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5 YEARS AGO: Anesthetized pastor spoke hope in the operating room

RICHMOND, Va., (BP)—Pastor Mark Becton’s skin cancer surgery five years ago continues to touch lives — not medically, but spiritually.

Becton, pastor of Grove Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., underwent surgery in August 2006 to remove the skin cancer and — while unconscious from general anesthesia — quoted Scripture and spoke words of encouragement heard by three medical professionals in the operating room.

Anesthesiologist Gail Heppner heard Becton and thought he wasn’t completely sedated, so she upped his dosage. But Becton continued. When Heppner turned down the volume of monitors and the music playing in background, Becton’s words became clearer to her.

“He is not only talking, he is completely articulate, clear as a bell,” Heppner said. “As I listened, I felt this is not a man preaching, this is not a man in prayer, this is the Holy Spirit.”

Heppner recounted what happened during the pastor’s surgery during both of Grove Avenue’s Sunday morning worship services on Sept. 10, 2006, which were televised locally and via satellite. More than 2,000 requests for DVD copies of the service have been requested from around the world.

“I know there are Christians in the room in pain. Some feel empty and used up, guilty because they feel they have nothing left to give God,” Heppner said, recalling Becton’s words five years ago.

Becton’s words shocked nurse Carol Miller, who also addressed the Grove Avenue congregation during the September 2006 service.

A week before the surgery, Miller had voiced the same words to Heppner — that she felt “empty, used up and guilty” because she had nothing left to give to God.

Miller noted her suspicion at how Becton knew the words she had spoken to Heppner a week earlier. “Dr. Becton didn’t know me,” she told the Grove Avenue congregation. “Where did he hear that from?”

Equally stunned was Heppner, who had asked two others to pray for Miller. “At that point, the scientist in me was gone,” Heppner said, noting that she “nearly burst into tears” over what her patient had spoken.

Miller said her reaction in the operating room became, “Okay, I’m listening, I’m listening.”

“I was so filled with pain, this agonizing, grief-stricken pain, this weight of the world in my heart,” said Miller, whose husband died on Christmas night in 2001 and whose daughter died a year later. “My heart was dried up and empty. That’s the way I felt. … I came to work every day and smiled. I went to church and prayed about it. But when Dr. Becton started speaking, you could feel the Holy Spirit in that room. Jesus came to work that day to take the burdens from my heart.”

“Carol, let me have it, all your hurt and pain, just give it up,” Becton said to her while completely sedated during the surgery.

“And that’s what I did,” Miller said.

“We put Dr. Becton to sleep, and everything went as normal,” said surgeon Burton Sundin, the third medical professional who was impacted by Becton’s words in the operating room five years ago. “We were waiting for the pathology to come back on his specimen, and the Holy Spirit spoke through him. He began to say things — the Holy Spirit began to say things — through Dr. Becton to me.”

Sundin recounted Becton’s words: “Dr. Sundin, you were delivered to me specifically to be my surgeon. And God has great plans for you and your life. And he has given you many gifts. They are His gifts, and He wants to use them through you, for Him. He has chosen you specifically to be His servant. … God hears your prayers. He is near.”

Sundin had prayed before Becton’s surgery for relief from job-related feelings of burnout and despair. “Disease seemed to be winning its battle against me. Patients were unhappy and my life was in a total turmoil. I was dealing with the day-to-day toil and turmoil of being a young surgeon and trying to get my practice going,” Sundin said. “The day before Dr. Becton’s surgery, I left late with work on my desk piled to the ceiling. I was broken and I was seeking God even though I’ve always been a Christian.

“Some people will say it was the drugs talking or it just happened,” Sundin said. “But it lifted the heaviness from all of our hearts.”

Becton, in a telephone interview with Baptist Press this year, recounted that the former president of the International Mission Board, Jerry Rankin, attended Grove Avenue that September 2006 Sunday and later called to advise him.

“Dr. Rankin said he was ‘in awe in of what God had done,'” Becton recalled. “And he warned me of two things. One was that those of us who were involved in the event would go through spiritual attacks, and that Satan would try to discredit the story.

“The other was to make sure the experience didn’t become the only story of my life,” said Becton, who has spoken about the occurrence only twice publicly since.

Months afterward, Becton related the experience at a pastor’s request where he was preaching in a revival. A church member, who’d prayed for years regarding her husband’s salvation, saw her spouse give his life to Christ after hearing Becton’s account.

Other spiritual results were immediate, and others ongoing. More than 50 family members of the medical professionals involved in Becton’s surgery attended Grove Avenue to hear the account. After each service, about three-fourths of people in attendance came forward to pray and to recommit their lives to Christ, he added.

Becton said what God did spread through the medical community in neighboring cities as the account was a front-page story in the Richmond Times Dispatch five years ago.

Becton considers himself an unlikely candidate for what God did in the operating room, and that’s okay with the mild-mannered pastor. He also thinks “it’s unlikely that this would come from our church, which has a great reputation of proclaiming conservative biblical truth. For this to happen here would be unexpected.”

Not sure of all the reasons why God did what He did, Becton said members at Grove Avenue have a renewed passion for sharing the Gospel and the love of Christ at home and abroad. That’s due, in part, he said, to another message he got and enunciated during the surgery: “Time is short, and many must come,” Becton recounted.

In the ensuing five years, Grove Avenue members’ efforts in discipleship, missions and ministry have grown appreciably. A church missions program that already had seen 700 people come to Christ helped plant eight churches.

Local ministry is expanding as some schools now request Grove Avenue’s assistance with fall festivals, helping the church reach the world in Richmond as some 27 foreign languages are spoken in the various homes of local school children.

Becton added that some Grove Avenue members who are now prayerwalking in Richmond have met people from other churches on the street doing the same.

“We’re having a hard time keeping up with what God is doing in the lives of our members,” Becton said. “We have a sense that God is doing things deeper than I could see or records could show.”

Becton said every retelling of the story, whether public or private, elicits responses smiles and even tears of amazement. “For those who have a relationship with Christ, their faith is stirred. And for those who don’t, there’s a sense of awe.”
This article includes excerpts from stories by Shawn Hendricks, a writer in Richmond, Va., and Alberta Lindsey, a writer for the Richmond Times Dispatch.

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  • Norm Miller