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ss nucleus - spring 1997,  Challenged to Conquer

Challenged to Conquer

God does great things through our weakness, if we are willing to step out in faith. The following article is an abridged version of the 1995 Maxwell Memorial Lecture given by James Burton, originally printed in 'Saving Health' and re-printed here with permission.

My title reflects the life of Dr Robert Maxwell of the Medical Missionary Association (MMA) and his challenge to so many young doctors in his day. It also reflects my own life- one long challenge to reach the standards and ideals seen in so many of the great missionary pioneers, who gave their lives in the service of medicine and of their Lord Jesus Christ. We in the MMA have often queried, 'Is the day of Christian medical missionary service over?' We must remember that nearly 50% of the world's population live in countries unlikely to grant missionary visas in the future. The nearer I get to meeting my master face-to-face, the more important becomes the question of my role as a Christian doctor. Is Christ still calling young Christian doctors to commit their lives to this task, to go into all the world to preach the gospel and to heal the sick? (Lk 9:2) My answer is yes.

As president of the MMA, I am proud of the traditions of the past - of the role of honour of those hundreds of doctors who have gone forth with the message of God's love and with their healing skills into a needy world. However, we as Christian medical professionals cannot live on the successes and traditions of the past - what is God challenging us to do today? One man's journey in faith is his own personal challenge before his Lord but I want to share a little of how my wife and I have been repeatedly challenged to conquer in nearly 50 years of missionary service.

Conquest in the Congo

My first challenge was to train as a medical missionary. I thought medical training to be impossible as I had only £5 and needed to raise £1,000 in fees alone. I soon learnt, however, that when God calls and challenges, he does the equipping! In 1948, following graduation and a wonderful post-graduate training at the Mildmay Mission Hospital, my wife and I were in the great equatorial forest of the then Belgian Congo (now Zaire), challenged to build a hospital in memory of missionaries who had lost their lives in a plane crash. As the hospital grew and became established, we faced the task of introducing surgery to a very primitive area of the Congo. Among the many challenges was a fisherman who had been mauled by a hippopotamus! Several hours and 186 skin sutures later, I breathed a prayer of thanksgiving for my surgical training at Mildmay.

As a student I never dreamed that one day I would operate on myself! However, armed with a mirror, local anaesthetic and a guarded scalpel, I opened a branchial cyst abscess in my neck. My wife did not wish to be known as the missionary who cut her husband' s throat!

One of my biggest surgical challenges was a villager who had been injured in a tribal fight. A machete had caused multiple comminuted open skull fractures and almost completely severed one hand at the wrist. Most of the night was spent repairing the skull and rejoining tendons, nerves and vessels to save his hand. Miraculously he survived. 9 months later a man came to out-patients complaining bitterly over a small bony irregularity of his skull. I remembered how I had despaired over his life months earlier. His hand was functioning perfectly but he was angry over a small lump palpable on his skull where the fractures had been. Feeling rather wicked and tired, I turned to my nurse and suggested that he fetch a machete so that we could return the skull to its former state. As I turned back to reassure the patient that I was joking, I saw him fleeing down the path, never to be seen again!

Disappointment is God's appointment!

One day after only eight years missionary service, tragedy struck. My wife Peggy had a severe coronary thrombosis and had to return home to the UK at 35. Was this the end of a missionary career? We had to learn that disappointments are often God's appointments. After some brief GP retraining I was appointed as medical director of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS). My task was to rebuild and re-equip our Baptist hospitals worldwide. This enormous challenge took me to almost every UK Baptist church to share the vision and the need. Two years later this was complete but a new challenge was becoming apparent. The problems, shortages and need for modernisation we had were common to mission hospitals worldwide. I went to the conference of British Missionary Societies with the idea of a united medical missionary ministry of supply to support every mission hospital worldwide. The idea was accepted and I was given the huge task of implementing it! This was the biggest challenge of my life and was impossible without God. I resigned from the BMS and launched Equipment for Charity Hospitals Overseas (ECHO), which in 23 years of my involvement would supply over 3,000 hospitals, dispensaries and medical relief programmes in 120 developing countries. I would like to thrill your hearts with two of the many miracles that occurred in our development and challenged our faith to conquer.

Miraculous financial provision

In a tiny converted stable in Bermondsey, London, we struggled to raise our first year's budget of £7,000. We despaired at the number of requests that poured in for medical equipment and stopped counting at 200,000. Our task seemed impossible but God stepped in to launch ECHO with two amazing miracles.

The first came with a bankruptcy sale at a medical equipment firm. The warehouse had already been sold so a quick sale was needed. The stock had been valued at over £100,000 and part offers over £40,000 were being invited. In rather audacious faith I offered our entire bank balance of £600 for some of the surgical instruments! I was disappointed to hear that the only other offer - of £1,500 from a commercial scrap firm, had been accepted. We continued to pray and two weeks later the phone rang to say that the scrap firm couldn't raise their £1,500 and to ask if our offer still stood. However, if so, we would need to clear the whole warehouse! Did it stand?! So ECHO was launched, buying way over £100,000 worth of new medical equipment for £600.

God never does things in half-measure. We received a call from the Ministry of Defence. Due to the warming up of the Cold War, vast stocks of medical equipment were being sold. They had been held against a possible atomic emergency. I visited their vast underground store, five miles square, where I saw an 'Aladdin's Cave' of all types of medical equipment. I listed all I saw, starting with 500,000 new surgical instruments. I recalled my six pairs of Spencer Wells forceps in Africa that needed to be resterilised after every operation. I became more excited as I wrote down long lists of equipment as fast as I saw them - how they could be used in struggling missionary hospitals! In my car I was overawed, thinking, 'Dr Burton, you're a fool. How are you ever going to pay for millions of pounds of new medical equipment?' In my office I wrote the craziest letter I have ever written, saying that I couldn' t possibly afford to offer a commercial price but that I would offer £1,000 for the whole list of items I promised that everything would be sent to developing countries. All I expected was a curt rebuff but soon came the reply saying that in view of the charitable nature of ECHO, my offer was accepted! Was I glad that in faith I had been cheeky enough to include the whole list! Under God's blessing we continued to grow and our tiny first-year budget of £7,000 grew to nearly £7,000,000!

New challenges

In 1989 after 23 years at ECHO I passed on the work and was elected chairman of the MMA. I saw the strain on our medical missionary colleagues overseas, finding it hard even to take well-earned furloughs. I challenged UK Christian doctors to serve for short periods overseas on retirement. Could I challenge others, though, if at 67 years I was not prepared to go myself? Therefore in 1990 my wife and I went to the SIM hospital at ELWA in Liberia, after some retraining in surgery. It was a challenge so worthwhile to be back on the coal face of missionary service. However, war broke out and we were able to leave just before the airport and our lovely hospital were destroyed. Had God finished with our Christian service? Could we now retire or were there other challenges to face and conquer?

There was one final challenge still to come, at least I hope final! God challenged us to look into the whole healing ministry of the Christian Church. I began to experience how God was using young churches to touch broken lives and heal the sick, particularly in countries where modern medical care was not available. I was challenged to take a role as medical advisor to a Christian organisation in their ministry centres worldwide. My first task was to raise £2,150,000 to set up an international centre in the UK where church leaders could come for training in evangelism and the healing ministry. A beautiful estate was found with just 5 months to complete the purchase and raise a further £1,500,000 further to equip, renovate and furnish it. It meant selling our little retirement bungalow but it was the story of ECHO all over again. In February 1995 the purchase was completed and followed by another miracle of God's provision. Due to the closing down of a large, 400-room Government establishment, we were offered the entire contents for a ridiculously small sum, which was enough for the whole estate.

Challenging others

In sharing a life during which I have often been challenged and stretched beyond all human resources, my only object has been to proclaim that God still wants to use doctors in his service, whether it be in this country or pioneering in countries that struggle to cope with disease and sickness on a scale that we never see in our well-staffed NHS. I want to reaffirm that we have a role even above and beyond our scientific training to share the Christian gospel with the world, filled with the promised power of the living Christ, to go forth, `preach the gospel and heal the sick'.(Lk 9:2) I do not believe that Christian healing went out with the apostles. Otherwise I would not have dedicated my life to the healing ministry. Today God is challenging us Christian doctors to play our part in these dramatic days. May we all in our Christian and professional lives be CHALLENGED TO CONQUER!

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