Jeremiah’s intent is opposite the spiritual hymn.
Beware of the balm in Gilead
for it is not enough.
Don’t settle for
half measures, for a more radical transformation is needed.
This passage speaks to us when we are looking
for easy and painless solutions to big problems.
The 1965 play Balm in Gilead
captures this message more clearly.
Lanford Wilson was a young playwright who had come to New York City
from the Ozarks. (which should be
He was fascinated by the people
he overheard in all-night coffee shop on Manhattan's Upper
West Side peopled by a makeshift community of dealers, junkies,
hustlers, prostitutes, dreamers and runaways. The plot loosely centers on
Joe, a cynical drug dealer, and Darlene, a naive new arrival to the big city,
over the course of three days. Darlene left the Midwest after a divorce and
finds herself completely ill-equipped to handle life in New York’s underworld, and she becomes
increasingly vulnerable to the attentions of the various low-rent men who hang
around the café looking for an easy target. Joe seduces Darlene hours after
they meet. Joe, seeing in Darlene a
chance for a fresh start, briefly 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,
he 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 believe the tragic play highlights things that we seek as
a balm that really do not solve our problems.
Drugs are at the center of the story, which is the most dangerous balm
people seek for their troubles. We have
spent billions of dollars combating terrorism, when drunk drivers create more
than four 9/11 scale tragedies per year. Taking on debt in the hopes of getting
out of our financial problems is another false balm, whether the money comes
from loan sharks or Master Card or financing our public debt by selling
treasuries to China.
Many people seek balm in a relationship,
believing that another person can solve their problems. Someone else can make them whole. In some cases people use a relationship to
find someone else to blame for their problems.
Most of all the play warns against half-hearted hopes that aren’t based
on anything. The most useless phrases in
the English language are “I wish…if only…when I have more time…someday I
will…tomorrow I will…next week.”
captured as a playwright in the 1960s watching a slick crowd in an all night
diner is consistent with Jeremiah and has lessons for our times. The prophecies in Jeremiah cover a 20 year
span in Israel’s
history and chronicle the move from national hubris and overconfidence to the
ultimate national destruction. While the
destruction of Jerusalem
looked cataclysmic in 587 BC, from Jeremiah’s point of view it was the result
of two decades of slow failure at all levels of national life – it was a
foreign policy failure, as well as a failure in values, spirituality and
faith. The nation was like a tree
rotting in its core. From the outside it
still looked like a strong oak, with its branches spreading upwards and leaves
providing a canopy of shade. But when Babylon came with its
armies, it was like a storm that exposed the inner weakness of the trunk, which
had been hollowed out and was ready to crumble.
Jeremiah speaks to me because many of the issues today are
potential cataclysms moving in slow motion.
World population growth is slowly using up all kinds of resources-oil,
forests, iron, farmland and dozens of rare earth metals needed for industrial
processes. We keep wanting more and
more, and it is becoming economically unsustainable and environmentally
disastrous. Thomas Friedman wrote a
column in the New York Times last Sunday titled “We Are Number 11!” that had
this to say about where our problems came from:
We had a values breakdown — a national
epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. …Ask yourself: What
made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge,
merciless and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second,
the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to
sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together,
for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard
Our generation’s leaders never dare
utter the word “sacrifice.” All solutions must be painless. Which drug would
you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national
energy policy? Too hard. For a decade we
sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make
poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American
dream — a home — without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to
pay for two years.
I like Thomas Friedman and am more like him than Jeremiah. Friedman and I are both essentially optimists
who believe that with sound decisions, mutual sacrifice, courage and
creativity, we can still solve our most intractable problems before it is too
late. But the longer we wait to solve
our problems, both national and personal, the harder it becomes. I realize that Jeremiah was ultimately right
in his day, which motivates me in my own.
I believe there is a balm in Gilead.
When I sing the spiritual hymn with my
congregation I can feel it soothing my spiritual wounds and restoring me to
faith and hope, just like aloe salve soothes a burn.
I still believe Jesus is the answer for the wounds of the
world and for my own wounds. He is my
Way, my Truth, and my Life. The Balm in Gilead I receive is a marvelous gift and it keeps me
going every day. At the same time
Jeremiah reminds me that life is not about sitting around waiting for my
medicine. Band aids and half –measures
will not bring the cure we need. Jesus
heals me for a reason. I’m called to
love in return with all my heart, soul and mind, to extend love to my neighbor
in gratitude. Jesus the healer also
said, “Be not lukewarm, but be hot or cold to my message. Pick up your cross and follow me.” Discipleship is costly, as both Jesus and
Bonhoeffer remind us. But I know of no
other way, no other healing balm, that helps me meet the daily challenges. So I listen to the spiritual and will try to
sing it every day this week:
I feel discouraged and think my work's in vain; but then the Holy Spirit
revives my soul again.