The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Sometimes I Feel Discouraged

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

~ African-American Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed;
    I mourn, and horror grips me.
 Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then is there no healing
    for the wound of my people?

Jeremiah 8:21-22

At the edge of the woods on our farm stands a stately black cottonwood tree, also known by locals as a “Balm of Gilead” tree in our region. The leaf buds this time of year have a sticky fragrant resin that native peoples prepared as a salve ointment to treat various wounds and skin conditions.

We never have tried harvesting any of the cottonwood resin, but I’ve found the presence of this grand tree in the field seems balm enough when I find myself discouraged. The tall tree adapts so dramatically over the course of the seasons, remaining a fixture of stability and beauty whether golden in the autumn, blowing cottony seeds in the spring, bare with snow in the winter or flourishing with summer leaves.
It is steadfast and reassuring.

Discouragement is so familiar to us, a constant pandemic companion, and certainly is rampant over the past week with images of war filling our screens. No tree resin is capable of fighting a virus or stopping a war but the balm of Gilead in Jeremiah has the power of the Holy Spirit, able to heal our sin sick souls.

The love of our Savior is the balm for us, the wounded.
We will become whole again.

cottonwood seeds
cottonwood seed

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works in vain,
but then the holy spirit revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.

Don’t ever feel discouraged for Jesus is your friend
and if you lack for knowledge he’ll ne’er refuse to lend.


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A Cottonwood Dream

Stand near the river with your feet
slightly apart. Push your toes down
beyond the mud, below the water.
Stretch your arms and head back
deliberately, until straight lines
no longer matter—until the sky
from any angle is your desire.
Let the skin go grey and split open.
If you die a little somewhere
the wind will carve the branches back
into an alphabet
someone will try to remember
how to read. Stay this way
half a century or more, turning leaves
in the half-note tides of the air.
Inside, with that blood so slow
no one hears it, set buds for spring
by each late October. November,
December, dream what it means
being owl…or star.
~Kathleen Cain, “What This Means, Being Cottonwood” from Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace

According to old Morton Lawrence, the original owner of this farm, this particular cottonwood was a special tree. He called it the “Balm of Gilead” tree for the sticky resin that exudes from its spring buds, which he liked to rub into his dry cracked hands. The scent is memorable, both sweet and green, and invokes the smell of spring ground awakening from a long winter.

The big tree stands apart from the rest of the forest, always a sentinel of the seasons, blowing cotton fluff in the late spring and heart-shaped leaves in the fall, covering the surrounding fields.

The buds may well have healing properties, as described in the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, but it is this tree that I depend upon for its unblinking steadiness through the worst wind storms, the driest summers and our iced-over winters. The cottonwood, in its multi-armed reach to the skies, is balm to my eyes, no matter when I look at it — a dream of the healing I’ll find someday in heaven for all that ails me.

At Home




There are no creatures you cannot love.
A frog calling at God
From the moon-filled ditch
As you stand on the country road in the June night.
The sound is enough to make the stars weep
With happiness.
In the morning the landscape green
Is lifted off the ground by the scent of grass.
The day is carried across its hours
Without any effort by the shining insects
That are living their secret lives.
The space between the prairie horizons
Makes us ache with its beauty.
Cottonwood leaves click in an ancient tongue
To the farthest cold dark in the universe.
The cottonwood also talks to you
Of breeze and speckled sunlight.
You are at home in these
great empty places
along with red-wing blackbirds and sloughs.
You are comfortable in this spot
so full of grace and being
that it sparkles like jewels
spilled on water.
~Tom Hennen “A Country Overlooked”



This cottonwood of five senses stands alone and grace-filled in our lower field, slowly blowing its leaves. It will strip bare in preparation for winter, its skeleton stark in the morning light.  The old farmer called this tree his “Balm of Gilead” for its healing qualities, his fingertips rubbing its honey-like sap that weeps from its branches, a scent of sweetness clinging like an aura to him. Now its branches snap in the wind and its leaves twirl down brittle-yellow and crunchy under my boot.  It heals me from a distance, and up close.  It calls me home.  Like a balm, I can nearly taste its honey.


photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

A Textured World




nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
~e.e. cummings from “somewhere I have never travelled”

I reach for the visual texture of growing things
without touching with my fingers.
My eyes know its softness at a glance;
it is enough for me to embrace and enfold myself within it.
It takes my breath away and then gives it back.