Pastor's Pen: The true test of Christmas and the Savior
It was Christmas of 1970.
For the small group of U.S. servicemen, mostly Army pilots and Naval aviators, crowded into cell 4 of their prison, the infamous Hanoi Hilton, this would prove to be the most memorable Christmas celebration of their lives to this point.
It was memorable because this was the first Christmas these assembled men of unusually great courage and remarkably great resolve, these true defenders of our freedoms, could celebrate together in this awful place.
Most of these pilots, including captains Jeff Powell, James Ray and Terry Jones, Major James Kasler and Lt. Commander John McCain, had been taken captive in 1966 and 1967 after their F-4 Phantom or A-4 Skyhawk planes were shot down over North Vietnam by surface-to-air missiles and they had been forced to eject. They had without exception been manhandled and mistreated by native villagers after landing with their parachutes in nearby rice paddies.
They were eventually taken prisoner by the Vietcong and transported to Hoa Lo prison in central Hanoi where they spent most of the time prior to this Christmas celebration of 1970 in solitary confinement. They were not permitted to communicate with each other and so they devised a Morse code and tapped the walls. They risked yelling to each other when they thought the guards weren't within earshot.
All these men had endured torture, some more severe than others depending on rank and what information the Vietcong believed they could extract. Some of them, like McCain and Kasler, were already severely injured when they were captured and their ordeal under interrogation was even more intense than the others.
But they remembered their training and they clung to their convictions, among them the belief in their mission, their belief in their comrades-in-arms and, for most of them, their belief in prayer and the power of God to sustain them somehow even in the most challenging of circumstances.
Major Kasler recited the Lord's Prayer to himself as he was beaten with fan belts and as his eardrums were punctured from blows to his head. Another of the prisoners of war, Norman McDaniel, remembered a verse he learned in Sunday school from the gospel of Matthew: "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." That verse gave him hope, an inner resolve, and a realization that genuine faith isn't limited to the walls of the church but is as strong and durable as iron, as real as and as much a part of life as the air we breathe, and as near as a whispered plea during those times of terrible duress and physical pain.
As the 1960s ended and the decade of the '70s began, there was little noticeable change in the fortunes of war in Vietnam. There were ongoing peace talks in Paris, however, and there were some small concessions made to the prisoners of war in the Hanoi Hilton, most of whom had been there for three or four years by now.
One concession was being able to have access to an English Bible. The first time the men were able to have and hold a Bible was Christmas 1970.
After so many years of solitary confinement and so many years of finding creative ways to encourage and support one another, having the chance to assemble together was an unusual treat and being able to hold and read the Bible was also. The Bible that day truly was the bread of life, manna from heaven.
Captain Powell read the Christmas story aloud to the men in cell 4 of the Hanoi Hilton. He also read several psalms and other passages, including I Corinthians 13.
The men who were there all testified later to the invigorating strength they each received during that brief time together in cell 4. Part of it was the sense of unity they felt and the realization that they had already undergone the worst of what their captors could do. (Conditions did improve in the early '70s but it would still be another few years before the men would be released.)
But part of it was also the inspiration from the account of the birth of Jesus in Luke chapter 2 that fateful Christmas of 1970, read aloud to them by Captain Powell: "Unto you this day is born in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
The message of "good news" the angels brought to the shepherds in the hills outside Jerusalem were no longer just words on a page; they understood clearly the message was indeed for them personally even there in the forsaken Hao Lo Prison, which translated means "fiery furnace."
Even there in the crucible of crushing circumstance, where faith is sorely tested as the days, the months and the years go by, even there in the fiery furnace of Hanoi where the walls are high and the barbed wire is electrified, where you are the subject of hatred and there is no way to escape, even there these brave men discovered that nothing can keep the "good news" from breaking through.
There truly is a Savior and He makes all the difference. He is more than an ancient story about Mary and Joseph and Bethlehem and the star in the east and the shepherds in the stable. He is truly Emmanuel, God with us. He is truly the Son of God.
Just as He was born in humble conditions in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, so He is "born" in the hearts of believers everywhere to this very day. And so He comes to those who invite Him in, sustaining those who cry out to Him even through the most horrific of seasons, providing an inner Presence that is undeniable.
The greatest realization of all is that the Savior has come to save. He knows me and He loves me in spite of myself and He is greater than all the storms of my life, no matter how severe. He died for me and He rose again and He promises eternal life if I will choose to trust Him and allow Him to be what He desires to be for me and for all: the Savior.
We might find Him in the extremities of our pain and trials but it doesn't matter where or how. When we come to that point, we come to the same conclusion of the prisoners of war in the Hanoi Hilton; He is real and He is there and He will walk with me and keep me from today until the end.