By Joe Westbury
CUMMING (BP) — Jim Burton sits up in his wheelchair, eyes bright with a big smile on his face as he begins to read.
With his wife Kim holding a copy of his latest novel and a microphone, he breathes life into Jake and Shannon Blue, the lead characters in “Ransomed.” It’s a book for and about millennials set in Madison, Ky. – a stand-in for his hometown of Madisonville – but spans the world through adventure and intrigue.
This isn’t Burton’s first foray into writing. He has been a professional storyteller for 43 years, first as a photojournalist for newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News. Later he served as an author and editor of publications targeted to laity at the former Baptist Brotherhood Commission and then the North American Mission Board.
Even now, ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, isn’t keeping him from writing.
After Burton was caught in a series of downsizings at the mission board, he launched into contract writing and selling insurance to support his family. He also served as bivocational pastor of the English-speaking ministry at Sugarloaf Korean Baptist Church.
Barely two years after losing his job, his life took a drastic turn with a diagnosis of ALS. In short order he wrote “Life in the Blue Zone,” a first-person account of his battle with ALS and Kim’s battle with breast cancer — “blue” being the color of handicapped parking spaces.
Burton continued to struggle with employment options virtually nonexistent for someone in his late 50s. He eventually became well known to readers of The Christian Index as a freelance writer. He traveled the state in his wheelchair and specially equipped van, interviewing and photographing subjects and telling their story of how gifts through Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program were making a difference in the Kingdom.
It was during this transition from a salaried career to living with ALS that the soft-spoken Kentuckian took up the challenge of writing novels, refusing to step aside from his calling as a storyteller and directing his talent to reaching out to millennials who, he sensed, were searching for spiritual direction and a sense of purpose.
In creating Jake and Shannon Blue as main characters for what became a four-part series, Burton wanted “younger readers to see a successful millennial couple who were also committed to their faith.”
When he could no longer type, he learned how to dictate entire books, phrase by phrase, chapter by chapter, using voice recognition software with Kim’s help.
He wrote two published books in the Jake and Shannon Blue series – “The Salt Covenant” and the recently released “Ransomed” – and has completed two others in the series, “Redeemed” and “Adoption.”
A fifth book he recently completed, also a novel, will deal with workplace violence.
The books tackle contemporary issues such as terrorism, kidnapping, and sex trafficking, yet with an evangelistic undercurrent. Themes of humankind’s fallen nature, forgiveness, and redemption echo through each book.
“My goal was for each to be a good two- or three-day read. And I wanted each to have a real message that could reflect everyday issues readers are facing,” Burton says.
“Having been a photojournalist for four newspapers I have met some fascinating characters and drew from those encounters. Character development is what makes a good book, and there are no better examples than people who already surround you,” he says with a smile.
Burton credits Bill Bangham as one of his mentors who brought him to where he is today.
“Meeting Bill was one of the pivotal moments in my career when I joined the Baptist Brotherhood Commission. He was a very talented writer … and remains so today … and mentored me in writing as I mentored him in photography. We both benefited from the relationship.”
Bangham eventually established himself as a writer and photographer at the former Home Mission Board (now NAMB) and the International Mission Board, and he and Burton have maintained their friendship through the years.
Burton and his wife recently hosted a book signing at the skilled nursing center where he now lives. Entertaining questions about how he writes brought him to one of his greatest regrets of the illness.
“One of the things I miss the most is not being able to hold my Bible and turn the pages, reading from my favorite passages. But Kim has been a blessing and a patient helpmate to me as we encounter each new adventure in this joint experience.”
His legacy will be the books which will continue to speak words of hope and redemption for generations to come. Thinking back on his illness, Burton does not mince words about living with ALS.
“People ask me if I am mad at God for contracting this disease. I say absolutely not because anger leads to bitterness and there is no healing from bitterness.
“I admit that I am sad because I have grandchildren who were not even conceived when I was diagnosed. I am sad because I cannot lay around on the floor and play with them, but I do work for quality time with them. They are the joy of my life.”
Perhaps most important, he says he does not want to be remembered only as that guy with ALS.
“I decided very early on that I did not want this to define me. I still don’t; above all else I want to be remembered as a disciple of Christ and a father and husband with a family that I adore. I was blessed with a career that challenged me and gave me a purpose in life through a strong sense of divine calling.”
Burton says he believes in miracles of all kinds and is a living testimony that they exist. Most individuals survive only three to five years with the illness but he recently marked his seventh year. He remains a curiosity to his doctors.
“I am not afraid of heaven,” he says matter-of-factly. “There are unknowns, for sure, but the reality of heaven overshadows any questions that remain unanswered.
“Scripture tells us enough about the afterlife so believers can have confidence about their destiny. It says we will claim our true citizenship and get new, disease-free bodies.
“And I’m looking forward to that.”
Joe Westbury of Atlanta served as a Southern Baptist career journalist for 42 years, covering the story of missionaries around the world and throughout North America.