29 03 2013

Many years ago, whole communities and mostly the children would be wiped out by a dreaded disease called diphtheria! Diphtheria is a highly contagious upper respiratory tract illness and before the proper medicines were available, it was commonly known as the “strangling angel of children.” Diphtheria causes the throat to become blocked with a thick, leathery coating that makes breathing very difficult. Without treatment, death by suffocation is a likely conclusion! Today I want to revisit the story of a famous sporting event that had its origin as a race of mercy literally saving people from the brink of certain doom.

In the winter of 1925, a lone physician and four nurses in Nome, Alaska faced a crisis beyond belief! An outbreak of diphtheria was threatening to kill most of the region’s population of about 10,000 people. In December 1924, Nome doctor Curtis Welch watched as the outbreak snuck into his neighborhood disguised as cases first thought to be simple sore throats or tonsillitis. But by early January of the New Year, 2 children died of diphtheria and the impending crisis became clear. Dr. Welch ordered a mandatory quarantine, but by that time because diphtheria is so contagious it may have been a good move made just a bit too late!

What was necessary in Nome, as their only hope to curb this epidemic, was a fresh diphtheria antitoxin. On January 22, 1925, Dr. Welch began sending dozens of SOS telegrams pleading for any help to find and deliver this antitoxin. National leaders in Washington, D.C., helped to locate the closest and largest supply of the saving serum and it was uncovered in Anchorage, hundreds of miles away from Nome!  This introduced the next debilitating dilemma and that was figuring out the fastest way to get the antitoxin to Nome. There were no roads or railways available to nowhere Nome! Air service was still yet to come and ships could not reach the town because of the large amounts of sea ice around the city. The only way in was to somehow navigate dogsleds via the Iditarod Trail. This crisis made national newspaper and radio headlines all across America.

After weighing all possible solutions, Alaska’s Territorial Governor Scott Bone approved a relay of sorts transporting the remedy via train to Nenana and from there passing the torch to the 20 best mail carrier men sled dog drivers known as Mushers and their 150 noble dogs along the 674-mile Nenana-to-Nome Trek, a trip that usually took 15 to 20 days. If it took that long this time, there would be little life left to attend to when they got there! The dedicated Mushers and their pushed-to- the-limit animals traveled day and night, enduring intense blizzards and temperatures of 50 degrees below zero! Against all odd they reached Nome on February 2nd. This Great Race of Mercy was completed in a record 5 days and 7 hours which is still a record to this day.

Just 2 weeks later, after the diphtheria antitoxin was given to the infected patients, the quarantine was lifted. While at least 5 children still died during the outbreak, the collective efforts of hundreds of people to deliver the diphtheria antitoxin prevented the deaths of many others in Nome and the surrounding area. The solution to the crisis also became the founding of an event still well known today—the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The Iditarod is still held every winter although the goal is no longer a selfless sacrificial one but a self-serving money making pursuit! What was once a radical gamble to rescue those about to die has evolved into just one more profitable contest where humans race to win a personal prize of monetary means! What was once a profound statement of the willingness of others to pour it all out so that death could be averted is now another program on our athletic calendar! It is the same course but not the same conclusion! It is the exact path but a totally revised purpose! And yes it makes me wonder if our American churches haven’t wandered down a similar slippery slope!

Jesus commissioned his followers to go into all the world and take the good news that anyone of any race or color or creed can receive eternal life by knowing God and that we don’t have to die in the disease of our own sin if we would just receive his gift of forgiveness that he sacrificially won for us when he took on all that death and destruction could throw at him on the cross. We’ve got the salvation serum and it is time for us to jump on the sleigh that can slay all that stands in the way of people and God! Being a believer needs to be more about sacrifice than safety and more about compassion for others than comforting ourselves! Yet have we made going to church a higher priority than being the church? Have we made it a race for our own gain- “What can God be for me?” rather than an all-out run to bring the anecdote to remove sin’s stain- “What can I be for God?” It is time to reexamine our focus to make sure that we are motoring to the correct finish line!

I want to close with Paul’s words about a race he was running in 1 Corinthians 9:24 and following.  He passionately expresses, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” We run a race that when we willingly give it all-not only do we win- but everybody around us benefits also! We are to run not for our own gain- but to justify our Lord’s pain and do all we can to make sure that he didn’t sacrifice his one and only life in vain!





One response

29 03 2013

Good story that was new to me. Was that the message?

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