Attending the memorial service last week for a notable missionary doctor raised the question again in my mind: Are we inadvertently doing things these days to make such bigger-than-life people a vanishing breed or an endangered species?
David Seel was one of those people who prompted onlookers to ask in amazement why God sometimes seems to invest such a disproportionate number of his gifts in just one person. David Seel was a skilled and always inquisitive cancer surgeon-and if all he had done were to devote 37 years of his life to giving medical care at Jesus Hospital (Presbyterian Medical Center) in Chonju, South Korea, it would still be a hard record to match.
But to that legacy he added his administrative skills. For 19 years, he was the director of the center, and led in the construction of a new 600-bed hospital. He was relentless in doing his own medical research and in training new Korean doctors, many of whom now practice all over the world, where he encouraged them to go as missionaries of the Korean church.
"He focused totally on the patient, listened to their every word," said Megan Ritchie, who as a novice missionary in the early 1970s observed Dr. Seel working with some of Korea's poorest people. "He was compassionate. Gentle. I felt like I was watching the hands of Christ in action."
But even that wasn't enough. He played the violin. He painted. He wrote books, including Does My Father Know I'm Hurt? and Scalpel of Truth, still to be published. He was an elder in his church. He was married for 56 years to the same woman, and he and his wife Mary have three grown children. He occasionally enjoyed an all-night game of Rook. Even in his retirement, he would call me now and then, or stop by my office, to point out some significant development in medicine or science, in Far East politics, or in church life.
When David Seel died at the age of 79 a few days before Thanksgiving, half a dozen of his South Korean colleagues and friends boarded planes in Seoul to fly halfway around the world just to greet the Seel family and to signal their esteem.
So I ask myself now: Will we always be celebrating a few such remarkable lives? Or are we doing things that might shrivel the list of just a few to virtually none at all?
Two issues come to mind-both quite worthy in themselves-that may be trimming an already short roster of giants.
The first is the growth in biblical worldview thinking. Contradictory though it may seem, and valuable as such thinking is, a solid Christian worldview may be taking a toll on several fronts. For every time you tell a young person that he or she can serve the kingdom of Christ just as validly as a stateside physician, you send a quiet message that a missionary commitment may not be necessary.
This effect isn't to be found, of course, only in the medical profession. My father was a pastor, and among his eight children were five sons. But not a single one of us followed him into the ministry-and I think one of the reasons was the thoroughness with which Dad and Mom taught us that we could serve God faithfully in absolutely any vocation. I will always thank God for that thoroughness, and at the very same time also wonder what it cost us.
A second issue is the explosion over the last generation in short-term missionary activity. One missionary doctor worried to me several years ago that too many people he knew were being "inoculated" against lifetime missionary service-and that the inoculations were coming in the form of two weeks here and three weeks there of totally laudable short-term service. "I know everybody means it for good," he said, "but the net effect is anything but helpful." (Other missionary executives I know who have studied this issue tend to disagree.)
High-speed, low-cost travel has added to the phenomenon. Missionaries used to have dramatic send-offs, signaling to everyone the significant commitment and investment by those involved. When you were on a ship for 28 days just to get to the field, you weren't likely to hurry home just to straighten out a few administrative issues. You tended to stay put.
Or maybe those aren't the real issues anyway. The thing that really drove David Seel, and other stalwarts like him, was a love for Jesus Christ that eclipsed everything else in his life. Maybe, with all our other advances, we've just forgotten how to build that passion into the hearts of some gifted and promising giants.