Lisa Nichols Hickman: Is there no balm in Gilead?

Jesus may offer no clear blueprint for Health Care Reform. But he shows extravagant care for the wounded and refugees. Like one Amish family.

“Is there any balm in Gilead?” I thought of this question as I heard the French an Amish friend recently practiced with me, “Comment-allez vous?” I was stunned to see her speaking French, until she explained, “I’m going to Mexico!” It wasn’t so funny when I learned her destination was Juarez. Sarah’s French lessons were necessitated by the question in our title. For Sarah’s family, the answer was “No.”

My eyes wandered to the vivid array of clothes on the drying lines of our Amish neighbors. The blues, blacks and purples there are distinctive marks of the Amish. But they reminded me of a bruise. At best, a bruise can signify a body needs healing. At worst, it shows systematic failure. The systematic failure on a national level to increase accessibility and affordability have touched the outermost edges of our society and left even New Wilmington, Pennsylvania’s Amish bruised.

By choosing not to purchase health insurance, the Amish demonstrate their priorities in caring for their own and not relying on government. But with rising costs, astronomical prices have surpassed their ability to raise money at auctions or bake sales.

Sarah’s grandmother needed surgery. Out-priced locally, her family chose to drive to Juarez. The family hired a driver to take them to El Paso where they would cross the border so her grandmother could have open heart surgery.

I have no idea how the barefoot, French-speaking Amish woman made it in Juarez. I do know that her grandmother did not.

Comment allez vous? How are we doing in health care in America? The numbers are frightening. The U.S. Census Bureau says 46.3 million Americans are without insurance. That is 15.4 percent of Americans. 700,000 Americans go bankrupt annually from health care costs.

In America, if Sarah (or Miguel) were asked, “Comment allez vous?” Their response would be, “No muy bueno.” We aren’t well because our society has something seeping under our skin and that bruise runs deep. We need balm.

In biblical days, balm was a coveted item of trade. In Genesis 37:25, “a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.” Balm, extracted from the Balsam of Mecca, was used as expectorant, anti-microbial fighter, and as a “vulnerary.” That is, it healed wounds.

Jeremiah, knowing balm’s restorative properties, drew upon this language in lament. The deep wounds of national strife, idolatrous worship, imminent exile and royal upheaval called for salve. So he asked, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?" (Jeremiah 8:22).

In 1854 the hymn-writer Washington Glass developed Jeremiah’s words in, “The Sinner’s Cure”:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There’s power enough in heaven
To cure the sin-sick soul.

This chorus later became the basis for the African-American spiritual. The spiritual reverses Jeremiah’s lament. There IS a balm in Gilead. We know that balm as Jesus Christ.

“Vulnerary” and vulnerable share the same Latin root. Jeremiah saw the vulnerability of people prone to idol-worship and sin-driven desire. Jesus also recognizes our tendency to this kind of vulnerability. He also recognizes the vulnerability of the orphan and oppressed, the widowed and wealth-less, the feeble and friendless. For these oppressed, Jesus brought more than a salve. He is salvation. The healer himself becomes the salve and the balm, by bringing salvation through the touch of his palm.

There is not so much ‘red ink’ demonstrating what Jesus said about a kingdom vision for health care. But there are loads of stories of relationships in which health is restored. The balm is not a testament enshrined in a book but a person active in relationships. That’s where health care begins for Jesus.

If Sarah asked Jesus, “How are we doing?” Jesus might sing along with that old gospel song,

Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.