Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Patience, solitude and Baptism: The river beginning before time, bringing new life, washing our tears, and my personal journey

Many years ago, probably around 1980 or so, I was introduced to a stream that flows from beneath a slumbering volcano, Mount Lassen, in the northeastern corner of California.

The stream, Hat Creek, runs cold and deep, and a three-mile section is maintained as a wild trout sanctuary.

I learned to fly fish on Hat Creek, and I learned how to read the water and the wily ways of truly wild fish. I also learned something about patience and solitude, though not nearly enough.

I have returned to Hat Creek many times over the years, often with a buddy or two, and many times alone. Hat Creek is remote, but not so remote that a good half-day of driving from Sacramento can't get you there.

There was a time in the mid-1980s when things were not going so well for me. I got up in the middle of the night and drove to Hat Creek so I could be there at dawn for the morning mayfly hatch. I wanted to catch fish, but really I wanted to be on the stream to be alone and sort things out.

I went to the widest, slickest, deepest section below the riffle at Powerhouse #2. I took my time, gazed at the water for awhile. I set up my rod, put on my waders.

I watched the water awhile longer. I got into the water, walked out into the stream until I was waste deep, found firm footing on the sandy bottom below, then took my first cast.

Instantly I caught the largest trout I have ever caught on Hat Creek. The rules say that you can keep two large trout a day, but I thanked this one and let her go (the big ones are usually female).

At that moment, I had this wonderful feeling that all would be well, that God was with me standing in the stream, holding up my feet, and like the water flowing by me, my life would be long and would have many twists and turns before reaching the sea hundreds of miles and many years away. I could sense God telling me that my difficulties were temporary but now I needed to do something new in my life, but I needed to be patient to see how this would unfold.

I would not exactly call this a "conversion experience," nor would I have made any connection at the time with church things or baptism. I'm not sure I would have known the words. But it was, for me, a numinous, holy experience, and I knew in that moment that my life was going to change in ways I would not and could not know, and I didn't mind that unknowing.

You can chalk it up to cold water or a big trout, and maybe that would be so. But the moment has stuck with me forever.

Over the years, much has changed in my life, and in ways I could not possibly have imagined. Marriage, career, new friends, new stories, new adventures, a return to church and a life of faith, and the rediscovery of a submerged and nearly drowned calling that had been with me since I was quite young. I've had many joys and many disappointments, and the deaths of too many dear friends. I would not have dreamed on that day standing in Hat Creek that any of this would have happened, much less that I'd be a priest in a church in the faraway land of Virginia.

Not everything has turned out as I would have liked or planned, then or now, and that is alright because that is what I heard would happen standing in the stream a long time ago.

I bring all this up because I return to Hat Creek often, although I have not been there physically in several years. Hat Creek is the place of my imagining, the place of my deepest prayers, the place I return in solitude when my eyes are closed. I picture so many people, living and gone, sitting with me on the bank just below the riffle at Powerhouse #2. Sometimes in my prayer we get into the water. Sometimes we sit gazing. Sometimes there is a banquet table on the bank, sometimes simply the warm mountain breeze with Jesus sitting beside me in silence.

This past week, the readings from the Daily Office have been strong with rivers and water. Last Sunday, the Morning Prayer readings included this from Isaiah 66:12:
For thus says the Lord: I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream.
On Monday, we began an exploration of the Book of Ruth 1:1-14, and I was struck by the scene as Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to return to their families because she can longer support them, and “Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.”

I imagined Naomi's and Ruth's tears falling into the river, and those tears being swept away. The river brings life and prosperity but also washes away their pain and all that doesn't bring life. We, too, get to stand in that river, our footing sure, as it flows relentlessly around bends and over riffles to places beyond where we can see now. Our tears also disappear into the river and will become droplets bringing new life once again.

Maybe this is why water is such a powerful symbol for so many things, and why we use water in baptism. This coming Sunday at St. Paul's we will be baptizing four babies, and I've been thinking about how their lives will likely stretch decades beyond my own life, and how they know nothing of the world they will inherit. But inherit it they will.

The Church considers baptism as the starting line in their life of faith. But in another sense, these children have been in this river all along. On Sunday, in their baptism, they will symbolically step into a very old stream that flows from beneath the earth and before time, and will flow onward with them. They, like us, will dream dreams one day of where the river will take them, and like us, they will be surprised.

Baptism is a sign that it is never too late for any of us to have a new beginning; it is never too late to stand in the stream and dream. And maybe catch a big fish. This came in last night's Evening Prayer, Psalm 126:4-6:
“The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are glad indeed.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses of the Negev.

Those who sowed with tears
will reap with songs of joy.”
+ + +

The first photo above is of Mount Lassen from the Lake Almanor side, taken by someone who only describes herself as a Modoc Indian from a blog called A Wayward Life.

Incidentally, Mount Lassen last erupted in 1915 and there are still many hot spots and young lava beds in the area.

The second photo, by another anonymous photographer posting on the Internet, is of the exact spot that I describe on Hat Creek.

By the way, if you ever get to Hat Creek, the best fly is a #16-#18 light colored parachute mayfly "Para Dun" in the morning, and a #14 brown cadis at dusk. Use #6 tippet or lighter. You won't need anything else in your box.

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