For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,— Jeremiah 8:21-22
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
We humans all need a little magic to bring us through this dark vale – some spiritual sustenance, something to give us some hope, purpose, and moral guidance this side of the grave.
Love is a kind of magic. Beauty is a kind of magic. Laughter, music, play, joy… I think we have always needed these things, these gifts of the Spirit. Our Stone Age ancestors buried their dead with shells and flowers, among more utilitarian items. They too had their spiritual rituals, their techniques for seeking illumination and transcendence. They too were conduits for creative expression. Sure, these rituals may at times have involved deprivation, hallucinogens, and bizarre uses of certain bodily fluids, but they understood the need for reaching out to grasp at that which is greater than ourselves.
The lust for transcendence is a fundamental human impulse, a need of our souls, and one I’ve felt even more strongly than usual in recent weeks. I assume I’m hardly alone. In times such as these, we find ourselves wondering: Is there no balm in Gilead?
I write this on June 1st, 2020. It is the first day of my long-planned “sabbatical” from teaching. I have just finished my 5th year as an English and Social Studies teacher at a priority school in Louisville, Kentucky. I had intended to feel quite differently on this day. I did not expect we would be in the third month of a global pandemic and a massive recession. I did not expect that I’d be stuck at home, unable to access many of the usual comforts and outlets I’ve so long taken for granted. I did not expect there to be mass protests and rioting in the streets of my own city, rubber bullets and tear gas popping and hissing through the night, the riot police and National Guard blocking the road half a mile from my home. In Louisville, one person has already been killed amid the protests.
I did not expect to be starting this sabbatical during a national crisis. And yet here we are. Life is nothing if not unpredictable. If you want to make God laugh, tell Her your plans. As it is, I’m one of the lucky ones. Sure, I’ve been a tad inconvenienced. I’ve had some plans fall through. I’ve been feeling stir-crazy and anxious for the past few months. But all things considered, I’m doing just fine. Hell, I get to take a sabbatical. How many 33 year-olds get to do that?
Yesterday morning I sat with my family in our living room watching a livestream of the National Cathedral’s Sunday service. It was a special Sunday in the Church calendar – the Day of Pentecost, a day that commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit. And it occurred to me: Lord, I sure could use some of that Holy Spirit right now. Here’s the relevant passage from Acts 2, from the old King James:
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
If you can believe this strange narrative, the divine Spirit of love and truth came down and gave these early followers of Jesus the power to speak in other languages so that they might better connect with people who were different from them.
I don’t know about you, but I sure wish I had the right words for this troubled time – the means to speak love and hope in this moment of such despair, to speak healing in this age of fiery division, to speak truth without being misunderstood. Social media has been more than normally partisan this past week. When the mass protests in Minneapolis over the murder of George Floyd first turned violent mid-week, I posted a few words in response to the whole thing. Here’s what I wrote:
I understand that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” but justification is not the point here. Black rage is justified beyond a doubt, but rioting doesn’t work. Chaos is not a strategy for social change, it’s a recipe for conservative backlash. I’m not blaming the victims here. I’m just sad. Because I want things to get better, not worse. What will increase justice and decrease suffering? Not this.
In retrospect, I should have held my tongue, or spoken differently. I cringe a little just rereading it now. I eventually deleted the post. For what it’s worth, I hope I’m wrong: I hope this does work. But the truth is I really am sad and afraid that this will hurt the people it is intended to help. I desperately yearn for racial justice – justice for so many of my students, for their families and communities. I don’t think I was trying to tell black people how to express their oh-so-righteous rage. I am on the side of the protesters – the vast majority of whom, it should be noted, have been entirely nonviolent (even as police have responded with new waves of brutality). And yet, in my fumbling reaction against the lawlessness of the few, I still managed to give off the impression that, like so many other clueless, self-centered white people at this moment, I don’t really give a shit about the centuries of killing and oppression endured unto this very day by people of color in this country. As I recollect, I made basically the same mistake back in 2015 during the protests/riots in Baltimore. You’d think I’d learn!
Of course, part of me still believes I’m “right”. As a student of modern American history, I think there’s a good case to be made that riots do more harm than good. As Ilia Delio put it, “we have been here before; violence begets more violence.” On the one hand, riots tend to cause irreparable harm to the neighborhoods in which they take place and sometimes lead to yet more tragic killings – five have died so far in the past week’s unrest. As rapper Killer Mike put it a few days ago, “You have a duty not to burn your own house down.” But more broadly, what I worry about is the power of white fear to make matters worse. I know white people, I know how so many of them will react to this. There’s little doubt that the riots and general air of chaos and lawlessness that engulfed the late 1960s are a big part of what caused the massive decades-long conservative backlash that followed – the rise of law-and-order politics, mass incarceration, the Moral Majority, white flight, the Religious Right, free-market economics, the War on Drugs, and so on. (Of course, racism also lay beneath all of that.) Unsurprisingly, Trump himself ran on an explicitly law-and-order platform in 2016 and it worked. He’ll no doubt try it again.
All that being said, I’ve been given an opportunity in my reading over the past few days to understand these riots from other perspectives and I think there are a lot of good points that have been made, despite all the understandably heated rhetoric. Here’s one Zak Cheney-Rice made today:
Many have concluded that less extreme measures have failed to secure the justice they want and deserve. Even Dr. King, the American saint whom they’ve been relentlessly shamed for not emulating, has been thanked posthumously for his service with the steady erosion of his life’s work at the hands of the United States’ most powerful people. Lesson learned. In the reasoning of the disaffected, the time for pleading and seeking recourse through the established political order has passed, at least for now. Their cries have gone unheeded; the majority of their skeptics have little to offer but appeals to process, to order, to deference toward the passions of skittish white people and the predation of avaricious billionaires.
Unheeded indeed. In many ways, America’s been backsliding for decades on racial justice, despite that we just had a black president. The conditions are desperate for huge swaths of black and brown folk in this country. The state is failing them. It’s one reason why teaching in poor urban public schools can be so draining and demoralizing. It’s hard to stand there every day and tell my more skeptical students from lower-income homes – of every race, but especially those of color – that education is the key to achieving the American Dream. That may be true in principle, but in practice so many of these kids have no meaningful chance to make it out of poverty. By Middle School, many students from lower-income homes are already years behind in basic skills like reading and math. Let’s be real: the American Dream is out of reach for them, just as it has been for generations before them. Teachers can’t fix a failing state. So much needs to change, and yet sometimes I can’t see how it ever will. These riots are expressions of despair. It’s hard not to share it. Is there no balm in Gilead?
And now here I am, after five years of teaching, essentially cashing out. It’s temporary, sure, but still smacks of an abdication of responsibility. Here I am watching all of this injustice spill out into the streets from the comfort of my home, sipping margaritas and scrolling social media.
But that is exactly why I wanted to write about this today. I had planned to focus my inaugural post on developing the concept of “awe,” and I will cover that in a few days. But right now I want to dedicate my sabbatical and my blog to something greater than myself. I may be staying home, but I’m still reading, still listening and learning, still trying to figure out how to speak and act in a way that honors the dignity and experience of all people. Still trying to channel that Holy Ghost. And that’s going to be my goal no matter what I’m doing for a paycheck.
Yesterday morning, listening to the sweet music of the Cathedral’s Imani-Grace Cooper (a taste) and the powerful words of Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde and Rev. Michael B. Curry I realized that I desperately needed what they were offering: spiritual uplift, hope, moral clarity, beauty, truth, insight. So that’s what I’ve decided to share today as a way of orienting myself and this blog project – first Rev. Budde’s opening words and then Rev. Curry’s sermon, both of which I transcribed from the service video last night. Here, lightly edited, is what Rev. Budde had to say:
We gather for worship in the midst of a national crisis, one that has been brewing for some time and reached a tipping point this week. This week: when the number of those who have died from Covid-19 in less than three months surpassed 100,000, a disproportionate percentage of which are people of color whom our healthcare system has failed all their lives. This week: when over 40 million Americans [have] filed for [unemployment insurance] and those deemed essential workers – again, disproportionately people of color on the lowest end of the pay scale – are with insufficient protection to keep them and their families safe. This week: when we have witnessed the latest killing of an African-American man by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
George Floyd’s death was not an isolated incident but rather the latest example of police and vigilante brutality and disregard for the lives of black and brown people in this country. His death [has] triggered one of the largest sustained expressions of both peaceful and violent protest that we have seen in decades. It is about his death and so much more. And we here at Washington National Cathedral… add our voices to the collective outrage, grief, and frustration. We add our resolve to those determined that this moment cannot and will not pass without movement toward real and lasting change.
We are followers of Jesus and his way of love. Today we are praying for the power of the Holy Spirit whose coming to us we commemorate this day and we renew our commitment and that of the institutions we serve to keep our eyes and energies fixed on addressing the root causes of systemic racism and white supremacy in all its forms, laid bare before us by Covid-19 and the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many more. This is a crucible moment when it has never been more clear that the soul of our nation is at stake. If our elected leaders cannot meet this challenge, we the faith leaders in this country must be among those stepping into the void. And we will. But this nation must rise together in November to elect the leaders we deserve. We need and must insist upon political reform, moral clarity, and effective governance from our elected leaders.
Today we gather for prayer – prayers of grief and repentance, prayers for strength and resolve, and to hear the Spirit-inspired words of our presiding bishop Michael Curry… Scripture is clear that God is not moved by the beauty of prayers that are not accompanied by the power of our deeds to choose love and to work for justice. May God grant us the strength and courage for the living of this hour. Amen.
This is a crucible moment. The soul of our nation is at stake. In 1957, when Dr. King and others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, they chose this as their motto: “To save the soul of America.” We need these protesters, these flawed prophets, to afflict us in our comforts. We need them to help save us. Riots are a symptom, evidence of disease, and America is a sick society. If we don’t transform the immense pain of our nation’s “original sin” of racism into justice then that pain will surely continue to be transferred between us in the form of ever more violence, hatred, and suspicion. As King said, “This is not merely a struggle between black people and white people, but between justice and injustice, between light and darkness.” This is a fight for the soul of our nation.
I desperately hope we can find a way to transcend the “closed systems of binary thinking” that so thoroughly infect our culture and our politics. If we can’t, I shudder to think what will become of our country. As Ezra Klein wrote today, American is at “the breaking point”:
The clouds may yet part. Few Americans want violence. And we are still, I believe, a better country than our leader thinks we are. Cable channels and Twitter feeds pulse with violence, but the nonviolent remain the true story — they are the majority, the vast majority, risking their bodies for justice, sweeping up broken glass, absorbing blows from batons and inhaling tear gas simply as an act of solidarity. They make America great.
But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. It would not take much more to truly set the country aflame. It is not just the news that has turned nightmarish in recent months. It is our lives, our reality. We are tired, scared, angry, hurt, mistrustful, and divided — and it is an election year. The kindling is everywhere. This is a country on the verge of war, and it so badly needs the leadership it doesn’t have, a president who truly wants peace.
In this context, the message of Pentecost is sorely needed. It is indeed interesting how the Pentecost story speaks to our present sectarianism. We direly need a little magic right now, a little flame of love kindled in our hearts, that we might gain a renewed capacity to connect across divisions and treat one another with basic humanity before our cities and towns do indeed go up in flames.
With that in mind, here now is Rev. Curry’s rousing Pentecost sermon, again slightly edited and abridged:
Today is the day of Pentecost, sometimes referred to as the birthday of the Church… when the Spirit of God – the same Spirit that rested upon Jesus – rested upon those first gathered apostles and followers. It was the beginning of what we call the Church, this movement of those who follow Jesus.
But this year we observe Pentecost in the midst of a pandemic. That’s what I’d like to talk with you about for a few moments – Pentecost in a pandemic. For our text we have the words of the apostle Paul in Romans, Chapter 5: “We boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
The old spiritual says it this way, “If you cannot preach like Peter, / if cannot pray like Paul, / you can tell the love of Jesus, / who died to save us all. / There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole, / there is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul.” Pentecost in a pandemic.
We really do observe this Pentecost in the midst of a pandemic. The pandemic of Covid-19 is real, it’s painful, and we pray that scientists, researchers, and all of the folk who are working hard will find a way to bring this pandemic to an end.
But there’s another pandemic, not of the viral kind, but of the spiritual kind. There’s a pandemic of the human spirit when our lives are focused on ourselves, when the self becomes the center of the world and of the universe. It is a pandemic of self-centeredness. It may be even more destructive than a virus…
James, in the epistle, says, “What causes wars, what causes fightings among you? Is it not the passions that are at war in your own members? You desire and do not have so you kill. You covet and cannot obtain so you fight and wage war.” That is the pandemic of selfishness, of self-centeredness. It is the pandemic where I am the center of the universe and if I’M the center of the universe then everybody else and everything else including YOU is the periphery. And that pandemic is the root cause of every humanly created evil that has ever been made, every war that has ever been fought, every bigotry, every injustice, every wrong that has ever been wrought. Any time a human being has hurt another human child of God, directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, at the root cause is ME being the center of the world and YOU on the periphery.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called this the reverse Copernican revolution, where not the sun is the center of the universe but the self. Love is the antidote to that. Love is the cure for that. Love is what can help us remove that way of living… “If you cannot preach like Peter, / if cannot pray like Paul, / just tell the love of Jesus, / how he died to save us all.” THERE is the “balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.” THERE is the “balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”
There is a cure for that pandemic: unselfish, sacrificial love. If you listen to the writer of the spiritual, that’s what they grasp: Jesus didn’t die for Himself. He died for others. He died for the good and the well-being of others, not for anything that He could get out of it. It was an unselfish act, a sacrificial act. And it is that way of unselfish, even sacrificial living, that has the innate spiritual capacity to actually save and help us all.
Jesus, following the teachings of Moses, told us long ago “You shall love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” To love God and love the neighbor and genuinely to love the self – not prideful, false self-love but to genuinely love the self – that is the way to life, not just for us individually but for us corporately as a society and us globally as a global human family. Love is the way. It is not a mere utopian dream. It is our hope, our only hope, and it is the cure for this pandemic caused by the human spirit.
But let no one deceive you, this is not cheap grace or sugar-coated religion. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to live an unselfish life. And the truth is, much that we see around us is the fruit of this unhealthy self-centeredness, seemingly ruling the day. But again, the spiritual may help us here. [In a different verse, t]he singer said it this way: “Sometimes I feel discouraged, / and think my work’s in vain, / but then the Holy Spirit / revives my soul again. / There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole, / there is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul.”
Love is the way, but we don’t always have the power to live that way. But the Spirit of the living God DOES have that power. Because I think, if I read my Bible correctly, 1 John 4 says, “Beloved let us love one another because love is of God and those who love are born of God and know God because God is love.” If God is love and the Spirit of God is the Spirit of God’s essence and life and heart, then when that Spirit is poured out on us the very love that is heart of God is being poured out on us and love becomes possible.
But it’s hard. This past week we have not only had to endure… a viral pandemic but we’ve had to endure and face a spiritual pandemic – [rooted in] self-centeredness where one person can look upon another person and despise and reject them and not even behold them as a fellow child of God. We have seen once again the unthinkable become thinkable. It’s caused great pain – or better yet unearthed great pain that was already there.
In Minnesota, the killing of George Floyd was a violation of basic human decency and dignity and we all saw it. We all saw it. Maybe the deeper pain that comes with that is that it wasn’t an isolated incident. It happened to Breonna Taylor on March 13th in Kentucky. It happened to Ahmaud Arbery on February 23rd in Georgia. Need I mention Melissa Ventura, Paul Castaway, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin… This is a painful path that we have been on for a long time. We’ve made such progress in our human relationships and in our racial relationships and yet this seems not to have changed at all.
I’m 67 years old. In the late 1960s and early 70s when I was a teenager, this same thing was going on then. My father who was an Episcopal priest, rector of St. Philips in Buffalo and also served… as the Director of Human Relations for the city of Buffalo. And in that capacity, after riots in the 1960s, he was brought on board and brought others on board to lead sensitivity training sessions for police officers on the Buffalo police force. That was necessary because some of the riots resulted from precisely the same thing that happened just this past week in Minneapolis. I was a teenager then and it was going on then.
I was a teenager when my father warned me when I learned how to drive that if ever you have encounters with the police: obey, do what they say, do not talk back, and watch how you move your hands. I was told that in the 1960s and we’re still having to say it today. That’s where some of the anger and the frustration that we’re seeing on our streets is coming from. It’s accumulated hurt and disappointment.
But not just for those on the streets, for people of goodwill and human decency of all races, of all stripes, of all religions, of all kinds – there is a part of us that just wants to throw up our hands and, in the words of the Psalmist, cry “How long, how long, Lord, how long?”
And yet… and yet we are not victims of fate. We are people of faith. We are not doomed and condemned to continue our past into our present and future. We need not be slaves of fate. We follow in the footsteps of Jesus and this Jesus taught us that love will make a way out of no way. He taught us that sometimes you have to take up the cross and follow in his footsteps that if you dare to follow his way of love you will find God’s way of life. We will not submit to fate, we must not give in to fate. We must dare to follow Jesus in the way of love that can save us all.
But I don’t have the power to do that all the time. And I suspect, neither do you. But God does. And that’s why the singer of the spiritual had a verse that said, “Sometimes I feel discouraged, / and think my work’s in vain, / but then the Holy Spirit / revives my soul again. / There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole, / there is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul.” Love is the way. It can save us all…
So walk together children, and don’t you get weary. Because there is a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.
In the midst of this national crisis, I felt like this sermon gave voice to the yearnings of my own heart, and offered a kind of prayer and orientation for my sabbatical and this blog. I’ll say it again: Lord, I sure could use some of that Holy Spirit right now. I’m guessing we all could. We all need that spiritual sustenance, something to give us some real hope, moral purpose, and healing insight this side of the grave. Spirit of all love and life, teach me Your ways, give me the strength and know-how to love all people better – the love that brings about justice.
Ilia Delio writes, “We do not go to church to be rescued from a fallen world; we go to church to become transformers of the world.” I certainly do need rescuing, but I think that my rescuing, whatever that looks like, is also deeply intertwined with that of everyone else – in other words, with the transformation of the world. In a sense, this sabbatical and this reading-fueled blog is an extension of church for me. And with that in mind, this “crucible moment” is the perfect place to begin. This is not a time of ease and contentment, but of great tension and unrest. Hence, this sabbatical and this blog are not intended as a kind of extended vacation, but a chance to listen and learn and grow, a journey of spiritual seeking. As my dear Wendell Berry put it,
[T]he world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.
In this “crucible moment,” I dedicate myself to seeking out and sharing that which is inspired as best I can discern it, that which hints of life’s deepest truths, all that is beautiful and full of grace in this world, all that serves the cause of justice and human flourishing. I reject the despair, cynicism, and divisiveness of the moment. I reject the defensiveness and self-centeredness of my ego-driven-self. I open myself up to what this world has to teach me.
Of course, I should be careful what I wish for, what I pray for. It might just change me. Love always does. I hope you’ll join me from time to time on this journey of reading and listening. And with that, here is a benediction – the best I know of for this or any time – from a former pastor of mine:
Come Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love.
Take our minds and think through them.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our souls, and set them on fire. Amen.