Thomas A. Lambie

A Doctor Without a Country

Matthew 10:7, 8

It is interesting how a seemingly insignificant incident can play a major role in the ministry of a servant of God. Early in the 1920s, Dr. Tom Lambie, with wife and party, were trekking by mule train from the south of Ethiopia toward Addis Ababa through dangerous territory ruled by local warlords and robber bands. Wakened one night, they were confronted with a large band of heavily armed men. Their chieftain was in great distress. An insect had gotten into his ear, and he was sure it would kill him. Dr. Lambie was able to remove the offending beetle, much to the relief of the chieftain who was certain that had it not been removed, it would have bored right through his head causing death.

This chieftain became Lambie's escort to Addis Ababa, where he introduced him to his cousin Ras Tafrai, regent to the empress who later took the title of Haile Salassie, the emperor of Ethiopia. Lambie became a friend and confidant of the emperor. So it was that a small rhinoceros beetle helped open Ethiopia to the Gospel.

Lambie (a devout Presbyterian) went out to Africa under the United Presbyterian Mission Board to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1907. In passing through Alexandria, Egypt, he met a lovely, young, single lady missionary, Charlotte Claney, whom he married a few years later. His first station was far up on the White Nile. Later, after he was married, he had a clinic in Khartoum and was quite content with the ministry there.

Reluctantly, he accepted the challenge of a new station far up the Sobat, a tributary of the Nile with headwaters in Ethiopia. Here he labored under very difficult circumstances for a number of years and learned some very valuable lessons both in regard to the medical work and to church planting. He said "I have always felt that for the missionary doctor, prayer is at least equal in importance to sterile instruments. Prayer is no substitute for shoddy work, but I would as soon operate without prayer as I would without boiling my instruments or putting on rubber gloves."

It also became apparent that "There are always missionaries ready to go to places like Cairo, Jerusalem, or Bombay, or other world cities where life is cosmopolitan and one can enjoy the benefits of civilization while living in a foreign land. To spend one's life in some obscure part of the globe, away from the beaten track and far from the amenities of life, is another matter and demands a more rugged brand of Christianity and a more self-sacrificing spirit . . . The fact remains that the more remote the field the less enthusiasm there seems to be for going and living there."

He saw the importance of not pauperizing the natives; so fees were charged for the medical work, even if it was a goat or grain from their fields. When it came to church buildings, he learned that "A simple building erected by the converts themselves is ten times better than an exotic structure erected for them with funds sent from England or America."

While on the Sobat, relatively close to the Ethiopian border, he felt the call of God to evangelize that great closed country. He settled just inside the "back door" of Ethiopia for a few years and then pressed on to Addis. Because the Presbyterian mission of which he was still a part was not ready to extend into Ethiopia, he resigned. In 1927 he formed the Abyssinian Frontier Mission that soon became a part of the Sudan Interior Mission. The work grew rapidly, but the Italian invasion loomed large on the horizon.

In 1934 he gave up his U.S. citizenship and took on an Ethiopian citizenship in order to better represent the mission and to head up the Ethiopian Red Cross. The Italian forces finally took over the country in 1937, forcing all of the missionaries to leave; and the emperor fled to England. After a lot of international talk but very little action, the British began to rid Ethiopia of the Italians with their forces from the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. In the early 1940s, the emperor was able to return. Along with him was the return of the missionaries.

The years of privation and constant travel under very difficult circumstances led to severe health problems necessitating his return to the U.S. Though it had never happened before and has never happened since, through a special act of Congress, his U.S. citizenship was reinstated.

Some years later, his health was somewhat restored, but his beloved Charlotte had passed away. Another place, people, and ministry were laid upon his heart-the Bedouins of Jordan. Under the auspices of the Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions, he built the Beracah Sanitarium on the West Bank, halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron. It was a facility to treat patients with tuberculosis, a ministry that was greatly appreciated by the Jordanian monarchy.

For a number of years Dr. Lambie had been the invited preacher for the sunrise service held on Easter Sunday at the Garden Tomb just outside Jerusalem. On Good Friday in 1954, Dr. Lambie went to the Garden to meditate upon the message he would bring the following Resurrection Sunday morning, and there he died of a heart attack.

Dr. Lambie was a remarkable man in many regards. One of the things that he valued greatly was the aesthetic appearance of the facilities that he developed over the years, and the Baraka Sanitorium was no exception. He had many flowering plants and trees planted on the property. His gardener was a Muslim Palestinian Arab, and Dr. Lambie frequently witnessed to this Muslim man concerning salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ. The man listened attentively but had never made any profession of faith. One day the gardener was standing on a plank over the well from which he obtained water to water all the trees, shrubs, and plants on the compound. As he was drawing water from the well, which was about 60- to 70-feet deep, the plank on which he was standing broke, and he fell into the well. Between the time he began to fall and the time he hit the water many feet below, he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. It was jokingly reported that this man was the first Presbyterian baptized by immersion. The story was told to me many years later, after Dr. Lambie had gone to be with the Lord, but the gardener was still employed at the hospital. This man had been a faithful true believer from that incident to the time that I met him years later. Although he did not understand English, he knew his testimony was being related to me, and he stood there with a broad smile. Through interpretation he testified to the fact that he, from that moment to the time of our conversation, had put his trust and confidence in the shed blood of Jesus Christ for cleansing and for salvation.

I close with one last quote from Dr. Lambie: "To say one does not believe in missions to the heathen is practically equal to saying that one does not believe in Jesus Christ. If we believe on Him, we must believe in His words. Otherwise, we make Him a liar and unworthy of our faith. To be unwilling to go oneself, or to send our loved ones, or to minister to the needs of those who go is certainly not to have the mind of Christ."

 

JAD  5/22/00