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There Is a Balm

Updated: Sep 20

Kathy Douglass

Scripture: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1



I’ve been listening to folk singer and songwriter, Iris Dement, for most of my adult life.

She has a stunning, transcendent voice, and her raw and poignant lyrics are uncompromising in both truth and beauty. There’s an ache in her voice. There’s an ache in her words. In her song, My Life, she writes:


My life

It don’t count for nothing

When I look at this world, I feel so small And my life

It’s only a season

A passing September, that no one will recall

But I gave joy to my mother

And I made my lover smile

And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting And I can make it seem better for awhile


This particular song has felt like a fitting soundtrack lately. Her moving lyrics resonate with me and how it feels to be walking around in this skin we’ve all been given. We both bear and bear witness to physical and emotional pain that takes our breath away, desperate sorrows, incessant violence and injustice, longings for ourselves and others that leave us feeling parched and bereft.


I, we, can feel so small, like there’s no helpful way to respond, no clear way out of this night. Held up to what seems insurmountable, anything we may offer might feel insignificant, useless even, hardly worth remembering. There are days, there are seasons, where it’s all just... too much.


In the passage from the Old Testament we heard earlier, these words, also raw and poignant, wash over us as Jeremiah, speaking from the heart of God, expresses his anguish, his despair.


My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick within me.

Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people from the length and breadth of the land:

“Is the LORD not in Zion?

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded; I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?

A bit of context: the region of Gilead, near Jericho, was known in ancient times, in part, for its perfumes and spices and resins that held healing properties. In this passage, the prophet knows that destruction is coming upon Jerusalem and Jeremiah is despondent over the pain and misery they await. He laments what he is powerless to change. He cries out for the seeming finality of it all. His heart is sick, as the wounds that will leave painful scars on others seem to tear at his own flesh and wound him also.


I hear the same ache in Jeremiah’s voice that I hear in Iris Dement’s voice. She goes on in her song:


My life,

It’s half the way travelled

And still I have not found my way out of this night

And my life

It’s tangled in wishes

And so many things that just never turned out right

But I gave joy to my mother

And I made my lover smile

And I can give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting And I can make it seem better for awhile


I imagine that our own voices carry these echoes of ache also, when we sense it, when we see it, when we feel it, when we experience it, that things are coming completely undone.


Some of you remember 3 years ago when my 30 year old Nephew, Stephen, died in an accidental drowning. The river took his life, but Stephen had been losing his life to the disease of addiction for years before that May afternoon. And I remember many conversations, sitting with my broken-hearted sister Linda, as she bemoaned what she saw, what she feared was coming. Wondering, how could she help him? Wondering, where was God? Wondering if there was any balm for Stephen’s wounds.


I think the singer Iris, the prophet Jeremiah, and my sister Linda are kindred spirits. Kindred in their willingness to let their anguish be seen. Kindred in their vulnerability to let the cries of their hearts be released. Kindred in their courage, to say out loud the things that can be so very difficult to say.


Is there no balm in Gilead?


In one of the most tender parts of our worship together each week we share our joys, our thanksgivings, our gratitudes. We share also, the sorrows that gnaw at us, the fears that rob us of sleep, the precarities that make it so hard to find our footing.


All the ways we ask, “is there a balm?”


The Prophet Jeremiah, gripped by grief over the onslaught of sorrows he knew was coming, agonized over a people he loved to the point of feeling their wounds as his own.


He asks, is there a balm?


My mom is declining a bit, and I, as a card-carrying mama’s girl, am keenly aware of what I may get to keep of her, of who she and I have always been, and of what I may need to let go.


I ask, is there a balm?


The wounds borne in this room, those that we are aware of and those tucked so privately away, the wounds of strangers, the wounds of neighbors, the wounds of our human family, the lament of the fellowship of suffering that cries out to us from around the world for medicine, for relief, for healing.


They ask, we ask, is there a balm?


The balm I press into my wounds is the unshakeable, unfathomable yet intimate, always reaching for me ‘even when I don’t feel it’ love of God. This love has held me through every desperate season, through every sorrow that has brought me to my knees and been present, not apart from, but in my sufferings.


This is balm.


The balm I press into my wounds is the healing salve of this fellowship. What we experience here together through our communal worship, through the Eucharist, through our love for this place and for one another, love that extends out beyond these walls.


This is balm. We... are balm.


These words are attributed to St. Theresa of Avila:


Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which He looks with Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are His body.

Christ has no body now but yours.


We can give comfort to another when they’re hurting. We can make it seem better for awhile.


There is a balm in Gilead. There is a balm.


There is.


AMEN.



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