A sermon given during the 6pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 16th of October 2022
IS THERE OR THERE IS A BALM IN GILEAD
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
This morning I had the pleasure of having been invited to preach at the Ecumenical Service which was part of this year’s South Coast Jazz Festival. So, I am afraid that while I haven’t got Georgia on my mind, I have got Jazz; , that will be my theme this evening. Indeed, the first half of my sermon will be what I preached this morning, which I will then relate back to one of our readings tonight. Given that Goolwa is located at the New Orleans spot of our own Mississippi, the Murray, you might not be surprised to know that I used ‘Ol Man River’ as something of a theme this morning.
That great American river – the Mississippi – was not only an economic artery to the young American republic, it was also a deep symbol for American slaves, appearing in their songs of yearning. Howard Thurman has referred to one of those – Deep River, my home is over Jordan – as ‘the most universal in insight, and certainly the most intellectual of all the spirituals’; he highlighted these words of the song:
Deep River, my home is over Jordan,
Deep River, my home is over Jordan.
O don’t you want to go to that Gospel Feast
That Promised Land where all is Peace?
Deep River. I want to cross over into campground.
Thurman noted how that river ‘may have been for many (a slave) the last and most formidable barrier to freedom’. He built on that point to ask his readers to ‘think of life as being like a river (as) a full and creative analogy.’
The metaphor of crossing water and the journey to the waterside is deep in our faith. The Israelites crossed the Red Sea then, after decades in the wilderness, Joshua finally led the vestiges of that people across the River Jordan. In between those two bodies of water, the people of God had languished in the wilderness for forty years, enough time for an entire generation to pass away. What do those events say to us? Every Easter, we allude to the deliverance of God’s people as we celebrate the Last Supper; but, for most of us, I would venture to suggest that the period of wilderness scarcely rates in our personal or collective theologies and that the crossing of the River Jordan would doubtless not rank at all.
However, for the enslaved of the American South, these two were of profound importance for them, for the wilderness, leading up to the tantalising edge of the metaphorical River Jordan and the prophesied Promised Land beyond, represented for them a depiction of their suffering condition and the only hope they could entertain. They had been taken from the homeland of their ancestry, had then found themselves enslaved in a wilderness yearning for deliverance; but the Promised Land merely beckoned from an unreachable afar. As a result, the very depths of their souls were impacted. The poet Langston Hughes wrote:
I’ve known rivers,
Ancient, dusky rivers;
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Langston Hughes [1901-1967] was a black American poet who came from a deeply painful and conflicted ancestry – both his paternal great-grandmothers had been slaves … and both his paternal great-grandfathers had been slave-owners. ‘The Negro speaks of Rivers’, the poem from which I have just read, was later put to music by a black composer, Margaret Bonds [1913-1972]. She composed a piece based on the poem blending many styles including jazz and ragtime. Indeed, writing about that William O’Hara has said:
Bonds’ compositional style in this piece fits neatly into the style of the early C20, but what makes her fellow Black composers unique is their incorporation of jazz harmonies and dissonances into their music … these allusions to jazz have a strong connection to African diasporic history.
Why might it be that ‘jazz harmonies and dissonances’ could have played a key part in Bonds’ translating into music the essence of words like ‘my soul has grown deep like the rivers’? The reading at this morning’s service was from Genesis [32:22-31]; it recounted the struggle of Jacob with an unnamed person through the dark hours before the dawn. Verse 28 from that reading stood out to me:
Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.
‘You have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed’. The black slaves indeed had striven with man, the slave-owning society which surrounded them; and had pleaded with God for deliverance, having to struggle with His seeming delay in responding to them. They prevailed not by winning each of the struggles on terms which would make sense to us but by redefining what winning meant. This redefinition meant that, to other ears, the song of their struggle would end up sounding somewhat like ethereal jazz, with strange harmonies and dissonances which would defy traditional theological logic.
Let me return to Howard Thurman and two further points he made in his book Deep River & The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death. In the first point, he treats with the episode of Jesus healing the blind man related in John 9. In the biblical version, the blind mind is healed, but in the spiritual song written about it, Thurman noted:
… the blind man does not receive his sight. The song opens with the cry; it goes through many nuances of yearning, but always it ends with the same cry with which it began. [p38]
Translating this to the human condition in general and drawing comparison with Jesus, he continued:
Very often the pain of life is not relieved – there is the cry of great desire, but the answer does not come – only the fading echo of one’s lonely cry. Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, prayed that the cup might pass, but he had to drink it to the last bitter dregs.
In other words, traditional understanding of healing could not be used to explain Jesus when healing transparently never seemed to happen to him. What had to be done was to take a big leap of understanding where the failure of God to ‘heal’ his own Son according to earthly expectations, to save him from the Cross, enabled them to make sense of their own suffering.
This then was the dissonant space, the lack of a worldly understanding of harmony, where the slaves found themselves. They struggled without end with man and could only find solace in their struggle with God by empathising with His Son’s own suffering.
Which brings me to his second point. In the Negro spirituals, there was indeed empathy with the sufferings of God’s Son; but Thurman contends that there was much more involved. Writing about the song – Were you there when they crucified my Lord? – he noted a much more profound communion with the body and blood of Christ than the traditional Eucharistic feast; he wrote:
The inference is that the singer was there: ‘I know what he went through because I have met him the high places of pain, and I claim him as my brother.’ Here … the approach is not a conceptual one, but rather an experimental grasping of the quality of Jesus’ experience, by virtue of the racial frustration of the singers. [p27]
He went on to talk about another song – An’ de Lord shall Bear my Spirit Hom’ – and its implications of hope against the odds:
The religious experiences of the slave were rich and full because his avenues of emotional expression were definitely limited and circumscribed … When all hope for release in this world seems unrealistic and groundless, the heart turns to a way of escape beyond the present order. [p29]
Thurman quoted one more song which picked up the apocalyptic nature of their hope, for that was all that was left to the slave:
Don’t leave me, Lord
Don’t leave me behin’ [p30]
This brings me now to our service tonight. Apart from our music director, Anthony Hunt’s choice of the beautiful jazz improvisations of Alexander L’Estrange’s compositions for our canticles (the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis), you might have thought that I would be stretching a long bow to weave this topic into what appears in our Order of Service. However, given the recurring theme I have echoed which can best be described by the lines of another spiritual as being the yearning of the slave:
Gonna lay down my burden
Down by the riverside
There have been three things which have spoken to me this evening. Firstly, we heard the Choir sing Psalm 121, whose opening words were:
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
Then we had a reading from Jeremiah where we heard:
(Ebed-melech) took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. (38:11)
While shortly we will sing a hymn by John Ellerton where these words stand out to me:
Grant us thy peace throughout our earthly life,
Our balm in sorrow and our stay in strife.
Then, when thy voice shall bid our conflict cease,
Call us, O Lord, to thine eternal peace.
The Book of Jeremiah is often considered a somewhat woebegone work, full of moaning and complaining – it doesn’t speak much to our comfort yet, as the slaves of the apparently Christian Deep South could attest, it could speak powerfully to personal distress. Indeed, the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations often spoke more to the enslaved than other books of Scripture for they resonated with themes of their own suffering. In doing so, they would radically rethink the message of these books. For example, take Jeremiah 8:22 where we read his lament:
Is there no balm in Gilead?
To the slave in the desperate wilderness of the Deep South, the question must have seemed so very true – ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ Yet, that was not what their spiritual song did with the verse. Listen to how it is told in the song ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’, the first verse goes:
There is a balm in Gilead,
To make the spirit whole.
There is a balm in Gilead,
To heal the sin-sick soul.
Howard Thurman wrote of this change from Jeremiah’s question in Scripture to a statement in song:
(In Jeremiah’s question) he is searching his own soul. He is stripped to the literal substance of himself, and is turned back on himself … The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma, and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question make in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point … The basic insight here is one of optimism – and optimism that grows out of pessimism of life and transcends it. It is an optimism that use the pessimism of life as raw material out of which it creates its own strength. [p61]
Our reading from the 38th chapter of Jeremiah spoke of ‘old rags and worn-out clothes’ of the king’s palace bringing a salvation; the slaves must have felt themselves to be just such ‘old rags and worn out’ but yet they could find from such a despairing tone, a saving from the depths. In doing so, they upended traditional theological interpretation. Once again quoting Thurman commenting that the ‘dream of peace’ persists despite all human evidence to the contrary, a history of endless conflict and struggle:
We continue to hope against all evidence to the contrary, because that hope is fed by a conviction deeper than the processes of thought that the destiny of man is good. It is this spirit that has been captured by the spiritual. Yes. ‘There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.’ [p65]
Through all their suffering, as attested by their song, they would not despair – may our own theology draw strength from this … may we find ‘balm in Gilead’ in the valleys of our own lives.
 Howard Thurman, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, FUP, Richmond IND, 1975, p70.
 Anyone interested in reading about her interesting musical approach to the poem can go to this website: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: The Union of a Composer and a Poet – Marginalized Music (wordpress.com)