June 13, 2010

Rescue those being led away to death: hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not He who guards your life know it? Will He not repay each person according to what he has done? Proverbs 24:11 & 12

While I was at Gateway National Recreation Area recently doing research for an article, I took in the exhibit about the U.S. Life-Saving Service (USLSS). The men of the USLSS patrolled our nation’s coasts from 1871 to 1914 (after which the organization folded into the Coast Guard), continually on the lookout for ships in peril.

Life-saving stations were situated every 3-5 miles apart at various points along the shore—here on the Eastern Seaboard, they stretched from Maine to North Carolina. Sandy Hook, where Gateway is located, was one of the first stations because of its proximity to busy New York harbor and its dangerous shoals (Cape Lookout National Seashore was another USLSS site).

Four beach patrols went out every night, no matter what the weather. The surfmen, as these watchers were called, hoisted lanterns high, scanning the dark ocean for signs of trouble, their ears attuned to faint cries of distress. During the day, they drilled endlessly. As you might imagine, it was strenuous and dangerous work. In fact, the unofficial surfman motto was, “You have to go out, but you do not have to come back”.

Did these men hope and pray nothing ever happened during their watch? Possibly. Did any ever hesitate before plunging into the roiling surf on a cold, pitch-black night? Undoubtedly. It’s one thing to do your duty, quite another to realize you might lose your own life in doing so.

But I also imagine their constant drills enabled them to operate on instinct, so that it was almost second nature to hop into the boat and head out to sea in times of crisis. Their job was to rescue people. They probably got to the point where they didn’t think about what they had to do—they just did it, because that’s what they’d been trained to do.

So often we Christians forget that outside our “holy huddles” of church, Bible study and similar fellowships, there are floundering people who don’t know rescue is available. We—and you’d better believe I’m including myself here—douse our lights and close our ears to their cries. Occasionally we extend a helping hand, but wading out into the surf? That’s time-consuming, difficult and scary! In our half-hearted attempts or disregard, though, we neglect the responsibility God has given to each one of us who has “hired on” to serve Him. Standing safely on the shore and claiming ignorance doesn’t cut it either.

Rescue takes commitment. For a Christian, that means serious study of Scripture, thought and prayer. We have to ask ourselves: What’s my duty to the poor and the hurting? How do I live it out?  And how do I minister to others and still keep my own head above water, so to speak?

Martyrs are what we call people who go out in Christ’s name and lose their lives in the process. We admire them—but we sure don’t want to share their fate! Yet just as the surfmen acknowledged, the duty to go must exist side by the side with the willingness to give all, in order to effectively serve.

And then it’s practice, practice, practice!

An uncomfortable subject? You bet. I’m still considering how it specifically works out in my life. But as I watch the news, read the newspaper and move among the tide of humanity I encounter every day, I remind myself to pay attention, to look for and listen to those who could use a lifeline, who need to be introduced to the perfect Rescuer, who “delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13), the only One who’s able to bring us safely home (2 Timothy 4:18).

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