Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Survival tips for the perfect storm |

Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Survival tips for the perfect storm

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

The world’s a mess. Subterranean tectonic plates heaved, causing a devastating earthquake.

Then a 3-story wave rushed over northern Japan. This tsunami wrecked what the earthquake hadn’t devastated.

Afterward, nuclear power plants issued red alerts because unhealthy radiation levels spiked.

Homeless Japanese searched for lost relatives and wept as they surveyed mountains of refuse where their homes once stood.

Thousands of miles away, a revolution in Libya tottered and fell back. In response, a coalition of nations under a U.N. resolution, sickened by how their tyrannical government butchered Libyan civilians, unleashed massive air bombardments to establish a no-fly zone.

What a perfect storm calamity sent us!

Where do we turn when these “times test men’s souls,” as Tom Paine bleakly wrote during the American Revolution?

History provides a resource to bolster our spirits “so we do not lose heart” (II Corinthians 4:16). History reminds us we are not the first to feel threatened by difficult, dangerous and disastrous days.

Given time, gumption and God’s good grace, the human spirit has prevailed and will again.

When it seems as if the sky is falling, I enter my study. On a bookcase, my father’s dog tags from his World War II Army service sit atop a weathered New Testament. This small Bible’s zipper rings its covers, protecting pages of scripture and heirloom photos of Dad’s family. He carried this Bible in his breast pocket during the war. Dad enlisted as one of the first soldiers in his rural Michigan county to fight in World War II.

Inscribed in the Bible are encouraging, instructive words from my Dutch immigrant paternal grandfather. Six of Grandpa’s seven children served in the armed forces during World War II, while the seventh child “fought the devil and all his hosts” as he prepared for Christian ministry in seminary.

Grandpa Van Ens, on a Christmas Eve in 1941 shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack decimated our Pacific fleet and England battled the Third Reich’s victorious armies, wrote in the Bible: “Meinard (Americanized as “Mike” to everyone else), you go with God and God will go with you. Reach in your Bible whenever you have time.” Signed, “Your Father.”

Grandfather didn’t use emotive language to bid farewell. His stoical Dutch upbringing in the Netherlands prepared him to rely on Christian faith. God goes with Meinard into battle. How? God’s hand shapes history, Grandpa believed. The Lord strengthened those in dark days before World War II, and He shall again and again.

Remember the great wave of disasters sweeping over the U.S. around Christmas 1941? During the first months of 1942 after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, German submarines sunk U.S. oil tankers off the New Jersey and Florida coasts. Onlookers walking those beaches saw plumes of acrid smoke as torpedoed cargo vessels sunk.

Recruits like my dad were drilling with wooden rifles because our nation wasn’t prepared to go to war. Pearl Harbor’s port was ruined. We had no Air Force to challenge the Nazi menace in the sky. It looked like Hitler had won and nothing could be done to stop his bombing of London.

The world was a mess then, too.

In these perilous times, God raised up a prophet whose gravelly voice literally saved the democratic world. Winston Churchill sailed the Atlantic Ocean after Pearl Harbor and gave a speech that had a steel spine to it. Never equivocating, he declared the Allies had journeyed this far because they weren’t made of sugar candy.

We see the Japanese aren’t made of sugar candy, either. Banding together, they reconstruct their future. They weep for the dead, bury them and move on. The Japanese tread a rough road.

Still, history leaves testimony from those who previously walked this way that it’s possible to surmount messes.

Churchill, who studied history rather than suck on candy, repeatedly told listeners the value of knowing the past. History’s not a record of arcane facts. What has gone before is as real as what’s written in that Bible my father carried overseas in the army. God goes with us, on hard days and during easy times. Such a promise we need to internalize. Don’t treat it as some idealistic assumption certain religious types make up.

Churchill reiterated history’s value, declaring, “The longer you look back, the farther you can see forward.”

History gives perspective so we get beyond zeroing in on only the mess. History reminds us that our days go the way the corners of our mouths turn. If they turn downcast, we rivet on the mess. If our lips’ contours turn up, our hope helps make the best of bad messes.

How does history guide us and God go with us when we feel desolate because the world is so messy? The Japanese and their helpers show us. Care for the wounded. Bury the dead. Honor them by rebuilding from scratch villages flattened by the wall of water. Erect monuments that remind us that both optimists and pessimists are right.

Life is good, and life is unfair. It’s up to us to choose which we shall be.

“Go with God” into a messy world, my grandfather advised his eldest son as he went off to war. Such conduct builds moral character when life’s messes strike. And, “God will go with you,” Grandpa affirmed.

As He has done in the past, God guides and inspires as we clean up life’s devastating messes and forge a hopeful future despite them.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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