Introduction: One Sunday afternoon in 1771, a man named Valentin Haüy ducked into a restaurant in Paris for dinner. He sat near the stage, and the show that evening featured blind people in a comedy routine. They were objects of ridicule and cruelty. Deeply offended, Haüy began to develop a burden for the blind.
Sometime later, he spotted a street urchin begging for coins outside a Parisian church. Giving the boy some money, Haüy was amazed to see the boy feel the raised markings on the coins and distinguish the amounts. That gave Haüy an idea. Why couldn’t books be written with raised letters, like images on coins. Why couldn’t people learn to read with their fingers? Haüy took the boy off the streets, offered him food and shelter, devised a plan with wooden blocks and numbers, taught him to read.
In 1784, he started the world’s first school for blind children. It was in Paris, and one of the first teachers was the blind boy rescued from the streets. But that’s just the beginning of the story.
Several years later, another boy, Louis, was born in the village of Coupvray, France (just a stone’s throw from the present European Disneyland). His father was a farmer and harness maker, and as a toddler Louis loved watching his father work with leather tools. But tragedy struck in 1812, when three-year-old Louis began playing with a leftover strap of leather, trying to punch holes in it. His hand slipped, and the sharp tool punctured his eye. An infection set it and spread to the other eye, and the Louis was blinded for life.
A local minister named Jacques Palluy loved the boy and began visiting him to read him the Bible. Seeing the boy had a good mind, Father Jacques determined he should receive an education. So at age 10, Louis was enrolled in a school for the blind that Haüy had established in Paris. He proved to be a brilliant student as well as a gifted musician who played the organ so well he played for church services.
At a young age, Louis Braille began teaching at the school. He studied Haüy’s method of reading, and he also became aware of a system of military communication developed by a French army captain that allowed soldiers to communicate in the dark by running their fingers over a series of dots and dashes. Though still a teenager, Louis began adapting these systems into a program of his own; and in 1829, he published a little book on the Braille method of reading.
The school resided in a damp building by the River Seine. It was cold and unhealthy, and the food and conditions were poor. Louis developed tuberculosis, but he continued working on his system of reading. It began catching on and soon was being exported around the world.
Louis was known for his kindness. Even though his income was modest, he generously loaned money to students and friends in need. After his death, a small box was found on which were written the words: “To be burned without opening.” His curious friends opened it anyway and found inside hundreds of notes of debt from students to whom he had loaned money. In respect of his wishes, his friends burned the box and its contents.
“I am convinced my mission on earth has been accomplished. I asked God to carry me away from this world.”
Later, when close to death at age 43, Louis told a friend, “Yesterday was one of the greatest and most beautiful days of my life. I tasted the greatest joys. God was pleased to hold before my eyes the dazzling splendors of eternal hope. After that, doesn’t it seem that nothing more could keep me bound to the earth?”
Each of these men did what they could. Valentin Haüy developed a vision for the blind when he saw some ridiculed actors on the state and a beggar boy on the streets, and his burden led him to establish a school and attempt a system of reading. A street urchin learned to read. A local pastor encouraged another blind boy. And Louis Braille, a blind child, showed up with a determination to improve and expand Haüy’s work.
They did what they could, and their combined efforts changed the world. I’ve been thinking about the needs of the world—the hunger, the impure drinking water, the refugee camps, the AIDS children, the evangelistic needs. No one person can meet all those needs, and no one church can do everything. Sometimes I’m prone to think I have to give to every cause, to shoulder every burden, to respond to every appeal, to try to meet every need. If we tried to really do that, we’d last about two seconds. The load is too great. The burden is too heavy. Jesus bears it all, but He divides it up among His church. That’s why some churches specialize in having a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. Some specialize in bus ministry. Some are known for their missionary support. Some are known for their counseling ministries or their addiction recovery ministries or for spearheading a particular mercy ministry. But no church can do everything or we’ll spread ourselves so thin we’ll do nothing of any significance at all.
Here another example from another French pioneer named Louis. Louis Pasteur, the nineteenth-century French chemist, dreamed of freeing the world from disease. Once he got a clear burden for this in his mind, nothing stopped him from pursing his cause. He saved millions of children from tuberculosis by developing a procedure for the pasteurization of milk, a process now named, obviously, after him. Then he set himself to find an answer for the terrible scourge of rabies. At the risk of his own life, he used a glass tube to suck saliva from the foaming mouths of rabid dogs, then injected the material into rabbits. When the rabbits became infected, he extracted their spinal cords, hung them to dry, and developed an emulsion to test on humans. On July 6, 1885, a nine-year-old boy, Joseph Meister, was bitten fourteen times by a rabid dog. Pasteur administered his vaccine, knowing that if he failed he might be charged with medical murder. He proceeded with his treatments undaunted, injecting the boy each day with emulsions from the rabbit cords. The child was saved.
His biographer later said that Pasteur’s ardent Christian faith provided the drive and determination for his work: “Absolute faith in God and in eternity, and a conviction that the power for God given to us in this world will be continued beyond it, were feelings which pervaded his whole life; the virtues of the Gospel had ever been present to him.”[i]
The key is found in one verse in the Bible, one sentence, one phrase: She did what she could.
Scripture: Mark 14:1-11
Exposition: This story is told in Matthew, Mark, and John. According to John, the woman here was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. John tells us all three of the famous siblings were there. This is after the resurrection of Lazarus, so it may well have been in celebration of his remarkable recovery from the tomb. Mary was particularly grateful, and she’s the woman who anoints Jesus in this story. Matthew and Mark don’t reveal her identity, but John does. Mary breaks the alabaster flask and anoints Jesus. The house was filled with the aroma. I remember when I once broke a whole bottle of cologne in my dormitory room. We had the sweetest smelling room on the whole campus. The onlookers were indignant, especially Judas—this sent him over the edge. But one of the complaints was that the ointment could have been sold to help fed the hungry. Jesus, who certainly believed in caring for the poor, said that this case was very different. It was an anointing for His burial. Elisa Morgan, who wrote a book inspired by this passage, speculated that the sweet pleasant fragrance of this nard might have been a great comfort to Jesus in the hours that followed. His other senses—taste, touch, sight, hearing—were bombarded with tortures. But even on the cross, did the sweet scent of that perfume still linger and give Him His only physical comfort as He was giving His life for the world. Jesus summed up her efforts in one immoral sentence: She did what she could.
Conclusion: Lord… if ever I can do anything for You, just let me know and I’ll do it—Lillian Trasher
[i] René Vallery-Radot, The Life of Pasteur (New York: Doubleday, 1920), 462.