Compassion effectively counters hurricane’s chaos |

Compassion effectively counters hurricane’s chaos

Rev. Jack Van Ens

An English 19th-century lamplighter held a torch in one hand as he lit wicks at the side of a road. This street lighter could not be seen in the inky darkness covering the road he walked. The lamps he lit gleamed one by one. Author John Ruskin viewed from afar this string of lights. Nudging a friend, he observed, “That is what I mean by a real Christian. You can trace his course by the lights he leaves burning.”In the darkness caused by Hurricane Katrina, our nation questions why government on all levels was a day late and a dollar short immediately after this perfect storm smashed into the Gulf Coast. Lights dimmed because violent winds and swirling waters knocked out power stations. Finger pointing goes on regarding who missed the boat in helping poor and elderly victims evacuate their homes before Hurricane Katrina showed little mercy. Many abandoned in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast accuse government on every level of leaving them in the dark.Compassionate people in our nation have relit torches of help that the hurricane had initially doused. Rallying support and aided by government help that finally kicked in, citizens show they truly care. They volunteer for agencies like the Red Cross and funnel money into reputable missions of mercy.The Red Cross couldn’t be blessed with a better name. It puts compassion into action, just as its name suggests. Its symbol reminds us of Christ’s entering into human suffering on the cross.The Red Cross began, not in response to a natural disaster, but by healing wounds when grand armies clashed in the summer of 1859 in North Italy, near Lake Garda. Napoleon III and his forces attacked an Austrian army Francis Joseph led. At the town of Solferino, near Verona, Italy, these armies pounded each other, starting at 5:30 a.m. Mother Nature partially curtailed the carnage. Lightning strikes sizzled, and thunder growled like a grizzly bear during a humid afternoon when the battle raged. Some soldiers retreated because rain churned the battlefield into a muddy abyss. When nightfall descended, upward of 40,000 warriors lay broken, bleeding and dying.Nearby, in the hamlet of Castiglione where Napoleon III set up headquarters, a man lit torches of compassion when others only saw the dark devastation war caused. Jean Henri Dunant, a Swiss civilian, rallied shopkeepers, gardeners, retired folk – anyone he could find – to bind up wounded soldiers. The meager supplies they distributed were crude. Still, the helpers Dunant led formed an effective army of compassion. During four years after this battle, Dunant personally covered costs, moving mercy forward. In 1863 an international concordat met to organize Dunant’s compassionate work, calling it the Red Cross. Contributions remained extremely tight. Dunant suffered bankruptcy because he donated so much of his own money. He would have died a do-gooder the world overlooked if it weren’t for a newspaper reporter who revealed this man’s heart for victims. In 1901 the world recognized how Dunant lit lamps in a dark world by awarding him the first Nobel Prized for Peace.The Red Cross leaped across the Atlantic Ocean into the U.S., spurred on by Clara Barton, baptized Clarrisa. She served as a clerk in the District of Columbia’s Patent Office when battlefields turned bloody red during the Civil War.Clara saw soldiers wounded from the North and South near the capital who desperately needed clean bandages, a warm hand and a friendly voice amid anxious cries by those nearing death. Besides supplying health kits, Barton established a prisoner information center so that frantic parents in both North and South could locate those they loved.Clara Barton helped found the American Red Cross in 1881 and distinguished herself as president of this compassionate mission until 1904.How did Dunant and Barton exude biblical compassion? Don’t confuse compassion with sentimentality. We may feel sorry for people in harm’s way without lifting a finger or donating a dollar. Compassion is pity that fixes broken lives. It supplies muscular sentiment for the less fortunate, filling voids caused by disaster, disease and death.Several biblical pictures flesh out compassion. The Old Testament uses the word for compassion and the word for womb in the same breath. The innocent are nurtured, and those out in the cold are given warm hugs. A pregnant mother shows similar compassion for her baby in the womb. She nurtures, fortifies and protects.A biblical poet compares God’s compassion to that of a nursing mother: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! … declares the Lord,” Isaiah 49:15, 18.English biblical translations tidy up some Hebraic picture language that reads too earthy. Besides offering imagery of the womb to remind us how compassion works, the Hebrew Bible indelicately links imagery of our bowels with compassion. When we lose bowel control, we become flushed and weak. A compassionate Hebraic person helping the helpless would say, “My bowels – my strength in the guts – is used to get that victim down on his luck back on top of life.” Pouring literary Lysol over the text, we cleanse the Bible of its bowel imagery by saying, “Our hearts go out to the distressed person.”On the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, I led worship in a renowned fly-fishing haven that lacks streetlights. I was advised to keep traveling toward the chapel, even when I felt lost. “Look for the cross on the chapel. It glows in the dark. It will lead you to where you need to be.” Like the compassionate Red Cross. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado

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