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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Wednesday, April 1, 2020  

Today’s Hymn

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

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” (v. 1), African American spiritual
Hymn 792, Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

This emotive haunting ode was a constant in our Easter celebrations. It serves as testimony to the heartfelt and soulful tradition of the black worshiping experiences of my childhood. As a young boy I had no idea about “balm” and had difficulty enunciating Gilead. I couldn’t fully appreciate how much my mother and her “Church Sisters” coveted this verse. I remember that “sway” in the pews—why did they move in such a poetic and expressive way? What was it about the self-affirming and rhythmic head nodding? I don’t have those concerns today. Listen to Mahalia Jackson (1911–1972) sing this verse; her God-gifted voice resonates deeply with a profound faith, a sincere conviction, and a hope for salvation.

The “balm in Gilead” is an Old Testament reference: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22). The prophet is expressing concerns for the affliction borne by the people. I personally understand the call for a physician and the desire for a healing balm, any balm, to relieve our grief. Today are we not all looking for a respite from our fears? Searching for that physician? Hoping for relief or comfort or cure? Where is our balm?

It is in this Lenten season that we find our balm; we anticipate our own salvation; and we hold fast to the arrival of Easter. If ever there was a time when we needed Easter, this is it. Our sides have been pierced; our dignity stolen; our hands are bleeding; death is upon us. We are at the water’s edge. But, though bloodied, we are not defeated; though sad, we are not hopeless; and though worried, we know exactly from where our relief will come: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help” (Psalms 121:1).

We need the boulder in front of the tomb moved, and it will be; we need to sense the exhilaration of the women who realized Jesus was not in the tomb, and indeed we will experience their rush of amazement; and we longingly need a rapturous Easter sunrise: “even after the darkest storm, the sun rises again” (Victor Hugo); that “balm of Gilead” is on its way. Hold fast to Hope.

My prayer for you today was a fixture among the black elders of our church; it is familiar, simple and poignant:

Lord, have mercy…


Written by Clyde W. Yancy, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

Reflection and Prayer © Fourth Presbyterian Church

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