Conversation: Question and Answer with J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings
Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology
Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan

In November, 2015, Dr. J. Todd Billings, Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, visited the Orlando campus of Reformed Theological Seminary to discuss his recent book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Baker, 2015). A question and answer session at a campus lunch included the following exchanges:

You mention ways in which the culture of death is different in recent years, especially in evangelical Christianity. One thing that is certainly missing is anything like classical Christian concern to talk about and focus on martyr accounts and to be moved by that. Can you reflect on the place that focus has played in the tradition in the past and how that might prepare and sustain folks – to think about those who have died well, who have borne suffering well, and how that has been lost in many ways?

“The gap you are pointing to is a true area of need. One trend I have noticed in funerals is that the word, death, is not often mentioned. Sometimes it becomes a hero-making service for the one who has died – with slides and contemporary Christian music. There may be a place for some of this. But the central story is not the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our participation in that. And of course that is the central story of martyrdom accounts. What looks like a terrible defeat can actually be a victory.

“Martyrdoms are very ambiguous deaths. Usually martyrdoms are not deaths where the person stands up and says, ‘Here I stand!’ They often seem rather senseless. But when Jesus Christ is the central actor, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God, then there can be a celebration of what it means to live into and testify to Christ’s death and resurrection.

“There are so many in the Christian community today who believe that even preparing for death is an act of unfaithfulness. Recently I researched Christians and extreme medical measures at the end of life. One study by the Dana Farber Institute showed that those late-stage cancer patients who self-identified as very religious were over four times as likely to ask for extreme measures at the end of life as those who were less religious. Of course, they didn’t live any longer. This is just a medical fact: extreme measures do not statistically make you live any longer. But it does take you away from your family. There is no chance for the congregation to walk by that person. There is no chance for final words of confession and the sharing of wisdom before death.

“Somehow we have gotten this idea that Christian hope means doing everything that is conceivably possible to extend life as long as possible, even if we are in a state when we cannot communicate with other people. We need to rethink that. If there is role for preparing for death for Christians, we need to draw upon medicine as a servant and not as a master.”

In my discipleship as a believer, I was formed in celebration, but not really in lamentation. For us who are future disciple-makers, counselors, and pastors, what should it look like to disciple people in lamenting?

“I like the term, ‘celebration,’ because we have to keep forming people in a way that celebrates God’s gifts and God’s promise, and the psalms do this again and again. Somehow we need to make this link so that the same promise that we celebrate we also bring before God when we have grief and anger as well, precisely because we value God’s promise.

“Concretely, some of the ways we can do this as a community of believers, when you have someone going through hardship, doing your best to come alongside the person and not just pray for them but be with them and seek to bear one another’s burdens. Don’t always assume that what they want to do at that particular moment is just to have grief. After my diagnosis I had grief and fear, but also tremendous joy and gratitude – all of it at once. It was kind of a mess! But that’s what the psalms are, too – it’s a ‘holy mess’ there.

“Some congregations may have a ‘blue Christmas’ service for those who have lost a loved one during holiday season. That can be helpful, but it needs to be incorporated more into the regular rhythms of the Christian life. If we become convinced that we haven’t properly apprehended the gospel of Jesus Christ, unless we are both rejoicing and lamenting, then we may have a case. That is part of the case that I seek to make in my book, and that I saw with new eyes. Lament is not this antique, Old Testament thing, while the New Testament is all about joy. Jesus is praying psalms of lament. In Revelation 21, the souls of the martyrs are lamenting. The most frequently cited psalms in the New Testament are psalms of lament – Psalm 22 and Psalm 69.

“If we really want to understand the context of the good news in a world where it seems that death is reigning and that sin is having the final word, we have to recover lament, and not just in a once-a-year service.”