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Is there no balm in Gilead?
Our hymn this morning is a reassuring answer to the cry of the prophet Jeremiah [8:22] Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?
Jeremiah was grieving angrily over the spiritual condition of Israel, responding to the corruption of religious authority, enraged that those who should have known better were wrapped up in material gain and politics rather than focused on the moral condition of the people they were called to lead. Jeremiah was good at angry grief; his name is given to a form of speech known as a jeremiad.
Today would have been my mother’s birthday, so I’d been planning to speak, this morning, about grief of a quieter kind, yet grief enough and not always quiet, but as a death more or less expected, not unjust or out of time, grief at her loss need not long impede the return of hope and the conquest of despair.
But this has been a bad week.
A poet friend, Alla Renee Bozarth, whose work I have quoted in my books, sent out a prayer on Monday. Let me share it with you now:
On a Weary, Slow Waking Day
c. August 19, 2021, Alla Renee Bozarth
When the whole world
is too much, focus
on what you can bear
keep one hand
and an eye on
your coffee mug,
the blue flowers
on the table,
the piece of fruit
from the tree
or the market—
let your eyes
today, let them
draw you through
to the grass
with your small
hands on the rope
the apple tree . . .
listen to the birds
then and now
in your reverie . . .
then come back to the coffee
sending its warmth into your hand,
the beautiful grain of wood
on the table, the newspaper
with the whole world
waiting for you . . .
Alla [Renee Bozarth] is among the friends who does this for me fairly often, —-sends poem-prayers via email to a large group of interested clergy-folk, usually in response to public events, and she gets darned specific about what she’s praying for.
She had a lot to say about Trump, for instance. Alla is a fierce feminist, so for four years, God was getting a detailed feminist earful about The Donald and his treatment of women. I don’t know if she ever quoted from the Prophet Jeremiah during the Trump years, but she might as well have.
No jeremiad from Alla this week, though.
My son Zach, the former Marine, says that the most striking thing about his social media this week is the careful silence of so many of his most vocal, outraged friends, loud advocates of social justice, the ones who have had something to say about everything. And now…
I remember watching, with my father, as the planes took off from the roof of our embassy in Saigon. Black and white, TV with bad reception, but really, I was watching Dad watch. And it was awful.
Not just that Dad knew so many Americans who had died there, but that he had gotten to know and love the people of Vietnam, made friends when he lived and traveled in the country as a reporter, and now he had to watch his own country abandon them.
This week, our planes have been taking off from the airport in Kabul. The runways are clogged with Afghans so desperate to get out that they are trying to stop the planes with their bodies. Some clamber into the wheel wells, hoping to escape that way; they are falling out of the sky.
One of the Afghans who tried to escape this way and fell was a seventeen-year-old soccer player named Zaki Anwari who played for his National team. “He was a brilliant young player, a very good human,” his coach Mobin Muhammad said of him, through tears.
The pioneer of Afghan women’s soccer, meanwhile, Khalida Popal, has found sanctuary in Copenhagen. From there, she has urged her players to burn their jerseys and delete all evidence that they ever played sports. But the pictures of the team are all over the internet, grinning young women in the usual shorts and jerseys, a soccer ball clasped between their hands. They will have to hide their faces, legs, and bodies, and even their hands now. If they survive.
Our psalm this morning [84:3] says: Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young…
Not to put too fine a point on it, the women of Afghanistan are screwed. The most horrendous, shaming communications——Tweets, emails, Instagrams, Facebook messages——are coming from them.
We were supposed—-very specifically—- to be bringing the women of Afghanistan and thus of the Muslim world, hope. Liberation. Life.
Even as I strongly questioned the wisdom of the war back in the beginning, I remember thinking that it represented an extraordinary first in human history: that the rights of women had been cited by a world leader as casus belli, a reason to fight.
So what shall we do about this, my friends? Is there no balm in Gilead?
I was too little to be a peace marcher during Vietnam, but I had relatives who were. As I recall, there were, amongst the marchers, pacifists, but there were many and perhaps more who believed that the war was wrong not because war is always wrong, but because in this case, the end result of an American withdrawal would merely mean that the people of Vietnam would be communist. And that would be okay. A good thing, even.
Jane Fonda wore a cute lil’ NVA helmet when she went over to visit, and posed cheerfully with soldiers and weapons. She was young and, as she says now, naive. But she wasn’t a pacifist. Pacifists don’t pose with weapons.
I don’t know if she is a pacifist today, but Jane is a feminist.
Well, who isn’t?
My son asked whether we can expect that the Women’s March will mount another of those pink-hat demonstrations now, on behalf of the women and girls of Afghanistan?
Afghan mothers are handing their girl babies over the airport walls, through the barbed wire, to American soldiers on the other side. That is what I call a Hail Mary pass——handing your baby to an armed foreigner because anything is better than letting your little girl grow up amongst her countrymen.
There are other girls—-ten-year-olds and up—-who are too big to pass through barbed wire; their mothers are, as we speak, trying to hide them, or draping them in cloth from head to toe in the desperate hope that this will save them from being war booty. Since the moms can’t protect them, and the dads can’t, and the Americans who promised to help out are being, however inefficiently, withdrawn.
It’s okay though, right?
That is, there is no reason why I have to remember the tears in Dad’s eyes, or think about “my guys,” my game wardens who served in Afghanistan …I don’t have to think about the graves we visited together in Arlington to honor the friends they lost there; I don’t have to think about how easily my own son-the-Marine could’ve been one of them, or that it could be Simon and me, watching the planes take off, and the mothers pushing their babies across barbed wire and thinking: Our boy died for this.
You know the candle we pledged, the day the wars began, to keep lighting every Sunday, saying our prayers by its light until the wars were over?
Now we can blow the candle out…our prayers have been answered.
God help us.
What shall I, a pastor, recommend to you today?
What I always recommend, I suppose. Begin with gratitude. Sure, gratitude for the moment my friend Alla invites us to recognize: the coffee …sending its warmth into your hand,…the beautiful grain of wood…on the table
But gratitude made deeper by the knowledge of our own, astonishing good fortune, unearned and undeserved: You and I are not Afghan women.
Why waste this chance, purchased by another’s pain, to gain a bit of perspective?
The least we can do is, if only for today, to look around ourselves and recognize: whatever injustice, whatever oppression, whatever obstacles have been unfairly placed in my path…today, dear God, I am not an Afghan woman.
I don’t know what we can do after that. I know there will be something to do, something to learn, some application for the love we are called to give, some way to try to meet the single greatest challenge of human life: Love.
Another chance to try to figure out what love could look like in this new and ancient circumstance.
I know there will be something to do and learn, because I know God, and more important, the God of Jeremiah and of Jesus knows us.
Some-times I feel dis-cour-aged, and think my work’s in vain…But then the Ho-ly Spir-it re-vives my soul a-gain.
There is a photograph going ‘round the internet. It’s of a United States Marine, holding a baby. He’s just a Marine. Just a guy. Armored up, clad in Kevlar. The baby is a bundle with a fuzzy dark head. The Marine is smiling. It’s a tender smile, a little embarrassed, maybe, but he is holding that baby gently in his arms.
Alla invites us to be in the moment. I want to stay in that moment. With the Marine, holding the baby, stay in the twelve inches between his face and hers, a space filled with his breathing. Her breathing.
There is a balm in Gil-e-ad to make the wound-ed whole;
If you can’t preach like Pet-er, if you can’t pray like Paul?
Just hold the baby.
Just tell the love of Je-sus, and say He died for all.
There is a balm in Gil-e-ad to make the wound-ed whole;
This is our world. Go ahead. Bless it.