The (Ice) Fishing Life

If I didn’t do it now it would likely never happen.  For twenty winters I’ve passed by Reeds Lake in Grand Rapids a few thousand times and seen hundreds of people fishing on the ice.  For some unknown reason, however, I’ve been hesitant to walk out on the ice myself, fearful that I’m going to be the one to break through.

A week ago my curiosity got the best of me.  I gingerly stepped onto the ice and walked out to a man fishing 200 yards off shore.  “Would you mind telling me a little bit about ice fishing?”

ice fishing 1

“What kind of fish are you trying to catch?”

“We’re fishing for blue gills, but others fish for crappies, perch, and northern pike.”  This is known as a very good ice fishing lake, especially since it’s in an urban area.”

“How thick is the ice?”

“Eight inches.  It’s not as thick as it normally is at this time of year.”

“How do you know when the ice is unsafe?”

“If it starts to warm up or get too windy the ice can break up pretty quickly.”

“What’s this?”

“It’s an auger.  It makes holes in the ice, and then we put the fishing line down the hole.”

“You have six lines here for two people.”

“The limit on Reeds Lake is three lines per person and twenty-five fish per day for pan fish.”

“Why don’t you have an ice shanty for protection like some other guys do?”

ice fishing 2

“It’s sunny today, and we’re wearing warm clothing.  We’re fine.  The huts with heaters get so warm that you don’t even need to wear a coat.  You ought to try ice fishing some time.”

“Maybe I will.”  What I neglected to tell him is that fishing is my life, too.  The only difference is that I’m fishing for people.

The fish is an ancient Christian symbol.  After all, Jesus’ disciples Peter, Andrew, James, and John were commercial fishermen, and Jesus spent most of his ministry teaching, preaching, and healing around the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus used fish and bread for the feeding of the 5,000, commissioned his disciples to “catch people,” and asked them after his resurrection to cast their nets on the other side of the boat where they caught 153 fish.

It was so dangerous to be a follower of Jesus in the first centuries of Christianity that they developed a secret password for identifying fellow disciples as well as marking meeting places and tombs.  According to tradition, when Christians met one another the first person would draw the arc on the top half of a fish.  If the second person was a believer, he or she would respond by drawing the bottom half of the arc slightly overlapping on the right edge.


fish 2

Fishing was a wonderful part of my childhood because my father was an avid and artful fisherman.  My first memory of fishing was at a family church camp when, as a six-year old, I cast my line into the lake and got a bite.  After struggling to reel in the line my dad and I discovered that I’d caught a huge snapping turtle instead of a fish!

The summer after eighth grade my father joined a fishing club on a remote lake in northern Quebec.  Every summer for ten years our family spent a week at what became one of my most cherished places on earth.  One time my little sister hooked a walleye, but the fish fought so hard it yanked the fishing pole right out of her hands.  We were fairly close to shore, but the wind was up, the water was stirred, and we couldn’t see the bottom to find the pole.  The next day the water was calm, so we returned to the same spot and, sure enough, there it was.  We recovered the rod, the fish was still on the hook, and we ate it for dinner.

Fishing is important for Christians because Jesus instructed his disciples and us to fish for people.  Unfortunately, United Methodists haven’t been fishing too well over the past 45 years.   If we could regain our fishing touch we’d also recover our lost skills in disciple-making.

The (Ice) Fishing Life: How to Catch People

  • Be clear about why you’re fishing.

As Christians we’re understandably hesitant to pressure people into becoming followers of Jesus by giving the impression that they’re out and we’re in, they’re lost and we’re saved, and they’re off track, and we’ve got it all together.  The reality is that we’re all out, we’re all lost, and we’re all off track at times.

Jesus asked us to fish in order to build Christ’s church.  You and I are called to “catch people” by inviting others to encounter the living God, experience the unconditional grace of Jesus, allow their lives to be transformed, and then join us on the Way to the kingdom of God.

  • Know where to fish.

My father had an intuitive sense of where the fish were because he could think like a fish.  He knew the lake he was fishing inside and out, and he understood the habits of the specific fish he wanted to catch.  Anyone could catch fish with my dad.

In the same way, in order to grow, local churches need to study the demographics, know their neighborhood, target a specific audience, and then seek to understand their lifestyle, needs, hopes, and dreams.  This is no longer the 1950’s when churches quickly grew simply by opening their doors.  In order to experience growth in today’s world we must know the context of our setting, be intentional, have a plan, and get outside the building.

  • Know how to catch fish.

If you want to be a fisherman, you need a rod, reel, and bait suitable for the specific fish you want to catch.  Out on the ice the man fishing for blue gills used a tiny rod, whereas another fellow I visited let down a line inside an ice shanty with a huge artificial fish lure that he would periodically bob up and down.  The lure sat in several feet of water, and when a pike came by to check it out the fisherman would stab it with a spear.              

By contrast, fly fishing demands more skill than simple casting because aim is everything.  The artificial fly sits on top of the water, and the fish rise to the surface to eat the fly.  The challenge of fly fishing is to aim your cast about five feet upstream of a fish rising to the surface.  You have to target an individual fish or you’ll never catch anything.  Then you have to watch the fly move downstream.  If the fly disappears, it means a fish has taken it.  You can’t rely on feel for this; you have to watch.

What system does your congregation have in place to “break through the ice”- to watch, reach, invite, welcome, follow-up with, and assimilate guests into the life of the church?   How are you using outreach, social media, marketing, personal contacts, and worship to “go fishing”?

  • Be flexible and patient.

Each day on the lake, river, or ocean is different.  The sun, clouds, wind, air and water temperature, currents, water flow, depth of ice, and angle of the sun all affect the fishing.  When fly fishing I am especially aware of the wind.  If it’s gusty, the wind will take the end of my line when I’m casting and double it back on the rest of the line, creating a humongous tangle called an air hole.  It works much better when I don’t cast into the wind but with the wind.

The same principle applies when we fish for people and invite them into a transforming relationship with Christ.  Sharing our faith is not a one size fits all process.  Every person is different and has unique needs.  Our goal is to authentically connect with people and respect where they are on their spiritual journey.  Above all, we have to follow and work with the wind of the Holy Spirit, not against it.

  • Rely on God’s grace.

Norman Maclean’s novel A River Runs Through It is about a Presbyterian minister and fly fisherman in Colorado who teaches his two sons to fly fish.  The story is told through the eyes of the oldest son, Norman, who said that he and his brother Paul were left to assume that Jesus’ disciples were fly fishermen because all first class fishermen were fly fishermen.  He said his father taught them that “all good things, catching trout, as well as eternal salvation, come by grace.  And grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

Fishing for people is a work of art undergirded by grace and seasonal ice.  We fish because Jesus calls us to build the kingdom of God; because all people yearn for fullness of life by connecting with the divine and with one another; and because, as a just released survey ( from Rasmussen Reports shows, “nothing else comes close” to the bond Americans have with their local religious institutions.

Ultimately, however, we fish because Easter’s coming, and we have a whopper of a fish story to tell.



Bless all the Dear Children

Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Every Christmas Eve we sing “Away in a Manger,” and for the past 30 years I’ve cried whenever we get to stanza 3.  I can’t get through it.  There is nothing more important in our world than the nurture, care, and security of children.

That’s why I’m grieving, I’m sad, I’m angry, and I’m determined.  Like the rest of our country, I am grieving the deaths of 20 first-graders and 7 adults from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, who were gunned down by 20-year-old Adam Lanza.  Lanza’s own mother was the first victim.  I can’t comprehend how such a horrific tragedy could happen in an ordinary town that has always been a safe place for children and families to live.

Millions of people the world over have gathered to pray for the families of the victims, those who survived, and first-responders.  This is the worst mass murder since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and is the latest in a string of multiple killings this year.

Since we are in the season of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, the Massacre of the Innocents comes to mind.  King Herod ordered all the boy babies under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed in the hope of snuffing out the life of the child Jesus, a competing “King of the Jews.”  Matthew’s quotation of the prophet Jeremiah, referencing the killing of these babies, rings true today, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

I still remember the Bible story book my mother read to me as a child.  Every Christmas story about Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ birth in a manger, the wise men, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is fresh in my mind.  I remember nothing, however, about the Massacre of the Innocents and am grateful that my mother spared me that gruesome story, which I didn’t need to hear as a little kid.

I’m also blessed that my mother and father were able to give me a safe childhood.  They were excellent parents, and I wish that same kind of secure upbringing for all children in this world.  But I now know there was also a lot of luck involved, for the world can be a scary place, and even the best of parents cannot always protect their children.  That’s why I grieve.  I grieve for the lives that could have been and for those who are suffering through this unthinkable tragedy.  Be near them, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay.

I’m not just grieving, I’m sad.  I’m sad because of the destructive ways in which human beings choose to abuse and hurt other people.  God created each one of us with free will, which means that God will not stand in the way of the decisions we make.  Because we are not robots we can choose evil over good, but we also bear the responsibility for our decision-making.

Sometimes I wish God would just intervene and stop this madness, but that is not God’s way.  God wants us to follow the ways of Jesus, to do good rather than harm.  How God must suffer, then, when we freely choose to hurt and kill one another.

God yearns for us to imitate Christ in our thoughts, words, and actions, but God will never force the heart.  God goes so far as to invite us to be God’s representatives on this earth.  It’s up to us to create a world of peace, mutual understanding, respect, and inclusivity.  I am awestruck by the millions of acts of kindness that take place every day in our world.  They far overshadow the mass killings.

I am also sad for Adam Lanza, for his tortuous life that prompted him to inflict such evil.  I am sad when people with mental illnesses don’t receive the help they need to live with joy and fulfillment, and I’m sad when we label other people and don’t reach out to those on the fringes.  God loved Adam Lanza, too.  Close by them forever, and love them I pray.

I am not just grieving and sad, I am angry.  It’s a righteous indignation that some Christians are using this mass killing as an opportunity to promote a religious/political agenda that has nothing to do with the tragedy and defies God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was asked on Fox Live how God could let this tragedy happen, and he responded, “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? …  Maybe we ought to let Him in on the front end, and we wouldn’t have to call Him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.”

Huckabee’s pronouncement mocks the amazing effort and skills of our public school educators and administrators to teach character as well as academics.  It also disregards the reality that government-mandated school prayer is unconstitutional for good reason.  But the greatest travesty is that Huckabee assumes God was not present during the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.  God is always there in the moments of our greatest need.

Equally distressing were the comments made by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association on his radio program last Friday, “You know, the question is going to come up, where was God? …  God is not going to go where He’s not wanted…  No, we have spent 50 years telling God to get lost…  ‘We don’t want You in our schools’…  We’ve kicked God out of our public school system.  And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect children, but you gotta invite me back into your world first.  I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted.  I am a gentleman.’”

Such declarations remake God into the image of a small, mean, and vindictive deity who refuses to protect children, and that image has nothing to do with what we know about God in Jesus Christ.  God does not duck out because God is “not wanted” or “offended.”  Rather, we see in our scriptures a God who never causes brokenness and evil and comes to us even when we turn away.  Moreover, in Jesus’ crucifixion we see God’s willingness to suffer the very pain and evil that afflict us.  For God is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Our Christian beliefs affirm that God was there with the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings.  Jesus was the very first responder last Friday, giving courage and comfort to the children and teachers and cradling those who were shot in God’s eternal arms.  Bless all the dear children in thy tender care.     

I am not just grieving, sad, and angry.  I am determined.  Enough is enough.  We must put an end to our love affair with guns in this country.  Why is it that my daughter’s friends who live in other countries tell her, “We don’t want to live in the United States because everyone has access to guns.  Why is everyone allowed to have a gun?”  At a Taize prayer service on Saturday night, someone mentioned that a friend stationed in Afghanistan posted on Facebook, “Why is it that I am safer in Afghanistan than you are in the United States?”

In many parts of the country the predominant culture is not sports, music, or technology, but guns.  There are an estimated 300 million guns in our country.  Connecticut’s “Gun Valley” is the birthplace of the U.S. firearms industry.  Ironically, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the second largest gun lobby in the U.S. after the National Rifle Association, is located in Newtown, just 3 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In another odd twist, the Michigan legislature approved Senate Bill 59 last Thursday, the day before the mass shooting.  This bill would allow concealed weapons in formerly off-limit places such as schools, day care centers, stadiums, hospitals, and churches.  The bill is waiting for Governor Rick Snyder’s signature.

Many churches have declared themselves gun-free zones, including the West Michigan Conference of The United Methodist Church.  If our churches are indeed sanctuaries, what place do guns have in our buildings?  Are there any sacred and safe places left?  We are called to bring in the kingdom of God not with violence but with shalom, grace, hope, and forgiveness.  And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Could this be the tipping point?  What are we willing to give up in our country so that all people can live in safety?  I am determined to advocate not only for gun-free churches and schools but for common sense regulations that do not permit ordinary citizens to own assault weapons that can kill dozens of people in a few minutes.

We have just one world, just as 20 sets of parents in Newtown, Connecticut had just one first-grade child.  Do we have the courage and the will to put our children above our guns?  Are we fit for heaven – and for earth?


P.S. The next “Leading from the Heart” will be published on December 31.  May the angel’s song be yours as well this Christmas and always.