Advent Devotions: The balm of tears

Advent 2015. Design by Doug Puller/Bread for the World.

By Dori Kay Hjalmarson       

Jeremiah 8:18-22

The first few sentences out of a burn patient’s mouth include the word pain, every time. I have observed this over the past three months as a chaplain resident on a burn-treatment ward. Often the treatment for burns is as painful as the burn itself, I’m told, because as the nerve endings heal, they start to feel more, and the pain often comes in waves with each debridement, each graft, each dressing change. The pain is a symptom of healing.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting with a boy, a teenager, who had been burned in a cooking fire. He had been in the hospital more than a month. I had visited this boy several times, and watched his progress, met many of his family members, prayed with him, laughed with him, dabbed his tears, held his hand as he fell asleep or awoke from anesthesia.

On this day, the boy had received a visit from family and visited his first burn survivors’ support group. His skin was looking great — raw and pinkly fresh but real live skin. And he had heard he was going to be discharged soon. As he studied a wallet-size school portrait, taken a few weeks before his burn, next to a mobile phone selfie of his newly healed body, he was weeping. He will never look the same.

Where is the balm for this pain? The pain of knowing your young life has changed in an instant, and you have unwillingly joined a club of “survivors” and you are not saved from the pain. The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. Where is the balm?

What I have learned in my few weeks on the burn ward is that the balm is inside us, part of our bodies. With skin grafts and skilled surgeons and nurses, our bodies have the miraculous power to regenerate themselves. After passing through the fire, our bodies never are restored to what they were. But they are healed, and the balm is our tears. We weep, we cry out, we know that God hears us and weeps with us, grieves with us. We know this because other people weep with us, pastors, and fellow humans grieve with us. The pain is a symptom of healing. And our balm is in the tears.

Dori Kay Hjalmarson earned a Master of Divinity in 2015 from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. 

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