God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Back in 1998, I was a college pastor of a large ministry and a conference worship leader who needed a serious break. After ten years of pouring myself into college students and young adults, I was a little burned out. I had taken on many responsibilities—first as a volunteer and later as a full-time staff leader—and the weekly crowds and regular program administration drained me. So when a church-planting friend called me to see if I could come help him with his new ministry on the island of Molokai, I took it as a sign. Where is Molokai? Hawaii! But Molokai at that time, and even today, boasts a 56% poverty rate among its 4,000 residents. This time away to refresh myself came through serving an impoverished population who reminded me that ministry means taking on the pain of others and resting in the resources of an unlimited Christ.
While serving on Molokai that summer, I learned about the story of Father Damien. In the late 1800’s the Hawaiian Islands suffered from a leprosy epidemic, and their only solution was to banish the infected to a leper colony on the island of Molokai. A young Father Damien volunteered to spend his life among the lepers, and, in 1873, he began his ministry with them: building hospitals, advocating for them, leading them in worship, and ultimately burying these people he loved. Amidst the hopelessness of the lepers, he was a ray of hope, who sought to offer his life to these marginalized people. One day in 1885, he discovered he had contracted the disease as well and announced to his parishioners, “My fellow lepers, I am one of you now.”
I can’t claim that I had any significant impact on the population I served during that summer sabbatical in Molokai. Dozens of kids sang worship songs I led, and I shared the gospel in word and action. It certainly opened my eyes to the extreme poverty that can exist among such external beauty. I returned to ministry at my church filled with the conviction that leadership is about embracing the pain of others—along with the reality of how heavy that burden can be.
As we come to the close of our Advent season, I want to invite you to embrace this unusual Christmas story. For Jesus came near, and Immanuel chose to take on our sickness. Ultimately, he took on the sickness and lostness of the world as he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Was Jesus, the Eternal Son, experiencing some kind of separation from the Father because of taking on our sickness, literally becoming sick and deformed so that we could inherit his perfect wholeness and beauty?
The Christmas story we know from popular culture can be so sanitized that perhaps the ideas of sickness, isolation, and hopelessness sound foreign to you—perhaps even sacrilegious for the Advent season. But Jesus chose to be born into a broken world and to take on our pain in order to make us whole. Leaders who come near to the pain of those they lead will find they are emulating Jesus. And when we do this, we are telling the Christmas story as it’s supposed to be told.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
Have you ever experienced burnout as a leader? If so, how did you become whole again?
Father Damien’s story of sacrifice is extremely powerful but also scary. To what extent are leaders to emulate Jesus’s sacrificial love? How can you demonstrate empathy and respond to those who are suffering this week?
What kind of pain have you experienced in this Advent season? How has Jesus revealed his nearness to you in your time of need?
Jesus, your sacrifice is something we can never live up to, and yet you call us to take up our cross and follow you. Help us see those around us who are experiencing pain, and show us how we can respond with your unfailing love. Fill us with your Spirit, so that we can avoid burnout as we serve those we lead. Amen.