Sunday, March 18, 2007

Answered Prayers: Iditarod Tales

Both the Old Testament and the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday speak about answered prayers. The Israelites receive their Promised Land. The younger son receives his inheritance. If problems arise as a result of these answered prayers, most people say that it is because the people praying them did not think things through enough before they asked, that they did not fully weigh the consequences of their gift. Rarely does anyone question the prayers themselves.

At Redeemer, we have been praying for two young people battling malignant, terminal diseases. One was to have his life support removed Sunday at noon. In the case of the other, a girl hanging on to life with a mere 5% chance of survival, the grief and anguish was so great, that a nationwide request went out, pleading for a miracle. Let my daughter live! Let her fall in love and have a child. Let her watch the flowers grow and the leaves turn. Don't take a life that has not yet been fully lived. Tears welled up in my eyes as I prayed, for I spent last summer watching two people very dear to me waste away from cancer, one of them refusing to take no for an answer until the very end. Why does God seem to answer some prayers and not others? Is death, even for a young person, the worst evil?

If God often feels silent, I will not rush in with words. Prayers are not answered with platitudes. I can only tell you two stories. They both happened on this year's Iditarod sled dog race.

The first story is about this year's winner, Lance Mackey. Lance is 36 years old. His father Dick won the Iditarod back in 1978. In 1983, the year I started following it, his older brother Rick came in first. Both won on their sixth try. Both wore bib 13. In 2001, in his rookie year at age 30, Lance placed 36th. That was an OK finish race wise, but shortly after that, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma on his neck. They operated and did radiation and with the support of admiring doctors, Lance hit the trail again in 2002, a feeding tube tucked under his cold weather clothes. The tube kept freezing and he was forced to scratch in Ophir, about 100 miles away from the halfway point. Despite his having to drop out, he was given the Most Inspirational Musher award at the closing banquet. He did not race again until 2004, but by then he was a true survivor. In 2005, Mackey won a second grueling sled dog race, the Yukon Quest, 1000 miles between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. He raced in the Iditarod a mere two weeks later, placing seventh. In 2006, he again won the Quest, placing 10th in the Iditarod. In 2007, he won the Quest for a third time, setting an all time speed record.

People said Lance was pursuing the impossible, to try and win two such strenuous races that happen so close together. The dogs could certainly finish both, a number of mushers do this, but to run at top speed? Impossible. But Lance had looked death in the eye and this gives a person a certain kind of courage. He believed in himself and his team. In 2007, his sixth Iditarod, he chose lucky number 13.

Now I happen to be a fan of Jeff King. Jeff grew up here in Northern California. I know him and like him alot. He is capable and kind. His wife is a skilled artist -- I have a number of her prints -- and he is the father of three wonderful daughters. He and his family project zest and they are as loyal to one another as a good pack of dogs. On Sunday, March 11, Jeff sailed into Unalakleet in first place and I shamelessly prayed in church that he would take his fifth championship. But when they interviewed him at the checkpoint, something had changed. "I very much want to win this," Jeff said. "But if I don't I hope Lance does, because it's a real magic story. And I think it would be dull as hell if one of us would win it four times, win it five times, as opposed to somebody who's not supposed to have won it who wants it that bad, who has a magical run. Ok, there's a fairy tale ending. It just doesn't involve me as much."

That as much was the key. Jeff had blessed his own run by blessing Lance. He may not have known what he gave away out there on the coast of the Bering Sea, but I've known saints. I know that kind of gift when I see it.

God remembered Jeff's blessing, and Lance Mackey's fairy tale ending came to pass. That's a picture of Lance and his lead dog "Larry." As Beth Bragg of the Anchorage Daily News wrote, "He's the Lance Armstrong of mushing, a cancer survivor who has endured as much as any athlete in headlines today." Lance triumphed over cancer and uncorked a bottle of champagne under the burled arch in Nome.

The other story takes a very different turn. A year ago December, at the age of 50, four time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher was diagnosed with Leukemia, just as, after a long absence from racing, she had started training again and wondered why she was so tired. She went into treatment and turned up without her hair at the Ruby checkpoint in 2006, signing autographs, cheering on her friends who were racing, and inspiring all of us who loved her and who had followed her career. Susan was the kind of women who made friends with everyone she met and had thousands of other friends, including me, whom she never did meet face to face. She was surrounded by prayer, hope and good wishes, when she checked into a Seattle hospital for a bone marrow transplant. She was a real candidate for survival: healthy and under 55. But Susan didn't make it. During the predawn hours of August 5th, she left us to ride with her team one last time to God's heavenly Nome. I felt her go and it felt like I had lost my sister.

As Lance was mushing to victory in Nome, another team was on a different journey. Setting out from Nenana, the place from which the original mushers set out with the serum in 1925, Susan's husband Dave Monson and their older daughter Tekla, drove the family dogs and Susan's ashes on a pilgrimage to Old Woman Cabin, a place between Kaltag and Unalakleet where the Interior begins to look toward the Bering Sea Coast, a place that Susan, who knew that coast better than any musher back in the '80's, had loved. They arrived in Kaltag right between Jeff King and Martin Buser.

Yesterday, they got to Nome. "Your mom's smiling down on you right now," someone said. Eleven year old Tekla said, "Yeah." The first one to hug them was Jeff King.