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Sermon illustrations

Leprosy

I Made You

Society still has its share of fifth sparrows: indistinct souls who feel dispensable, disposable, worth less than a penny. They drive carpools and work in cubicles. Some sleep beneath cardboard on the sidewalks and others beneath comforters in the suburbs. What they share is a feeling of smallness. You’ll find a flock of fifth sparrows in a Chinese orphanage for the deaf and mute. China’s one-child policy has a way of weeding out the weak. Males are selected over females. Healthy babies outrank the impaired.

Chinese children who cannot speak or hear stand little chance of a healthy, productive life. Every message tells them, “You don’t matter.” So when someone says otherwise, they melt. Chinese missionary John Bentley describes such a moment.

Deaf orphans in Henan province were given a Mandarin translation of a children’s book I wrote entitled You Are Special. The story describes Punchinello, a wooden person in a village of wooden people. The villagers had a practice of sticking stars on the achievers and dots on the strugglers.

Punchinello had so many dots that people gave him more dots for no reason at all. But then he met Eli, his maker. Eli affirmed him, telling him to disregard the opinion of others. “I made you,” he explained. “I don’t make mistakes.” Punchinello had never heard such words. When he did, his dots began to fall off. And when the children in the Chinese orphanage heard such words, their worlds began to change. I’ll let John describe the moment.

When they first distributed these books to the children and staff of the deaf school, the most bizarre thing happened. At a certain point everyone started crying. I could not understand this reaction. . . . Americans are somewhat used to the idea of positive reinforcement. . . . Not so in China and particularly not for these children who are virtually abandoned and considered valueless by their natural parents because they were born “broken.” When the idea came through in the reading that they are special simply because they were made by a loving creator . . . everyone started crying—including their teachers! It was wild.

Max Lucado, Fearless, Thomas Nelson.

Leprosy in Fourteenth Century England

Before 1348 leprosy is the most terrifying illness which people can imagine. Leprosy is known to us as Hansen’s disease but in the fourteenth century it can include all manner of skin ailments, including eczema, psoriasis, and lupus. 

Basically if you have a skin disease which results in long-term disfiguration you need to cover it up for as long as possible. If it is seen, and if it is judged by other people to be possibly leprous, then in line with the decree of the Third Lateran Council (of 1179) you will be shunned by society, forced to wear a covering cloak and to ring a bell wherever you go, and be regarded as one of the living dead. 

Your leprous breath will be considered to be of a similar quality as the miasma around a cesspit, and likely to lead to leprosy in others, so no one will tolerate your presence. Perhaps some people will pity you in your ailing condition and look upon your situation charitably. Many will not, seeing your affliction as divine judgment on you for your sinful life and your suffering as nothing more than an opportunity to atone for your sins, and thereby purify your soul, before you die. 

Leprosy is not uncommon in 1300. If you catch it you will find that it progresses very slowly through your body, removing first the sensations in your hands and feet, and later paralyzing your extremities, leaving them badly ulcerated. After a few years your fingers and toes will melt off. You will probably bleed from your palms. Your body hair and eyelashes will fall out. You might suffer from claw-foot or claw-hand. Men will see their penises putrefy. At some point the bridge of your nose will collapse and you will be left with a smelly liquid constantly running from the gaping wound where your nose was. 

The ulcers in your larynx will grow and give your voice a coarse, croaking quality. You will probably lose some teeth, your eyeballs may become ulcerated, and your skin will be marked with large nodules. Ultimately you will be wholly deformed, stinking, repulsive, and blind. That is why it is called the “living death.” That is why people are absolutely terrified of it. And that is why, if you catch it, very few people will dare to come near you.

Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century, Touchstone, 2011.

One Person’s (Jose) Experience with Leprosy

Jose’s body had suffered much damage from leprosy by the time he traveled from Puerto Rico to our leprosy hospital in Louisiana for treatment. By then, research had proved that leprosy does its damage by affecting nerve cells, thus making patients vulnerable to injury. Jose’s insensitivity was so great that, when blindfolded, he could not even detect whether someone was holding his hand. Touch cells and pain cells had fallen silent. As a result, scars and ulcers covered his hands, face, and feet, bearing mute witness to the abuse his body had suffered because it lacked the warning system of pain. Mere stubs on his hands marked fingers used to be.

Since pain cells in his eyes no longer alerted him when to blink, Jose’s eyes gradually dried out. That condition, aggravated by severe cataracts and glaucoma, soon made him blind. My wife, Margaret, informed him that surgery might correct the cataract problem and restore some vision she could not operate until inflammation of the iris went away. After that, a terrible misfortune cut off Jose’s last link with the outside world. In a last-ditch attempt to arrest the sulfone-resistant leprosy, doctors tried treating him with a new drug, and Jose had a rare allergic reaction. In a final cruelty, he lost his hearing.

At the age of forty-five, Jose lost contact with the outside world. He not could not see another person, nor hear if someone spoke. Unlike Helen Keller, he could not even use tactile sign language because leprosy had dulled his sense of touch. Even his sense of smell disappeared as the prosy bacilli invaded the lining of his nose. All his sensory inlets, except taste, were now blocked.  Weeks passed and we watched, helpless, as Jose began to accept the reality of total isolation.

Jose’s body responded with a pathetic mirroring of what was happening to his psyche: his limbs pulled inward toward his trunk and he spent his days curled into a fetal position on the bed. Unable to tell day from night, he would awake from sleep and forget where he was. When he spoke, he did not know if anyone heard or answered.

Bellowing because he could not hear the volume, pouring out the inexpressible loneliness of a mind locked. In solitary confinement.

In such a state thoughts incurve, stirring up fears and suspicions. Jose’s body coiled tighter and tighter on the bed, preparing for death in the same posture as his birth. Most of us on the staff would pass his room, pause for a moment at the door, shake our heads, and continue walking. What could we do?

Margaret faithfully visited Jose. Unwilling to watch him self-destruct, felt she must attempt some kind of radical intervention to restore at least part of his sight. She waited anxiously for the infection in his eye to improve enough for her to schedule surgery.

In order to follow government rules, Margaret faced a nearly insurmountable problem. She must obtain “informed consent” forms for the surgery, but who would sign for Jose? No one could penetrate through his isolation to ask him for permission. After painstaking research, the hospital staff finally located a sister in Puerto Rico, and the police department there visited her with a surgery release form. The illiterate sister marked an X on a paper, and Margaret scheduled surgery at last, with faint hope of success.

Jose, of course, did not comprehend what was happening as he was moved to a stretcher and wheeled to the operating room. He lay passive throughout the eye surgery, feeling nothing. After a two-hour procedure, he was bandaged and sent back to his room to recover.

Margaret removed the bandages a few days later, an experience she will never forget. Although Jose had sensed some gross movement and probably reasoned someone was trying to help him, nothing prepared him for the result. He got the use of one eye back and could see again. As his eye struggled against the bright light and slowly brought focus the medical people gathered around the bed, the face that had smiled in months cracked into a huge, toothless grin.

During that time of solitude, Jose’s brain had floated intact inside his skull, complete with memory, emotions, and instructions for directing his body. Suddenly human contact was restored. Jose made it known that he wanted his wheelchair parked at the door to his room all day long. He would sit there quietly, every few seconds glancing up and down the long corridors of the leprosarium. When he saw another person approaching, his face would break into that irrepressible smile.

Taken from Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s name: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey Copyright (c) 2019 by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Witness of Father Damien

Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers.  He moved to Kalawao, a village on the island of Molokai in Hawaii that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony.  For sixteen years he lived in their midst.  He learned to speak their language.  He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone.  He organized schools, bands, and choirs.  He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter.  He built two thousand coffins by hand so that when they died, they could be buried with dignity.  Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.

Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance.  He did nothing to separate himself from his people.  He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients.  He shared his pipe.  He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores.  He got close.  For this the people loved him.

Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: “We lepers. …”

Now he wasn’t just helping them.  Now he was one of them.  From this day forward he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin.  First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died.  Now they were in it together.

One day God came to earth and began his message: “We lepers. …”  Now he wasn’t just helping us.  Now he was one of us.  Now he was in our skin.  Now we were in it together.

Taken from John Ortberg, All the Places to Go . . . How Will You Know?: God Has Placed before You an Open Door.  What Will You Do?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 

Restoring the Image in Leprosy Patients

The conversations that stand out sharpest to me now are those in which Dr. Brand recalled individual patients, “nobodies” on whom he had lavished medical care. When he began his pioneering work, he was the only orthopedic surgeon in the world working among fifteen million victims of leprosy. 

He and his wife, Margaret, performed several dozen surgical procedures on some of these patients, transforming rigid claws into usable hands through innovative tendon transfers, remaking feet, forestalling blindness, transplanting eyebrows, fashioning new noses.

He told me of the patients’ family histories, the awful rejection they had experienced as the disease presented itself, the trial-and-error treatments of doctor and patient experimenting together. 

Almost always his eyes would moisten and he would wipe as he remembered their suffering.  To him these people, among the most neglected on earth, were not nobodies but persons made in the image of God, and he dedicated himself to honor and help restore that image.

Taken from Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s name: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey Copyright (c) 2019 by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

See also Illustrations on Healing, Illness