Is there no balm in Gilead?

Published 7:10 pm Wednesday, June 3, 2020

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Scholars call Jeremiah “The Weeping Prophet” for good reason. He had lots of personal problems, most of them related to his country’s troubles and his refusal to keep silent about them. God was allowing Judah to be punished, eventually to be taken into the Babylonian Captivity for generations. In one of his lamentations, he cries out: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

African-American slaves here in the South heard this and one of them wrote a spiritual answering his question with an unequivocal, “Yes. Dr. Jesus is still at work.”

“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” This refrain is repeated after each verse: “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”

Who wouldn’t get discouraged being treated as less than a human being as America’s slaves were starting in 1619? And what Black parent now doesn’t detest the necessity of having to have “The Talk” with their teenage sons regarding how to behave if ever stopped by a law enforcement officer regardless of why?

“Don’t ever feel discouraged for Jesus is your friend, and if you look for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.” Just like “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” written by a White man just before the Civil War to comfort his sorrowing mother and picturing Jesus as an eternally faithful friend, so this spiritual leans on Jesus “when the storms of life are raging” knowing our friend is in the boat with us.

“If you can’t preach like Peter, if you can’t pray like Paul, just tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all.” For George Floyd and his killer(s), for Donald Trump and his followers, for rioters, looters, store owners, police and National Guardsmen, for Nancy Pelosi and Congress, for everyone who’s ever drawn breath: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Jesus also described himself as the good shepherd and promises abundant life to his flock: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

There’s the rub. While some live even grander than King Solomon in all his glory, the vast majority of people live on the edge of poverty. In our nation, the rich definitely are getting richer thanks to tax breaks concocted by this administration and approved by this Congress, while persons of color slide further and further behind. COVID-19 has pulled the scab off this too often hidden reality. White privilege remains a fact whether in Minnesota or Mississippi, North Dakota or North Carolina, and far too many of us White Americans don’t get why our Black fellow citizens are fed up with these disparities 52 years after the martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr. and a presidential term after a two-term African-American president. How long, O Lord?

We all grew up learning the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence … Love others as well as you love yourself. These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

The Bible is a wonderful book filled with wisdom and the very Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ. Used properly, we can “hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them,” rejoicing that each of us is God’s child and therefore all of us are brothers and sisters even in this time of pandemic and pandemonium.

Indeed, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy.

Charles Michael Smith is a retired United Methodist Minister who grew up near the Pamlico River and Jack’s Creek and lives with his wife, also a Washington native, where Broad Creek meets the Pamlico.