Review: Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ

9k=The news came broken. Car crash. Overturned convertible. Care flight to Denver. ER. ICU. Broken neck. My friend Kari’s life had been forever altered during a casual drive in the country. In all likelihood, she’d never use her arms or legs again. What does one say in times of such tragedy? Baffled visitors drifted in and out of her hospital room. Some assured her of God’s miraculous healing; others mentioned dreams they’d had of her walking. Some prayed while others wept.

I remained silent. What words would suffice? I was angry—angry that God would allow so much life to be taken from my friend. And yet I knew God’s promises of abundant life. Without words to articulate this tension, I stumbled in the fog, suspended between my anger, my great sorrow, and my knowledge and faith in God’s promises.

This very tension between lament and God’s promises is the subject of J. Todd Billings poignant new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. In September of 2012, Todd, a Reformed theologian at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan, was diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 39. With the revelation came the questions, quick and acute: Why me? How long? Does God owe me a long life? What about my young children? Billings had spent the bulk of his years devoted to the study of God and the difficult questions of the Christian faith. Now, he returns to these questions, not with the detached observation of a systematic theologian, but with the urgency of a man confronted with his own mortality and deeply acquainted with sorrow.

In Rejoicing in Lament, Billings explores the tension between “a genuine lament and a genuine rejoicing in God’s promises—promises that, as expressed in the Psalms, are the basis for praise, trust, and also complaint and lament; promises that find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and life … while abundant, cannot be measured by a lifespan” (p. 6). Throughout the book, Billings intertwines his cancer story “with a much weightier story—the story of God’s saving action in and through Jesus Christ” (p. ix), showing us how to genuinely lament before God all the while rejoicing in His promises.

Billings, a gifted thinker and writer, is an able guide through difficult terrain. In ten chapters, he points the way through the “fog of uncertainty” that settles around us when calamity strikes; he tackles the “problem of evil” and why bad things happen to good people. (Spoiler alert: Christians don’t have the answer.) Billings argues that because of Christ, we can follow the script of the Psalms, especially the Psalms of lament, and “openly admit our confusion, anger, and grief without worrying that it will be the last word about who we are” (p. 43).

I wish I’d had Rejoicing in Lament with me in Kari’s hospital room to help me navigate through my sorrow and my faith in God’s Word. It would have better equipped me both to grieve and to help my friend. Whatever adversity you may be struggling with—an illness like Todd or a season of loss—you will find great comfort and clarity within it.

The Work Before Us: Reflections on the Dare Mighty Things Conference (Pt. 1)

Last week I met with hundreds of women and pastoral leaders from around New Zealand at the first Dare Mighty Things conference at Carey Baptist College in Auckland. The first half of the week I met individually with women leaders, brainstormed with a group of female academics on how to address the dearth of leadership on Christian female leaders, and spoke with a group of (primarily) men training to be pastoral leaders. The conference itself was a great success—registrations exceeded expectations and we spent two and a half days tackling three of the ten challenges I discuss in Dare Mighty Things.

I’ve been home less than 48 hours (with a massive case of jetlag to boot), but I’m already processing the stories and heartaches of women I met. Their stories raise several large concerns (and maybe others, as more time for reflection goes by) regarding the work before us, which I will cover here over the next few weeks. One of the most pressing matters is the way we unintentionally (not to mention intentionally) silence the voices and giftedness of women in our churches and parachurch organizations.

We unintentionally silence women when we support women in theory but not in practice. Officially, on paper, churches may support women leaders but fail to fill official leadership roles with gifted women. Many churches in both New Zealand and the U.S. have come a long way by changing their official position on women leaders, but this needs to be followed up by proactive decisions to identify and train women for leadership roles within those organizations.

All of the churches I have attended in my adult life are theologically conservative churches who say they support women leaders—but the first time I preached from the pulpit on a Sunday morning (in two theologically conservative Baptist churches) was half a world away and aside from one church I attended early in my seminary career, I’ve never seen another woman preach, either. It is still far too rare to see a woman preach the word of God on a Sunday morning, especially in theologically conservative churches.

We unintentionally silence women when pastoral leaders fail to make supporting women into leadership a priority. As a seminary professor who has taught hundreds of young and aspiring pastors over the years, I know that part of the issue is simply busyness. Pastors have many competing demands on their time, and though they fully believe in supporting women in this way, more immediate demands consume their time, the issue falls to the back burner, and women will not bring it up for fear of being seen as arrogant or demanding.

However, there is also an issue in not wanting to upset the older “stakeholders” in the congregation. As one young man said last week, “I know there are gifted women in the congregation, but honestly, they’re just going to have to go somewhere else. We need to wait until some older members die off.”  Either you believe the spiritual gifts aren’t gendered or you don’t, and if you do, you have a moral imperative to steward the spiritual resources of your congregation as well as you would the financial resources, regardless of how busy you are or how some older members might feel about it. There are wise ways to slowly incorporate this change, but it is a change that must be a priority.

We unintentionally silence women when men are not taught to support their wives. Most (if not all) of the married women leaders I have spoken with over the years have attributed much of their success to supportive husbands. They spoke of husbands who not only believed in them but also pulled more than their fair share of household and childcare duties as they worked overtime to achieve their ministry goals. But not all women get that support. Last week far too many women told me, through tears, of how their husband was dismissive of their desires to go into ministry—they grunted, laughed, or put them down. Some were shunned by their whole family simply because they chose to go to seminary.

If we support the giftedness of women leaders on paper, in theory, we must also be committed to follow through and support them in practice.

Depression: The Dark Night of Body and Soul

By all appearances, I had everything we Westerners say we need to be happy: a strong marriage, a fulfilling career, and a quaint home with a picket fence in one of the fastest growing communities in the United States. I even had a new car. And yet, there I was, sitting with the doctor discussing my near-debilitating depression. It had taken months to come to this, to admit I couldn’t shoulder the burden alone and I needed the care of a professional.

By all appearances, Robin Williams seemed to have it all, too, in even greater measure: wealth, celebrity, a beautiful home in an exclusive community, and a lengthy, successful career for which he was greatly loved and admired. He exuded a kindness and warmth that touched many—even those he never met. And yet, the manner of his death revealed a profound loneliness and hopelessness. Behind his surplus of wit and good humor was a deep darkness, a burden so great he despaired, finally, of shouldering it. We are stunned, in part, because of this contrast. If Robin Williams can find himself (or lose himself) at the edge of such an abyss, any of us and any we love can also.

The suicide of Robin Williams has stoked a national conversation about how we think about depression, despair, and how we respond to those who suffer. An appropriate response to those and for those struggling with depression depends upon a robust understanding of human anthropology. Humans are both material and immaterial, spirit and substance, and when one of these aspects is emphasized over the other, we end up in responding to depression in ways that are inadequate or even insensitive.

Some responded as though we don’t have bodies. Some have said that suicide is a deliberate, selfish choice driven by cowardice. Fox News host Shepard Smith insinuated Williams’ death was cowardly. Blogger and radio host Matt Walsh stated in a viral blog post that Williams “died by choice, not by disease”. Smith’s and Walsh’s statements, along with others of their ilk, are rooted in a anthropological view that minimizes the fact that humans are embodied creatures. In this view, bodies aren’t as important as the mind or the soul.

This is the mistake I made when coping with my own depression. I thought I could spiritually strong-arm my own depression with more prayer, more Scripture reading, or better obedience to God. Mind over matter. But the harder I fought, the deeper I fell because I failed to understand the role of the body in depression.

Depression is a disease of the body, not simply the soul or the “mind” or however one describes the immaterial aspect of our being. When depression burrows itself into our brain, it is often outside the reach of positive self-talk and rational decision-making. This depression is so deep we feel it (and whatever actions stem from it) beyond our control, outside of our free will, regardless of whether it is in truth.

Others responded as if we have no soul. They liken depression to a disease like cancer or AIDS. This response stems from a common materialistic view about humanity, which theologian Anthony Hoekema describes as a view that sees humans as a “being composed of material elements, his mental, emotional, and spiritual life being simply by-products of his material structure.”

Apart from depression that stems directly from the body, such as through genetics and certain medications, depression is a response. “Depression is telling you something that is wrong,” my doctor said. “And when it goes untreated, it’s almost impossible to cure apart from community support and medication because it creates changes in our brain and body.” In my case, I’d made a wrong vocational turn; I was supposed to be getting a PhD in Los Angeles, not launching a writing career in Frisco, Texas. But any number of things can stoke the hot embers of depression. Drug or alcohol use and abuse. Catastrophizing personal worries through overexposure to world news. An elevated level of empathy for the suffering of others. Divorce, death, conflict, social isolation, and loss.

Reducing depression to simply a bodily disease minimizes the immaterial aspect of our being. Depression is not always—or even often—simply caused by a disease of the body; it begins when we find our selves, our lives, and the world not all we hope. Not as they should be.

Human beings are a fusion of body and soul, material and immaterial, and our response to depression and to those who suffer must reflect this reality.

If you’re struggling with depression, or want to know how support someone who is, here are five essentials:

  • Get adequate care. Ensure you are in the care of a physician. Follow their recommendations. If they say you need medication, take it and don’t apologize.
  • Be honest. Talk about your feelings, fears, and emotions with friends, family, or a support group. Tell them where you’re at mentally and emotionally. Let them support you. I know it’s difficult to reach out to others, especially when we feel weak for doing so or we believe someone will judge us negatively, but it is essential to not bury feelings or emotions and let them rot and fester.
  • Consider the root of your depression. Is there a relational or spiritual cause to the depression? Are you overusing or abusing drugs or alcohol? Or maybe, like me, you’re a sensitive and become overwhelmed with depressive thoughts when following the news for too long. What’s the cause of it? What might you need to change? How might God want to heal you in that area?
  • Physical activity. Move. Study after study indicates a reduction in depression—even major depression—with regular physical exercise.
  • Look outwards. What can you do to serve others? Depression and anxiety become a microscope by which you analyze, over and over again, your own life and the problems you struggle with. There is a growing body of research that has demonstrated a positive correlation between self-absorption and depression, and a negative correlation between altruism and depression. Meaning, the more focused you are on yourself, the more depressed you become and the more altruistic behavior you demonstrate, the less depressed you are.

You may have to do these things every. single. day. Depression is a daily battle, but don’t give up. Annie was right: the sun will come up, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. Things are not as grim as they look and you’re not as alone as you think you are.


Providing Aid to the Children on our Doorstep

In recent days, I’ve been contacted by numerous individuals and groups seeking information on how they can provide aid to the children coming across the border. So, I’ve been gathering sources in order to provide the best direction possible. Due to the rapidly changing nature of the situation, in conjunction with political and legal complexities, it is difficult for faith organizations and individuals to know how to respond in this situation.

As Marla Bearden, the Texas Baptists disaster recovery specialist related to me in our correspondence, “It is not HHS (limiting access to the children), it is Home Land Security from what I understand. It has to do with liability. We are hoping and praying that we will be able to help out with the children but we want to keep in mind what is best best for the children. This is why I am working to find ways we can assist even if we don’t get to work directly with the kids.”

One thing I want people to know, without reservation: people of faith care deeply about the welfare of the children crossing our borders. I’ve met them. I know them. And so do you.

Please, people of faith, let us not harden our hearts against one another, believing, erroneously, that our fellow brothers and sisters do not care about these children. Yes, there are political reservations about the process of immigration in our country, but this is a separate issue, at the moment at least, from the babes at our doorstep. With that said, here is what I’ve been able to find out about how we can help.

Every night, around 300-400 children arrive at the border in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). I’ve tried to find information about whether these children are crossing borders in New Mexico, Arizona, or California to little avail (if anyone has info on this, please let me know). Apart from the protestations against the busloads of immigrants arriving in Murrieta, California, it seems the bulk of children immigrants are coming from the RGV. Because of the massive influx of children, children are being transported to facilities across the country, including other areas in Texas, Arizona, California, and Oklahoma.

At the moment, it seems that Catholics, Baptists, and interfaith organizations are leading the way in this area. I’ll be following this more in upcoming days, but wanted to draw your attention to a few helpful resources if you wish to help:

If neither of these suit you, simply google “churches in McAllen, Texas” and most have links on the front page of their websites indicating how you can help.

Border Wars: One Border Agent on the Truth About the Texas Border

Yesterday, the Obama administration amended their estimates of how many children are expect to be apprehended on our southwest border this year from 60,000 to 90,000. Last week, I wrote a post on the crisis on our borders for Her.Meneutics in which I urged readers to consider how we can provide assistance to the children crossing into the U.S. I still strongly believe these children need to be received with warmth and dignity, and we need to creatively discover how we can participate in providing aid to these children.

However, I want to address a point of criticism the article garnered, namely, the use of an anonymous source and what that source claimed about the types of people that are crossing our border. The critics claimed, first, that the use of anonymous sources is professionally negligent and ill-advised. And sometimes, anonymous sources are fabricated to advocate a certain viewpoint (such as Janet Cooke’s Jimmy) or provide an “inside scoop” from dubious “anonymous sources” close to some celebrity or other. But sometimes, sources must remain anonymous to protect their livelihood and the people close to them. Like Watergate’s Deep Throat, the pressure to remain silent or tow the party line is so strong that anonymity is the only means of protection. As the Society of Professional Journalist Ethics Committee notes, “Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens.”

This brings me to my second point, which is that information about what is really happening on our borders is being suppressed. What other explanation would suffice in the face of numerous reports of gag orders for border agents, border union officials, and medical personnel, when one U.S. congressman is denied entrance from a child immigrant facility in his own state, when a policy termed ‘Interim Protocol for Visitation and Tours,’ prohibit policymakers from carrying cell phones or interacting with immigrants or staff while touring detention facilities?

Since the purpose of my Her.meneutics post was to draw attention to these children and the need to provide aid, I was not able to include my full interview with the border agent. However, I believe that his perspective is important, and one that deserves a full hearing. Over his years of service, my source has spoken with news media outlets around the world, but given the “extremely political” nature of the topic at this time, he has elected to remain anonymous.

Describe your role and responsibilities on the border.

I was stationed in Rio Grande Valley area for a few years beginning in ’08 and my job was to patrol the Rio Grande Valley area in our helicopters and airplanes.  Our primary responsibilities back then were to assist the local city and county agencies with whatever we could or provide other assets to these agencies that they did not have available.  When not assisting the local agencies, we flew the Rio Grande River looking for any type of contraband crossing into the US illegally. Examples of the contraband we searched for included narcotics, weapons, terrorists, illegal aliens and cartel personnel involved in human trafficking and human smuggling.  Most of our efforts focused on assisting the US Border Patrol ground agents with border activity such as the items listed above.

My perspective on what is happening on the border?

Honestly, the border is so out of control I don’t know that there is anything we can really do about it at this point.  When I was stationed there back in 2009, we could fly over the river and “deter” or “push back” any illegal activity.  Granted, as soon as we were clear of the area, the cartel would try again and probably be successful.  Now, with the new immigration policy of writing “promise to appears” to undocumented aliens, they are basically given a two year amnesty somewhere in the US and promise to show up or “check in” with the local immigration office at wherever they end up.  At the drastically increasing rate people are coming into the US illegally and how much of a toll its taking on the federal budget, I’m not sure how the infrastructure of the US can stand much more.

What do you think the media gets wrong about what’s happening on the border?

I don’t think the media is getting things “wrong”, the information is not being delivered to the people.  You hear about border issues every now and then through a quick blurb or through a reality series like Texas Drug Wars or Border Wars.  The border has always been an “issue” so people don’t put much thought into it.  I am positive that MOST people in the US are unaware of how bad the border issue really is.  The media portrays people crossing the border as “Mexican nationals wanting a better life for themselves and their family”.  I agree, there is a lot of those people coming over, but mixed in with those people are drug cartels, terrorists from Islamic countries, weapon smugglers, human smugglers and human traffickers.  People that want to infiltrate and destroy this country know that if they want to get inside our borders, they just need to get to Mexico and then walk across.  It’s bad…

What people need to know about illegal immigration?

I answered some of this in the previous question but as far as being able to secure the border.  I don’t want to sound like a heartless person but there are countries around the world that do not have border issues.  There is a reason they don’t have border issues.  They handle their border situation to where people are afraid to enter.

What is your perspective on the kids flooding the border?

I do sympathize with the kids coming over to the border.  They are sent over by their parents, sometimes under false pretenses.  The kids are interviews after we find them and they are told things about the US that isn’t necessarily true.  I know people want to help all children as far and housing, finding caretakers, employment, etc. but the US infrastructure and economy just can’t handle it anymore.  If we continue at this rate, like I said earlier, the US infrastructure will collapse.  This country is already in a financial crisis and spending billions more just on the illegal children coming over, will surely ruin our credit and eventually our status as world power.

I hope these answers help you.  This is obviously a topic I am somewhat passionate about since I was down there and saw first-hand what was going on.  It’s a lot worse than people know and I honestly don’t seen an end in sight.  The money we are pouring into border security is, in my opinion, is a waste.  I hate to say that but I feel we are just spinning our wheels down there.  This country has gone “soft” and this is the result.

I could sit down and talk about border issues and tell stories all day probably. When people do sit down and ask me questions, their eyes are so big by the time I’m done I can’t believe it.  I’m glad your doing your part to inform people. I’m definately not against immigration, we just have to find a faster way to make it legal for them so they can start contributing to our “system”.  This country has it’s work cut out for them.