It’s 4:00 A.M., December 22nd. My post-Christmas reflections have begun early this year.
The Christmas season holds a special place in my heart. It’s the time of the year when my long journey from atheism to Christianity began. The 1965 Christmas I experienced was anything but traditional. There were no snow covered Thomas Kinkade cottages dotting the landscape. I was in Vietnam, having been assigned as a cryptographer matrixed to 7th Air Force.
It wasn’t a particularly dangerous assignment, as wars go. I did my job and dodged the occasional mortar rounds or 122 millimeter rockets the V.C. lobbed our way. Most of the men I knew were “believers.” I practiced my atheism vigorously. I would occasionally debate them. They usually asked me how I couldn’t believe in the face of the world’s natural beauty – “The blue sky, the fluffy clouds, and the obvious design of it all.” I would ask two questions in response. “Haven’t you noticed all these mangled babies and stinking corpses around here?” “How could you possibly believe in God in the face of that?” That was as far as the debates ever went.
My duty station wasn’t far from the base mortuary. I had to pass it every time I went to work. When I first arrived in Vietnam it wasn’t particularly busy, but after I’d been there a few months it was bristling with activity every time I passed by. As I did, I was filled with a mix of emotions – anger, curiosity, revulsion.
I wasn’t involved directly in the killing and dying. I should have been content with that. But, I began to feel that if everyone else was killing people, why shouldn’t I. After all, Dostoevsky had said “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”
One of the occasional duties I had was incinerating classified trash. It was on one of those trips to the incinerator that I put Dostoevsky to the test. I walked from the duty section, bags of classified trash and an M-16 in tow. I got to the burn area, locked the gate, and proceeded to burn the trash. As soon as I did I noticed something in a clearing about fifty or sixty yards from me. It was an old Vietnamese man relieving himself. He looked world-worn. I began to make assumptions for him. “Life really isn’t worth living.” “Living is too difficult.” “I wish someone would end this misery for me.” I picked up the M16. I disengaged the safety and took aim. My heart was racing. Then, before I could squeeze the trigger I heard a voice. “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I stopped and tried to re-compose myself and heard the words again. “The quality of mercy is not strained.” They were Portia’s beautiful words to Shylock from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” I re-engaged the safety, dropped the weapon and began to sob uncontrollably.
In the days after I wondered whether the words I heard were the product of my imagination or if they came from somewhere or someone else. And, why those words? Was someone trying to tell me that there was truly a cosmic moral compass that must guide our actions? Was someone trying to tell me that he, or she, cared about that old man….and me?
I wrestled with those thoughts for months. My internal world was shaken to its core. I’d spent years building what I thought were walls of safety around myself. Now, slowly but surely, grace was breaking them down.
In due time I surrendered to the grace; I converted to Christianity. That was nearly 50 years ago. The experiences of those days shaped who I am today. Nothing can take that from me.
When Nancy got home from Tonganoxie last night we spent the evening talking about the current Christmas season. We came to the conclusion that, somehow, in the tangle of our culture, modern Christianity has lost its way. We spend an inordinate amount of our time trying to compel modern culture to bend to our wishes and wind up in the end being bent into the shape of the culture around us. We fight about nativity scenes or whether it should be the Christmas program or the seasonal celebration. We jockey for political control, mistakenly believing that if we control policy we can change the human heart.
As I think about it I find myself preferring the Christmastime of Vietnam to what I see today. The war that raged within me then is over. There’s no more need for fighting meaningless battles. Grace has won. As Shakespeare so ably said, “But mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute to God himself.”