Certain Signs

We decided to travel non-stop in two vehicles, driving in shifts, all four of us manly men; we were pretty sure about that. Long before public GPS, I think we had an overly-unfolded-folded-unfolded map with the big picture, but mostly we just followed the signs. And it was only 20 hours or so to the first lake.

Dad drove his shift then I began mine, and we all stopped near the border for another lunch. Already we were able to use either U.S. or Canadian dollars, and my brother-in-law and his dad were saying “Aye” after most of their sentences, aye.

The closer we got to Canada the more often the three of them were calling me Pièrre. Was it the only French they knew? Or was it because I had long hair pulled back into a short pony, a 3-day head-start on not shaving anything on my face, and a bandana tied around my head? It was quite true that I really needed to oui, oui, but did I really just order frites with my burger?

When roaming, do as the roamers do.

After lunch we kept driving quite a while and then almost suddenly we were at the first lake, a large one with a grand fishing lodge. Holy beaver dam! It was made of huge logs and stones and inside an inviting fire was burning in the massive fireplace and it was all rustic to the Nth and we barely got to look around because we had a plane to catch.

We loaded our gear onto the pontoon plane at the pier and the pilot checked that he had all of the rest of the supplies for us. Then we all piled in and the large-lake lodge fell below us quickly as the engines roared and we climbed, banking hard to the north.

Loud, louder! That hard bank north had leveled as we ascended, and now our engines were vibrating with a poetic meter just below the clouds. It was unusually smooth and pleasant as we banked again, this time to the west before we descended toward the next lake. This lake was all ours, we knew, with no one else around for a hundred kilometers or more. As we landed and then motored around to the dock, all the sudden and unfortunately, I needed to oui again.

All was well because it was only us and I could’ve gone right off the dock, but as the pilot got out he stooped down from the pontoon and scooped up a mouthful of water from the lake. “Dear Lord, it’s a sign!” I was thinking: a sign of purity. I could wait.

The pilot left us on the dock with our gear and said he would be back in a few days. Meanwhile, the lake would be all ours, he said.

The rest was too much for words, but I can recount a few remarkable moments.

[Remembering it, now I’d like to go back. How ’bout an I/thou moment? A caught/catchest it—choice cut of Walleye with wild mushrooms and foraged greens, spring water to drink, and something maple for dessert, all beside a lake and then a small fire in the cabin?]

We were very similar in our faith traditions, the things that were most important, and we had prepared for our time accordingly. I was officially a pastor at the time, so I had been appointed to furnish the goods. Days later on Sunday, we planned to have a few praise songs and then communion together, so as we unpacked I placed the matzah and a bottle of grape juice on the plank-wood table in the cabin kitchen.

As the days progressed we fished and we ate. We must have slept, but I do not remember sleeping. Small boats had been provided, and each day we went out at our leisure and caught fish. Never did we not catch fish (at least never did I not, cuz for days every time I cast, I felt a tug on the other end:). It was joy.

Is joy.

On one occasion, a sacrifice had to be made. Attached to our boat and trailing beside us in the water, Dad and I had a stringer of two or three select catches. As we sat rocking gently in the boat I felt a disturbance. The fish on our stringer were getting agitated and then I saw the water swirl beside the boat. A massive fish, probably a sturgeon because it was nearly as large as our boat, clamped down on at least one of the fish on our stringer, and now we were tethered. The prehistoric predator was turning away and dragging our boat! I pulled out my knife and cut the stringer loose so that we’d be safe and we laughed about it and our loss (but we laughed only after the threat had passed, yikes).

Another day, we were at our dock unloading our catch, counting our fish to ensure we had the legal limit. I thought I had one too many, so I released a northern pike into the lake. I counted again and came up one short, so after a third count, I realized that I could have kept it, dang it. I looked down into the water and so clear it was that I could see maybe ten meters down and there was the same pike that I had once caught and released. I slowly lowered my line down into the water and stopped the bait just inches from the fish. One twitch of my wrist, and the fish bit. Again. I reeled it in and we admired the twice-caught fish. Now I had my limit. Again. I smiled as I released him with a blessing; he’d been given his freedom in a most unusual way. Again.

During the days of boating around the lake Dad and I had found an island that we thought would be wonderful for our worship time, and the day had come. By the way, we were boating around simply because it was so easy to catch fish. It did not seem to matter what area of the lake we tried, all of it was good; so we explored as much as we fished.

[Even back then, 30+ years ago, as I was taking it in, I was thinking garden thoughts. The entire time that we were there, we saw no trace of any other humans. There were no sounds coming from other humans, no other scents. We saw only the cabin that had been prepared, the dock, the boats, and the wild refuge before us. Now, I am marveling at that idea of exploring in the garden. I’m going back to the Torah. Again.].

It was Sunday, and I grabbed the provisions before we all set off in two boats.

Between the island and the nearest shore of our lake was a nice outcropping of boulders from the island, surrounded by smaller rocks and a kind of cove within a cove. Just above it all was a patch of grass. We were able to pull our boats near and then we stepped into the water, sloshing to shore. It was quite cold, so we built a small fire (Dad called them Red Man fires as in “White man build big fire, stand way back. Red man build small fire, move in close.”), and settled on rocks around it.

[I was reflecting that the entire trip had been one of signs. Look for signs and boldly follow them, as we had: guideposts on the journey, signs of purity, signs of power, of preparation, signs that it might lead to a place like a garden and we’d move in close.]

It was nice how four men so quickly united over a thing not-of-this-world. We had been all about the drive, and then the fishing and the eating and the pooping. Now here we were with only our hearts turning toward God, and on the traditional day for it across the world, we knew.

You know how sometimes you step outside a tradition, maybe way outside it, toward something you know to be good? But, you kinda sorta want a sign of confirmation too? And then you get it, that sign? Then you doubt? And you get another sign, and another, wham! until you stop doubting? Or at other times, you just ask and then it’s straight to wham!, and you know. 

On this Sunday, on a secluded lake in Canada, it happened. We sang, two basses and two tenors, and it was the only sound echoing across the now-still water. We decided at some point that it was time for communion, to take the little matzah square of bread and break it, share it, and it would be the body of Christ to us. Then we would take the juice, passing the bottle around, sipping together as men, drinking what was to us the blood of The Anointed One, a cleansing, purifying flow forever for all. But first a prayer!

One of us, not sure who, prayed and asked that the God out there up there all around here, there and everywhere be pleased with our efforts, even as we were very conscious that across our world, others were gathering on this day to do much the same. Maybe there were others on another island in another lake, and certainly, there would be millions of other others gathered in Christian community.

Give us a sign? Are you happy with what we are doing? It is our best at this time, and we ask that you accept us as we are. Will you please? We were praying these words or something like them when abruptly there was another sound high above us.

It was a hawk circling in the clear, cobalt sky.

We broke the body bread.

There was a faint shriek.

One by one we drank the bloody juice.

Something was coming down from the sky, falling toward us. We could sense it as we thought of that sacrifice, once for all (believe it—it is done, a one-time intervention for everyone).

A small, white thing thudded into the ashes, into the coals of the fire set at the center of our attention.

Dropped by the hawk, it was our sign: a dove giving its last breath as its lifeblood sizzled and turned to smoke . . .

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).

Photograph “Signs of Communion” © 2019 Timothy Waugh