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Good Company in the Valley

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Rejoicing in Lament, by J. Todd Billings

REJOICING IN LAMENT: WRESTLING WITH INCURABLE CANCER & LIFE IN CHRIST
J. TODD BILLINGS
BRAZOS PRESS, 2015
$19.99
224 PAGES

I’ll confess: I was fully prepared to wince at the contents of this book. The lovely review editor who suggested it had no idea I had been going through “one of those times” until after it arrived on my porch, a mysterious gift from God that showed up on a particularly bad day after the mail had already come. I knew better than to second-guess that sort of timing, however, from many experiences with a faithful if often-inexplicable God, and I dove in right away. I was a bit skeptical – even while struggling with cancer, would a theologian writing about suffering hold himself back too far to address the particularly raw sort of issues that come with any type of suffering?

The title was a particular concern to me, not just as someone going through a hard time but also as a professor who’s taught many communication classes and a pastor’s kid who grew up fully aware of the cordial hypocrisy that abounds in some churches. Was this going to be one of those books demanding that I cover up my emotions, pretending to rejoice in the midst of lament? I have never been about expressing emotion all the time, but I was a little worried about the potential to go off the deep end of positive thinking at the expense of authentic closeness with God and others – or for that matter, authentic lament.

I was deeply relieved that my fears were unfounded. As I read, I found not a distant theologian but a companion along the road of difficulties who was insisting on the full reality and paradoxes inherent in the hard parts of life. Yes, in the first few pages and a few places throughout the text one could feel the theologian at times pulling away a bit from lived experience. But on the whole, the author managed to avoid sounding preachy, which is quite the feat for what’s essentially a book on the theology of suffering.

A TRUE LISTENING EAR

The organization of the book roughly followed the author’s journey through his cancer diagnosis and experience, which helped with this authenticity. I particularly enjoyed the immediacy of incorporating his original CarePages blog posts he wrote during the process. I often found those richer with emotional depth than the slightly more distanced analysis surrounding it. And yet the theological analysis was also helpful. As a scholar of communication, I was particularly pleased to see that this theology was one developed with a true listening ear, open to all the Bible had to say without reducing it or skewing it to one side or the other.

That leads me to my favorite part of this book: its openness to paradox. This openness created a feeling of hospitality for me as someone also going through my own valley. Although the author is going through a different type of difficulty from mine, his reflections left space for my own experience and emotions to enter in fully to meet his story. And the depth of his theological reflections and training allowed me to trust his biblical analysis – an analysis that recognizes that God is both beyond our understanding and incredibly near, both loving and all-powerful, whether in good times or bad. The author’s willingness to embrace both true lament – which he defines as bringing God to court because we believe his promises to be true, even while we recognize our own limitedness – helped contextualize his authentic rejoicing in God’s faithfulness in the midst of difficulty. His generous embrace of paradox opened space for the breadth of my own seemingly contradictory emotions.

This book also is useful for helping others going through valleys. The author’s honest yet kind assessments of the more or less helpful comments from his family and friends are useful in terms of assessing what to say and not to say to those who are experiencing suffering, and the book also makes a great gift to share with those who are going through trials. After I’d finished, I learned a friend even younger than this author had as serious a medical diagnosis. I’ve strongly recommended the book to him as one of the best books on faithful suffering I’ve read. Whether you’re currently suffering or not, I encourage you to pick it up as well.

Deborah Leiter, who grew up as a Christian Reformed pastor’s kid, teaches communication at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville.