Tuesday, May 6, 2014

There is a Balm in Gilead

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul

It is the chorus to one of my all-time favorite spirituals: a song I was raised singing in the church, a Gospel tune that I had memorized at a very young age.

There is a balm in Gilead.

The prophet Jeremiah is prophesying against Egypt, and he interrupts the prophecy to instruct Egypt to "go up to Gilead and seek its balm," for it presently has no cure for the spiritual sickness that ails it. (Jer. 46:11)

Far more often than I--or probably many other pastors--would like to admit, we fear that there are no cures for the spiritual sicknesses that ail us.  Yes, we have faith in God.  Yes, we have faith in Christ.  But even we can topple and fall when we try so hard to fix ourselves that we neglect to leave room for God to do that job.

Until God worms His way back in, and lifts us up once again.

There is a balm in Gilead.

One month ago, I was grieving Darlyne's sudden death, the first death of an active church member I had experienced in my nearly three years here at FCC.

I still grieve her passing, but when I think of her, increasingly those thoughts are of how she lived, how she helped me in my ministry, how she served the Lord, and not of how she died.

There is a balm in Gilead.

Just after the New Year, I had to perform another funeral--this one for Don, a onetime FCC member who had since moved long before I arrived.

While I was writing my sermon for his service, our office secretary, Charlotte, discovered a sheaf of letters Don had written in the church and gave them to me.  I read a few, realized that this was a man I really wished I had known while he was still alive, and I had to stop writing so that I could devour every word of his prose and poetry, some of which I (and others) read at his memorial.

After his funeral, those letters went to his surviving family as a gift.  Although I know and appreciate their necessity, I honestly have never liked doing funerals...but that moment of giving back Don's letters made me happy again.

There is a balm in Gilead.

I would struggle with the criticism and the complaints--even though those are often a part of the job when you are a pastor.  I would shut myself in my office, collapse into my chair, and close my eyes, too emotionally paralyzed to get any work of any sort of importance done.

But then I would open my eyes and click open my email, or my phone would vibrate and I would reach for it, and sitting there would be a surprise sentence or three of appreciation and encouragement from someone.  And I would smile, stop feeling sorry for myself, and start to write them back.

There is a balm in Gilead.

The horrible stories would rattle my entire being like an earthquake.  The shootings at Aurora, at Sandy Hook, even close to home at Clackamas, Oregon.  The kidnapping of the girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram.  The disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner.  The deaths by addiction of talented figures I admired, like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But then I would see my congregants with their families, and remember that life does indeed go on, even after death.

There is a balm in Gilead.

I would entertain my own innermost demons on a regular basis.

You're not experienced enough for this job.

You're not growing this congregation fast enough.

You're a terrible administrator and fundraiser.  You're never going to help this congregation be financially secure again.

You aren't in tune enough with God to be an ordained pastor.

But then I would force myself back into the trenches of sermon writing and Bible study because I had to, and God would proceed to use the Scriptures to remind me that I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now.

There is a balm in Gilead.

And centuries ago, when millions of African-Americans were enslaved--in many cases by white slavers who justified said enslavement with Christian tradition and Christian Scripture--this spiritual was written, reminding them (and me, so many years later) that God may not promise us an end to all pain, but what God does promise us is a way to at least soothe that pain.  My own existential pain holds not a candle to enslavement.

But spiritually and emotionally, I can enslave myself to those things which are destructive to my ministry: fear, self-loathing, and insecurity.  Things that, try as I might, I cannot fix just on my own.  Things that I cannot fix entirely until God arrives again, and tells me once more that which Jeremiah told Egypt:

There is a balm in Gilead.

And it makes the wounded whole.

May God make you whole once more as well.

Yours in Christ,

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