We are in the middle of the great migration. Millions of waterfowl fly right past our house on the Northcoast super highway on their annual journey south. Our little portion of this great lake must be a great fishing ground, because it serves as a rest stop for dozens of varieties of birds every day. First, the scout lands; then the leader of the flock glides onto the aqua runway; and then the entire squad comes in for landing. The sound is almost as loud as an airport at the evening rush hour. They feast on fresh perch and walleye. It’s fun to watch them fighting over a big fish. They splash around and drink up some of the best water in all the world. And then, they’re off again, and we wait for the next battalion to land. Ah, the joys of the living on an inland sea.
A few years ago, I fell in love with fly-fishing. It gave me a new take on living in Northeast Ohio, especially during the grey months of winter. Lately, I’ve been spending a good bit of time fishing and standing on my deck watching flocks migrating birds fish.
Fly fishing is the first thing that I have not cared about the end result. I like the act of fishing. I like going to the fishing store talking with the guys about supplies and equipment, and I’ve now learned that a leader is not just someone who guides others, and a tippet is not just the black stole I wear for evensong; no in the world of angling, both are pieces of very thin fishing line. I like learning how to tie knots; I have not yet tried tying a fly. I like getting dressed in my waders and boots. I like driving to the river. I like walking to the bank. I like staring at the water, standing just so as I try to discern in the words of my friend Eric whether “the river is fishing.” I like selecting the right flies, weights, and bobbins, and then getting them on my line without dropping my rod in the water. I like walking in waist-high and even chest-high water with snow on the riverbank. I like standing in ice cold water while it’s raining, not caring if I get wet since I’ve finally figured out how many layers to wear in order to stay warm and dry (three on the bottom and four on the top). I like casting, casting, and casting some more. I don’t even mind too much getting my hook caught in the trees. I like eating strawberry pop tarts while hiking up or down river. I like slipping and laughing as I go. I like getting a bite and then losing it. I like get in a warm car and driving home, talking about fishing and life. I like casting in my sleep and dreaming about the fish I’ll someday catch. I guess you could say I’m in love.
In the opening lines of his autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean writes, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others.”[i]
In my childhood, there was a dotted line (with an arrow at the end) between piano lessons and fishing. My grandfather, a retired man who kept the sacred relics of his private world in the trunk of his car, would collect me from my piano lessons and take me fishing. We didn’t fly fish in a great trout river. We sat with an old fashioned fishing pole at a well-stocked pond in the local city park. In fact, we frequently went fishing on the day that the pond was stocked. My grandfather would chat awhile with the park manger and then politely say, “Could my little granddaughter here take one of those fish for her home to her grandmother.” He would wink at me as the manager dumped a fish in our bucket. We’d take that bucket full of water and my “catch” to my grandparents’ apartment building and present my grandmother with a big, old, ugly catfish. She’d look in the bucket and say, “Jake, get that thing back to the pond where it belongs.” We would trace our steps back to the park and dump the fish back into pond; and then like the magi in the Epiphany story, we would return home by a different way – that of the drugstore soda fountain where my grandfather would treat me to a cherry coke or a lime ricky. I loved my afternoons of fishing with my grandfather, even though we never caught a fish. And now, I realize that he didn’t care if he caught anything either.
Jesus’ first disciples cared a great deal about catching fish. It was their livelihood. Norman Maclean writes that his father “told [them] about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and [they] were left to assume…that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” That was wishful thinking. Peter, Andrew, James, John and Simeon were net fishermen. Setting off at night in small boats about fifteen or twenty feet long, they would throw out large mesh netting with weights for sinkers and cork floats. And the nets would gather in all kinds of fish, which would then be extricated from the mesh and separated on the shore. In the morning, the nets would then be spread out on the rocks to dry and be mended. Commercial fishing was (and still is) hard work that required strength, endurance, patience, skill, teamwork, and luck.
The day that Jesus met up with these fishermen was a morning after an unlucky night in the fishing business. When Jesus came along, he saw the empty boats by the shore and the fishermen washing their nets. They were cleaning up and getting ready to go home, eat breakfast, and sleep. Being more than a little presumptuous, he got into one of their boats and asked these weary fishermen to row him out away from shore so that he could teach the crowd from a floating pulpit. And then when he finished preaching, Jesus had the audacity to say to them, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Can you imagine how Peter and the others must have felt? “What’s up with this guy, the son of a carpenter, telling us commercial fishermen to put out our nets after we’ve already had a bad night. Go deeper…you’ve got to be kidding.” How do you feel when you have worked so hard at something – at a relationship, a job, or a project – struggling until you were utterly exhausted, only to come up empty handed, and then be told go to back out there and try again? It’s much more in our human nature to walk away and give up, at least for the moment.
But Simon Peter and his companions obeyed. They didn’t walk away, or row back to shore. Instead, they followed Jesus’ instructions, and in doing so, they caught a net full of fish, so many fish that the net started to break and the boat starting to sink. Out of the scarcity of the previous night came overwhelming abundance. That’s when Peter cried out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” From what deep place within Simon Peter did those words of fear, shame and inadequacy arise?
I believe that author and peace activist Marianne Williamson offers some insight into Peter’s response when she writes: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?” [ii]
But Jesus saw right through Simon Peter’s response and would not accept his belittling of himself. Again in words of Marianne Williamson, Jesus seemed to know that, “Playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” So out of the depths of fear, shame and inadequacy, Jesus called Simon Peter and his companions to another kind of fishing – fishing for people.
Isn’t that how God works? The Holy One calls us out of our brokenness, our inadequacy, our shame, and our fear to a new place and a new vocation. I remember it well on a cold January day in a McDonald’s on 42nd Street in New York City. God called me out of my brokenness, my inadequacy, my shame, and my fear to ordination. I was ready to throw in the towel, drop out of seminary, and go back to what I was doing before when God said, “I want your life.”
Fortunately, like Peter and Isaiah before him, God also gave me the wisdom and grace to respond, in the words of the nineteenth century English poet and hymnist Frances Ridley Havergal, “Take my life and let it be, consecrated unto thee.” But I was scared to death, and the journey had only just begun. Over and over again, I’ve learned that God keeps calling me beyond my fear, frustration, shame and inadequacy. God keeps asking me to do those things that I don’t think I have in me. And just when I’m ready to give up, there’s the miraculous catch.
God wants to be incredibly generous with all of us, if we could only receive her generosity. When we’re ready to throw in the towel, God wants to lead us into deeper waters and give us an abundant catch, so generous that we can hardly hold it in our fragile nets. All we have to do is follow.
When I recall fishing with my grandfather, I don’t think he was an accomplished fisherman like Rev. Maclean. He really didn’t teach me much about fishing for fish. However, as I reflect back on his life, I realize that my grandfather was a kind and gentle man who never had a bad word to say about anybody. Everyone who knew him well and liked by everyone who ever met him loved him. As my parents used to remind me, “Your papa was more interested in making friends with people than he was doing business with them.” I now know, my grandfather, Jacob E. Lind, God rest his soul, taught me a lot about fishing – fishing for people, that is. And in the tradition of many a cleric, I’m learning how to fish for steelhead trout. God only knows what I’ll do when I catch one.
Listen to my entire sermon:
When I was a schoolgirl, we had to go to daily morning chapel. We would line up in the hallway by class and height. Following dress code inspection, we would process into the auditorium, singing a variety of familiar hymns, our favorite being, “For All the Saints.”
Whenever I hear this hymn, I think about my school days and laugh. There we were, a bunch of kids singing about the saints. We didn’t really know much about sainthood, and we certainly didn’t think or act like we were saints, and yet, we were drawn to sing about them. We were what novelist Anne Tyler once penned as “saints maybe.”[i]
If saints are ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary things for the love of God, then each and every one of us is a saint – maybe. If saints are everyday people who demonstrate something of the power, richness and goodness a life with God, then we all are saints – maybe. If saints are common folk obsessed with the love of Christ, then everyone is a saint – maybe. If saints are individuals who love their life with God so much that they are willing to give it away to others, then each one of us is a saint – maybe. If saints are people who have let God make them holy, then we are all saints – maybe.
Sainthood is really a matter of potential. When we choose to live into our God-given potential as bright lights, salt of the earth, witnesses in the dark, good and faithful stewards of all that God has given us, holy ones in the midst of our secular world, we become saints, some remembered and most forgotten.
From its earliest days, the church has commemorated the extraordinary saints and servants of God, the ones that some have called “athletes who have gone before, [in order] to train and make ready those who are to come hereafter.”[ii] Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc, Frederick Douglas, Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and the list goes on and on – these holy women and holy men give us glimpses into the fullness of life and faith that God intends for us.
These heroes of the faith were not models of perfection; they were ordinary people whose lives were reshaped as they claimed and practiced God’s redemptive love and grace. Like all the rest of us, they started off as “saints maybe,” and in spite of their failings and shortcomings, they became real saints.
What then separates the real saints from the rest of us “saints maybe?” If you read their biographies, they seem to have directly and profoundly experienced God in their lives. They demonstrated a different level of commitment to and courage in their life with God. They showed exceptional compassion towards others and toward the world around them. Many of them loved with abandonment and even foolishness, sometimes loving those whom other defined as unlovable. And they seemed to believe that ordinary folk are able do extraordinary things.
I’ve come to believe that sainthood is, in large part, about intention and practice. These holy women and men practiced with intention their faith in the way that a concert pianist practices at the keyboard, a star tennis player practices against the backboard, or an Olympic ice skater practices in a lonely rink – day after day after day. The saints practiced their prayer life like a Buddhist monk practices meditation or a seasoned yogi practices the postures every day. They practiced their stewardship like a financial manager practices investing. They practiced their acts of courage and compassion like a parachuter practices skydiving. They practiced their preaching and teaching like a Pulitzer Prize author practices writing. In short, they intentionally practiced their faith – the craft of discipleship – until it became second nature.
Last week, a young woman came to talk with me. She said that she was trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. When I asked her about her faith, she responded that she was practicing meditation and yoga and was exploring Buddhism. I asked her about her religious upbringing, and she said that her family was Christian. And then I asked her: Have you considered practicing Christianity? With a curious and surprised look on her face, she responded that she had never thought about it that way. Christianity was something she grew up with – it was one of her taken-for-granted marks of identity. But, she didn’t think about having to practice it with the intention of becoming a Christian disciple.
Christian faith requires practice and intention. Fulfilling our baptismal covenant takes practice. Continuing in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers is a matter of intentional practice. Resisting evil requires practice with intention. Proclaiming by word and example the Gospel demands intention and practice. Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and loving your neighbor as yourself, doesn’t happen without intention or practice. Striving for peace and justice, and respecting the dignity of every human being involves a lifetime of intentional practice. Read the rest of this entry »