Monday, February 16, 2015

Blog Tour of Todd Billings' "Rejoicing In Lament"

Rejoicing in LamentThe title alone of J. Todd Billings new book is intriguing.

I mean, there are plenty of books on lament. And plenty of books on praise. And even quite a few on praise and lament. But rejoicing or praising in lament? That is quite different.

Billings is a professor of theology whose work I have long admired. His writing is always orthodox, always classically Reformed, and always ultimately grounded in the biblical text. And this book does not disappoint on any of these criteria. Unlike his previous books, however, this short volume arises out of Billings own experience of loss. You see, in the fall of 2012 Billings was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable and fatal cancer.

If you think that this book is just another self-help book for dealing with the tragic events of life, think again. Rejoicing in Lament is theology done in the crucible of suffering. No simplistic solutions are offered, no easy clich├ęs, no Bible verses flung out like final answers to the problem of cancer.

Rather, Billings invites his readers into his life – from his agonizing questions to his deeply personal theological reflections drawn from his CarePages. If you are not already convinced that this book is worth your time, several highlights are worth calling attention to.

Billings clearly understands lament. He neither downplays nor overemphasizes the role of lament in the Christian life. He notes that lament can involve everything from grieving to protest. He emphasizes the importance of acknowledging pain and suffering in our lives and in the world. Worship that does not recognize the brokenness of our world is not complete. Lament is an important word in the life of faith.

Yet Billings also recognizes that lament is not the only word, not even in the throes of suffering. “In lament,” Billings writes “we are confused, angry, and grieving people. But we are not just that.” (43) Our identity in Christ is more than confusion and disorientation. Ultimately, asserts Billings, the psalms of lament are psalms of hope. In fact, Billings goes so far as to suggest that lament is itself a form of praise because of the element of faith that lament entails. Billings notes that “Praise, petition, and lament in the Psalms are all tightly woven together in prayers that help us recognize and rest in God’s promises.” (47)

Although  the book leans in the direction of biblical theology, Billings skills as a systematic theologian are also on display. Billings deals brilliantly and humbly with topics like the problem of evil, prayer, and the impassibility of God, all in relation to the overarching issue of suffering and lament. In fact, his description of impassibility is one of the most clear, accurate renderings of that traditional attribute of God of any I have read in recent years. He sweeps away the misconceptions and caricatures of this important doctrine, demonstrating its weight and importance for a proper understanding God’s relationship to human suffering today.

In some ways, the title of this book says it all. Throughout, Billings opens the door not just to abstract ideas of rejoicing in lament, but to his ongoing experience of doing just that.

To hear Billings himself discuss this important book, please go to:

Monday, February 9, 2015


The first time I saw this t-shirt was a few years back when a group of students came back from Angola Prison in Louisiana. They had spent a week there with a colleague of mine whose heart is focused on ministering to the men who are imprisoned there, many of them for life.

I remember thinking that it was funny. I figured whatever else was true of Angola, the folks there had a curious sense of humor. A prison referred to as a “gated community”? Well, ok….I guess.

A few weeks ago I had a chance to spend a week in Angola Prison. What I found there was surprising. 

I found community.

In fact, I found a 6,200 member community who are deeply involved in each other’s lives. There are ASE certified auto mechanics teaching others to fix brakes, work on engines, and do all those things that mechanics need to do. I found men taking care of the huge Percheron horses, standing behind these giant beasts saying, “now give it to me boy,” and watching the horse lift its rear leg for a new shoe. They filed the hoof, placed the shoe, and then filed the hoof smooth, taking pride in the beautiful end product. I joked with them that this was like watching a horse pedicure. They laughed.

I found men in school, seminary in fact, learning to love God and his word, preparing to minister to the other men in the various camps within Angola. And I found men gently tending to the needs of their dying brothers, violent criminals giving hospice care to men society had long since forgotten about.

The truth is I found community that was in many ways richer than most of the communities we live in, richer than many of the churches we inhabit each week. Most of these men are striving to live decent lives, to regain the human dignity they had forgotten about for a while. And they do this together, encouraging each other, helping each other, and holding each other accountable when they fail.

And some do fail. Some don’t make it. For those who are not interested in behaving, do not care to live in community, there is a cell where they spend 23 of every 24 hours. Human dignity, after all, includes a level of respect that holds members of the community responsible for their actions, rewarding success, and penalizing failure.

Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is community, a community shaped in no small part by the power of the gospel. I was blessed to be a part of this community for a week, to worship and interact with my brothers in Christ. I was enfolded and welcomed in a way that is rare on the outside. And I couldn’t help but wonder as I sat and rocked on my porch that overlooked the 18,000 acres that is Angola Prison, what church on the outside would look like if we dared to let the power of the gospel penetrate us deep down like it has this gated community nestled on the Mississippi River in Louisiana.