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192 pages
Jul 2004
W Publishing Group

Make A Difference : Responding to God's Call to Love the World

by Melvin L. Cheatham

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


chapter 1

God Calls Us to Love

This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. —john 15:12

Iwas standing near the pit, the place believed to have been the lions’ den into which King Darius the Mede threw the prophet Daniel more than twenty-five hundred years ago. Charged with disloyalty to the king because he prayed to his sovereign God, Daniel was thrown into the pit to be devoured by ferocious lions. But Daniel was in God’s favor, and the Lord protected him so that he was not harmed.

As a small child I had dreamed of visiting ancient Babylon someday. I wanted to gaze into that pit where Daniel had once stood, surrounded by lions. I also wanted to see where other exciting stories had taken place in that historic city of Bible times. These were only dreams of my childhood that I never imagined would come true. Then, more than a halfcentury later I was among the ruins of the city of Babylon. It was thrilling to realize that King Nebuchadnezzar’s chariots had once rolled on the excavated streets where I walked.

On the walls of buildings bordering those ancient streets were images of dragons, molded in bold relief on fired-brick building blocks. Some of the glazed tiles that had once adorned the famous Ishtar Gate were still there. Continuing on from the remaining walls of one building to the next, I searched for evidence of Babylon’s famous Hanging Gardens, but nothing remained. What my Iraqi guide identified as “the pit, the lions’ den” was still there.

For a moment I imagined that in that darkened pit there might still be hungry lions crouching in the shadows, growling, flashing their sharp teeth, ready to devour their prey.

Entering the reconstructed banquet hall of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, I stood before the high wall said to have been where God caused a hand to appear and to write the words, “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN”—words warning Belshazzar, successor to King Nebuchadnezzar, that the days of his kingdom were numbered. The Bible says, “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain” (Daniel 5:30). Perhaps you are wondering why I was in the ancient city of Babylon. I will answer that question later in this chapter.

I first heard about Daniel and the city of Babylon when my mother read Bible stories to me. Later, I heard the stories told all over again in Sunday school. Our family went to church on Sunday mornings and evenings and sometimes for mid-week services. My father was an elder in our church, and I admired him very much and wanted to be just like him. At age twelve I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

After years and years in school I was finally handed my diploma as a Doctor of Medicine. Sylvia and I were married the day before medical school graduation, and we were ready to find our place together in the world.

Faithfulness in church attendance became an important part of our life together. When we were blessed with the births of two sons and a daughter, we read to them those same Bible stories we had heard as small children—one of them about Daniel in the lions’ den.

Hearing the Call

Neurosurgical residency training seemed to go on forever, but finally, at age thirty-four, I was a fully trained neurosurgeon, ready to begin living life in the fast lane. Every day in my practice meant long hours in the operating room—all too often becoming an all-night marathon. The work was hard and demanding, but I felt good about my life as a neurosurgeon. I was helping people who were sick and injured, and I felt this was what God wanted me to do.

Approaching my fiftieth birthday, a certain “sameness” came to my life and my practice. Sylvia and I were very happy. We enjoyed the rewards of success and didn’t mind living our lives in overdrive, but something was missing. We both felt “a still, small voice” was asking for our attention. We knew it was the Lord speaking to us, not in an audible voice but through His Holy Spirit. We felt He was saying, “I have blessed you in so many ways, but what have you done for Me in the living of your lives?”

We began to search for answers to the question we believed God was asking us. As we were doing so, I heard about an urgent need for a neurosurgeon in Peshawar, Pakistan, to help treat the wounded people fleeing over the Kyber Pass to escape the war in Afghanistan. I telephoned the number for the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar as many as thirty-five times but was never able to make a connection. Perhaps this was God’s way of saying, “No, this is not the place I want you to go.”

Then early one morning in 1984, as Sylvia and I were having a second cup of coffee before my busy day in the operating room, I was channel surfing, looking for the news. “Quick, go back,” Sylvia said. “I think its Billy Graham!” I returned to the program in question, but it wasn’t Billy Graham; it was a young man who looked and sounded like Billy Graham. Then the name “Franklin Graham” appeared on the television screen. This young man was further identified as the eldest son of Dr. Billy Graham and president of Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian international relief organization. Franklin Graham shared that he had not always followed in his well-known father’s footsteps. He then told how, one night when he was twenty-two years old, he had gotten down on his knees, confessed his sin, and given his life to the Lord.

As we watched, Franklin showed photographs he had taken at Tenwek, a Christian mission hospital in Kenya. They showed three or four patients in the same hospital bed, and more on the floor underneath. Then he looked directly into the television camera and said, “We need Christian doctors who will go to mission hospitals like this one to bring medical treatment to patients who will otherwise not receive care.” In that moment, Sylvia and I felt we heard God’s voice speaking to us. Almost in unison we said, “Yes, we’ll go!”

I called the number on the screen. Becky Williams, the placement director at World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan’s Purse, listened as I told her I was a neurosurgeon. I told her that my family and I wanted to volunteer to go to the mission hospital in Kenya, the one Franklin Graham had just been describing. After a long moment of silence she questioned whether I would be able to perform any neurosurgery at Tenwek Hospital. She seemed to politely imply, “I don’t know if we can use a brain surgeon in a bush hospital in Africa. You see, what we need are real doctors!” That was a really big lesson in humility for a somewhat full-of-himself neurosurgeon from Southern California! Still, Becky Williams was very encouraging in terms of possible opportunities for short-term missions service somewhere else in the future, and she sent an application for each member of our family.

Going with God’s Plan

After a few weeks Becky called us and asked if I would be willing to work short-term in South Korea. This would be at a large hospital where a visiting professor was needed to lead the training program in neurosurgery while the hospital’s neurosurgery department chief came to the U.S. for more training. There was only one problem: we didn’t want to go to South Korea! The plan our family had in mind was to go to Tenwek Hospital in Kenya. Still, we prayed about it, and then I called Becky and said, “Yes, we’ll go!”

I could never have imagined that God’s plan for my life would also call me to do work for Him in North Korea thirteen years later.

At Presbyterian Medical Center in Chonju, South Korea, I worked as a visiting professor of neurosurgery. Sylvia worked in hospital administration and taught English to Korean hospital employees. Our teenage children worked in various capacities in the hospital. Even though we had gone to Presbyterian Medical Center to be “givers,” we found that we were the “receivers,” and our lives were changed.

Sometime after we returned from South Korea, Becky called to say that Samaritan’s Purse had received good reports concerning our work there. Then she said, “They are really desperate for doctors at Tenwek, that bush hospital in Kenya, located fifty miles from the nearest town. If you are willing to do general medicine, general surgery, and deliver babies, along with whatever neurosurgery you might be able to do, perhaps we can use you there.”

I didn’t say it but I thought, Fine, I can do that. After all, I used to be a “real” doctor!

Along with eighteen duffel bags and suitcases filled with medical equipment and supplies, our family of five flew to London and then to Nairobi, Kenya. From there we were flown in a Cessna 206 missionary aircraft to the mission hospital at Tenwek, where we landed on a grassy landing strip.

My first neurosurgical patient at Tenwek Hospital was a twenty-six-year-old Kipsigis tribesman named Stanley Cheborge. Stanley had lost his right leg to bone cancer several years before. Now he was experiencing pain in his back and his remaining leg. When I operated on Stanley’s spine and found it was riddled with cancer, I knew he would not have long to live. I found time to talk with Stanley each day as I monitored his postoperative recovery and his response to impending death, and I was captivated by his strong Christian faith. Whenever I had a few minutes between operations on other patients, I found myself going to Stanley’s hospital room to listen to more of his compelling story.

Stanley told me he had once been a very aggressive, meanspirited, ruthless, conniving person who lived only to please himself. When illness and personal loss entered his life, he had lost his leg at Tenwek Hospital, but he had found Jesus Christ and accepted Him as Lord and Savior, and his life had been completely changed. Through my close friendship with Stanley Cheborge I came to realize that God works in mysterious ways. He used a one-legged African man who lived in a mud-walled, mudfloored, grass-roofed hut to lead a neurosurgeon from Southern California to make a midcareer change and redirect how he was going to live the rest of his life.

After those first mission trips to South Korea and Kenya, Sylvia and I continued to serve short-term assignments in Christian mission hospitals. But in the years that followed, things began to change in the world. Increasingly, assignments through Samaritan’s Purse were not only to Christian mission hospitals, but also to places where wars were being fought.

After the fall of Communism, Christian relief work through Samaritan’s Purse took us and many other volunteers to Somalia, Rwanda, the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Congo, Central and South America, and to other places of war, conflict, natural disaster, and great need around the world. Over and over again as we have done the Lord’s work, we have seen Him provide help that has made an important difference in the lives of those who are hurting. Ordinary people, just like you and me, have responded to God’s call to bring help to the sick, the suffering, the wounded, and the seemingly forgotten people in our world.

As Jesus demonstrated during His earthly ministry, God’s plan calls us to bring help, healing, and hope to people one person at a time. One person who is willing to show God’s love and share the gospel with others who are in need. One person like Franklin Graham, who was once a self-described rebel, but now leads both Sam-aritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

And one person like Stanley Cheborge, an African tribesman who lived only to please himself until he accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and experienced new birth. What then is the irresistible yet undeniable truth that is common to the lives of Franklin Graham and Stanley Cheborge? I believe it is that each of these men has been able to hear God’s voice! If you and I were to listen, what will we hear Him saying to us? At any moment He may be saying different things to each one of us, but the Bible tells us the command to love Him and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves will be prominent in His words for us. Jesus said, “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16; italics mine).

The prophet Daniel lived more than five hundred years before the birth of Christ, and he loved God totally and completely. God honored Daniel’s love, obedience, and faithfulness to Him by using him to bring help to the people taken captive in Judah and exiled in Babylon. With God’s protection and help, Daniel served King Nebuchadnezzar, King Belshazzar, King Darius the Mede, and King Cyrus of Persia. God kept Daniel free from harm even when Darius the Mede cast him into the lions’ den. Throughout a lifetime that extended into his nineties, Daniel was given the power to serve, and to survive, in high places because his love for God never wavered.

In the book of Daniel we read that King Nebuchadnezzar loved only himself and had overwhelming personal pride. God warned Nebuchadnezzar of the perils of pride when He spoke to him through a disturbing dream that only Daniel could interpret. God warned Nebuchadnezzar that he would live for seven years away from other people in the presence of wild animals in order that he might be humbled. After seven years, when Nebuchadnezzar would come to acknowledge that heaven rules, his kingdom would be restored. However, in spite of God’s warning, Nebuchadnezzar remained prideful and God carried out his sentence. Seven years later Nebuchadnezzar was humbled, and as he raised his eyes toward heaven his sanity was restored. Then he praised God, saying, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down” (Daniel 4:37).

Visiting Babylon

One of the greatest tyrants of modern history is Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq. Hussein has lived as a man of pride with a heart of evil, even envisioning himself as the Nebuchadnezzar of our time. Saddam Hussein and his regime are responsible for much of the danger facing our world today. Because of Hussein’s evil ambitions, a reported one million Iranian soldiers and an estimated eight hundred thousand Iraqi soldiers lost their lives during the eight-year war with Iran, initiated by Hussein. He is believed to have caused the deaths of thousands, if not millions more of his own people, and he brought terrible hardships and suffering upon the rest of the Iraqi people, qualifying himself as one of the most evil rulers in history.

It was because of the suffering of the Iraqi people that Franklin Graham sent our Samaritan’s Purse team to Baghdad in the early summer of 2000. Our mission was to see if medical relief could be given to the Iraqi people without violating the restriction guidelines imposed by the UN embargo on that country.

Our team of four flew to Amman, Jordan, where we met with the Iraqi ambassador to Jordan. He showed us public health records that listed appalling statistics concerning the healthcare status of children in Iraq. Among children under five, deaths from diarrhea were up 1300 percent from March 1989 to March 1999. Respiratory illness deaths were up 1380 percent, and deaths from malnutrition were up 3500 percent. In spite of these healthcare needs, Saddam Hussein had just finished building his seventeenth lavish royal palace. He was also in the process of building the largest mosque in the world while spending large sums of money to rebuild the ancient city of Babylon for his own glory.

In 5:00 a.m. darkness, we loaded our gear into a large four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle that had been dispatched to take us to Baghdad, and then we began our journey toward the Jordanian border with Iraq. Three and one-half hours later we arrived at the border. After clearing our credentials with the Jordanian officials, our driver proceeded toward a twenty-foot-high concrete structure displaying the likeness of Saddam Hussein, his smiling face welcoming us to Iraq.

At the Iraqi border station, we were told to get out of our vehicle. We watched as customs officials disappeared with our SUV in a cloud of dust, taking it to some undisclosed destination for inspection. In the small, one-story customs and immigration building we surrendered our passports and were told to sit down in a large room with oriental carpets on the floor and smiling photographs of Saddam Hussein on the walls. After waiting for more than an hour, the Iraqi officials handed us our passports and escorted us to our vehicle, which had just been returned following a thorough inspection. We continued our journey toward Baghdad, traveling at speeds of eighty-five to ninety miles an hour.

For another six hours we were driven across the Iraqi desert on a remarkably fine national highway built by the government of Saddam Hussein during the years when money from the sale of oil was plentiful. As the sun was beginning to set behind us in the West, we arrived at a bridge crossing the Euphrates River. Our driver stopped for a few minutes to allow us to stretch our legs. It was exciting to see this historic river and to realize that thousands of years before, Abraham and his family must have walked alongside it as they made their journey from the land of Ur to the land promised to them by God.

Just before dark we arrived at the front entrance of the Al-Rashid Hotel in central Baghdad, located not far from the main presidential palace. On the floor of the marble entry to the hotel was a mosaic of former president George Herbert Walker Bush, making it necessary for anyone entering the hotel to step on President Bush’s likeness, representing one of the greatest personal insults to someone according to Iraqi customs. Below his image were the words “Bush is criminal,” in English and Arabic.

The following morning, we were driven to the government building housing the Ministry of Health, where we had a forty-five-minute meeting with the assistant director of international health for Iraq. He told us the nation’s water supply, sewer system, and basic infrastructure had deteriorated to crisis levels, but he blamed this on the UN embargo and not on the regime of Saddam Hussein. Next, we met for more than an hour with the Iraqi minister of health. He spoke passionately of the suffering of the Iraqi people, especially the children, placing the blame for their suffering on the UN embargo against his country as well as longterm effects of degraded uranium left behind from the shelling by U.S. forces in Desert Storm.

Following this high-level meeting was a visit to Baghdad Children’s Hospital. Before I could get out of our vehicle, a man thrust his seven-year-old daughter through the open car window into my lap. I climbed out of the vehicle and the little girl’s father took her back from me, holding her in his arms as he and the little girl’s mother pleaded for help in Arabic.

The little girl was very pale and had clotted blood in her left nostril. I felt sure she had leukemia. When one of the hospital doctors joined us, he confirmed this diagnosis and told me medication for the child’s treatment was not available in Iraq. Then he said, “It is because of the degraded uranium left over from shells used by the United States during Desert Storm that this little girl and many others are sick and suffering.” Clearly the agenda of Saddam Hussein’s followers was to convince our Samaritan’s Purse team members that the healthcare crisis in Iraq was the result of the UN embargo.

Each day as I worked in Baghdad’s hospitals I was asked to examine large numbers of sick and deformed Iraqi children. It was obvious the Ministry of Health had notified parents of my presence in Baghdad, instructing them to bring their sick children to be seen. Almost all of these children were afflicted by some neurological problem for which no help could be given; a number had been born mentally defective, likely because their parents were first cousins. Other children were sick or disabled as a result of various infectious diseases, leukemia, tumors, or other conditions for which modern, state-of-the-art medical care was no longer available in Iraq. At one time the quality of medical care delivery in Iraq was reportedly unequaled in the Middle East, but under the rule of Saddam Hussein this was no longer true.

On one unforgettable morning in one of the Baghdad hospitals the examination room seemed especially hot, the air heavy due to high humidity. As usual, long lines of deformed, sick, and suffering little children accompanied by their anxious parents filled the hallway, waiting to be seen. These parents were seeking a miracle they believed I might perform because I was from America.

After examining the first few children, an Iraqi mother dressed in a black chador covering all but her saddened face sat down in the chair in front of me. In her outstretched arms lay her comatose child, a little boy of about four. He was totally limp and unresponsive. She reminded me of Michelangelo’s sculpture The Pieta, depicting the mother of Jesus, sitting, holding the lifeless body of her dead son. The Iraqi mother anxiously began to speak in Arabic, explaining with impassioned words how several months earlier her little boy had fallen ill with a high fever, experienced convulsions, and lapsed into a deep coma. My examination of the little boy found he had evidence of severe brain damage, and I knew nothing could be done. Turning to the young Iraqi doctor assigned as my interpreter, I said, “Please tell the mother there is nothing I can do to help. Please tell her that she should continue to love and care for her little boy, and that she should pray to God, asking Him to bring healing to her son’s body.”

Hearing my words translated, the mother began to cry. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and she reached forward, pushing her motionless little boy into my arms. Between sobs and cries of painful anguish she seemed to be pleading with me in Arabic. I knew she was asking for help, and there was none I could give. The interpreter was silent for a long moment and then he said, “The mother is saying, ‘Please take my son back with you to America. I will give him to you, and he will be yours. I am prepared to give him to you, if only you will take him with you to America where you can perform a miracle and restore him to health.’ ” I wanted to cry as I looked at this comatose child and into the tear-filled eyes of his grieving mother. My heart was broken.

What are we to do, if we are going to make a difference in our dangerous world? We begin with love—bringing the love of Jesus Christ to our world. Mark 12:30–31 tells us we are to first “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind,” and then we are to, “Love our neighbors, as we love ourselves.”

With the successful conclusion of the war to remove Saddam Hussein and his evil regime from power in Iraq, we have witnessed evil through the medium of television news. We have seen mobs gather with clenched fists and shouts of hatred, not expressions of love for God and for other people. The forces of evil are at work around the world, and the need to replace this evil with hope and love through coming to know Jesus Christ is urgent. Today as never before, the church of Jesus Christ is positioned to do the work God has called us to do. A network of Christian workers reaches around the world with ability to bring compassionate help and God’s love to people in need. By bringing a cup of cool water to a person who is thirsty, a piece of bread to one who is hungry, and medical care to someone who is sick or injured, we then earn the right to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On our final night in Baghdad, seven of the Iraqi physicians we had worked with hosted a farewell dinner for us. Words of friendship were exchanged as the Iraqi doctors spoke of their appreciation for our having come to assist them in caring for sick patients. They spoke of their admiration for us as caring physicians and expressed amazement that we had come to Iraq to help the Iraqi people. At the end of the meal, the most senior surgeon said, “I am afraid you will not be able to leave tomorrow.” For a moment I wondered if he was telling us we were to become political prisoners! But then he added, “We have warm feelings of friendship for you, we do not feel it safe for you to travel across the desert tomorrow because of the predicted sandstorms.”

Fortunately, the weather cleared overnight. As we prepared to leave Baghdad the following morning, a high-level official in the Department of Health asked to speak privately with me. Extending his hand, he said, “I have come to admire and respect you very much as I have observed the compassionate way in which you have treated patients, families, and others while in my country.” As we were shaking hands, I felt him press something into mine. Having the forethought to simply close my hand and place the small object in my pocket, I avoided creating awareness by other Iraqi officials of the transaction.

Once safely out of Baghdad I took the object from my pocket and found it was a tightly folded piece of paper. Written on it in pencil were these words: “If it is possible I would like to leave Iraq and become a Good Samaritan, like you. During your time here you have shown compassion and brought love to those whose lives you have touched.” Reading these words, I felt God’s purpose for sending our Samaritan’s Purse team to Iraq had been fulfilled.

Iraq has now been liberated, and humanitarian relief is being brought to the people who have suffered so long under evil, oppressive rule. Saddam Hussein, who thought of himself as the Nebuchadnezzar of our time, has been captured. The statues and monuments he had constructed to bring honor and glory to himself have been torn down. Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime is history. The marble mosaic meant to show former president Bush as a criminal to be stepped on has been broken into small pieces and removed. God remains the same yesterday, today, and forever, and He is calling us to show His love in our hostile, suffering, and dangerous world.

Jesus warned his disciples this would be difficult. Perhaps as never before in history, the dangers facing those who lift up the name Jesus seem to be increasing among people hostile to Him here at home and in other countries. Still, people are suffering, and the followers of Jesus Christ have been called to step forward, reaching out to them in His name. Our job is to make a difference. Before you turn the page, ask yourself these questions:

    • Do I want to make a difference by responding to God’s call to love the world?

    • Have I taken time to be quiet and listen so I can hear God’s voice?

    • How will I answer the question, “What have you done for Me, in the living of your life?”