Monday, June 5, 2006

Promise in a Fox Hole

In 1942, on the NBC Radio “Army Hour,” Lieutenant-Colonel William J. Clear commented wryly, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Of course, he was generalizing, but many people facing imminent death do pray frantically in order to be spared or carried to heaven if they don’t survive. In fact, those in peril often beg, barter or surrender their souls to God in that somber moment. I wonder how many of those foxhole promises are kept.

The first time I understood the foxhole observation, I was a teenager, asking my mother how my dad became a Christian. She was ironing, wearing a cotton print shirtdress, eyes down and head moving back and forth with the iron as she told the riveting story. And like most people who lived through that war, she told it without drama or exaggeration.

She began, “It was in St. Lazare-Lorient, France. Your dad was driving his jeep when heavy shelling began. He was really scared; it was his very first time to be attacked like that. He jumped out of his jeep, got down in a bank at the side of the road and prayed, ‘God, if you will just see me through this, I promise I will live for you and serve you the rest of my life.’” She didn’t look up; she just kept ironing.

After a second of heart-stopping visualization, I understood. A foxhole is a trench or a pit—a muddy, undignified hole in the ground. A lonely place to die. My dad, at only twenty years old, had lain in a rut on the other side of the world crying out to a God he did not know. My throat tightened, and my eyes filled with tears from a daughter’s love and belated fear for her father. For the first time, I deeply appreciated the sacrifices my dad and so many others made for freedom and for our country. Later I found out that he saw other foxholes, shellings and open graves, although he was always reluctant to talk about them.

“And so, did he keep his promise?” I asked.

“Yes, when he came home, we got re-acquainted and started our life together. He said, ‘I told God I would serve him, and I’m going to do what I promised.’ So we started going to church.” That simple--promise made, promise kept.

My father didn’t follow through grudgingly, either. He had a powerful conversion experience and stayed loyal to his faith to this very day, at 84 years old. My parents have attended the same church for over 50 years, serving in almost every capacity except preaching. And really, although Dad may not have taught from behind a pulpit, more than one person has told me that his life has been a living sermon.

Most of us can’t relate to a literal foxhole experience, but we do have our own personal ruts, and muddy, undignified existences. Like my dad, we have to choose our next course of action. We can cower alone in a pit for the rest of our lives, or we can surrender to our enemy and be subjected to a miserable life of slavery or even a cruel death. Or we can cry out to God with a tiny bit of faith. And if we resign our helpless selves to him and he does lift us from the pit, what then? Can he give us meaningful, worthwhile lives?

I know what one soldier would say. I know what his wife would say. I know what his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren would say. Generations have been blessed because my dad was not a bitter atheist in a foxhole, just a very young man who kept a word heard only by God in a moment of crisis many years ago. I am honored to dedicate this column about youth and faith to an example of the two attributes at their finest: my beloved father, Virgil H. Batt.
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