Anna: Tell us about when you were diagnosed, and what that diagnosis means for your life?
Todd: I hate waiting in doctor’s offices with nothing to do, so I had brought a rough draft of a document for work. I crossed out a phrase, circled another, and corrected a misspelling. I was in editing flow. When my doctor walked in, he greeted me as usual, but I was still curious about why he had called me in. Every respiratory infection within miles had been latching on to me, so he had run a number of tests. Would there be a new antibiotic regimen?
Instead: Multiple Myeloma, an incurable cancer. It had already eroded the inside of my bones in my skull, arm, and hip. When the receptionist called with a referral after the appointment she whispered the diagnosis into the phone – apparently frightened to speak the words. I later found out that I was stage three out of three according to one of the main ”staging” systems for Multiple Myeloma. At the age of 39, I was three decades younger than the average diagnosis age for the disease.
I received this diagnosis in 2012, and since then I have been poked and prodded with toxins, steroids, chemo, and a stem cell transplant. But the hardest part of the diagnosis has been what this means for my life as a spouse and a parent of young children. My wife Rachel and I had just celebrated our tenth anniversary. We have two children, and their ages were one and three. They are incredible gifts from God: we had tried to have kids earlier in our marriage, but were unable. Yet, God blessed us with a daughter, adopted from Ethiopia. Then, months later, Rachel was able to get pregnant. Why would God take away the father of my children during their childhood? When I discovered that the median lifespan for my diagnosis was around 4-7 years, I immediately thought: that only brings my daughter to 7 to 10 years. What does it mean to raise my three-year-old with the expectation that I would only have a few years with her? My grief and fear led me to prayer.
On the one hand, God doesn't owe me a long life. I'm incredibly grateful for the many gifts and blessings that he has given -- it's more than enough for one life. Yet, the questions still sting: why would God allow my kids to lose their dad? In Rejoicing in Lament, I explore how I turned to the Psalms which bring grief, confusion, and protest before the Lord in the context of trust. For the sake of my family, I joined the Psalmist in complaint: “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away at the midpoint of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations.’” (Ps. 102:23-24)
Anna: How did you come to rediscover the Psalms of lament? Why is your book called “Rejoicing in Lament”?
Todd: For as long as I can remember, I have read the Psalms each evening before going to bed. But in all honesty, I often skipped over some of them. “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?” Ouch, I’m in a good mood, I don’t want to pray this Psalm! These are hard questions emerging from pain, anger, and protest. Are we really supposed to pray to God with words like these?
Yet, after my diagnosis my turmoil was deeper than I could be aware of at any moment. The Psalms – including the Psalms of lament – became a refuge. Eventually, I came to see how even the most raw questions of the Psalms are signs of trust. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” When it feels like the pain will never end, we cry out – “how long, O Lord?” When we feel abandoned and forgotten, we ask “will you forget me forever?” When we fear that God is withholding his goodness, we ask “how long will you hide your face from me?” I’ve asked others to pray these Psalms with me. For although God has not promised to fix my cancer, he has promised to be with us in the midst of suffering, to hold us in his hand. And in Jesus, even death does not have the final word.
My book is called Rejoicing in Lament with a double-sense: taking joy in rediscovering the healing balm of biblical lament, and also rejoicing in the midst of lament. I’ve not only shed tears of grief, but tears of joy in my cancer journey. Ultimately, this is a book that shows how lament can go hand in hand with gratitude and hope.
Anna: You wrote that God’s story is bigger than your cancer story. What has this meant for you?
Todd: That idea came to me from a card that I received from a fifteen-year old girl in my congregation with Down syndrome. It was a few weeks after the diagnosis, and I had already received numerous cards. But this one was different. She colored a card for me and wrote:
“Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!”
As I read this, tears streamed down my face. She did not say, “God will cure you of this cancer,” or “God will make this mess disappear.” No, God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger.
That theme became the heart of Rejoicing in Lament: I tell my cancer story as an entryway to rediscovering the much larger, more compelling story of God in Christ. I believe that God’s story does not annihilate our own stories, like our cancer stories. But it transforms them as we are incorporated into God’s larger story. While the book expresses many unanswered questions and raw cries, ultimately it is a testimony to the astonishing grace of God that meets us even in the darkness.
Thank you, Todd, for sharing these words with us today!
J. Todd Billings teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI and is author of three award-winning books. His most recent book is Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter (@jtoddbillings) or find more of his writing on www.jtoddbillings.com.