Monday, September 30, 2013

To the Rescue

Yesterday our Sunday School lesson focused on the experiences of some early Mormon pioneers, specifically, the Willie & Martin handcart companies. When the Mormons were migrating to the Great Salt Lake Valley, there was a point where handcarts were used instead of the usual oxen, horses, and mules. Handcarts could be produced at a much lower cost, were lighter and faster to transport, and helped facilitate the journey for thousands of Latter-Day Saints.

Many companies of handcart saints made the trip uneventfully.

Then the Willie & Martin companies came along and a series of mistakes, poor timing, and accidents set in motion catastrophic events (see more here:"
Early snows came and hundreds of saints were stranded across Wyoming, unprepared for the weather and extremely low on supplies. A  few church members returning from a scouting trip came across the struggling, dying saints and rushed to bring word to Salt Lake City of the desperate straits. Upon hearing of conditions, Mormon church president Brigham Young dismissed a general church conference scheduled for the next day, saying that the only text and the core of their religion was to get their brothers and sisters home.

Those early settlers in the Salt Lake valley had only been there for a couple of years. The previous summer had been one of drought, and people were ill-prepared to survive the winter, let alone receive hundreds of starving, destitute immigrants. Yet they brought out their own reserves of food, gave up their own horses and wagons, packed up blankets from their own bed, and then sent husbands, sons, and brothers out to rescue their fellow saints.

To say that it was not an easy rescue is to dramatically understate the case. Conditions were so severe that many of the rescuers died from complications of exposure, as they battled blizzards and blinding wind, and crossed freezing rivers over and over again, carrying weakened pioneers on their backs.

Before reaching the safety of Salt Lake City, more than two hundred people died, most of them on the frozen plains of Wyoming. While the suffering was extreme, so was the heroism, and that compassion, bravery, and unselfish love for fellow man is what we remember and venerate of the Willie & Martin handcart companies.

As we reviewed the stories that came from these experiences, one thought jammed itself in my brain and won't let go.

For many years after--and continuing through to today, really--folks hotly debated who was at fault for the suffering and death that came to these unfortunate companies. Many people were deeply critical of church leadership, at every level, for allowing so many errors to be made. Some or all of that criticism may be merited; I don't know. Determining blame isn't the point of this post.

The thing that struck me is that in all the written records, we don't see the names of the rescuers among the names of the criticizers. Conversely, we don't see the names of the criticizers among the names of the rescuers.

I can't help but think there is something here worth noting.

Mother Theresa is credited with saying that if you judge people, you have no time to love them. I've been on the receiving end of that kind of love many, many times, because I happen to have a life filled with gracious and loving people. I've verified the truth of the statement over and over again, too, as I take fumbling steps to follow the example of these good people and step beyond judging into loving. It's a kind of miraculous thing, when loving takes root in your heart and the judging glasses just fall right off.

The rescuer-Saints could have rationalized, and they would have been completely, perfectly correct. "It's not our fault that they started so late in the season. That was just stupid!" "Our first responsibility is to care for ourselves. We can't jeopardize our own children to go save someone else's." "Um, everybody knows that you don't cross Wyoming in a handcart in October, and if you're dumb enough to try, you deserve what you get."

What a gift, what a blessing, that they looked beyond and just saw people hurting and in need of rescue.

The thing is, we all--and I mean ALL--do stupid things. We all put ourselves in danger. We all screw up royally. We all suffer from poor choices of others, and hurt from actions that are not our own. We all fall short of grace, and we all desperately need rescue.

In one of the most beautiful paradoxes of this human experience, we also all get to help rescue each other.

Or, we can stand on the sidelines and point out the mistakes. We can take cheap shots at the leaders. We can tell the struggling rescuers how they could do it better or why the rescue isn't worth it. We can step away in smug self-assurance that this rescue was undeserving of our effort.

Meanwhile, people are freezing to death in the cold hell of addiction, poverty, war, violence, disease, and hunger. Millions of children are languishing in orphanages or living on the streets. Just last week a little girl in my son's orphanage died while she waited for medical care that never came, and a family that never claimed her. Millions of people a continent away are dying of famine and disease, and it doesn't even make headlines in the U.S. because they don't look like us.

Just like for the handcart pioneers, these are issues of life and death, and our rescue efforts have long-term, even eternal, consequences.

We all make our own choices. I'm not advocating for renouncing our first world lifestyle and heading out to a life of humanitarian service abroad--though I love and honor those who are called to that work. I'm posing the question, to myself as much as to anyone else: am I criticizing or am I rescuing? Am I saying "this man hath brought upon himself his misery" or am I rushing to the aid of a fellow traveler?

What rescue means and looks like is different for every single one of us. Rescue means inviting widows living alone to have Sunday dinner with your family. Rescue means writing out a check, even if it's a very small one, to an organization that supports efforts you believe in. Rescue means smiling at the harried mom in the checkout counter and making silly faces at her screaming baby so he'll stare at you instead. Rescue means listening to a suffering friend on the phone when you really needed an early night. Rescue means acknowledging and bearing witness to the images of death and violence that flood the news, instead of shutting our eyes and hearts. Rescue means taking a moment to say a prayer for the victims. Rescue means gathering up food for the food bank, even if all you can spare is two cans. Rescue means refraining from making snide comments about lazy people on welfare because you don't know if the people who hear you might be struggling to stay off the streets, and desperately need to validated for their efforts to keep their family fed and housed in spite of repeated job losses and illness and cycles of poverty. Rescue means inviting the weird kid to sit next to you on the bus. Rescue means forgiving your friend for mean things she said on the playground when she was trying hard to look cool. Rescue means listening to your daughter read her book report aloud one-more-fricking-time-even-though-your-head-might-explode, because she's worried that her teacher won't understand it and needs to be assured that it makes sense.

Only God can direct where your rescue efforts are most needed. Once you know, though, nothing else matters. The lovely thing about Godly, passionate rescue is the criticizers on the sidelines become nothing. You can't hear the shouting voices of the naysayers when you are battling the fierce winds to reach a suffering soul.

Really, I suppose this post is an invitation. Come, join me in the trenches. We have so much work to do.

1 comment:

Jen said...

I'm loving this post! It expresses so much how I've been feeling lately, that I need to be helping more people more of the time. I hope I can figure out how to make it happen.