Father Damien is a hero for our time: Why suffering service can be our most compelling witness

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Father Damien is a hero for our time: Why suffering service can be our most compelling witness

April 16, 2021 -

 © Reimar/stock.adobe.com

 © Reimar/stock.adobe.com

 © Reimar/stock.adobe.com

NOTE: Eight people died and several others were wounded in a mass shooting last night at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana. I will publish a Special Edition Daily Article later today when more facts are known. Please join me in praying for all those affected by this horrific tragedy.

Joseph de Veuster was born in 1840 in rural Belgium. He was made a Catholic missionary to the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands in 1863 and reached Honolulu the next year, where he was ordained as a priest. When he learned about lepers the Hawaiian government had deported to the island of Molokai, he volunteered to move to the island to serve them.

Father Damien, as he was known, served as pastor and physician to the colony. He improved water and food supplies on the island and founded two orphanages. In 1884, he contracted leprosy. Refusing to leave for treatment, he died on April 15, 1889 at the age of forty-nine.

In 1965, Hawaii placed a statue of him in the National Statuary Hall of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

When I read his biography yesterday on the anniversary of his death, this thought was sparked: our greatest service to God and others sometimes comes at the greatest cost to us.

Choosing optimism in a pessimistic day

In recent days, I’ve been suggesting a case for Christian optimism based on these facts:

  • It is always too soon to give up on God’s grace.
  • Jesus is just as active in our world as when he first rose from the dead.
  • Our Father’s capacity to change our culture is based on his omnipotence, not our finitude.
  • Secularism fails to keep its promises, showing our need for a transcendent God.
  • The positive effects of personal faith show the abiding relevance of our Lord to our broken world.

Let’s close with this question: How do we remain optimistic when causes for pessimism confront us daily?

We could have a long conversation about religious liberty issues such as the Equality Act, the need for racial justice in our society, the challenge of street riots and other threats to civil order, and the continuing devastation being wrought by the so-called sexual revolution.

Rather than focusing on these, today I’d like to make this point: Christian optimism should never be based on temporal circumstances.

The economy may boom in coming months, but financial prosperity will not reach everyone and will not solve life’s greatest problems for anyone. The mortality rate will still be 100 percent. Sin and its consequences will still affect each of us (Romans 3:23; 6:23).

And the fallen world will still be opposed to true Christian faith. Jesus was blunt: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). Not “might have”—”will have.”

The Roman Empire executed two million Christians

I make this point because believers like me have been living in a unique period in Christian history.

Recent decades have seen the rise of political and cultural influence for Christian evangelicals in America. We have been viewed as the majority or at least as a significantly powerful demographic. Candidates supported by evangelicals have been elected to the White House, Congress, and local offices. Megachurch pastors have become cultural celebrities.

That was then; this is now.

As church memberships decline and those who claim no religious affiliation grow, evangelicals are especially being castigated. Our commitment to biblical sexual morality is being caricatured as homophobic, bigoted, and dangerous. The day is coming when we could be barred from secular social media platforms and participation in the NCAA and similar organizations. Those who stand for biblical truth could be seen as social pariahs and subjected to ridicule and worse.

If this day comes, we will find ourselves in no different a place than the first Christians. Ten of Jesus’ apostles were martyred for their faith; an eleventh was exiled. It is estimated that the Roman Empire executed as many as two million believers for their faith. Christians today are being tortured and killed in North Korea and many other places around the world. Muslims who convert to Christianity in Saudi Arabia face the death penalty.

Man lives in an airport for nearly eighteen years

When we benefit personally from following Jesus, it is easy for skeptics to dismiss our faith as self-serving. However, when we pay a high price for following our Lord, it is more difficult for others to dismiss our commitment. In such times, we can face suffering with optimism in the assurance that our suffering is planting spiritual trees we may never sit under and making an eternal difference in our temporal world.

To that end, consider this CNN headline as a parable: “How some people can end up living at airports for months—even years—at a time.” The story reports that some travelers are forced to live in airports when their travel arrangements change or are revoked. Some are homeless people taking refuge there. One man stayed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for nearly eighteen years.

Except for such unusual cases, an airport is a means to an end. We spend time there preparing to board a flight to what the airlines call our “final destination.”

In the same way, this fallen planet is a spiritual airport. Our purpose in our finite time here is to prepare for the eternal destination that awaits us. As a result, whatever it costs us to be faithful to Jesus in this life will be more than repaid in the next. And our willingness to suffer for our Lord will make a transforming difference in the lives of others.

In The Alphabet of Grace, Frederick Buechner asks, “How do I happen to believe in God?” His answer: “Writing novels, I got into the habit of looking for plots. After a while, I began to suspect that my own life had a plot. And after a while more, I began to suspect that life itself has a plot.”

Actually, it has two: the temporal and the eternal.

Which “plot” will you value most today?

NOTE: This is the last week you can request my new book, Every Hour I Need Thee: A Practical Guide to Daily Prayer. As I’ve shared this month, I wrote it because I want to help you and others walk intimately with Jesus every day and become more like him in his holiness through a life of prayer. Every Hour I Need Thee is to thank you for your donation to help more believers discern the news differently—and create more culture-changing Christians. So please request before time runs out, and thank you for your support.

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