As I lay sound asleep in the army hospital in Japan, the nurse gently woke me to wish me a happy Easter. I smiled back at her and said, Gut Yontif” (Yiddish for “Happy Holiday”). I could not have cared less whether or not it was Easter Sunday—I was thankful just to be alive. I had just narrowly escaped death in the jungles of Vietnam.
A while later the nurse came back with more good news. In two hours I would be boarding a plane leaving Japan on my way to an army hospital in Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Then she added, “Hurry up and get dressed. They are serving a special Easter breakfast.”
I thought to myself, “Big deal! Easter, shmeaster! Army food is still army food, no matter what day it is or whose holiday they are celebrating.”
I will never forget that experience in April of 1968, of boarding the plane that would take me home. I had never really expected to survive. I was one of the “lucky ones.” Most of my buddies in my platoon did not leave Vietnam alive.
Some time passed, and the pilot announced that we would be making a short stop in Alaska for refueling and we would have time to disembark. As we got off the plane we were welcomed by the sounds of an army band along with nurses, doctors and ambulances to help us to a first-aid station.
It was a cool, crisp April morning in Alaska, and the sun was just coming up. A nurse approached me. She helped me with my crutches and threw a blanket over my shoulders, knowing that most of us were not acclimatized to this colder weather. Then she smiled at me and wished me a happy Easter!
I looked at her and asked, “What day is this?” She said, “It’s Easter Sunday morning, and you’re just in time for a delicious Easter breakfast!”
I thought to myself, “Here we go again with Easter. Don’t they know that I am Jewish and Easter is not one of our holidays? Besides, it was already Easter yesterday.” I thought for a moment and realized that we had flown west from Japan to Alaska, so it was probably still the morning of the same day because we had crossed over some time zones.
I thought to myself how funny this is. I’m probably the first Jew ever to celebrate Easter Sunday morning twice in the same day, and I don’t even believe in Jesus.
At the time God was making a point in my life. As I look back now that was the third “God incident” that happened to me in six weeks. The first was when my born-again platoon sergeant tried to witness to me. Then there was the army chaplain who, seeming to come out of nowhere in the midst of a fire fight, had spoken to me about spiritual matters. I thought that was the strangest thing that ever happened to me. When I finally came to faith in Messiah I always thought of that experience, and I believed that he was an angel, “an angel unaware.”
Recently, while reading through a Time-Life book on the Vietnam War, I saw his picture and discovered that he was the chaplain for my battalion and had come on a medivac helicopter that afternoon to see if he could be of some moral and spiritual comfort. I have since spoken to him and learned that he is a Lutheran pastor in Florida.
My heart was far away from God during those experiences, and I was suffering from spiritual blindness. But God in his patience was carefully laying the foundation steps leading to my salvation and gently tugging on my heart, drawing me to himself.
The next time that I remembered Easter Sunday was in 1971. Ten weeks earlier I had prayed and given my life to Jesus. This time I had something to celebrate.
May the reality of the empty tomb and the joy of our risen Lord cause you to thank God for saving you and allowing you to enter into the fellowship of his suffering.