I stopped believing in signs from God a longtime ago. I mean, really, think about it. What is a sign from God? Is it the ray of light that pierces through a canopy of clouds? The perfectly crisp red leaf clipped by an autumn breeze carried serendipitous-like until it lands peacefully in the palm of your hand? Is the casual, weary stare of an armadillo a sign from God. What is a sign from God except the sort of commonplace event blended with discursive musings. “Aha Ha! That’s what God wants me to do!”
Those are the signs I stopped believing in.
The trouble with those kinds of signs is they tend to confirm what we already want, or they sleuth across the border of religion and into the land of superstition. Prayer morphs into the Magic 8-Ball. Scripture vacillates between sacred and fortune-cookie meditations. God’s nearness swells maudlin verse and lyric. Good deeds and tithes seed themselves as a fixed lottery. They are the signs of the ancient pagans: the thunder clap that means the gods are angry; the eclipse that means the gods want war; the rain cloud over a dry field that means the gods provide. The natural world is full of rinky-dink, workaday congruities masquerading as signs. And the sleeping gods of our imaginations dream of our spiritual vagaries.
The story that follows, though, is perfectly true. It really happened. I don’t much believe it myself, so I guess I can’t expect you to accept it either. No means of stylistic frills or writing garnishes and ornamental embellishments can exaggerate or even mislead you. It is true in every meaningful way; a sign from God, in the strictest, prosaic use of language, struck me in the face.
It happened this way: some time ago, never mind exactly when, having few obligations left in the house to occupy my time, and nothing much of interest in my own town, I thought of old Ishmael who decided to sail to the watery parts of the world. Travel ameliorates my circulator system and rejuvenates my soul. And much to the chagrin of Jonah, God resides in the corners of Tarshish and Nineveh in equal measure; so, it is to these remote, romanticized locales I decided it was high time to venture.
From the time I was barely old enough to be call a man, I have traveled with the church to serve. In the cloudscape bosques of Costa Rica and in the volcanic shadowed towns of Guatemala and the breezy, coffee patched Caribbean islands and oodles of cracked earth anchorites, moored down by generations of human existence, traveling with the church offers a glimpse, just a pinch, of what travel companies, themed cruises, and high cotton resorts can’t show. People, real people, surpass the middling existence of our supermarkets and shopping plazas and wrought-iron-gate neighborhoods. The communion of saints is every bit as life giving as the blood of Christ, and this communion extends beyond our horizons.
I had fixed my intentions on just this sort of travel and discovered opportunities to serve for two months. Angela, my wife, thought the idea so grand she encouraged me to go for a longer period, maybe three or four months. An application was dispatched, accompanied by letters of recommendations, a doctor’s consent, and a background check. An interview was had and an invitation to a volunteer training session was issued. All I had to do was go to Arkansas for an intensive four-day seminar on volunteer mission work in the United Methodist Church.
In order to fully participate with this pilgrimage to Arkansas, my tent and various campgrounds supplanted Delta Airlines and Hampton Inns. I first stopped in the Rock Creek Campground along the Obed River on the Cumberland Plateau in eastern part of Tennessee. Boy Scouts from the nearby town of Oakridge had invaded shortly before my arrival and busied themselves with log choppings and shouted conversations.
The next morning, I was off to Arkansas. Arkansas might not be considered exotic, but for someone who has crossed the Mississippi River less than ten times in a car, the state exudes an untamed quality of otherness. The history of gritty, muck in the swamp trappers and opportunistic squatters and haughty, land-grabbing planters would do well to offer a chapter on the history of Arkansas.
I stayed the night at Village Creek State Park, which if it had a creek, I never found it. But the wooded trails with the tiniest of creatures more than made up for a dried-up creek. A snail resting on bracket fungus, a supine acorn bedded down in a mossy crib, a stalwart mushroom growing out of a hollowed-out tree knot, the armadillo foraging through fallen red and yellow leaves. Any one of these native pageant winners could be considered a sign from God. In so many ways the fiery, red-orange sunrises and the rolling, canvased farmlands merely feign the beauty of a red leaf caught between the tree bark and a twig. But if they were signs from God, I could only say they were signs of God.
The next morning, I was off again for the destination I had considered to be the treasure of my trip: Richland Creek. I had been listening to lectures on ancient Greece, so the image of Odysseus surging through trial after trial to arrive home came easily to mind. I drove through torrential rain storms that gave way to hail, which cracked on the hood of my truck like falling ball bearings; and as I climbed the Ozark mountains, a fog bank curtained the road with a dreamy, afterlife quality. Had I known at the time that I was driving towards a sign from God, I would not have interpreted these events as just bad weather.
The closer I got, though, the more I wasn’t sure where I was going. Witts Springs, Arkansas has no gas station, no stoplight, and no cell phone signal, but it does have a post office.
“Can you help me find Richland Creek Campground?” I asked the lady behind the counter.
“Why do you want to go there?” she asked. Her long neck made her look like a llama and her ears pointed out to the sides of her head like an animal trained to hear distant noises.
“Well, I was gonna camp there tonight.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she said winching her neck away from me.
“Why is that?”
“Well, you’ve seen the weather.” She paused a moment and then looked back down at her desk where she had been sorting mail or rearranging paperclips. “I’m not sure you can get there. I’m not sure you should get there.”
“I’ve got a four-wheel drive. I should be okay.”
“Yeah, I see that. Well, if you’re gonna go there I might as well tell you how so you don’t get even more lost.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“Look now, you go down the road you’re on a spell and turn right,” she said leaning her neck towards the window. I thought if she stuck her head out the window she’d look like a circus giraffe riding in a boxcar with a hole cut in the top. “Then you gotta go ten miles or more back to Richland Creek. It’s not a paved road.” She paused for a moment. She looked me in the eye. “Maybe you don’t really wanna go there. Maybe you just think you do. Lots of folks think they do and then get lost and have a real time of it.” She looked away and then bored holes in my eye sockets. “Other folks talk about things back there,” she said with a deepened and slowed voice. “You know what I mean?”
I was fascinated and the more she talked the more I wanted to go. She was like the obligatory character warning Scooby and the gang that, “Them hills be haunted.”
“Look here, now,” she said. “Don’t be so man enough you won’t turn around, hear?”
“Yes ma’am. Thank you,” I said.
The road back to the campground was much better than the lady at the post office had led me to believe. But it did go up and up and then plummet down into hollers. It was exactly ten miles to the campground but these were the longest ten miles I may have ever driven.
The campground was abandoned. Maybe there were fifteen campsites with fire rings and picnic tables. There was a latrine house and a circular gravel road. The camp seemed well cared for, but, in the absence of people, squirrels and chipmunks were in charge. The Richland Creek trickled on its way just below the ridge of the camp and two weather-scrubbed peaks kept perpetual shade locked down. The heavy fog I had driven through lingered just overhead making the place darker, and occasionally dropped as low as the top branches of the trees. I relapsed back into the anxious feeling I had when I was a child and couldn’t identify a strange noise in the dark.
It wouldn’t be long until it was completely dark, so I started gathering fallen sticks and broken branches; I scavenged the other campsites for partially burnt firewood, and before long I had amassed enough tinder to burn through the evening. But nothing rids the creeps better than a big fire. So, I continued gathering. I had decided that I would have the biggest fire possible. Then I started hearing ducks.
When the weather had allowed, I had noticed earlier skeins and skeins of ducks or geese flying south in enormous V-shaped formations. They traveled much higher than I thought wise for a duck to fly, where the weather and wind must be unsympathetic and bitter, but how was I to know what was best for a duck?
I started my fire and watched as the surrounding area became darker. I played with my fire for a while, teasing it out, pushing it to the corners of the fire ring. The wood was damp, even wet, and the half-rotten branches were reluctant to burn. The choir of ducks overhead seemed louder. And they didn’t really sound like ducks. Instead of the nice quack of a respectable pond duck, these birds sounded more like the wailings of a fifth grader on the trumpet.
I unfolded my chair, lit my lantern, and propped my booted feet on the fire ring. I read for an hour or two all the while listening to the sound of these ducks, which seemed to be multiplying. My fire had dried out the wood and was really burning. The overhead ducks must number in the thousands, I thought, and I worried about them dropping unwanted gifts that would splatter in my hair. I set my book down and watched the fire.
There is nothing more pensive making than staring into a fire. I wondered about old Moses watching over his flock and then coming across the burning bush. God faced people in the Old Testament, and talked to them directly. I thought how wonderful and terrible it would be to have been given a sign from a God who talks from a burning bush. I wondered how I would feel if Jesus stepped out of the dark and into the light of my fire. I hoped Jesus would say, “Do not be afraid.” While I was meditating about these long-ago theophanies, it seemed a good idea to ask God for a sign. “God,” I prayed out loud, “why won’t you appear to me?”
I heard a large branch from a tree fall. It crashed through limb after limb until I heard a dull thud somewhere off in the darkness. I looked back at the fire and continued my prayer. “God, that’s not what I had in mind.” Another tree branch in a different direction started its long tumble to the ground. “God, when I say give me a sign, I don’t mean a falling tree branch. Tree branches fall all the time. That’s not a sign. That’s Mother Nature. I won’t a sign like you gave Moses. You know, a talking fire. I want a sign that’s in my face.” That’s what I precisely prayed, in my face.
At that exact moment, I heard a turbulent whoosh whoosh from behind. I turned and looked. A large white bird was falling from the tree. The bird struck the ground and bounced trampoline-like off a bed of leaves and flew directly towards me. I put my hands over my face, and the giant white bird struck me in the forehead.
The white bird struck me so hard and quickly that it ricocheted off into the woods. I lifted my lantern and found the bird tucked between two small saplings. No matter how close I got to the bird, the bird just rested there. I thought the bird must be injured and so I helped it escape from the saplings penning it. Once freed, the bird walked up to my fire and sat down. I went for my camera, knowing that this story was too unbelievable without some measure of proof. After a few portraits, which the bird gladly posed for, I heard more tree limbs falling and then more. But they weren’t tree limbs at all.
I walked around the campsite with my lantern in one hand and my camera in the other. Dotted throughout the woods were resting white birds – literal sitting ducks. No matter how close I came, they regarded me as little more than a curiosity. And then I saw incoming birds. They were not gracefully swooping down from the sky. Instead, they slammed into the treetops and allowed the branches to break their fall. They tumbled to the ground with their wings stretched out and then struck the ground like an apple. Immediately upon hitting the ground, they sort of shook their heads like a football player does after getting tackled, and sat there. They were crash landing on purpose.
I took picture after picture of these unconcerned birds, and as more and more continued to smack the tree tops, I thought the ground might accumulate three feet of birds by morning. When I returned to my campfire, the bird that hit me in the face was still sitting by my fire. Another bird had joined him and the two sat warming themselves. I sat back in my chair and listened as birds continued to crash into the tops of the trees. “What’s wrong with you, Mr. Duck?” I asked, and the duck returned my question with an accusatory gaze.
And I remembered my prayer and finished my conversation with God. “You’re a real smart aleck, you know?”
The next morning, around five, I crawled out of my tent with the usual crick in my neck. A small layer of ice had formed over my tent and the woods and the mountains and the stream below whispered not a sound. I kicked my feet out of the tent and laced up my boots, and when I looked to my right, the duck that hit me in the face was sitting beside my tent, and the duck that had joined him was sitting beside the other end of my tent. I ignited my lantern and walked around the campground looking for other sleeping duck but the only two I found apparently had stayed with me all night.
What should I make of a duck hitting me in the face? What should I make of ducks falling out of the sky, crashing through tree? What do I make of the two loyal ducks sitting sentinel-like by my tent as I sleep through the night? Was it all just a coincide: the perfect timing of my camping trip with the birds’ migratory pattern? Or was it a sign from God?
I think the answer is simply yes. And if it is a sign from God what more could it possibly mean than God is listening? God is there in the backwoods of Arkansas listening to the rambling thoughts of a man camping.
There are no unpaved roads, backwoods trails, there is not a holler tucked away, abandoned by people where God is not. Whatever relationship we have with God, God listens. And it is through listening that God frequently speaks, even if all God has to say is, “I’m listening.”
Since the events recounted above, I have come to believe, perhaps incorrectly, that these were not ducks at all but were snow geese. If you know, please drop me a line.