A fairly conventional piece of wisdom says that God can have three possible responses to prayer. He might say, “Yes, I’ll get right on it” or, “No, definitely not”, or He could say, “Not yet.” It’s easy to confuse those last two.
I just got back from the Boundary Waters area of Northern Minnesota. In case you’re not familiar with it, imagine one million cubic acres of prime wilderness, unspoiled by human interference. No roads. No houses. Little or no cell phone coverage. Planes aren’t even allowed to fly within fifty miles of it.
For any camping parties going in, the prime directive states “Leave not a trace.” That means no alteration of the surroundings or littering of any type. If you want to visit, you have to huff your bags up and down rocky hills, and while you’re at it, carry your canoe on your shoulders. In other words, it’s something straight out of Field and Stream magazine—the 1910 edition.
Many of the fish in these places have never encountered a fisherman.
It was going to be a dream come true for me. You have to understand that I grew up fishing. As a teenager, my parents gave me a ’67 Dodge Dart. They called it my going to school car. I called it my going fishing car. That Dodge managed to find every decent fishing hole in central Louisiana, but couldn’t seem to locate one English class.
While other kids learned math and similarly worthless things, I sat in the classroom of the Largemouth Bass. As a result, I barely graduated high school. But I learned all kinds of tricks with crank baits. At that time at least, I considered it a fair trade.
With all of that on my resume, Boundary Waters fishing was going to be a cinch. But after the grueling hike to our destination at Crab Lake, the mother of all summer cold fronts hit us. Wind shear brutalized the area, creating white caps on the lake and damaging our tent tarps. Low pressure fronts of that type are the kiss of death to easy fishing. Fish become finicky and retreat to deeper water.
Regardless, the guys around me continued catching them.
I managed to land only one Small Mouth Bass that would not have qualified for a Captain Gordon’s fish stick.
Tomorrow, I told myself.
But the hope didn’t materialize that next day, either.
A thing like this had never happened to me in fishing—a shut out two days in a row.
When the third day came and went with no results, I was more than mystified. Frustration set in. Disappointment. Embarrassment. The situation wasn’t shaping up the way I had imagined it.
This is weird.
The cool thing about being a Christian sportsman is that you don’t just talk to God in church or when we’re trying to bring another soul to Christ. You feel like you can talk to him about anything, even when it comes to silly stuff like catching a fish.
Lord, what’s the problem? Did I do something to offend you? You can’t be saying no to something this simple!
No answer. No clues.
At four days down, the trip was half over. I still had nothing but that fish stick to show for all my efforts. Meanwhile, the boys were hollering, laughing, and back-slapping over the sizeable bass they were bringing in for the evening camp fry.
What do you do in an interim time when nothing is going on, when no answer is forthcoming and no progress made? When it seems even Jesus has no interest in responding to the thing that has obviously gotten under your skin?
During that time I heard a notable observation from a guy in camp about my dry streak.
Billy said, “Dude, you think too much.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“I mean you’re intelligent, but you’re intense.”
My interpretation: Relax. You can’t force grace. You can’t control it or demand it. You have to float with it while God deals with dozens of items in and around you. God is perfect and likes doing perfect things with perfect timing so He’ll have a perfect outcome. Then we’ll return perfect and fitting praise.
So I still kept my hope alive, but in the meantime, I made sure I continued living and laughing. I read 2 Corinthians 3 and reconnected with the wonder of what it means to be in the New Testament ministry. Half of me went swimming (it was too cold to get anything above my waist wet). I made up stupid comedy sketches and performed them for Keith, my tent buddy, who thought they were hilarious.
My fishing fortunes turned.
On Wednesday evening, while canoeing down a lake channel, I tied on a lure I hadn’t used in decades. The last time I’d had it on my line I was a skinny sixteen year old. The lure had been discontinued before I graduated High school, so I suppose that makes it an antique. The company that made it no longer even exists. Talk about a long shot.
But I killed them that night. One bass after another started coming over the side of the boat.
I have no idea why I went almost four complete days without catching one decent fish. In the greater scheme of things where wars and death run rampant, who really cares? Yet those days were center stage for me. They were my reality.
God’s “Not yet” carried with it a particular flavor of grace that I’m finding unforgettable.
The fish tasted great, too.