Is There No Balm in Gilead?

This season marks a year since the COVID virus first took siege of our lives. In my diary from last year I noted, “Need to write blog. So many possibilities. COVID? Judgment? Loss?”  Now I am looking back, marking the passage of so much, and still sitting with the same questions.

As happens with me in writing this weekly blog, a filament of an idea lodged in my memory banks after listening to something on NPR. The conversation was about the African American spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead”. The tune wormed its way into my subconscious and I have been humming it ever since. Why this particular theme came to my awareness really doesn’t matter. How it has impacted me this week does.

Seeking Balm

I suspect I am not the only person seeking a balm for all the pain and suffering that has occurred this past year. What balm will help me fully comprehend what it means to have so many millions die from an unseen virus?  What magical herb will explain how the very fabric of my life could fall apart resulting in long periods of isolation and disconnection from other humans?  What ritual or incantation will replace the fear of others putting me at risk through their selfishness, ignorance, or intentional disregard of my welfare?

I am very aware of my own reluctance to emerge from my cocoon of presumed safety, even though I am fortunate enough to have received the vaccine. Perhaps the lyrics need to be updated to ask, “Is there ENOUGH balm in Gilead?”

So Much Pain to be Soothed

Of course the pain that needs soothing isn’t limited to the pandemic. This week I have been unable to listen to the direct testimony of those involved in the murder of George Floyd. In my heart and soul there is no justice swift or complete enough to make up for what happened on that day. And the fact that is was but one in a long line of sanctioned slaughters just amplifies the pain.

Photo by Antonio Masiero

The litany of suffering continues when I look at what is happening outside of my geographic area including experiences of millions of refugees who are fleeing from untenable situations, whether they were caused by economic inequities, climate change, or political oppression. Is the balm in Gilead sufficient to address this?

Of course this suffering is not limited to the times I live in, or my circle of friends, family, and acquaintances. It is not limited to physical illness or psychological trauma. It is as old as humankind and what it means to be human. Perhaps this is where the true sourcing of the balm is found.

Bearing Witness

In my almost 30 years as a psychologist, I have learned that I cannot take away the pain others experience. I cannot take away the pain that millions of families around the world are feeling having lost a partner, lover, spouse, father, mother, brother, sister, grandmother, auntie or child from COVID. I cannot take away the pain of being hunted and killed that is the legacy and practice of racism, not just here in the United States, but all around the world. I cannot take away the pain of drought or extreme fire, or the consequences of pollution of our environment. I cannot redistribute wealth to insure that poverty does not result in economic inequity. What I can do is bear witness to it.

Passover and Easter

For Jews, Passover marks liberation from slavery and commitment to addressing oppression wherever it exists. For Christians, today marks the celebration when Jesus, by His resurrection, offered salvation to all sinners. This year, these two powerful spiritual observations have fallen during the same week.

I am impugning additional meaning to what might be thought of as merely a consequence of lunar calendars coinciding. For me, it is a chance to address ways that I continue to chain myself to old habits and beliefs. It is an opportunity for me to be reborn in my commitment to helping others and taking better care of myself and my world. It is an invitation to find ways to heal the wounds to my soul and soothe my suffering.

Making the Wounded Whole

I must acknowledge the suffering that is occurring so that I can address my own suffering. Keeping it at arms’ length merely insulates me from the balm actually healing my sin-sick soul. For me that means forgiveness, but not forgetting. As is promised in the hymn, “There is a balm in Gilead/to make the wounded whole.” It is bearing witness to the unspeakable acts done by those who know no better.

For Christians, the act of Jesus asking the Holy Father to forgive us was an act of courage. Marking the trail of tears and holding vigil from Good Friday to Easter Sunday are powerful rituals that remind us of what needed to be done to be worthy of forgiveness.

For Jews, the retelling of the Exodus story, asking the four questions, and explaining the Passover rituals is an act of faith that has sustained generations and reinforces the understanding that liberation cannot be taken for granted.

There is a Balm in Gilead

There are times when I have felt discouraged and questioned whether my work was in vain. While I do not personally believe in the Holy Spirit, I do believe in love, and grace, and mercy. I have been the recipient of all three. I have experienced liberation and forgiveness. And because I have, I can hold the possibility that others may also experience these, too.

And therein lies the balm.

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