O HOLY NIGHT — A TRUE CHRISTMAS EVE STORY

O HOLY NIGHT

                Like no other evening of the year, tens of thousands of residents swarmed the streets of Danang. Young couples, groups of friends and entire families strolled hand-in-hand, or eased their way through the animated throng on flimsy bicycles, or puttered along on aging motorcycles in clouds of blue exhaust. The Christmas Eve throng was relaxed and noisy. A total disconnect from the normal tension and fear of a city at war.

The previous Christmas had been my first in-country.  The annual community celebration of Christmas Eve had surprised me. I thought of South Vietnam as a thoroughly Buddhist society, but in fact Catholics made up almost a tenth of the population. Christmas Eve testified to their four and a half century presence.

I was on the downhill side of a two year stent teaching English-as-a-second-language, assisting the youth ministry at Hope Baptist Church and participating in frequent refugee-relief projects. Lewis and Tony Myers were the residential missionaries in Danang. They and their four children had narrowly survived the Tet Offensive four years earlier. Their house had been caught in the crossfire between Viet Cong and US Marines battling for control of the city. Now they lived in a small compound on the quiet residential street of Le Tan Thon. Their open tropical house was tucked behind a two story commercial structure which housed the church and school.

Christmas Eve was a cultural bridge too good to miss. What better opportunity to tell the story of the Creator of the universe sending his eternal, one-of-a-kind Son in human form to do for humanity what we cannot do for ourselves–dethrone Prince Satan–break the power of sin—mitigate suffering—and overcome the terror of death?

Preparations for the night had been ongoing: decorating the compound and chapel, rehearsing traditional Christmas music, preparing special foods, and sending invitations to the two planned Christmas Eve services. This night was special. Many guests might attend who otherwise would never darken the door of a Christian meeting. So we wanted to present the Christ-story in the most favorable light.

The blistering sun set and the streets came alive. The night was sweltering. Scarcely a breath of air whiffed in off the South China Sea. The Vietnamese believers and missionary workers gathered. The first service was aimed more at church members and regular visitors. It would be relaxed and familiar. The second service would focus on special guests. It would be more formal.  Everyone dressed in their best:  Lewis and I in our vented Filipino shirts; the ladies and girls in flowing traditional dresses; the men and boys in white shirts and royal blue slacks.

At last it was time to begin.

We filed into the chapel and filled every seat. Men and boys sat on hard wooden benches to the left. Women and girls sat on the right. Most of the florescent lights were turned off and the room was bathed in the golden glow of long candles. The ceiling fans rocked along on high, threatening to blow out the candles, occasionally succeeding. Small geckos skittered along the whitewashed concrete walls and ceiling, dining on mosquitoes and other insects drawn to the light.

After welcomes and introductions, the music began. Tony was an excellent pianist. She accompanied the choirs and soloists beautifully. Lewis was an accomplished story-teller. He shared in fluent Vietnamese the Christmas story from God’s Word –that ancient story of love and intervention—as the wonder of it all settled on the gathering.

And what a story it is!

An ancient story of prophets and prophecies and sacred words—of angels and miraculous conceptions and a willing couple—of taxation and travel and no room in the inn–of a stable and a birth and visiting shepherds—of a guiding star and wise men and exquisite gifts—of an evil king and treachery and infanticide—but mostly of a one-of-a-kind new born baby. A baby whose life and death and resurrection and glorification would soon change everything.

Absolutely everything.

The first service went well. Afterward most stayed to talk and laugh, eat and drink, and savor the moment. But I was on the move. For several years our mission had ministered to refugees in a vast slum area in East Danang. We–and others before us—had conducted Bible schools for the children, operated a one-day-a-week makeshift medical clinic and of late had conducted Sunday services. From those efforts, several people had professed their faith in Jesus and been baptized.

Lewis had assigned me the task of driving to Dong Giang to pick up the new believers and bring them to the second service. This would be a very special experience for them. There was an hour between the meetings. If I moved along smartly I could get back just in time for the start of the second service. I got the keys from Lewis, hopped behind the wheel of the large, eight passenger Chevy van and backed into traffic.

The streets were filled with pedestrians who totally ignored me. Running over any of them would definitely put a damper on the evening, so I inched my way through the crowd until things thinned out after city center. By that time I knew I had a problem. This was taking too long.

I picked up speed and drove south to the west end of the pontoon bridge spanning the Han River. The river ran south to north, splitting the city in two before emptying into Danang Bay. The two-lane military bridge was the only crossing. As such it was the target of Vietcong sappers who often camouflaged floating bombs in vegetation and floated them down the river hoping to blow up the bridge.

Long delays at the bridge were common, but traffic was light, so tonight there would be none. So far, so good. I crossed to the pop-pop-pop sound of ARVN soldiers firing their M-16s at floating debris. A couple of minutes and I was over the bridge and up the gentle slope to the major intersection at the center of East Danang.

This part of the city was a long sandy peninsula bordered on the west by the river and on the east by the South China Sea. From this intersection one could continue eastward about a mile to China Beach where a number of US Army buildings grouped at the famed recreational area. Or one could turn right and drive south for several miles to the Marble Mountains which protruded from the sand. The Marine Corps Marble Mountain Air Facility sat at their base.

Instead, I turned north and headed in the direction of Monkey Mountain, a high peak which rose out of the sea at the north end of the peninsula. Its summit sported numerous US communications facilities and towers. Along the way I passed several US support bases lining the highway. They were buttoned up tight for the night. This was a dangerous area. The US military and Vietnamese authorities might rule the day, but Vietcong regulars and sympathetic civilians ruled the night.

Most of the area was settled by impoverished squatters who had fled the war in their rural areas for the questionable sanctuary of the city. The refugees lived in impossibly congested slums. Their shelters were constructed of discarded plywood or flattened soda and beer cans. Roofs were made of any scrap material. Floors were sand. Each tiny residence was surrounded by barbed wire.

Security was non-existent. The peaceful were defenseless. There were no police to call. Any hovel left unattended for a few minutes would immediately be disassembled by neighbors and carried off along with its contents. Victimized residents would return to an empty plot.

The area lacked clean water, sanitation and electricity. There were no schools, medical care, or stores worth mentioning. There were few streets. Entry into the warren of shanties in most places was via narrow paths threaded between barbed wire fences. Most paths were scarcely wide enough to accommodate a pedestrian or small bicycle.

And the darkness.

The greatest danger was the darkness. Few people could afford candles or lanterns. Street lights and retail lights were almost non-existent. Most of Dong Giang was cloaked in deep darkness from sunset to sunrise. Driving was extremely hazardous after sunset, especially when heavy rains cut visibility even farther. Debris often littered the road. Domestic animals sometimes slept on the pavement. And there were always invisible pedestrians dressed in black clothing along with unlit carts and cycles wandering about on the highway.

About half way to Monkey Mountain, I began to search for my turnoff to the right. I had been to the pickup area a couple of times in daylight, but the unmarked road was difficult to identify in the darkness. Time was slipping away, but if there were no further delay, I might still make the second service on time. There it is! I turned onto the road which was little more than a lane and a half wide.

I was almost there. The road terminated at China Beach about a mile down, but I wouldn’t need to go that far. Short of the end, I would leave the pavement and travel about a hundred yards off-road into a new shanty area where my passengers waited for me.

I spied my next turn. The opening beside a ramshackle bar was dimly illuminated by lantern light leaking through un-shuttered windows. I slowed and swung off the road to the right and slammed to a stop. What…? The van had sunk into very soft sand.  A few tries at back and forth failed to move me forward or back.

I got out and walked around the vehicle to assess the situation. The bottom of the van was flat on the ground. The wheels were buried half way up. On closer examination I realized the sand at the turnoff had been carefully softened to trap the first vehicle to pass. I looked through an open window into the bar—less than two yards from the vehicle–and immediately realized that tardiness was now the least of my concerns.

Gathered around an old pool table were more than a dozen black-pajama-clad thugs holding pool cues. Several had deep scars on their faces. Most were smoking. All were drinking. At best they were local gangsters. At worse they were Chairman Ho Chi Minh’s elves who would be delivering holiday gifts of explosive ordinance after midnight. They were snakes staring at a mouse.

The men poured out of the bar. They surrounded me and the van. Their smiles were malevolent and their comments were sharp and mocking. What to do? I didn’t speak enough Vietnamese to attempt to talk my way out of the trap. Maybe I should leave the van and feel my way into the pitch black slum in hopes of finding my passengers. Maybe with their help we could extract the vehicle and escape the trap.

But there was a complication. The lock on the rear door of the van had broken a couple of weeks before and Lewis hadn’t yet found anyone to fix it. So I couldn’t lock the vehicle. Still, there seemed to be no alternative but to abandon the vehicle and look for my passengers. I made it about fifty yards beyond the light of the headlights before I encountered the group heading my direction.

I did a quick inventory. From what I could see by their single, small flashlight, there were four small women, two malnourished men and about ten babies and small children. They were all dressed in their best clothes cleaned for the occasion. Their faces were bright with anticipation of the evening to come. But there was no chance this crew was going to push the Chevy back onto the asphalt.

We turned and headed back to the headlights. As I got close to the vehicle, I could see several men crawling around inside the van and two at the rear removing the spare tire. I honestly don’t know what came over me. Maybe I had reached my limit after repeatedly being the target of thieves; thieves that had separated me from  two motorcycles, at one point all my clothes except those on my back, my camera and pretty much everything else I owned except for my cat and my Bible.

I rushed forward, waving my arms and screaming like a Confederate soldier leading Pickett’s fatal charge at Gettysburg. I have no idea what I intended to do when I reached the vehicle. But the black pajama gangsters were so startled by the deranged American’s sudden re-appearance, they piled out of the van and dived into the bar.

The two in the rear bounced the heavy spare tire on the payment of the lane. Then one began to roll it in front of him, running away from the bar up the road into the darkness. I ran screaming in pursuit past the van. The tire slowed the thief just enough for me to close the distance. I judged could tackle him and retrieve the spare.

But something happened at that point. Maybe my initial mania had run its course, or my adrenaline for the day had burnt up, or I had finally tuned into the sound of a couple of the thief’s buddies closing in on me from behind. Maybe it was just God. Whichever, I came to my senses and stopped running.

The thief wheeled to the left and disappeared into the void. His trailing companions lost interest in me, ran past and disappeared after him. Lewis is NOT going to be happy, I thought. Finding a replacement tire for an American Chevy van was not going to be easy. Nor cheap.

It took a couple of minutes to retrace my steps to the van. The chase had covered more distance than I realized. By now the gang was easing back out of the bar. My fellow Christians huddled in the headlights about thirty yards away. There was fear in their eyes. They were not armed. Weapons were illegal for innocent citizens. Only military personnel, ubiquitous criminals and Viet Cong were armed.

A standoff ensued. I couldn’t leave the van without it being stripped down to its axles. The passengers were reluctant to approach and place themselves and their children in greater danger. The black pajama gang members seemed reluctant to act with so many watching eyes.

What to do? I suspected this standoff was going to be short-lived. What followed would likely be ugly and violent. I had to act quickly.

Did I remember that there was a small US Army outpost of some kind near the beach at the terminus of the lane? I wasn’t sure. However, there seemed nothing else to do but find out. Maybe someone there could help.

I started jogging down the lane. I was unable to see my hand in front of my face, but I could tell by the stars in the inky sky that I was headed in a straight line. I seemed to run for a long time, but on reflection I think it was probably not more than a couple of hundred yards. Eventually I began to see flood lights ahead and to the side. I rounded a sharp bend to the left and ran smack into a small Army post.

Flood lights illuminated the approach. They briefly dazzled me. The post was totally buttoned up. The main gate had been blocked with barriers and covered with razor-sharp concertina wire. The guard towers and the top of the high wall surrounding compound were manned with soldiers. They were armed with machine guns and M-16s. Oblivious to the heat, the men were clad in helmets and flak jackets. They were obviously on high alert and prepared for action. What they weren’t prepared for was me.

“Stop! Don’t come any closer! Who the blank are you?” shouted a sentry. I shouted my name in return and explained that I was an American missionary working with churches in Danang.

“What the blank are you doing out here?” he sounded incredulous. I quickly explained my assignment to pick up church members and reported what had happened to my vehicle.

“So what the blank do you want?” he barked. His tone was not friendly. There was a tinge of fear.

“Unless you guys can help pull my van out of the sand, I am going to be stuck there all night. I think I am in a dangerous place.”

That evaluation sparked a heated debate. A couple of men volunteered to get a deuce-and-a-half truck to go pull me out. Others protested loudly and profanely, denounced such a risky scheme.

You don’t know who the blank this guy is.

                You don’t know if he is saying this with guns pointed at his head.

                You don’t know if we are being lured into an ambush.

It wasn’t until later that I considered the terrible dilemma I had presented them. They would be crazy to leave the relative safety of their fortified compound to drive into a hazardous neighborhood in pitch darkness on the most dangerous night of the year. No soldier wanted to die in Vietnam.  Especially on a fool’s errand. Especially on Christmas Eve. Still, they were conflicted at the prospect of leaving an unarmed American civilian at the mercy of the night. What to do?

Beyond their personal safety concerns, I suspect their military orders prohibited them from leaving the compound after dark. They were on alert. The Viet Cong routinely launched attacks on holidays. The conventional wisdom was that Americans were most vulnerable at such that times: distracted by the holiday, some on holiday leave, and others too drunk to fight. All I could do was listen to the loud debate over the potential consequences of action or inaction.

After a few minutes, a non-com made the decision. He would send a squad to help me. He asked for the location of the stranded vehicle. Then he ordered me to return to the vehicle to await his arrival. I jogged back up the road to the bar wondering what I would discover when I got there. To my surprise, nothing much had happened. The van was still there surrounded by the pajama gang, and the Baptists were still holding their ground.

Before anything else could be said or done, I heard the sound of a big diesel roaring up the road behind me. The pajama gang heard it as well. They shouted and scattered for cover. The two-and-a-half-ton truck slammed to a stop next to me. A dozen soldiers in combat gear stood in the back pointing their weapons in a 360 degree arc around the truck. A single soldier dismounted to drag a heavy chain from the back. He dropped one end at my feet and secured the other to the front bumper of the truck.

“What do you want me to attach this to?” I asked, unsure what to do.

“Tie it to whatever you want dragged out of the sand,” he bellowed. He obviously wasn’t happy to be there. The situation was tense and the squad clearly didn’t plan to expose themselves for more than a few minutes. I hardly dared think what might happen if the black-pajama-gang came back with weapons.

I figured the best thing to do was loop the chain around the back axle of the Chevy. My problem

was getting to the axle buried under the van.  I got down on my hands and knees and began to dig toward the axle as quickly as I could. After a few moments, I was flat on my face, half under the back of the van.

There!  I slithered back, grabbed the end of the chain, dragged it under the vehicle and with some difficulty got it looped around the axle and into a rough knot. I hoped it would hold. The GIs might not hang around for a second try.

As soon as I stood, the truck driver gunned the engine, popped the clutch in reverse, and roughly jerked the van up onto the roadway. The retrieval would have probably gone a little smoother had I thought to put the transmission in neutral.

I crawled back under to untie the chain. The soldier snatched it back, piled it on the bumper, jumped in the cab and the truck accelerated in reverse back to the base. Their departure happened so quickly, I didn’t even have time to say, “Thanks. Merry Christmas.”

The church group dashed to the van and quickly packed in. I jumped behind the wheel and floored the accelerator to leave the bar and its patrons behind as quickly as possible. The rest of the trip was uneventful. But as you might suppose, we were more than late to the second service.

Arriving at the church, I parked the van. The visitors hurried into the service. I raced to wash the grime off my hands, arms and face. I brushed as much sand from my shirt and trousers as I could. The effort was partly successful. I ran for the chapel arriving at the very moment my presence on the program was required.

I walked as casually as I could to the front of the packed room. If anyone noticed my soiled and disheveled condition they didn’t show it. I took a microphone and turned to the congregation. Invitations had been accepted. Sitting before me was the Mayor of the city, several Vietnamese military officers, a few American civilians and servicemen and a number of local teachers and businessmen.

Tony began to play the quiet, melodious introduction to O Holy Night. I was the designated soloist, not because I was an accomplished singer, but I because I had had considerable experience in church and college choirs. I was the best available.

You know the classic Christmas carol. It begins quietly and low. Then it soars into majestic praise for the birth of the divine child. I sang

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

I sang the words as distinctly as I could.  Many in the gathering spoke limited English and I wanted them to catch as many of the lyrics as possible. I was surprised by the sound of my voice. It sounded fuller and richer than usual.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth

The words began to take on a deeper meaning for me. Vietnam was, for my generation, the representation of our fallen world: its corruption and violence; its godless leaders and their incomprehensible governance; the growing feelings of futility and outrage at so many wrongs and so much suffering.

But there was more to be said in the face of all of that. Those of us who had connected with God through Jesus Christ had found purpose amidst the chaos of our world. That purpose had brought me to Vietnam—had brought me to this service—had brought me to this solo—had brought me far, far from home on this Christmas Eve.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

And there is was. The world was weary. But we among all people had hope in a hopeless world. That’s why the Danang believers had chosen HOPE for the name of the first Baptist congregation. The name broadcast their experience in Christ and what they had to offer to their suffering nation. I suddenly felt the weight of this reality in a fresh way.

Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices

                Yes, fall on your knees. Fall on your knees and worship the One who has brought us life—Life in all its fullness. Fall on your knees before the angel chorus announcing the birth of Jesus to startled  shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to those with whom He is well pleased.”

O night divine!

A night of God’s intervention in the fallen affairs of man. A supernatural night of nights when

God kept His promises to send One who would be the Messiah for the Jews and the Savior for the world. It mattered not whether you were born in Texas or in Quang Ngai Province. God has appeared to reveal Himself to you. It mattered not whether you were a European, African or Asian. The Creator has intervened to display His eternal, infinite love. He has come down to embrace you.

O night when Christ was born
Yes, we remember tonight that a baby of promise was born long ago just as Isaiah predicted:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given

And the government will be on his shoulders,

And he will be called

                Wonderful Counselor

                Mighty God

                Everlasting Father

                Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of government and peace there will be no end…

The zeal of the God of Angel Armies will accomplish this.

The music rose,

O night divine!
O night, O night divine

Then it repeated,

Fall on your knees

                                O hear the angles voices

                                O night divine

                                O night, when Christ was born

                                O night divine!

                                O night, O night divine.

The music faded. There was a moment of silence then smiles and applause. Not for the soloist I’m sure, but for the message of hope. The life-giving word that God has not abandoned us to the bondage to sin and Satan and suffering and death, but has come down in the form of a totally helpless baby–a baby in whom His fullness came to tabernacle with us—a baby who would grow into a man who would do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

God’s Son had come into the world. A very special baby. A very special child who would show us God. A very special man who would change everything. Absolutely everything.

What a God.

What a Savior.

What a Christmas Eve.

The service concluded. The evening was everything for which we had hoped. Many people lingered. Lewis didn’t. He took the keys from me, loaded the guests in the van and returned them to the east side. I suppose the trip went well; he returned later. He never afterward mentioned the lost tire.

Eventually a new year dawned. The lock was repaired and a new spare acquired. I finished my assignment in the summer and headed for home. But the miraculous One of Christmas Eve continued His transforming work in Indochina long after I was gone. His kingdom of light continued its advance against the kingdom of darkness. And it continues that to advance to this very Christmas Eve.

For the zeal of the God of angel armies will accomplish this.

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