fog”: a limited view of his future. The fog hindered his once wide-open view of the possibilities after receiving the diagnosis. Being there for things like his children’s growth, high school experience, and other milestones were shaken. He could no longer assume he would enjoy those events.

Billings shares how he wrestled with questions of existentialism and theology that awoke with the reality of disturbingly less than ideal “chances” of seeing his daughters’ futures. Why would God end his life and do this to his children? Affirming that God doesn’t owe us anything, Billings still believed that he shouldn’t receive such a diagnosis with “stoic fatalism” (10). He used several Scriptures to support that death ultimately stands in the way of YHWH being God over his people, and in the end it will be overcome (1 Cor 15:25-26; Rev 21:3). The Psalms, particularly those of lament, provided encouragement and support for him. Quoting Calvin’s preface to his Psalms commentary, Billings reflects that the Holy Spirit uses psalms of lament to draw us before the face of God amidst “all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated” (14).

I enjoyed Chapter 2 where Billings wrestled with the problem of evil. Billings’ reflections on the book of Job were insightful and helpful. He believes that we simply are not given an ultimate answer to the problem of evil. All the suffering Job experienced was not due to sin (Joh 9:2-3). When Job lays his case before God, God responds with four chapters of his freedom in “creating the world and the huge distance between God’s viewpoint and human understanding” (26). One thing we do know is that suffering requires a response from the people of God. Billings so eloquently states that “unjust suffering is a scandal, and we should cry out to God in our hearts with our compassionate action” (30). This reminds me that when one part of the body suffers, the healthy members gather round (1 Cor 12:26).

As Billings suffered through treatment and its’ painful side affects, he shares how he held onto and repeated prayers such as Psalms 27. His hope was centered on life with God, but there was “nothing automatic about trusting and hoping in God” (38). Attributing the insight to Augustine, Billings discusses that by praying the Psalms we come into alignment with the right way of looking at lament and the right things in which to be joyful. I resonated with this section on what is referred to as lectio divina; practiced as early as Origen and used by other church fathers such as Augustine and St. Ambrose. But even in Judaism, the Psalms were committed to memory and used in public worship. Billings’ appreciation for this has deeply historic roots. He refreshingly suggests that appreciation for the Psalms of lament have unfortunately not been used in our contemporary worship as much as they should. An overarching theme in all 150 Psalms is that of “loving faithfulness” (49). Billings draws the connection that lamenting Psalms bring our hearts before God in expectation of his loving, covenant faithfulness. It subsequently opens our eyes to see all the ways that God demonstrates his faithfulness.

It is because of this faithfulness, Billings illustrates in Chapter 4, that we question God when we experience suffering. It is because we believe that he is sovereign that we cry out to him. I thought this was helpful. Since we know all good things flow from the Lord, when good things are not flowing we naturally question why (59). I think one of the most important observations Billings makes is that Scripture teaches there are other agents acting against the will of God: “God is not the sole actor in the world” (62). We are in the midst of God making his enemies his footstool. Though Billings doesn’t make the connection in the book, I think this ties well with God’s sovereignty and our trust because we cannot comprehend all that is involved in God’s final victory over his enemies. Billings, however, illustrates that since God works through means such as other people (63), it can be prideful to assume that God always works in direct ways. God is not active in a way that leaves humanity inactive.

I also resonated with Billings’ discussion of when people die. Often others respond that God has called them home. This doesn’t properly illustrate what is truly happening. This phrase is especially used when the person who has died is young. An 8-year-old boy dying of cancer, for example, is hardly God’s ideal or his wishes for his creation. This person did not “slip through God’s fingers” somehow (66) or was not torn from his family for God’s own delight. We struggle with the powers of the darkness of this age (76). We trust in God’s goodness and through those terrible occurrences and in his wisdom that is beyond our understanding. “Hardened hearts become tender as we hope in God’s covenant promise” (77).

Billings discusses the problem of good in the next couple chapters. There are not only evils in the world, but also very good things that we enjoy. Who do we thank for this life we have been given? This creation we enjoy? How about our spouses? Children? If events are simply by chance or simply the way things are, such as the position some take toward the problem of evil, why is there so much that mankind wants to praise and celebrate? Who are we going to thank for the blessed and dear things such as watching our children giggle and blow bubbles, Billings asks for example (94). This was another helpful discussion in the book that I enjoyed.

I thought that Billings did a good job showing his perspective that death is a part of our story with God. It is another thing we walk through and experience in our relationship with God. Though some experiences with death, such as that occurs with cancer victims or accidents with young children, seem senseless, Billings reflects that “the gospel is good news that is big enough to incorporate and envelop our dying and death, even when it seems senseless” (107).

In the final chapters, Billings goes into detail about prayer and seeking quick fixes. Our requests for healing to be immediate and direct may not be in line with the timetable in which God operates (112). “The culmination of Christ’s kingdom in the end will make things right…but while Scripture testifies that God will make all things right…the Bible doesn’t promise that the resurrected in glory will know all the answers to our present questions” (187-188). Billings summarizes that the full restoration of God’s creation has not yet come, and while we experience tastes of the life to come we wait with groaning and protest against the enemies of that harmony.

Anyone interested in the subject matter of suffering, healing, the problem of evil, and how to navigate through the challenges that health concerns can call into question will find this book helpful. I gladly recommend it to the church.

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Spiritual Friendship – Coming Review

Washed and WaitingI reviewed Dr. Wesley Hill’s first book, Washed and Waiting, and was delighted in his brave, honest, and spiritually reflective work on the struggles that same-sex oriented Christians face. I highly recommend the book as a resource for your own growth regarding the subject matter, but also as a tool to inform how we might converse on the issue in the church body. The book reflects sensitivity to the word of God and the journey of faith. You can read my Amazon review hereSpiritual Friendship

Therefore, I’m delighted that Brazos Press has selected me to review his second book on Spiritual Friendship. I am looking forward to posting a review in the next few weeks and seeing where Hill’s faith has brought him. Until then, I have a couple of reviews I will be posting on Rejoicing in Lament and Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory first. I have some reading to do, so…more to come!

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Limiting Theology

ChristianTheology

“Each theologian and each student of theology lives at a specific period of time rather than in some timeless vacuum, and theology must be done within that situation.”

Early in my academic study of theology, I was confronted by this statement in Millard Erickson’s text, Christian Theology. It was a statement that would prove to be quite useful. At the time, however, I thought it was unnecessarily limiting. I was attending a holiness movement, charismatic, deliverance church and Erickson’s comment seemed initially rather institutional.

Be that as it may, I eventually came to understand what Erickson was referring to as my theological and ministerial understanding grew. There is a reality that each group of people, no matter to which you or I are a part of, tend to organize around a topic they feel is important, timely, and which resolves contemporary struggles. Of course each time period in history faces different challenges. When one is doing theology or studying the Bible, one tends to be interested in those personal things that one discovers in the biblical text or certain concepts that challenge their understanding. These latter concepts are indeed important, but the reality is that it is not as likely that others will face the same questions.

The most useful or productive approach then is to identify a concern in which a larger group of people are interested. This provides an entrance into the discussion, works to promote change or more complete understanding, participates in your current church body, and it moves the church forward. When theology is not done within these sorts of rails, it ends up derailing and becoming isolated and irrelevant.

Yes! God is interested in and working out those personal, important theological issues of our own, but it doesn’t mean that God intends them for everyone else around you or me. This isn’t limiting. This is what it means to belong to a vine and to be a fruitful branch. This is what it means to belong to a body and to gather around where that body needs the most immediate help (1 Cor 12:26).

When we take this approach, it can lead us to anticipating what the body will need in the near future. We then end up becoming effective and strategic about filling those needs and contributing to the body’s vitality.

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A Short Summary of St. Patrick

StPatrick1I knew very little about St. Patrick, so I decided to spend a little time getting acquainted in order to share a helpful summary for those like me.

Patrick was certainly instrumental in the development of Christianity in Ireland once he arrived in 432 AD, but it is a bit of a misnomer to credit him with the introduction of Christianity to Ireland. We have evidence as early as 314 AD from Eusebius (Sulpicius Severus) that the apostles went as far as the British Isles. There are others such as John Chrysostom (Ev., Dem., iii. 5; vi. 635; and viii. 111), Tertullian, and Origen that have stated that there were Christians in Britain. Pope Cellestine sent Palladius to evangelize Ireland in 431 AD. At any rate, three hundred years before Augustine arrived in 597 AD, Christianity was fully organized in Ireland.

Patrick’s loyalty and love of Holy Scripture was infectious. He was a humble leader who took better liking to being a Bishop in Ireland rather than Bishop of Ireland. Patrick attributed any success he had in his ministry to the grace of God (Hitchcock, F.R. Montgomery, St. Patrick and His Gallic Friends, London: Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge). Patrick resembled Apostle Paul in the manner of his dedication, loyalty, and labor of love for the gospel message. All of these qualities makes it easy to understand how he could become so esteemed and honored.

These lyrics from a hymn he wrote demonstrate his central focus on Christ.

“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”

Similar to Paul, Patrick faced hardships in his position, threats, even captures. Yet, he remained faithful and full of zeal for the long road that is often required of those treading the missionary fields. Patrick may not have first introduced Christianity in Ireland, but was most certainly instrumental in the acceptance of the gospel in Ireland, and exemplified such faithfulness that allowed the gospel message to take root.

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Prayer Breakfast: April 11

Mens Prayer Breakfast

The Harvest is Ripe Christian Center, April 11, 2015, 9 .m., 11000 Excelsior Blvd, Hopkins.

I will be speaking about The Unity of Believers during a prayer breakfast at The Harvest is Ripe Christian Center, April 11. There will be several other excellent speakers. The event will be a blessing for your belly and your spirit, if you can attend.

Speakers:
Pastor Charles Dahl – River of Life Church of God
Bishop J.R. Riley – Christ in You Ministries
Pastor Jack Moore, Jr. – Christian Restoration Ministries
Pastor Wilbur Hankerson – Alpha and Omega Ministries
Minister Ramon Mitchum – Koinonia Ministries
Paul A. Nierengarten, Th.M. – Becoming the Faithful

Visit the Harvest is Ripe Facebook page or call 651-347-5166 for more information and for reservations.

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The Value of the Writings of the Early Church / Apostolic Fathers

I was doing research involving Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians and enjoyed a forward written by, I believe, Scott Hahn in Herron’s Clement and the Early Church of Rome.
Appreciating the value of extra biblical writings surrounding the period of the early church yields dividends that pay us back for years to come.

“The witness of those texts [that have survived from the generations immediately following the generation of the Apostles] is rare and precious. They open a window on a world we wish to know, a world otherwise inaccessible. Tradition considers these witnesses collectively as the Apostolic Fathers, the first echo of the Apostles. For centuries, Christians took utmost care to preserve these writings, copying them out laboriously by hand and even risking their lives in order to hide them from persecutors. In the case of Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, some local churches even preserved the book for veneration and proclamation, as part of the New Testament (vii).”

Understanding the social and cultural climate of the early church benefits our study of the New Testament and sheds light on interpreting the Old. It is not only the Roman Catholics that can recognize such benefits. These words can only follow one who has been in the presence of the Spirit of Christ and mentored by His disciples:

“Learn how to subordinate yourselves, laying aside the arrogant and proud stubbornness of your tongue. For it is better for you to be found small but included in the flock of Christ than to have a preeminent reputation and yet be excluded from his hope (1 Clem. 57:2).”

God bless, readers. Remember to, “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Pet 2:17).

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All Souls Are Mine, says the Lord: And What About Pets?

Bear(This is an older article I wrote that I thought worth sharing in light of the recent discussion at Christianity today concerning whether pets go to heaven.)

For anyone who has lost a pet, the emotional experience of the loss can catch you by surprise. After time spent falling in love with them, suddenly this meaningful part of life ends. It is amazing to me how much a part of my family’s life our collie/lab/chow mix, Bear, truly was. I really wasn’t expecting the depth of the loss. But I’ve gained some insight for those interested. At least it has brought me peace reflecting on how Scripture presents the situation and how God cares for his creation.

When the Lord required first fruits of the works of his people, it wasn’t just from man alone. Animals were involved in this from the beginning. As the herd and cattle increased, the first born would be dedicated to the services of the Lord. This was a place of honor. The command came to both dedicate man and beast. They were consecrated, set aside for a special purpose (Numbers 18:15).

Both man and beast have redemptive value. They are worth rescuing and being pursued by the Creator who gave them life, which is an incredible honor (Job 12:7-10). God care deeply for his entire creation (Mat 10:29).

Every living thing is said to have a soul. The soul of man, and the soul of beast have been given life by the giver of all good things (Genesis 3:21). God’s righteousness and judgement saved both humanity and beast (Psalms 96:6). Man and beast are both preserved in this psalm. It means, literally, thou wilt save. Wherever life is continued and renewed, it is done so by the agency of God. All life is upheld by the sovereignty of its Creator (Rom 8:19). John Wesley also believed that animals would be redeemed and that our relationship with them may even be enhanced in the new kingdom (Wesley, John, “The General Deliverance,” in Works, 2:436-450).

Adam somehow related with or observed the animals in a way that understood their purpose in order to give them an identity, a name (Genesis 2:19). Animals were made subject to humanity and unfortunately subject to the condition we have left the earth in, sin. They are bound to our fate. They look forward to the day when the new creation comes. The desire God to reveal who is sons and daughters are. They long for a conclusion of this horrible matter, in whatever way they currently understand it. (Probably no better than we do!) Therefore, they must have some part to play in the afterlife when the sons of God will be redeemed. If all souls belong to God, the souls have animals are part of his beautiful grandeur (Proverbs 12:10).

Finally, in this proverb it is said that God is concerned for the animals and he is seriously interested in their care. They are not some life that passes without purpose or further use. God has a purpose for them. Of course it is different than our own purpose or of the purpose of mankind. But nonetheless, God does not create anything without wonder.

These words and findings have helped me to see the life of a beloved pet in a new light. Some pastors have told me that we will be surprised when we enter into the new kingdom. We will see pets we love, people we love. And they will greet us in the kingdom that is to come. There at least seems to be Scriptural precedence for what they are talking about.

C.S. Lewis argued that pets will be in heaven they have a personality by virtue of the relationship they have with their masters. Lewis believed this identity would be preserved (Lewis, C. S., The Problem of Pain, San Francisco: Harper, 2001, 140-147).

In this new kingdom there will be no more decay. And the darkness that separates us for a time, will no longer be an influence. Praise God for being a Creator like no other. I praise him for being a lover like no other. To whom can I compare his love? Its greatness is unfathomable, and applies to all.

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The Name of Jesus and Identity

As a believer with a Charismatic background, I am used to hearing prayers, baptism, and healing done “in the name of Jesus.” I’ve linked the expression with the idea of invoking the identity and person of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Though Jesus is with God the Father interceding for us at the moment, the Spirit has been sent to carry on the work of the ministry of reconciliation that has been tasked to his church. When we do anything in the name of Jesus, the Spirit that was at work in the life of Jesus goes to work in the lives of believers.

In the name of Jesus we:

  • Are baptized (Act 3:28)
  • Preach (Act 4:18)
  • Heal (Act 3:6)
  • Cast out demons (Act 16:18)

There is a wrong way to use this expression: via unbelief. To use the name of Jesus without a relationship or fellowship with him invites a bad situation to the potential degree of demon possession, as the sons of Sceva example teaches us (Act 19:13-17)! When we claim this expression, we seem to be taking on proxy for Jesus. We stand in his stead for whatever it is that we are doing. We are acting in his role; carrying out one of his functions.

In Greco-Roman antiquity, it was common to associate deities with several other names and identities. This is called polyonymy. In a recent article by N. Clayton Croy*, he has shown that early Christians avoided associating the name of Jesus with any other god other than YHWH. Though Jesus was associated with different functions such as the Word of God, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, he was never associated with other gods. Jesus was never Neptune, etc.

Even the titles used to describe his functions were taken from Judaism (the Old Testament) and not created outside of Jesus’ “discrete history and tradition” (p. 43). There was no single title that could capture the theological significance of Jesus. Many were then used to capture the rich meaning behind the appearance of Jesus. But the use of any name other than Jesus Christ was eschewed by the early church.

This article by Croy is helpful. I believe it further demonstrates that “the name of Jesus” is associated with his very identity. Croy rightly observed that it is not something the early church ever took lightly, nor should we. In like manner, when we are using the name of Jesus properly it truly is a name more powerful than any other. At his name, every knee bows (Phil 2:10)! With his name sickness, disease, possession, curses, and our sins all become powerless!

* “A God by Any Other Name: Polyonymy in Greco-Roman Antiquity and Early Christianity”, BBR, 24.1, 27-43.

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Ancient Near Eastern Environmental Wisdom

An excellent article came out in the recent issue of BBR (24.3) by Sandra Richter from Wheaton College titled, “Environmental Law: Wisdom from the Ancients.” Sandra presents several counterpoints to the argument that Judaism and Christianity do not have environmental concerns at their core like polytheism and animism do. This is a misnomer because at many points Judeo-Christian values have indeed been guilty of a lack of attention for a proper balance of nature’s resources, but this critique can be said of all religions; especially, ancient Mesopotamian practices that led to the depletion of their resources. Sandra shows that the Old Testament is a rich resource for proper environmental care. It is not until the New Testament, however, that a  lack of the same focus occurs. Perhaps, this is due to the NT focus on the presentation of the new Adam and seeing all else as distractions to that important message. Here are some highlights:

  • Humanity was created to care for creation (Gen 1:26, 2:15) until they rebel and create disorder (Gen 3:6; 17-18, 9:2-4).
  • The land of Israel was considered holy and sacred space (Deut 1:8; 4:40), and YHWH could evict Israel without the proper care of His land (Deut 28:15-68, 29:28).
  • YHWH commanded reserves for the poor out of Israel’s farming so that the poor would have an opportunity to sustain themselves (Deut 24:29; Lev 19:9-10, 23:22).
  • Sustainable farming practices let the land rest from the cycle of sowing and harvesting (Exod 23:10-12).
  • In war, Israel was not to destroy the environment (Deut 20:19, 2 Kgs 3:19).
  • YHWH cares for and commands proper care of his other creatures shown in the flood narrative and elsewhere (Gen 9:10, Deut 5:14-15, Psa 104:10-11).

Among Sandra’s recommendations on how to take action for biblically sound praxis is our buying power. What we choose to buy changes the face of the industry (328). Our involvement in purposeful care of the environment demonstrates our love of the creation God has given to His people’s care.

This helpful article is well worth a read, if you have access to the journal.

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NIV Application Commentary on Kindle Sale

NIV Application Commentary: New Testament (NIVAC) (20 vols.)

NIVAC

The NIV Application Commentary series is a helpful bible commentary. Right now you can buy the collection on Kindle (here) for less than $5 per volume. Take advantage! I’m not sure how long the sale will last. I just discovered it today.

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