June 18, 2018
by Duke Ison
Michael Rich, who is transitioning from the Holy House back to the local church, gave me a tongue in cheek challenge for this blog. He wrote “Duke – here is a good chance to relay a thought on Annual Conference from someone who will be trout fishing all week.”
There is truth in what Michael said. Thursday of Annual Conference I now rescue Lee Dukes from the ABLC luncheon. We will head to Cherokee Trophy Water for the afternoon in the hopes of catching a 20+ inch trout. This is a holy endeavor and quest. Trout can teach us a thing or two. Trout will never lie to you. When you think you are smart, this “ice-age” fish will outfox you. I’ve had them jump and spit the fly back at me. I’ve had them swim straight at me to get slack in the line so they can shake the fly. I’ve had them go under a rock and pop my line. Trout are worthy opponents and can keep one grounded in humility.
I can remember fishing on the North Toe (Spruce Pine) with my fishing group – the Parson’s Creek Fishing Club (also affectionately known as the Liars Club). The water was up which meant you didn’t know where the bottom was. Lee Dukes was going down the stream with his right-hand grabbing overhanging river cane so he didn’t slide into deeper water. His left hand still held his rod out. Lee got a bump on his rod and jerked it. “Fish on!” He thought I’ve got to find solid ground which he did. It was then he saw the fish which was as long as his arm. The fish was a big brown trout, 30 inches at best.” Never had Lee had such a trophy trout in NC waters.
The big brown headed under a log. The trout begin rubbing its mouth on the bottom to get rid of the hook. Lee was hollering for our friend, John Powell (aka Old Snakebit) to come help him. John was nowhere to be found, a sin Lee is still working on forgiving. Lee went to the log, went under the water, and moved the log. Naturally, when he went under the water all that icy water flooded his waders. The Titanic couldn’t have taken on water as fast.
The trout came out from the log and headed rapidly upstream with Lee trying to play this big fish. Suddenly, Lee heard Zing as the fly flew back toward him. The fish had actually bent the hook. By the time I got to Lee, he had taken off his waders and was sitting soaked to the bone on a rock. I took his picture and told Lee he could frame the picture and hang it in his office. Lee’s vocation is a” pastoral psychotherapist.” I told Lee he could point depressed people to that picture and tell them, “This is what depression looks like!”
It is episodes like that of Lee and the big brown trout that now haunts his dreams which keeps you coming back. You get a taste of something that you almost think you can capture but then is gone. It is that taste and memory which remain. It is almost perfection but not quite. To quote Mr. Wesley, “we are going onto perfection” but just haven’t arrived yet.
Those small-brained, ice-age fish give these wonderful, awe-inspiring experiences. They are holy moments which stick with you and inspire you to come back and try for something better. Isn’t this the invitation also of Annual Conference? Annual Conference as we practice it is part of business meeting, left over camp meeting, social gossiping, with holy moments of God showing up unscripted and when you least expect God to be. The holy moments may come in a conversation, a piece of music, an inspiring moment or just sitting in Stuart Auditorium in a boring meeting and looking out over the beauty of the lake with the backdrop of mountains and billowing clouds. Suddenly, you feel at “one with the universe;” “one with the people around you;” “one with God;” “one with yourself.” The Desert Fathers would say when you notice your tears at such moments, it is a good sign that God is present.
I learned at The Haden Institute that such moments are “Unitive Spiritual Experiences.” We have such experiences every day. They last but a moment and are gone. They are not dependent on whether you believe or not. God doesn’t seem to discriminate that way. Or as Jesus says “God lets it rain on the just and the unjust.” Such is the beauty and gift of grace.
But these moments if you hug them, listen to them, integrate them into your being may save your life and call you further into that perfection in love all we United Methodists seek and are still seeking. Such moments over time make places holy because so many people experience the holy in that spot. The Irish would call such places – thin places where the line between this world and the next are porous. Think the Temple in Jerusalem – holy to Jews and Muslims. Think the Vatican in Rome – holy to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Think of Lake Junaluska – holy to we United Methodists. So like Lee we keep coming back remembering that last taste of the holy and longing for more.
Yes, Michael – fly fishing at Annual Conference does help you reflect on the best at Annual Conference – the holy moments which keep drawing us back. I close with what I have on one of my favorite coffee mugs – Advice from a Trout. Some of that advice may apply to Annual Conference.
- Show your true colors (Annual Conference has a way of revealing our true colors good and bad. Or as Jesus would say “You will know a tree by its fruit.”)
- Be a good catch (May we all leave Annual Conference better than we arrived.)
- Don’t be fooled by shiny objects (That includes slick words and false appearances.)
- Scale back (Most of us work too hard and as if it is all up to us. Where is God in that kind of attitude?)
- Cherish clean water (If the church isn’t going to care for the environment than we are indeed lost.)
- Know when to keep your mouth shut (No comment needed to be made here. Probably, we should have this on a banner in Stuart Auditorium for all those coming to the mike can see.)
- Don’t give up without a fight (Know when to stand ground for Jesus’s sake.)
Duke Ison is a retired clergy member of the Western North Carolina Conference (obviously!). He is active at Centenary UMC in Winston-Salem.