Mahalia Jackson was “The Queen of Gospel.” She became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist. She is buried in Providence Cemetery, just around the corner from where I grew up. We listened to her albums a lot.
One of the spirituals she performed often was “There is a balm in Gilead.”
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sinsick soul. Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend, who, if you ask for knowledge, will never fail to lend. There is a balm in Gilead…”
I remember once, many, many years ago, I was riding on the back of a friend’s bike, holding on as we road in the darkness, when he suddenly said to me, “I want to know Jesus, but it is not allowed.” – –
“I want to know Jesus, but it is not allowed.”
Our evening had begun with a simple supper. We were eating underground, in an old fall-out shelter, left over from World War II. This shelter had been built when the Japanese invaded China, bombing and killing everyone and everything in their path. This left-over shelter, was now one of the most popular restaurants in the city of Xi’an, the People’s Republic of China. There must have been 3000 people, jam packed in this overgrown tunnel, about 50 feet below ground.
My Chinese friend had taken me there. His name was Jiang Qin.
To eat there was to engage in ritual. You walked in. You were given a bowl. You were handed 4 large pieces of hard French bread. You took your bowl and bread and found a table to sit down. Once seated, the ritual, the waiting began. You removed the 4 pieces of bread from the bowl. Then you took the bread; you broke it in half; then you broke the bread into smaller pieces; and then you broke the small pieces into even smaller pieces. And put these pieces back into the bowl.
It was a slow process. The bread was hard. My friend Jiang smiled then said, “We’re about to eat Yong Roe Pou Moe. It was Nixon’s favorite food when he visited China, when he came here to Xi’an. This is what he ate when he came to my hometown.”
Jiang was thrilled that he could introduce me to Nixon’s favorite food in all of the People’s Republic of China. When you finished breaking all the bread into small pieces, you took the bowl to the counter. A smiling old lady, stirring this enormous pot of soup, would scoop into the bowl on top of the broken bread pieces, the most delicious lamb soup I had ever tasted. Yong Roe Pou Moe.
We sat. We ate. We talked about Jiang’s fiancee. We talked about their hopes to get married. I learned about their dreams of the future. Their hopes to have the one child they were allowed to have. It seemed as if the more we talked, the hungrier we got. I was grateful Jiang and I had become friends.
Jesus said to the people, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
As we sat in that underground shelter, I experienced a vision of Jesus’ invitation to the table. What was surprising to me was that it all felt so familiar.
Looking back, suddenly I realize I was learning about Jesus. Christ was there, at the table, conversing with us, warming our hearts, right there in the bomb shelter restaurant. How easy it is for me to miss seeing Jesus in the moment.
Hours later, Jiang and I were on the streets. Ahead, darkness. Cutting through thick fog. The air, cold and crisp. We could barely see beyond the front tires of Jiang’s bicycle. It was as if we were floating through clouds. For a city of 2.5 million people, the streets were empty. Every now and then, out there in the foggy darkness, we would hear the bell ringing of another bicycle, warning all of us navigating blindly, that someone, some thing, was out there, moving about.
I was sitting on the back of Jiang’s bicycle, holding onto him, as he peddled us forward.
Jiang broke the silence. He said, “I want to know Jesus, but it is not allowed.”
The longing in his voice took me by surprise, – it took my breath away, perhaps because I was struck by the depth of hunger in his simple words, the calling out to something beyond himself, someone heard about, but unknown to him, someone that could provide context and meaning to the circumstances of this life.
“I want to know Jesus, but it is not allowed,” he said.
I didn’t know how to answer. I was a little frustrated, to say the least. I had felt the presence of Christ at dinner but, in the flash of a moment, that faith seemed gone, distant, almost non-existent. Sometimes, everything makes sense. Other times, everything is puzzling.
“I want to know Jesus, but it is not allowed,” Jiang said.
I was spending my junior year of college in China studying Chinese history, language and culture. Sometimes the world described in books is hard to reconcile with the harsh realities of life. As we moved through the streets, I was scared. I was scared because when Jiang said, “I want to know Jesus, but it is not allowed,” I didn’t know how to respond. I had been going to Church all of my life. I had studied the scriptures. I could recite the creeds and prayers without even thinking. But, I really didn’t know what to say.
Who was Christ to me? Did his question, and me not knowing how to respond mean I am not a Christian?
I had come to China in hopes of encountering the country I had read about in history books, –
a land steeped in Taoism, – a land influenced by the teachings of the Buddha; a land seeking out the justice of Confucius. But instead, I encountered the traumatic reality of The People’s Republic of China, post-Cultural Revolution, – The Cultural Revolution – Mao’s historic revolution of 10 years, 1966-1976, – a revolution where most of the country was re-educated – where intellectuals and the religious were persecuted and shot, – where those who spoke the truth were forced to walk the streets wearing dunce caps, – where neighbors betrayed neighbors, and the secret police, the red army, was just down the hall.
Jiang’s parents were intellectuals; teachers at a college in Southern China. They had been sent off to a reeducation camp when Jiang was a little boy. He remembered the day they had been forced to leave. He was only four. The last image he had of them before they were taken away from him, was of them being paraded through the streets, mocked for their knowledge, and being betrayed by their neighbors, robbed of dignity, pushed into a bus, then disappearing down the dusty streets. They would die in that camp. How could I possibly make sense of the power of God in the midst of Jiang’s suffering?
Before Jeremiah was a bullfrog, he was a prophet. This morning, from the Hebrew Scriptures we join the prophet Jeremiah in the midst of grief and sorrow. We believe Jeremiah lived around 600 BC. And that he was ordained by God to call out the unfaithfulness of the people of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah prophesized during the reign of three evil kings who gave new meaning to the word “tyrant.” These foreign kings cared nothing about the laws of Yahweh, so they gleefully pledged loyalty to other Gods. During this time of exile, the Hebrews split into two nations – the north and the south. Both interpreted God’s laws in different ways. Hopes of unifying the faithful seemed impossible. Jeremiah’s neighbors had forgotten God’s call to live in a covenantal relationship based on love for God and love for neighbor. Widows were being ignored. The people had forgotten jubilee. Temple sacrifices were stolen by people who were hungry, starving. People were desperate so the poor are ignored. Refugees had nowhere to go.
Children were separated from their parents, left for dead, wandering around in the desert. Jeremiah shared, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick… For the hurt of my poor people, I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead?” Jeremiah yearns for healing and for wholeness. He wonders if the healing power of resin from balsam trees could help.
What has the power to ease the ache? What cry in the wilderness will remind the people to whom they belong? Who provides hope and love and healing and gives meaning and context to suffering?
“I want to know Jesus, but it is not allowed,” Jiang said.
I want to know that suffering can be redeemed. I want to know that you and I can be healed. I want to know that, even though I cry at night, joy comes in the morning. I want to know that God loves me and because of this, I can love others. I want to know that, the promises given through resurrection, are true and that I will see my deceased, loved ones again. I want to know that what does not make sense can eventually have meaning. I want to know…
“I want to know Jesus but it is not allowed,” he said. Two hungry friends peddling in the fog. The night – dark, – the clock – ticking, – the questions – many.
As I recall that night, I know that I learned something about Jesus. I pray that Jiang did too. In an old bomb shelter, in one of the oldest cities in the world, we had broken bread together. Something within me was telling me, I had just celebrated communion with my Chinese friend. He wanted to know Jesus. Hadn’t we just experienced Jesus.
It is at table together that Christians gather, and have gathered for hundreds of years, to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. How could I tell Jiang that through the sharing of a meal and in our prayerful, delightful conversation we had gotten to know Jesus, even if just for a little while?
When I come to God’s table, I often remember a bomb shelter, underneath a city, in the People’s Republic of China, where people eat and drink together, and laugh and love. Then leave, peddling away on bikes, moving about in the darkness, fed but forever hungry for something else.
“Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend, who, if you ask for knowledge, will never fail to lend. There is a balm in Gilead…
I remember. I hope Jiang remembers.