MY FIRST CHRISTMAS
It’s been fifty years since December 24, 1972. I can easily bring to memory the image of myself kneeling by my bunk in the barracks on the Yokosuka (Japan) Naval Base. That moment was the conclusion of something I had started two months earlier – or, better said – that moment was the conclusion of something God had started in me two months earlier.
It was October, Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement. The day when Jews around the world look to God for forgiveness of their sins. I was sitting in another Navy barracks – this time in San Diego – thinking about my life, morose because of what I had become. I remembered the people I’d robbed. The drugs I regularly used. The young women I’d turned into whores. My baby whom I killed in the abortion clinic.
In the open diary on my lap I wrote these words – words I’d never before prayed, words that spilled from a very remorseful soul – “Oh God. Forgive me for my past sins. And look with tolerance on my future sins.”
I knew myself too well to believe I could escape who I was. And I knew better than to promise God I would never sin again. All I knew to do was plead for mercy. And in my prayer, God began the work He would conclude two months later.
Shortly after I arrived in Yokosuka, I borrowed a book I’d heard about from a Christian acquaintance: The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. God used it to change my life.
From the first pages, I was hooked. Lindsey quoted dozens of prophecies in the Jewish Old Testament about the first Advent of Messiah Jesus. The virgin birth of Jesus (Isaiah 7:14); the One who would be called Mighty God and Everlasting Father (Isaiah 9:6); The crucifixion of Jesus (Isaiah 52:12-53:13); Israel’s Messiah who would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9); Israel will one day look “upon Him whom they had pierced” (Zechariah 12:10); The new covenant (new testament) that God would establish with Israel (Jeremiah 31:31-33); the "Son of Man" who would be given everlasting dominion over all creation from the “Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:9-14).
The prophecies went on and on and on. Scores of them. Page after page.
I closed the book, stunned by what I'd read, and a surge of revelation swept through my mind: The one whom non-Jews call, “Jesus” is my Jewish Messiah. More than that, God the Father gave Jesus to die in my place – to pay the penalty my many sins deserved. Jesus’ blood bought my forgiveness.
I could really be forgiven. For everything I had ever done.
I knew instinctively what I needed to do. I put the book aside, knelt at my bunk, and said simply, “God, I believe Jesus is the Messiah.”
That was it. No long-winded discourse. No confession of sins. No asking Jesus to be my savior. Just seven words. But God heard my heart. He knew with those few words I committed myself to follow Jesus. To obey Him. To do whatever He told me to do.
Before the last syllable left my lips, God had changed me. Completely. From the inside out.
I rose from my knees – and suddenly panicked.
I never owned a Bible, much less, knew what is in it. In fact, the only verse of Scripture I’d ever remembered hearing was, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” As soon as I rose from my knees, that verse popped into my mind and fear gripped me. What if I’d just committed idolatry?
I went back to my knees and said, “God, if I’ve just made a mistake, please show me.”
I waited. And I waited. Still on my knees, I waited for an answer. But the relief I had felt when I’d told God about Jesus remained with me. And so, I stood up, as committed as ever to obey Jesus. I walked to my desk, pulled a bag of marijuana from my top drawer, and flushed it down the toilet. I pulled my stack of pornographic magazines from my footlocker and threw them in the dumpster behind my barracks. My language also received an immediate dose of bleach. The four-letter words I had for years used to punctuate my sentences were gone. Just like that. In a moment. Like the twinkling of an eye.
My life was so suddenly different, when I returned to work two days later, my curious co-workers gathered around me and asked what had happened. And I joyfully told them: Jesus happened to me.
On December 24, 1972, I knew nothing of Church doctrines about salvation, the Trinity, the Sacraments, or any of the simplest teachings of Christianity. All I knew was, I was a sinner, and I needed a new life and a clean slate.
I didn’t know the term, but I needed to be born again.
And God, in His overflowing compassion, heard my Yom Kippur prayer, and on Christmas Eve, brought me His answer.
As I sit here, fifty years after it all began, reviewing in my mind where I’ve been and where I am today, I realize afresh that I am an illustration of God’s mercy and grace. And I think of St. Paul’s words to Timothy: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
So, what's my point in sharing with you my story?
It's this. If God’s patience and compassion extended to St. Paul, if His patience and compassion extended to me -- even after all I’ve done, the half of which I didn't mention here . . . Then His patience and compassion will also extend to you. Whoever you are. Whatever you’ve done. Or how often you’ve done it. He will never, ever, reject the penitent.
Thanks be to God for His indescribable mercy.