My grief is beyond healing;Thomas Wiggins, known as "Blind Tom," was born in 1849 in Columbus, GA. Even though he was born blind, at the age of seven this enslaved African could flawlessly play spirituals and European classical music. He made his way into the plantation “Big House” where he listened to Beethoven and, it is alleged, he memorized over 8,000 compositions. One person stated he had never heard a person play with such skill and beauty. People said anytime Blind Tom played, his tears would begin to flow. Some could not understand how an untrained, blind black man could play this beautiful music. Others said Blind Tom had the Blues flowing in his spirit and it would touch the souls of people who did not see Blind Tom as a full person.
my heart is broken.
Listen to the weeping of my people;
it can be heard all across the land.
“Has the Lord abandoned Jerusalem?” the people ask.
“Is her King no longer there?
Oh, why have they provoked my anger with their carved idols
and their worthless foreign gods?” says the Lord.
“The harvest is finished,
and the summer is gone,” the people cry,
“yet we are not saved!”
I hurt with the hurt of my people.
I mourn and am overcome with grief.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why is there no healing
for the wounds of my people?
If only my head were a pool of water
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
I would weep day and night
for all my people who have been slaughtered. – Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Black liberation theologian James Cone talks about being black in the South during the lynching era. How did southern rural blacks survive the terrors of this era? Violent self-defense was equivalent to suicide. Protest was out of the question. Cone says, African Americans learned to sing the Blues to express both despair and hope. Despair asks the questions, “Why this? Why me? Why now?” Despair asks, “What do you do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do we do?” African Americans played and sang the blues. As long as they could sing and play the blues, they had some hope that one day their humanity would be acknowledged. Sorrow will turn to joy. Despair will lead to hope. Violence will end and justice will reign. Those who are last will someday become the first.
How about you? What do you do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do you do? In today’s second reading, the prophet Jeremiah sings the blues. The prophecies in Jeremiah cover a few decades of Israel’s history. His words chronicle the nation’s movement from national hubris to national destruction. From Jeremiah’s point of view, the devastating fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE is the result a gradual and accumulating failure at all levels of national life. It is a foreign policy failure. It is a failure of values and faith. Jeremiah sees Israel like a tree rotting in its core. From the outside the nation still looked like a strong oak, with branches spreading upwards and leaves providing a canopy of shade. But when the armies of Babylon came like a storm, Israel turned out to be hollowed out and ready to be blown over. Jeremiah knows that no matter what he says or does, the people of Jerusalem will not listen. They will not own up to their rotting condition. They will not seek healing. Jeremiah is sick about it. Sick with grief. Read Jeremiah’s words and it’s hard to know who is hurting more; Jeremiah or God. It’s as if they ask, “What do we do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do we do?” Jeremiah puts it another way: Is there no balm in Gilead?
The phrase “balm in Gilead” probably refers to a balsam wood resin used in medicine and perfumes. Jeremiah uses this phrase twice in his prophetic writings. Both times the prophet says Israel looks for some soothing medicine to help with their problems, but in each case the cure lacks the power to bring about healing. We might say Israel is trying to put a band aid on their problems. It’s like trying to rub lotion on the chest of a patient who needs a heart transplant. We sing the old spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.” Jeremiah’s says just the opposite: Beware of the balm in Gilead. It is not enough. Don’t settle for snake-oil solutions when a radical transformation is needed. There are no easy and painless answers to big problems.
Lanford Wilson was a young playwright who had come to New York City from the Ozarks. He was fascinated by the people he overheard in all-night coffee shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side: dealers, junkies, hustlers, prostitutes, dreamers and runaways. He wrote a play based on these conversations and called it “Balm in Gilead: An Underworld Adventure.” The plot loosely centers on Joe and Darlene. Joe is a cynical drug dealer and Darlene is a naïve, simplistic and irritating new arrival to the big city. Darlene leaves the Midwest after a divorce and finds herself completely ill-equipped to handle life in New York’s underworld. She becomes increasingly vulnerable to the attentions of the various low-rent men who hang around the café looking for an easy target. Joe the drug dealer seduces Darlene hours after they meet. When Joe looks at Darlene, he sees a chance for a fresh start. He considers giving up dealing, but he has a huge debt to a loan shark named Chuckles to take care of first. Just as he is about to return Chuckles' money, Joe is killed by one of the dealer's thugs. The play ends with all the principal characters droning their lines from the first scene over and over again in a circle, suggesting that their lives are stuck in a demoralizing rut. I can just hear the prophet Jeremiah. “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
What do we do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do we do? A lot of us seek solutions that really don’t solve our problems. In Wilson’s play, drugs and alcohol become the most dangerous form of comfort. There is no balm in Gilead when, 45 years after than play was written, America spends billions of dollars combating terrorism while drunk drivers create more than four 9/11 scale tragedies per year.
There is no balm in Gilead when hurting Americans take on punishing debt in the hopes of getting out of our financial problems.
There no balm in Gilead in the face of craven violence. A majority of Americans can’t get our congress to pass basic gun owner background check legislation – even after the murder of 26 first graders and teachers at Sandy Hook. There is no comfort for thousands of Syrians killed in chemical weapon attacks, not to mention millions of refugees in that country’s civil war. There is no balm in Gilead for the despicable bloodshed we have seen just this past week – from killings of office workers in D.C., to gang warfare in a Chicago park, to terror in a mall in Nairobi.
And how about our current national political system? There is no balm in Gilead for food insecure families who are afraid of being taken off of food stamps because their future has been sequestered by rich obstructionists. Sometime I wonder, can God thrive in this kind of brokenness? We say, with the prophet Jeremiah,
“I hurt with the hurt of my people.We ask with Jeremiah,
I mourn and am overcome with grief.”
“Is there no balm in Gilead?What do we do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? Like Jeremiah, we speak truth to power. We speak truth to suffering. We speak truth to weakness. We speak truth to the laziness that imposes ineffective solutions that exploit the weakest, most compromised among us. We speak truth to those who fail to take responsibility. When there is nothing left but to grieve, what do we do? We love those who are suffering; we keep vigil with them. And we pray for their complete healing. It is a healing that comes from beyond exile, from beyond the grave.
Is there no physician there?
Why is there no healing
for the wounds of my people?”
What do we do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do we do? We remember that we, as Christians, do actually offer a Balm in Gilead that can actually heal and transform of the world and ourselves. We offer the words of Jesus who says, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” I believe the resurrected Christ is the answer for the wounds of the world and for my own wounds. In my own life, I know of no other way, no other healing balm that helps me meet the daily challenges I face. And I have nothing else to offer except the One who heals me and calls me to love in return with all my heart, soul and mind, to extend love to my neighbor in gratitude. So I listen to the words of that old spiritual and try to remember: Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work's in vain; but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree