Quite frequently when I'm heading over to church to pray morning prayer, I encounter a guy sitting on a bench who is waiting for a mate to pick him up for work. I know he's waiting for a ride to work because he's told me that, but beyond that nugget of information I know very little about him. I don't know what job he has that sees him waiting to be picked up before 6:00 in the morning. I assume he lives near where I always see him but I really don't know. His accent would seem to put him from Yorkshire, and I don't know what he's doing in Norwich. I don't even know his name. The first time I asked his name he took a puff on his cigarette and said “Let's leave names out of this,” and it made him look and sound like a goodhearted gumshoe in a sepia-tinted film from the 1940s. I frequently invent names for people I encounter (Marguerite, Burt the bird, etc.) but the fact that this guy doesn't want to tell me his name kind of makes me feel like I shouldn't assign him one; to me he is just Bench Guy. He's begun calling me “Mr. Al Capone” (one hopes because of the Chicago connection and not because there is anything notably gangster-ish about me) and so now I have taken to calling him Mr. Bench Guy, which makes him smile.
Early this morning I encountered him in his usual spot. “Good morning, Mr. Bench Guy,” I said. “How's it going?” “Mr. Al Capone,” he answered back. “Just here waiting as always. Tell me: what's it all about?” He waved his arm in the air to indicate all that was around him, and I discerned the question not to be about, say, the nearby Golden Star Pub, but rather something more existential. “I've got some ideas,” I said by way of response. “How much time have you got?” He laughed. “Not much.” “That's a pity,” I said, “because all the really important answers usually take quite a bit of time.” “Not true,” he said, “I asked my wife to marry me and she said yes in a second.” “I stand corrected,” I said smiling. “Mind you,” he said, “we're divorced now, so maybe she ought to have taken a little more time.” I felt like I should say “I'm sorry” but wasn't sure, as he seemed sanguine about it and I didn't want to make him feel sad if he wasn't feeling it himself. So I said “Hmmm,” nodding with a serious pastoral squint. “There's my ride,” he said, standing up. “You off to church?” “I am,” I replied. “Actually off to two churches – I'm passing by one to pick something up and then heading to another to pray. I'll remember you at prayer. What's your name again?” “Mr. Bench Guy,” he said. “Good luck getting some answers.” “Well, I might not get them right away. You know all the really important answers usually take quite a bit of time.” “So you've said,” he replied as he snuffed out his cigarette on the bench. I did remember him at prayer, and not only when I brought before God the people on my heart. I also remembered him during the reading of the first lesson from the Prophet Jeremiah, in which we hear the question Is there no balm in Gilead? I love that line, not only because I am partial to a bit of over-the-top lamenting, but also because it calls to mind a famous African American spiritual that I love: There is a balm in Gilead To make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead To heal the sin-sick soul.
I was struck by the thought that Jeremiah first asked this question in an attempt both to make sense of his tumultuous surroundings as well as to implore his people to listen to the voice of God whose ultimate desire for their freedom was perhaps difficult to see in the midst of sin's bondage, a spiritual bondage which would eventually lead them to the actual bondage of captivity in Babylon.
Sometimes I feel discouraged, And think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit Revives my soul again.
And then I was struck by the thought that more than 2500 years later, a people trying to make sense of their tumultuous surroundings, a people who sought to listen to the voice of God whose ultimate desire for freedom was difficult to see in the midst of their bondage, this people had the hope and grace to answer Jeremiah's question. “Yes, Mr. Jeremiah: there is a balm in Gilead. Thank you for asking.” If you cannot sing like angels, If you can’t preach like Paul, You can tell the love of Jesus, And say He died for all.
I don't offer any quick answers here (as much as I, personally, would like to have some). I offer instead images: images of steadfastness and hope; images of a people knowing that somehow the answers they seek are found in their connection to a timeless God and his people; images of a Saviour who is the ultimate answer to everything, who offers the only way to escape the bondage in which we find ourselves from time to time; images that let us know that the answers we seek are continually being revealed even in the midst of a world which is filled with so much suffering; images of the powerless and the voiceless singing like angels, preaching like Paul, and telling the love of Jesus.
Struggle by struggle. Confusion by confusion. Joy by joy. Hope by hope. Love by love. Story by beautiful story.