I recently visited scenic El Paso, TX, for an Advanced Trauma Life Support Instructor class. The class was about as excited as the title entails, but I did have a very interesting conversation with an orthopedic surgeon I met there.

Since I started my surgical training in 2002, when asked, I have told people of my career plans to enter the medical mission field. I’ve heard a lot of different responses from different people, doctors in particular, surgeons especially. Most of the surgeons I encounter are not Christians so I’m not surprised by the lack of understanding regarding my motivations to serve overseas. The comments I received from this orthopedic doc in El Paso were fairly common. Uncommon, though, was his familiarity with the difficulties of Africa.

As the only two guys from out of town, we ate dinner together one night and shared about our lives. In his late 50’s (I think), he clearly has a broader perspective of life than me and his story in particular provides a broader perspective than usual. He grew up in Capetown, South Africa. Apparently his family was Christian, at least in name, and he was familiar with the Bible from childhood. After finishing his schooling, he joined the South African army and felt like this was his calling in life. As he puts it, “the South African army is very different than the American army.” He states that by the time he finished basic training, he had been through so much that he literally did not remember his parents’ names. The only familiar name to him was his sister’s. In the ensuing years, he witnessed and participated in horrors that he would not relate. He witnessed first-hand examples of the genocide we only hear about in the news. These evils respected no person, regardless of sex or age. At the time, he himself felt he had a real gift for killing. In the face of all this, his bitterness for the world, human nature and Africa in particular grew and grew. Any belief he may have had in a loving, interactive God was erased. Per my questioning, he does believe in an agnostic God that created the universe but has nothing to do with its inhabitants. He made it his goal to get out of Africa and never come back. He attended medical school in South Africa and orthopedic surgery residency in Canada. He then worked for about 15 years as a general orthopedic surgeon and now is working in south Texas as an orthopedic trauma surgeon.

Though he denied calling me a victim of youthful naivety (I asked for clarification!), he did say he felt my somewhat ignorant optimism would be burnt out after five years and we would be back in the US by then. In his mind, the realities of Africa are simply too great. He has truly seen the ugliness and pervasiveness of sin in a way that those of us raised in the United States cannot understand. Raised in a country whose government and legal system were designed by men familiar with Biblical truths, it is hard for me to imagine an entire continent ruled by “might makes right.” Our month in Gabon taught us a little, but we have much to learn. Though deeply wounded and cynical, this doctor said he still envied our hope and he wished the best for us in spite of his prediction of disillusionment.

Though his honesty and sincerity were refreshing, this man’s message was like most of the other messages I have received from the secular medical profession regarding the medical mission field. It is a message of despair, of futility. Some call it youthful naivety, some call it a search for adventure (soon to be soured by reality), some call it “peeing in the ocean” in regards to the daunting ratio of resources to needs, and some simply call it a waste. On a slightly more positive note, some call it “noble”, very “big of you.” Well, what is it really? Why on earth are we packing up our young family and leaving a six-figure income to move to Ethiopia?

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt 28:20
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” Phil 2:5-7
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Heb 11:13-16

We aren’t noble, foolish, ignorant or even all that nice (well, Becca is). In truth, we are incredibly grateful. Becca and I both know the unspeakable joy of grace as we have both encountered Jesus and His cross. From Him and through His sacrifice, we have each received life… amazing, undeserved, delicious, eternal life. Both of us know what it is to be lost in sinful rebellion, in separated enmity to the only source of life in all existence, and we have received His surprising and radical mercy. We now belong to Him and we will go where He leads us. We feel He is leading us to Ethiopia. That’s really about it. May He be glorified in all we say and do, and we are excited to see what the Lord has in mind for us in the years to come. (5 years and beyond!)Though we don’t fully know the trials that are to come, Jesus has promised to be with us (see the verse from Matthew above). And, through his walk with Jesus, the apostle Paul learned the secret of contentment in each and every circumstance: he could do all things through Him who gave him strength. Christ is our motivation and our sustainer. We praise Him and offer all we are to Him.