Did you know that people still get leprosy? Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t.
I thought of leprosy as one of those Biblical concepts that we have to translate into postmodern reality, like cubits or denarius. In case you are like me, here are a few other things I didn’t know.
I had no idea that the United States was home to more than one leprosarium, the last of which closed in the 1990’s. I also didn’t know that these facilities were home to leprosy patients who were mandatorily quarantined, a practice that only ended in the late 1950’s. One of these, a leprosarium in Carville, La., is now a national museum about the history of the disease.
I did know that Biblical leprosy is a vast and complicated topic, encompassing all types of skin ailments with varying degrees of severity. But I didn’t know that scientists have identified a specific form of leprosy called Hansen’s disease. It is every bit as awful as the leprosy we read about in the Bible, and it is very much alive in the world today.
I learned these things through a recent Adult Education course I taught with a biology professor in my congregation. He handled the gory, scientific details, and my job was to provide Biblical and theological framework for the discussion. It was fascinating and heartbreaking to learn the stories of those with Hansen’s disease, and it changed forever the way I read the stories of Jesus healing lepers.
One final thing that I didn’t know was that Hansen’s disease involves a great deal of suffering that, ironically, is caused by a lack of pain sensitivity. As the disease damages the nerve endings in appendages, patients lose their ability to detect pain or discomfort. A tiny pebble in a shoe causes the foot to become infected and eventually requires amputation. A piece of dust in the eye leads to injury and blindness. Even broken bones can go unnoticed.
Most of us resent pain, and for good reason. But without the body’s alarm system, injury and disease in individual parts can go undetected and untreated, with catastrophic results for the entire body.
From time to time, people tell me that coming to church is difficult for them because we talk about pain a lot. They say they often feel uncomfortable during my sermons because I keep bringing up the world’s brokenness, and our part of the problem. They complain about the needs that we bring to the church, and the requests (of all kinds) that we make for assistance.
Of course, there is an important balance here; I am all about law and gospel together. But, I think difficult conversations belong in the church because the church belongs at the margins. Just because we are ignorant of the pain of God’s children doesn’t make the injury disappear. And, funnily enough, people don’t complain to me about this when they themselves are dealing with pain or suffering; then they are grateful.
In response to those who are bothered, I usually say something like, “Well, when the suffering ends, we’ll stop talking about it.” After my experience with leprosy, I have something new to say. The church is the world’s pain center. We neglect our vocation at its peril.