CHRISTMAS IN SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
On March 7, 1984, Jerry Levin, director of the CNN Middle East Bureau was walking from his Beirut, Lebanon apartment to his office when he was kidnapped by the terrorist group Hezbollah. He was placed in solitary confinement, chained to a radiator that didn’t work, with a chain so short that he couldn’t stand up, blindfolded, and taken to the bathroom once a day.
Up to the time of his captivity he described himself as materialistic, mindlessly ambitious and unphilosophic, an emotional cynic who considered himself an atheist. “In fact, I was an eye for eye, tooth for tooth very unforgiving, too often vindictive Jewish-American atheist addicted to petulant, selfish, bullying rages, and a tendency to shut out other people’s clearly visible pain.”
But something happened to him. He began to think about himself in relation to the universe, eternity, and his fellow men and women in ways that he never had before. He pondered his way to a respect for faith, and belief in God. Not only that but he began to think about Jesus. He had always scorned his ideas, especially forgiveness. He thought of Jesus as a wimp in a callused world that knew better to take care of itself than he did. He had a problem with Christians who had perverted all that Jesus stood for and had persecuted the Jews. Then he realized that he should not blame Christ for the way some Christians had acted. That would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
After a month, Jerry said his first prayer. He thanked God for his Son and asked him to watch over his wife, Sis, and their children. He also found it necessary to ask God to forgive his captors because they had been responsible in part for bringing him to God and his Son, and to his new comprehension of the unseen.
Nine months passed in solitary confinement. On Christmas Eve 1984, at about ten or eleven o’clock one of his captors paid an unexpected late night visit to his almost freezing cold cell. He wished Jerry a merry Christmas and asked if there was a gift he would like. Without thinking he replied, “A Bible. That’ll do.”
Two nights later his captor returned and gave him a brand new red pocket-sized Gideon’s New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs, along with a ball point pen. Eagerly and with excitement he read it so fast, making notes in the margins. He wrote, “I cannot emphasize strongly enough the role that Jesus, his beliefs and his vision (as spelled out in the four Gospel books) played and are playing in my transformation from skeptical reticence to reverential obedience.”
He read the part about the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20 – the part that says, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” When he read that, his late night encounter with his captor just three days before came flooding back.
“It began when I heard footsteps in the hall outside my pitch-dark, crypt-like room. That sound was the signal to me to pull the blindfold down over my eyes, which I did. Then there was the click of a latch, the sound of the door opening to my cell, soft footsteps approaching my pallet, and the sound of something being placed gently on the floor next to it.
After the man left, I pushed the blindfold above my eyes and beheld perhaps the most astonishing – or at least, unique – sight of my captivity. On the floor, anchored in a puddle of melting wax was a flickering candle. Next to it was a heaping bowl of fruit. And next to the bowl was a big platter and on it a large ‘log’ type chocolate cake. In front of the cake was an intricate and beautiful Lilliputian manger scene. Intricately carved pines stood guarding a tiny wooden barn, open to view at one end. Inside was a miniscule manger. Sitting before it was Mary holding Jesus with Joseph standing by. There were several shepherds looking on, plus cows, horses, and sheep – all carefully crafted and painted at smaller than toy soldier scale.
The passing minutes crackled with a kind of physical and spiritual energy that seemed to be dissolving the centuries separating me from the event. I actually experienced a kind of vicarious surge when I recalled that this was happening to me not too many miles to the north of Bethlehem in a frigid room that I imagined was not any colder or less comfortable than the one where Jesus had been born.
Already psyched up because I was on the brink of experiencing my first Christmas as a follower of Jesus, I focused my gaze on the little baby. He appeared to be looking steadily at some of the shepherds who had been positioned in his line of sight. In the shadowy light of the flickering candle, the moment – like the original moment one thousand, nine hundred and eighty four years earlier – was so dramatic and moving for me that I began to feel that I was really there. I felt I was in good company. The longer this went on, the less isolated, the less constrained I felt. After about thirty minutes the spell was broken when another captor looked in. But that mystical moment has stayed with me and continues to influence my life.”
(Jerry Levin, Reflections on My First Nöel, pp.24-25)
On Valentine’s Day, 1985, as a result of his wife’s efforts, Jerry Levin was allowed to escape, the first and only one of the American hostages who was able to do so. Since then he has devoted his life to trying to follow in the shepherd’s footsteps and do as they did: testify with his life (as they testified promptly with theirs) about the significance of the great events in which they played a small part and which he was privileged to play a small part on Christmas Eve 1984.
“The shepherds spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” They not only believed and understood the significance of the coming of Jesus, but they acted on it in their lives. It took a kidnapping and solitary confinement for Jerry Levin to experience his need to believe, to understand and to devote his life to follow in the shepherd’s footsteps. What about you?