No Atheists in Foxholes

Sermon preached August 7, 2011

Text: Matthew 14:22-33

In Thursday’s newspaper, Hagar the Horrible visits a woman with a crystal ball. She tells him, “I see a period of great joy and happiness for you, followed by two weeks of terrible, dark depression and utter despair.” Hagar surmises that she is referring to a two week visit from his mother-in-law.

Hagar’s fortune teller is on to something more than Hagar’s family dynamics. She is on to life. Life can be periods of great joy and happiness, followed by difficult days that leave one feeling down. Life has its ups and downs, twists and turns, joys and sorrows. It has its crises, large and small.

Friday, July 29 was a beautiful day in southern Wisconsin. Julie, Sarah and I had gone there for a couple of days of my vacation, staying in Sauk City, a pretty, small town on the banks of the Wisconsin River. We had, the previous day toured part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen estate and the House on the Rock. While our picnic lunches had not been that great the previous days due to rain, we had enjoyed our brief time away and we now headed home. We stopped along the way to buy fresh corn and peaches. We walked through Wisconsin Dells because we had never been there before, and now we were headed home by way of I-90/94. Suddenly the tire indicator light on the car was shining. We got off the highway, and filled the low tire with air. Within about 15 miles, the light came on again. More would need to be done. We pulled into a station in a small town just north and west of Tomah and asked where we might find someone to repair a tire. We had to go back to Tomah, which we did after filling the tire with air. It was now about 1 pm. Firestone in Tomah could not even look at the tire until 4:30, but referred us to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart got us in immediately, but it was bad news. Whatever punctured the tire had left a hole in a place where the tire could not be repaired. We would need a new tire. Further, they did not have a tire of that size. The crew at Wal-Mart was extraordinarily gracious. They began making phone calls. No tire in all of Tomah for a Honda Fit. We would probably need to go to a dealer. They called the dealership in Eau Claire. Yes, they had a tire, but they closed at 5 p.m. This was now about 3 p.m. By the way, we had our worst picnic of the trip in the waiting area for Wal-Mart auto!

We had Wal-Mart put the temporary spare tire on and we headed up the road. These temporary spares are meant to be temporary. We had 75 miles to go, and the tire recommends going no faster than 50 mph. So there we were on I-94 on a Friday afternoon going 50 mph. By this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. We arrived at the dealership in time to purchase the tire, but not to get it put on. We had to go to yet another place for that. We got home about 9 p.m.

Life has its crises, large and small. In the scheme of things, this was not too large a crisis. Crises are not very enjoyable, yet most crises also bring opportunity for learning, growth and change. In one of the books I began reading on vacation, Love and Will by Rollo May, he writes: It is only in the critical situation of emotional and spiritual suffering… that people will endure the pain and anxiety of uncovering the profound roots of their problems (18). O.k., maybe not the lightest vacation reading, but the point is well taken. Crises can lead to growth. I know I grew in my appreciation of small acts of kindness. Sometimes there are things we don’t explore until we are in a crisis.

Crises happen, and they can be opportunities for learning and growth. Sometimes people come to see Christian faith and relationship to God in Jesus Christ as something only for times of crisis, difficulty, pain. Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” Apparently whoever coined that phrase thought of God and faith in God as something for times of great stress and crisis.

There is a modicum of truth here. Faith is meant to be there for us in times of stress, distress, and crisis. Jesus is there for us when the waters of life are battering our boats and the winds are against us. Faith is a resource for us in times of emotional and spiritual suffering. God is there to comfort the afflicted, and to inspire us to reach out and help the hurting. Faith is a resource in light of the tragedies in Norway, Somolia, and even here where we have seen too many lose their lives in the water. God cares and inspires us to care.

Faith is meant to be there for us in times of stress, distress and crisis. Jesus walks through the turbulent waters to say, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” However, how we nurture and tend our faith in the ordinary times is vitally important. Faith that is saved only for crises will not be the rich resource it could be. If the garden of faith is not tended, it is sure to be overgrown with weeds. If we have not dug the well of faith deep enough, it will be a bit dry.

I am not saying that God is not present in crisis. I am not saying Jesus will be missing in action. What I am saying is that our ability to tune into God will not be as strong as it could be if we do not nurture our faith in the ordinary days and times of our lives. Our ability to hear Jesus say, “Take heart, do not be afraid” will be stymied some if we have not engaged in practices that help us listen to that voice when the seas of life are calmer.

Look at the story again. Peter’s first words to Jesus in this story are, “Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus replies, “come.” There is a relationship here between Jesus and Peter. It is not a relationship without questions. “Lord, if it is you…” Faith and questions can coincide, and for many of us our faith grows as we ask our questions. The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is apathy – failing to bring our deepest selves, our most profound questions, to our faith relationship with God. I think this relationship between Peter and Jesus provides the groundwork for his later cry, as he calls out frightened, “Lord, save me!” When the crisis hits, Peter has a relationship with Jesus to build on.

Given what I have already said about faith and doubt, I cannot leave the final words of Jesus untouched, for they seem to contrast faith and doubt. Jesus pulls Peter back up, then says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Is there a certain playfulness here, now that the crisis is over, an opportunity for learning and growth. Peter’s little faith led him out of the boat in the first place, and that is commendable. If you want to walk on water you have to get out of the boat. Jesus may be inviting Peter to ask himself, “What made you think that this relationship we have would not carry you through this tough time?” In the end, Peter’s faith remains, though a work in progress. He cries out to Jesus for help.

The main point here is this, don’t wait for a crisis, don’t wait for a foxhole to tend your faith, to nurture your relationship with God in Jesus. That faith, that relationship is there for our ordinary days, making them a little different, a little better, and when we have tended our faith in the ordinary days, it is a better resource for when the storms of life blow. We have worship every Sunday to cultivate our faith on the ordinary days. There are daily practices of prayer and Scripture reading which help us cultivate our faith on the ordinary days. There are practices of attentiveness and thoughtfulness and kindness which help us cultivate our faith on the ordinary days. Don’t wait for the foxhole.

Our family is embarking on a voyage into some uncharted waters for us, and the seas are a little choppy along the way. Our son David, 28, is going to be a father this winter. He and the mother of his child are not married – and by the way, I have his permission to share this story. David is currently looking for full-time work. I am glad that I am not praying for the first time as I pray about this. I am glad that I have a faith that I have been working on, and that has been working on me for a long time. There are resources in my relationship with God in Jesus Christ that will help me continue to be a good father to my son and to be a good grandfather to his child.

Faith is there for foxholes, but it is better if we carry it with us into the foxhole than if we try to start it there. Amen.