by J. Todd Billings
Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Mich., 224 pages
In September 2012, Todd Billings was a 39-year-old husband, father of two small children, and a respected Reformed theologian teaching at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, a seminary of the Reformed Church in America, when he received a medical diagnosis of incurable blood cancer.
In this book, Todd shares how he wrestled with this diagnosis in light of his Christian faith. It is intensely personal but also filled with important theological reflections drawn from Scripture and the church’s historic confessions. Of particular importance has been the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Question: What is your only comfort, in life and death? Answer: I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Todd illustrates throughout the book how he has integrated this conviction into the realities of his life while wrestling with cancer. The cancer is incurable. It may go into remission for some period of time. But it will come back. And it will be fatal. This is the physical reality. With it comes many other realities, for Todd and his family, his seminary and all who know and care for him.
Drawn from the Heidelberg is Todd’s conviction that “God and the story of his mighty acts and ongoing work are bigger than my cancer story. … God’s story does not annihilate my cancer story, but it does envelop and redefine it. Indeed, it asks for my story to be folded into the dying and rising of Christ as one who belongs to him.”
The personal realities of Todd’s life are freely shared. He describes his feelings about a shortened lifespan and what this means for wife, Rachel, and his children, Neti and Nathaniel. He shares the physical effects of his treatments, the headaches and fatigue. He endured high-dose chemotherapy, transfusions, the wiping out of his bone marrow to be replaced with healthy cells, and more. Todd established a medical blog on CarePages (carepages.com/carepages/ToddBillings) and his book includes blogs he wrote there throughout these last years. They describe his treatments and also feature his theological reflections.
Psalms have been a mainstay for Todd, particularly the psalms of lament. He prays together with the psalmist in all the rawness of human emotion. But he also laments in trust, seeing that “trust in God’s promises underlies the whole of the psalms of lament.” For while they are “psalms of confusion, anger, and fear, they are also psalms of hope — prayers that come before God in hope, making a plea for him to show himself faithful to his promises.” The Psalms appeal to God’s hesed, God’s loving faithfulness. This enables faith to lament since “total despair — with no hope at all does not pray.” For “even the most shocking psalms expressing outrage, fear, and despair are doing so before God — and that is praise.”
By all means, read this book. It speaks to a range of Christians — caretakers, counselors and those experiencing cancer or loss. It witnesses to faith in the midst of deep lament.
DONALD K. McKIM is editor for “The Present Word” and “Joining the Feast” in the Feasting on the Word curriculum. He lives in Germantown, Tennessee.