I was raised attending a church that knew nothing of such innovations as extended session and children’s church.
If you were a child at the Midway Baptist Church located four miles outside of Barnesville, Ga., on City Pond Road, you were promoted straight from the nursery to the worship service.

I learned to count by trying to find the page numbers that my song leader father called out.

I think that’s one reason that I was ahead of most of my peers on working with large numbers; I was navigating three-digit hymn numbers before I started kindergarten.

I was also hearing and singing hymns long before I could read the words, which meant that I heard and sang some interesting things.

For example, I heard and sang, “Whosoever Shirley meaneth me,” which left me wondering who “Shirley” was – there was no Shirley in our church – and why she wanted to be mean to me.

I also heard and sang “there my bird and soul found liberty,” which left me confused because, while I was already pretty sure that I had a soul, I had no bird – not a parrot, not a parakeet, not a cockatoo, not even a wild chicken – that I could set free. Why did our songs challenge me with impossibilities?

I also heard and sang “There is a bomb in Gilead,” as in “There is a bomb in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a bomb in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”

And I wondered how in the world a bomb could bring about healing and wholeness. The answer, of course, is that it can’t.

What the old spiritual actually says is,

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.

The song is based on Jeremiah 8:22: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”

A balm in Jeremiah’s day was a resin used for medicinal purposes; we use the term “lip balm” in our everyday language.

So the prophet (and God through the prophet) was asking why the people would not turn in their hurt and brokenness to what God offered for their healing and wholeness.

The Lord through God’s Word and Spirit asks us the same thing.

While my child’s ears did not hear what the songwriter meant nor what the Lord in fact offers, they did hear what we sometimes do to ourselves: where the Lord offers a balm – grace, peace, love, forgiveness and hope – for our healing, we will instead in our hurt and brokenness reach out to what we can find for ourselves and thereby end up blowing ourselves, our situations and our relationships sky high.

When we are as individuals or as a community hurting, we can choose between the Lord’s balm and our bombs.

Balm is better.

Michael Ruffin is pastor of First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald, Ga. This column first appeared on his blog, On the Jericho Road, and is used with permission.

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