My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
My joy is gone – that which I cared about the most is no more. Grief is upon me – the place where love was, once, is now empty. My heart is sick – the fading feeling of care, of having known contentment, has turned into something else. And it is not good.
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
Summer and harvest time give way to winter: to cold, to darkness, to isolation. In centuries past, winter would be known as a time for hunger. As the light dwindled so often did the food. And the darkness would weigh upon people, the sun showing up in their lives less and less. Imagine darkness unbroken by modern light?
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?
Who is speaking here? Jeremiah and God, a joint lamentation for the people of Israel who have gone astray. There will be a bad time for the people, a time of upheaval and destruction, a time of dislocation and loss.
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night…
This is a reading about sadness.
When I am planning for sermons, sometimes I will go with the obvious. If Moses is lifting up the bronze serpent to ward off snakes, I will talk about snakes. If Jesus is teaching about the Good Shepherd, well, I will offer a discussion on sheep. A brief discussion mind you – sheep are not terribly interesting. Goats on the other hand, they are interesting. But I digress.
There are many aspects of the reading from Jeremiah that could be pondered. What did the people do that got them into trouble? What was going to happen to them? Where exactly is Gilead? Gilead, by the way, is the land east of the Jordan River, a place from which balsam was produced and used medicinally. Can’t get a whole sermon out of balsam, I am afraid.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Can there be no healing of this pain to come, no comfort for this anticipated suffering the people will go through? What is the cure?
As I continue on my series of sermons based upon movies, I decided to lighten things up a bit. So I chose a well-loved movie, the animated film from Disney called simply “Up.” A colorful spectacle of adventure and flights of fancy. And also a poignant treatment of life and love and, most of all, of love and loss.
The movie begins with a little boy, named Carl. He is at the movies, starstruck by his hero, an explorer and adventurer named Charles Muntz who rides around in a zeppelin. His hero loses face when one of his outlandish discoveries is questioned by the scientific community. So the man leaves to find proof of a mythical beast hidden somewhere in the Andes Mountains.
Carl is walking home from the movie when he overhears someone playing at adventurer, just like him. It is a young girl, his age, in an abandoned Victorian which she has turned into her clubhouse. The girl’s name is Ellie and Carl is starstruck once again, in a very different way. They become friends.
The time line fast forwards and Carl and Ellie are married. They buy the old clubhouse and turn it into a home, painted a wild riot of colors: yellows and pinks and blues. They work together at the local zoo, she as a zoologist and him as a balloon vendor. There is a quick medley of life events, all of which point to a long and wonderful life together.
But salted in with this riot of colors and tender moments are brushes with sadness. The couple tries to have a baby, but the pastel paints of a nursey quickly turn to the steel grey of a hospital room. She will never have children. But they have each other. They have a life of love and love of life that you see spooling out in a lively montage, which takes all of 5 minutes of screen time. And then they age. They slow down from a jitterbug pace to a graceful waltz. The wife Ellie slows further, faster. She becomes weak and then she dies. And Carl is left all alone. This is a kids’ movie, but it is by no means just for kids.
At some point, Carl has come to identify the house with his beloved wife, now gone. He talks to the roof and to the walls as if Ellie were embedded in them. The house has become everything for him. The only thing.
One repeated theme of the movie was a promise Carl made to Ellie when they were children. They would go down to South America, to a place called Paradise Falls. That is where their adventurer hero went off to find his mythical beast. Ellie wants to go there, to live up on the falls in their beloved clubhouse. She makes Carl promise that they will go together. And so he promises, cross his heart.
And yet they never seem to get around to it. Something always comes up. The car needs to be repaired, the roof needs fixing. Money squirreled away for adventure gets used up to pay medical bills. And when Carl finally buys the tickets to Venezuela and goes to surprise his wife, her health falters. There would be no more adventures for her.
In the movie, Carl goes from having a beaming smile to a frown, a squinting grimace. Even his neckties change, from wild colors to blacks and browns. All he has left is his house, his house which is being hemmed in by high rise towers on all sides. Carl refuses to sell out to real estate developers, so his little house and tidy lawn are framed by a busy world leaving him by the wayside.
One day a little boy comes, a “wilderness scout” looking to get a merit badge by helping Carl cross the street. Carl has no patience for this and sends the boy packing by inventing a new task, having the boy hunt down a snipe, a fool’s errand to get the boy out of his hair.
A series of events then unfold and Carl gets in trouble. He was defending his house from being damaged by the construction all around him, and in anger he hits a man over the head with a cane. In his mind Carl was defending the memory of his wife, but in the real world he attacked a man who made a mistake. Carl is given the option of going to jail or into a retirement home, either way giving his beloved house to the developers. He chooses neither.
Carl was a balloon vendor at the zoo. And so he hatches a bizarre plan. He lifts his house into the sky using thousands and thousands of brightly colored balloons. The old clubhouse sails up into the sky and down to Paradise Falls. A willful suspension of disbelief is a must in watching this movie, as is a complete disregard for all the laws of physics.
As Carl heads south, he discovers that he has an unintended stowaway, the little wilderness scout whose name is Russell. Russell was trapped on the porch during liftoff. Before he can leave the flying contraption, however, a storm buffets the house and carries it remarkably quickly to South America. They come to earth within sight of Paradise Falls, maddeningly close yet so far. Russell decides he can help Carl. Russell was looking to help the elderly man cross the street to get a merit badge, so instead the two plan to walk the still floating house around the mountain top, pulling it along like a giant parade balloon.
As they are walking, Russell befriends a giant bird, a cross between an ostrich and a parrot. A bird which, of course, is the mythical beast Carl’s childhood hero Charles Muntz was seeking. A childhood hero who is still alive and still looking for the bird at the age of probably 95. And he does so with his trust pack of dogs who have been fitted with electronic colors that give them the ability to speak.
Willful suspension of disbelief.
Carl is presented with many options down on Paradise Falls. He can fulfill his promise to his beloved wife to place their house on the summit of Paradise Falls. Or he can keep a new promise he made to the little boy Russell to protect this bird. A promise made, cross his heart. And to add even more complication, he can see his childhood hero capture this mythic beast, this South American Moby Dick, and be vindicated many decades later. These are choices for Carl because he cannot keep all of his promises; he cannot see all his dreams come true. He will be forced to choose between promises, breaking one at the expense of the other. And he would lose something important, either way.
This is an animated movie, but I found myself swept away by it. It is ridiculous and funny, fantastic and absurd, but it is also strangely real. You feel a lot watching the movie. The old couple dancing in their living room. The party balloons at their wedding and those same party balloons many years later at her funeral. The little boy Russell eager and lonely, courageous and utterly inept. And then there is one of the talking dogs named Dug, a golden retriever, who is goofy and loving and heroic, sometimes all at the same time. All sweet, all funny, all in their weird way believable.
When we hear the scriptures on Sunday morning, they are often old familiar stories. Lessons heard time after time, year after year. It is like hearing that same old war story from your dad or that old joke from your mom. Yada, yada, I know isn’t it great. You know the story or the joke so well that you could almost say it yourself. You are tempted to do so just to get it over with.
The problem with doing so is that you would be acting out of impatience, out of expedience. The person telling the story is doing it because it is their story. They lived it. They felt it. They care about it. They carry that story or joke along like a small treasure that they never get tired of seeing.
The old man Carl has a little badge. It was made out of a grape soda bottle cap and a safety pin. His wife gave it to him the first time they met when she was a little girl. You can see it as a bottle cap and a safety pin. Or you can see it as the most important thing in the entire world. Carl treasured that pin more so than anything. but later in the story he gives it away to a little boy who needs it more.
The scriptures are for some just a bunch of stories. Yada, yada, I know isn’t it great. A lot of finger wagging, a lot of sad tales of punishment and lamentation. Dusty old history that drones on and on without little obvious relevance to the real world.
Or they are something else. The scriptures are the lessons of a lifetime, of a hundred lifetimes, stretched out over time, across cultures, across the world. They are a shared story deeper than history. An ongoing story into which people place themselves, somehow into the stream of eternity. Some see old words on a page and others hear the very words of God.
Jeremiah is despairing for the people of Israel. He knows that they will suffer. He knows they will lose their homes, their holy places, their ancestral lands. He knows all they will lose. And so he weeps, asking God if there is no way to heal the pain, no balm in Gilead. In time, there will be healing, we know, but Jeremiah did not know that then. In a long time the people will find their way home again. We feel the pain in Jeremiah and we know the tearful return in Nehemiah.
We are given the story of scripture with its solemn covenants and broken promises, it triumphal entries and abject defeats. The highs and the lows, the joys and the sorrows – we know this all. We may wish to turn to just the happy stories, the pretty psalms. But life is not always happy or pretty. Yet life can still be good. Life can still be so very good.
Carl adored his wife Ellie. They shared many decades of happiness. Together they grew old and in time Ellie died. After that, Carl did not know what to do. There he was in his brightly painted house, the world growing faster and different and darker all around him. His house became all that he had and so he guarded it jealously. He even tried to save the house and those memories by uprooting it literally and flying it down to a place called Paradise Falls. Sometimes paradise is not what we thought it would be. Sometimes the adventures of a lifetime happen in your hometown. And sometimes the promises of the past have to be placed aside so the promises of the present can be fulfilled.
Over the course of the movie, Carl changes. He stops being a crotchety old coot protecting the memory of adventures from his childhood. And instead he becomes an actual adventurer protecting the things he has come to love, caring for a little boy in trouble, a beautiful animal trying to live its life in peace, and a goofy dog that only wants someone to love him. The loves of and in Carl’s life change.
That does not mean his love for his wife and all their wonderful memories together are cast aside. It means he found a reason to live. He found a reason to love again. And he found a way to feel joy again in the world.
Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there a way to heal after something is lost or broken? How do you do it, short of uprooting your house with a million party balloons? There is no easy medicine for sadness, no quick fix for a sense of loss. Carl did not fix his life with his balloons, in fact quite the contrary. He eventually found a reason to live, to lift himself out of his past, even one that was so wonderful. He found a little boy who needed someone in his life. And he found that his own story had not ended quite yet. We see this in a note his wife left him, one that he discovers near the end of the movie. It said, “Thank you for all the adventures. Now go have one of your own.”
Those adventures were not climbing the Andes or sailing a house through the sky. Their adventures together were funny, sweet times, wonderful and also truly ordinary. The little boy says it best when he is remembering spending time with his father before his parents’ divorce. They would just be sitting on the curb, eating ice cream, seeing who could count the most red versus blue cars. Nothing exciting really. Russell said, “I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.” The boring stuff. The eating ice cream on a curb. The holding hands and walking along. The same old stories, the same old jokes. The not so special can be really special.
The balm in Gilead is not a medicine. It is the relationships, the family and the friends. The found family we come across when the biological one has its issues. And the well-worn threadbare friendships when casual acquaintances fail us.
None of this cures sadness. These connections do not magically take the pain of loss away. The depth of love we feel for those we lose will be great even after a lifetime together. Grief takes time, sometimes a lot of time. And such slow healing takes being with and around people who care. Family and friends and, let us not forget, church. Places where and people with whom the stories of our lives might be shared. People who may not know our story. Or people who have heard the story a hundred times. It may be the same old story. But it is my story, your story, and in that moment of sharing it becomes our story.
Is there a balm in Gilead? Yes, yes there is.