Rescuing the Perishing

Fanny Crosby wrote more than 9,000 hymns in her lifetime. Blinded at an early age by the negligence of a doctor, Crosby thanked God for her disability. “If perfect sight were offered me tomorrow,” she once said, “I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”

In retrospect, however, it seems that Crosby could see quite clearly. In fact, she could see across a century to a hurting family in need. In 1869, Crosby penned a hymn that would plead the case of the Kraska family in 1992:
Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying,
Jesus is merciful,
Jesus will save.
By the grace of God, a handful of Young Life leaders heard the call and rescued the Kraska family, one drowning member at a time.
 “Our family was a sinking ship until we found the Lord through Young Life,” Jan Kraska said.
Jan was the competent captain of the ship, a successful dentist who lived with his wife, Shelley, and three kids in a two-story brick home in Greensboro, N.C. Beneath the smooth surface of their suburban lives, however, there were splintered holes in the family’s hull, and the Kraskas were taking on water at an alarming rate.
By 1992, middle child Ryan had been arrested three times and was swimming in the swirling waters of drug abuse and delinquency. Oldest child Chad was diving headfirst into the party scene at school. Youngest child Lucy was sinking into a dark pool of depression, and Shelley was long dragged down by the undertow of addiction that seemed to be swallowing her family whole. Meanwhile, Jan just went to work.
“I was pursuing happiness through being a successful dentist but was
really pretty empty,” Jan said. “I didn’t have a lot to give.”
Often in a search and rescue operation at sea, it’s difficult to recall the exact chain of events. There’s wind and waves, arms and legs, ropes and ladders and hopefully, in the end, an exhausted group of grateful people huddled together in warm blankets, just glad to be alive.
That’s the case with the Kraska family. It’s hard to say what happened when. It’s clear that Chad was rescued first and Lucy last, and it all took place in the 1990s. But the rest is ropes and ladders and Young Life leaders, moving in and out of the stormy scenes of the Kraskas’ broken lives.
Fortunately, Crosby’s hymn captures the Kraska search and rescue mission with uncanny clarity, one stanza at a time. The hymn tells the story according to character, however, not chronology, so set aside your timeline and enjoy meeting the Kraskas, verse by verse.
 Rescue the perishing,
 Care for the dying,
 Snatch them in pity,
 From sin and the grave.
Both Shelley and Lucy were standing at the intersection of death and despair when they first saw signs pointing to Jesus Christ. For Lucy, the signs were two Young Life leaders and a flock of geese.
 “I had just gotten out of the hospital for being depressed and considering suicide,” said Lucy, who was in the eighth grade at the time. “My parents were going out of town and asked leaders Ashley and Bill McCarthy to stay with us.
“I take forever to warm up to somebody. But one night we were driving to get dinner when Bill stopped the car in the middle of the street. To the right was a big field of geese. He and Ashley jumped out and just ran through this field chasing geese. I just sat and watched them. They were the coolest people I’d ever met.”
Lucy eventually gave her life to Christ at a sports camp in southern Missouri. But “Ashley was the one who led me to the Lord,” Lucy said. “She just kept pursuing me. She loved me like I’d never been loved before.”
For Shelley, the intersection of death and despair was created by her sister’s untimely death. “The circumstances of my sister’s death were horrible,” Shelley said, without elaborating. “When she died, I started drinking more and more.”
Shelley eventually admitted herself to Charter Hospital for treatment. Two retired Young Life leaders, Barb Lipe and Diane Wise, who started a Campaigners Bible study for moms, snatched Shelley up shortly after she was released from her treatment.
 “I was the only one coming for a year, but the leaders kept having it because I was coming. I went to Sam’s Wholesale Club and bought a Bible. I knew nothing and wanted to know more.”
Meanwhile, the search and rescue was well underway for her two sons.
  Tho’ they are slighting him,
 Still he is waiting,
 Waiting the penitent child
 To receive.
Crosby was writing about Jesus Christ in her hymn, not Area Director Bill Goans,* but the two were close partners in the pursuit of Chad and Ryan.
“Bill loved those guys when he had every right to give up on them,” Jan said. “He was rejected 500 times.”
“There was this goofy adult guy always coming around,” Chad said. “I always wondered what he was up to. My brother and I ran around with a pretty wild crowd, but Bill always seemed genuinely interested in all of us.”
“One time he took about 10 of us camping,” Ryan said. “We all had our pot on us. I had a water bottle full of Jim Beam. One buddy took a 12-pack of beer.  “About a half mile into the woods, one friend grabs my water bottle. Bill walked over and said, ‘Ryan, what’s in that?’ Then he took me aside and said, ‘I’m so disappointed that you felt you needed to bring alcohol on this trip.’ 

“After another half mile, my friend’s pack was killing him. He had to ’fess up and pour out his 12-pack. We hurt Bill, but he kept coming back.”
Chad eventually committed his life to Christ at Windy Gap in North Carolina the summer following his sophomore year, but Ryan was on the run.
  Plead with them earnestly,
 Plead with them gently,
 He will forgive
 If they only believe.

“One night, Ryan came to club high,” recalled Joann Goans, Bill’s wife, who was also a key player in the Kraska search and rescue. “Bill walked up to him after club, put his arm around him and said, ‘Do you know that God wants to do an awesome thing in your life?’ Ryan left club, got in the car and broke down and cried. Later he told us, ‘That was the turning point for me.’” Ryan met Christ that following summer at Frontier Ranch in Colorado.
  Down in the human heart,
 Crush’d by the tempter,
 Feelings lie buried
 That grace can restore.
Jan loved to sing as a little boy. But trusted leaders in the church stole his song at an early age. By the time he was an adult, Jan’s heart was an empty echo chamber of pain and performance — until Shelley’s Bible study leader invited Jan and Shelley to an adult weekend camp at Windy Gap in the fall of 1993.
“The worship songs and the music reminded me of being a small child in second or third grade,” Jan said. “It was really special to be able to sing and belt it out without being embarrassed. It was so emotional for me. I found myself crying, really wanting to sing to the Lord.”

  Touch’d by a loving heart,
 Waken’d by kindness,
 Chords that are broken will    
Vibrate once more.

Crosby unwittingly caught the lives of five family members in three stanzas of one song. But “Rescue the Perishing” has one last verse.
  Rescue the perishing,
 Duty demands it,
 Strength for thy labor
 The Lord will provide.
Crosby unwittingly caught the lives of five family members in three stanzas of one song. But “Rescue the Perishing” has one last verse. 

Today, Shelley is an active member of the Young Life committee in Greensboro. Lucy is a Young Life leader and is earning a degree in children’s ministry at Montreat College. Chad is pursuing a counseling degree at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Ryan has a long, colorful history of leading friends to Christ and is married to a dedicated Christian woman named Elisabeth. Ryan is also studying to be a dentist like his dad. But to be a dentist like his dad, Ryan will have to focus on prayer more than performance and service more than success.
“I pray with my employees at the beginning of each day, and sometimes we pray throughout the day about the difficult things that might be going on in life,” Jan said. “The office is not about business. It’s about serving people. We try to thank God for the talents we have and pray that we’ll be able to treat people with respect.”
The Kraska family was a sinking ship. But if tomorrow you offered them a perfect past in exchange for their corporate pain, they would not accept it. After all, they would not be living the last line of Crosby’s hymn today if they had never lived the chorus: Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
(*Bill Goans is currently pastor of Grace Community Church in Greensboro.)