For twenty-two years, my brothers I spent at least one or two weeks every year rafting or running various rivers in the Midwest and the West. I grew up on the edge of the Ozarks in Missouri, canoeing down the Jack’s Fork, the Current, the Meramec, the Eleven Point, the North Fork of the White and many other pristine rivers.
As we moved from canoeing to rafting, we became intimately familiar with the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Main Salmon, the Green River, Westwater Canyon of the Colorado, the North Fork of the Payette and many other spectacular rivers. I have seen some of the most beautiful mornings that could be imagined. I have seen the light filter through 3000 foot canyon walls and touch a tiny sagebrush flower. I have floated past bear, moose, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep. I have seen the sun rimmed on the towering monolith cliffs of the Gates of Ladore. I have loved the peaceful feeling of floating down a river through a wilderness place, watching all the wonders on both sides of the river.
One particular year, we drew a permit on the Selway River in the northern Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho. This was a river we had wanted to run for some years. It flows through some of the most beautiful country in the northwest. It cuts its way through steep canyons and ancient virgin cedar and cyprus forests. The river was a little high when we got there, but still within the generally accepted run-able stages of flow. It was the end of May and the rains were still coming down but judging from the forecasts and the patterns it appeared we would still be okay to make the hundred-twenty-mile run.
On day four of the trip, we ran into some problems. There seemed to be an ominous feeling in my heart from the moment I woke up that Friday morning. Even our breakfast prayers gave me some foreboding feelings. “And bless us that we can all arrive at our destinations in safety,” my friend Steve Myers said. I hated the use of the plural “destinations.” It struck a dissonant chord in my soul. “Why did he say ‘destinations’?” I thought. Sixteen of us launched into the river on schedule but by noon there were troubles.
As we rounded the corner before the biggest and most dangerous of all sections of the river, Ladle Rapid, one by one we pulled over to the right shore to tie the rafts and scout this treacherous course from the cliffs high above. We always scouted the more difficult rapids. We always had a plan before we shot into these breathtaking, narrow and challenging parts of the canyons.
Within moments of my jumping out of the bow of the boat and signaling to the others to pull off the river for our scouting, I heard the frightening call of “help!” You never want to hear that word because we never use it except when we are serious. I heard it again, with a muffled sound of fear. I skirted up over the ledge to get a view and to my horror my oldest brother’s boat had flipped and he was holding on to the rope trying to pull in this massive cat-a-raft which held most of our gear and all our food. Unless he let go of the rope he would be pulled into Ladle Rapid by the uncontrollable upside-down boat. He had to let go so he could swim to shore before he would be sucked into the raging rapids. Life lines were thrown to him but he could not hold on to the boat line and the life line. It was not humanly possible. At the moment the large raft hit the faster water he released his grasp and with help made it to shore completely exhausted from the 39-40 degree water.
Immediately all our scouting plans were scrapped as two of our boats and one kayak had to immediately launch into the rapids, unprepared, to give chase to the cat-a-raft. The holes and waves were bigger than we had supposed. Over and over again we were pelted by the icy waves which went over our boat, taking our breath away as they slapped us squarely in the face over and over again. We maneuvered and muscled and prayed our way through hole after hole, wave after wave, going around boulder after boulder. As we came to the one deep area of the canyon there was a slight letting up of the swiftness of the river, and though our boat was nearly filled with water, the self-bailing floor of the boat started to work and we were able to get a little speed and get close enough to the cat-a-raft to get a rope around one part of it and then with every remaining ounce of strength we heaved and pulled and worked our way to the left shore. We were completely exhausted. Our muscles were burning and shaking from the strain and yet we had to ready ourselves for rescue for the other boats that were yet to come through from our group.
We set up our ropes and had our team ready. I had felt all the way through Ladle that the waves were too big for my other brother’s boat to make it safely through the canyon. His boat was 14 feet 6 inches and though it had the big 24 inch tubes I still was extremely concerned. I said to my other friends as we readied for rescue, “Kirk’s not going to make it. Those waves are just too big for his boat.” My heart was pounding. As I set myself up on lookout I could not stop praying out loud, “Please, Heavenly Father, watch over my brother Kirk. Help him make it through this canyon. Please Heavenly Father, please help him make it. Please.”
I could see about 400 yards up river. I watched for his blue and yellow boat. The pressure was so great. I strained to watch for any movement coming around the corner of the river. My job would be to yell the commands to the rescue team below me. I continued to pray and plead with the Lord that safety would be granted. I watched and watched.
The moment came–there was his boat. I strained to see if all three people were in the boat and safe. I could see water splashing out of the boat. “Yes, they’re bailing the boat. They’re safe, they’re all there.” But as the boat moved out of the bright light I was looking into, in horror I saw that the boat was empty. Not one of the passengers was in the boat! The boat was slamming helplessly into boulder after boulder, splashing and churning about the rapids. “Ready for rescue,” I cried with fear in my voice. “Kirk’s boat is empty!”
I began to pray with every fiber of my being that Kirk and the others would be safe. I watched as pieces of equipment started floating by. There was an oar. There was a cooler. There was a river bag. There was Kirk’s life jacket floating in the water. Seconds later one of the men cried out, “There’s a body in the water.” No! It can’t be. I screamed at the top of my lunges “NOOOO!”
It was my brother. The life jacket I had seen was still securely around his body. Perhaps my eyes would not reveal to me the full scene before me. He had been thrown from the boat in the middle of Ladle. As he had been caught under the boat his neck had been broken and he had drowned. The other two were able to swim to safety. I cried out again and again. I pled with the Lord. “Please hear my prayers, dear Father. Let him be resuscitated. Please let him live.” I began a prayer that would last for 17 hours without ceasing. His body continued to float lifelessly down the river. One raft and one kayak quickly put in the river in pursuit. It took more than a mile to catch up with the body, finally getting it up to shore. For 45 minutes three men tried CPR but to no avail. As one of my friends said, who did not know much about the Church, and had been involved in the CPR, “We tried so hard for so long, but the life force was gone.” Why weren’t my prayers being answered? Where was God at that moment? I was devastated.
The Brother and Two Sisters of Ancient Bethany
In ancient times, there was a closely-knit family who lived in the small village of Bethany, including a brother named Lazarus and two sisters named Mary and Martha. Their very best friend was the Lord Jesus Christ. Whenever Jesus was in town, he stayed in their home. He had been through much with them and they had ever been there to support him in his ministry.
On one occasion Lazarus became very ill, so ill that it was clear the sisters needed to send for their friend Jesus to come and heal him. They knew full well if Jesus would come, Lazarus would be fine. They sent their message:
“Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.” (John 11:3)
Jesus received the message. John recorded this insight about their relationship: “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” (John 11:5)
But, instead of coming in haste, Jesus stayed two more days in the place where he had been teaching and ministering. In the mean time, though Mary and Martha were praying with all of their hearts that Jesus would come, Lazarus grew sicker and sicker and finally died. The sisters were devastated. Their hearts were broken. Why had the Lord not responded to the message? Why was he not there for them? Why had their prayers not been answered? In fact, by the time Jesus did come to Bethany, Lazarus has already been buried, having been dead for four days.
Now, Mary and Martha had been surrounded by their other friends and by the traditional minstrels and mourners who cried and wailed at the passing of a fellow Jew.
“Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house.” (John 11: 20)
Picture this scene–Martha knew that her friend Jesus was the literal Son of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One. She was filled with emotion. There is something about suffering a tremendous loss and trying to stay composed but then you see someone who really cares about you and loves you, it is as if you are free to let your emotions show.
“Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” (John 11:21)
I can personally relate to her feelings.
Jesus said unto this grieving sister: “Thy brother shall rise again.
“Martha said unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
“Jesus said unto her, I AM the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
“And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believeth thou this?
“She saith unto him, Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.
“And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee.” (John 11: 23-28)
So, picture this scene. Martha has met with the Lord. Now she has told her sister to come. She comes quickly, so quickly that all the mourners follow her, thinking she is going back to the grave to grieve.
Mary sees Jesus, falls down at his feet and says to him:
“Lord, if thou hadst been here my brother had not died.” (John 11: 32)
When Jesus saw Mary and felt of her sorrow, and Martha’s sorrow and now all the Jews also came and were weeping around about he was filled with compassion.
“Jesus wept.” (John 11: 35)
He then went forth to the tomb and had them roll away the stone that sealed the chamber. Martha was concerned about this, saying, “Lord by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” (John 11: 39)
You see the Jews believed that by four days the spirit had left the body and was irretrievably lost. Now, many were gathered around the entrance to the tomb.
“Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always…
“And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.”
And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.” (John 11: 41-44)
And so the Lord Jesus Christ says to all upon whom death takes a hold: “Loose him, and let him go.”
The Atonement of Jesus Christ
And how is this done? How is it that I can know beyond any doubt that my brother Kirk did arrive safely to his destination that day on the river? Because I do know that. I know. And Mary and Martha not only saw their brother rise from the dead as a type and a likeness of the Lord himself who soon would die and rise again, but later, when Lazarus died again, these siblings all had a perfect hope of the resurrection and the atonement of their friend, Jesus Christ.
You see, the Atonement of Jesus Christ is our greatest hope.
My dear readers of Meridian, as Elder John M. Madsen of the Seventy once told me, “The atonement is not a part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ–it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
It is the atonement that everything in the kingdom revolves around.
It is the atonement upon which all the ordinances of the Temple center.
It is the atonement that brings us together at the table of sacrifice or sacrament each week.
It is the atonement of Jesus Christ that binds a husband and wife together at the altar of the temple.
It is the healing oil of the atonement we use in anointing and blessing the sick.
It is the atonement that is the central message of the scriptures.
It is the atonement that our missionaries preach to all nations, kindreds, tongues and people.
It is the atonement of Jesus Christ and our knowledge of it that gives us such great hope in these tumultuous and perilous times.
It is the atonement that saved my brother that day on the Selway River.
It is the atonement that would later raise Lazarus from the dead and give him eternal life.
This is why I rejoice at Christmas. Though I be separated from this person most precious to me – the best friend of my youth, especially at this family time of year – I have been given that peace which surpasseth all understanding. I know by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus Christ – the babe of Bethlehem, the Messiah of Calvary, the Christ who burst the Garden Tomb – makes my hope and my joy possible. I rejoice in this. I bask in this light and in this hope. I glory in the message of glad tidings at this time of year – that He lives; that He loves us; that He has broken the bands of death for all mankind and that He died for those who will turn to Him with all their souls.
And though we all suffer our losses in this life, like my brother Kirk, or like the beloved sisters of Bethany suffered the loss of their brother Lazarus, our greatest hope, yes, our only hope is in the atonement of Jesus Christ. In this we truly can rejoice.