My path towards medical missions started when I was growing up as a missionary’s kid (MK) in Japan. Seeing the hours that my father was away from home counseling young people rather than coming home to play with me, I proclaimed to my mother with as much conviction as a pre-school boy can muster, “I’m never going to be a missionary!” But there is no doubt, when I look back, that the seed of my desire to serve others, to make my life matter, was planted while watching how my parents lived, worked, and served for 45 years in Japan.
My enjoyment of the sciences led naturally to medical school, and a desire to serve took me through family medicine training. God’s call was to serve those who had no one else to care for their medical needs. So, in July of 1990, I found myself in Kathmandu, starting into language studies, in preparation for a term of service in the mission hospital at Tansen in rural Western Nepal. My wife and I even had our two young children in tow! A three-year commitment has now extended into 21 years of service over these past 31 years. It is a good thing that we were not given the long-term plan at the beginning, which would surely have scared us away!
We are sometimes asked how many people we have converted over all these years in Nepal. We don’t think we have “converted” anyone. (It is actually illegal in Nepal.) We have had people say how they appreciated something we did or said that helped them during a difficult time. Often, we don’t even remember doing what they are remembering. This reminds us that even though we speak about our faith when we can, it is God who brings someone to saving faith in Jesus. Our mission is of course to proclaim the Gospel, using words when necessary. Our lives are our message. The incarnational lives we live, by being among those we minister to, living with them and alongside them through their ups and downs, allows God to show seekers what their life might be like as a Christian, and what difference it might make to choose to follow this Jesus.
I believe that just as faith without action is dead (James 2:26), proclamation without service is at best unproductive, and at worst counterproductive, because it hardens the hearts of those who hear us. (“How can we believe in this God of love they speak about, if they don’t even care enough about us to help us in our need?”)
Others might similarly argue that service without proclamation is pointless, since it doesn’t bring anyone to faith if they don’t hear about Jesus (Romans 10:14). But our experience is not so. This hospital, which has served the poor for 67 years, is known as the mission hospital, where help is available for all. The initial missionaries, who were also forbidden to proselytize, left behind a congregation of believers who came to faith in Jesus through the healing ministry in the hospital and through seeing the lives of the Christians.
John Stott wrote, “We are sent into the world, like Jesus, to serve. For this is the natural expression of our love for our neighbors. We live. We go. We serve. And in this we have (or should have) no ulterior motive. True, the gospel lacks visibility if we merely preach it, and lacks credibility if we who preach it are interested only in souls and have no concern about the welfare of people’s bodies, situation, and communities. Yet the reason for our acceptance of social responsibility is not primarily in order to give the gospel either a visibility or a credibility it would otherwise lack, but rather simple uncomplicated compassion. Love has no need to justify itself. It merely expresses itself in service whenever it sees need.”
All service to neighbors can be and is used by God to advance His Kingdom. Yet there is something unique about medical missions. Physical illness or injury causes an immediate and deeply internal anguish, which the healthcare provider can assuage with compassion. And the death, either of oneself or of a family member, is so universally feared, that we all need help in facing it, whatever our nationality or faith. Being there during those times when life is hanging in the balance, doing whatever can be done to help, we have a chance to minister to the deepest needs of a person’s soul. I have truly been blessed to have the opportunity to work in this field.
Yet the longer we are in Nepal, the more I have come to realize that what I do impacts others much less than who I am and how I live. We often complain about the “fishbowl” living that happens here. Nepal is traditionally a very community-based society: every detail of everyone’s life is known to everyone else. It is considered normal conversation to ask what we would consider highly personal questions about income, child rearing, marriage, and personal habits. Those of us from Western countries long to be invisible in the crowd or left alone inside our houses at times, but even what we do at home is often watched, questions asked, and talked about in the community. Even more than how I treat patients and visitors at the hospital, people notice how I treat my family at home, or those who come to our door.
We talk about how all our works will be judged and rewarded at the end times (1 Corinthians 3, Revelations), but in Nepal at least, all our works are scrutinized each day, sometimes every minute of the day, by the people around us who are watching. Some are just curious at seeing a life that is different and novel, but others are looking for a different kind of life, to see if we have something worth listening to our not. Our prayer is often for our actions and words to not get in the way of someone seeing Jesus.
And what better place to show God’s love than in the family? There were four of us when we came, and we added one more while we were here. Now the children are grown and on their own. Some people might say that my family responsibilities took me away from the “real ministry” that was happening in the hospital or in the local church. But I would reply that the priority that I gave to my family, and how I treated my wife and children, especially in dealing with difficulties like discipline, illness or injury, disappointments, or failures, was a much more important ministry than anything else that happened here. Do they want to know about a God who loves them and forgives them? They will be able to believe in him when they see how we forgive each other and love each other even in our failings.
 John Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (London: Falcon, 1975), 30.