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Grandpa taught me how to fish

Sinopah Mountain towers over Two Medicine Lake

The Rev. Glenn Wagner remembers learning to fish with his grandpa, and reflects on going with God into the deep waters of ministry.


REV. GLENN W. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications

Grandpa first taught me how to fish.

Here is a picture of the place where Grandpa first took me fishing.

Have you ever gone fishing?

Forty-six million Americans participate in the sport of fishing every year. Roughly 12% of our nation’s 372.2 million people. 

One of the important people in my life, LeRoy Rhodes, my late maternal grandfather, introduced me to this ancient practice of catching fish dinner from the water. I was only three-years-old when my 69-year-old Grandpa awakened me from my Two Medicine campground on the shores of Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana.

Grandpa walked me to the shore and bundled me into an orange life-vest along with my five-year-old brother, Doug. He showed us how to climb into his three-bench row boat by staying low and in the center of the boat to keep the craft from tipping. Grandpa’s fishing boat featured real wooden oars and a real boat motor mounted on the back to assist with cross-lake transport on the two-mile-long glacier fed lake. There was also a gas-can to refill the motor with fuel as needed and a picnic basket with breakfast for later that Grandmother Jeanne Rhodes had packed for us the night before.

I got to sit in the bow of Grandpa’s boat during my inaugural fishing trip. Grandpa motored us far across the lake to his favorite spot in the shadow of the looming peak and beneath the moonlit canopy of spectacular stars. In a quiet “church” voice and with the help of a flashlight Grandpa introduced us to our equipment. He had a rod and reel for each of us. He showed us the inside of his magic fishing tackle box that was filled with cool stuff like hooks and lures, fishing bobbers, and band-aids for emergency first-aid if we accidently hooked ourselves. Grandpa also had a container filled with earthworms that we had harvested the day before from the campground parking lot where they had helpfully congregated after a brief mountain shower.

Grandpa taught us how to bait the hook, cast the line, watch the bobber and wait. We had to be quiet so as not to scare the fish. I know now that the quiet peace in a boat on a crystal alpine lake beneath the majesty of Sinopah Mountain was special. In the pre-dawn, he was sharing his fishing wisdom with two of his only daughter’s grandsons in the year before he died. It was a moment not to be disturbed with childish chatter. I still cherish the memory.

“A fisherman,” grandpa opined, “must be patient.” He continued, “It helps to know as I have had to learn, where in the lake the fish like to swim and when they like to eat and what kind of lure or food on the hook will attract them.”

“How do you learn all this stuff, Grandpa?” I asked.

“Experience. Learning from other fisherman, like I am teaching you.”

I still remember what Grandpa taught me. Fishing is mostly about: being patient; being quiet; being persistent. And mostly just being. To be a successful angler you most certainly need to be present in the time and place where the fish start biting. You also must be ready to set the hook and reel them in on the rare occasion when the bobber dips to signal fish action on the worm out of site beneath the water. 

I still remember the excitement of catching my first fish. I made the catch at dawn as the sun was chasing away the dark and the chill. I caught a crappie, a kind of sunfish that Grandpa later taught us how to clean and prep for frying over the camp-fire for dinner.

My early fishing expedition with Grandpa provided the context to help me later understand the important Sunday school lesson where Jesus invites a Galilean fisherman, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, to come and follow him. Jesus promised that he would help them both to become “fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)

I have devoted over four decades of my adult life to learning and practicing the discipleship angling arts as a full time, ordained pastor, a member of Jesus’ “fishing for souls,” crew. 

Honestly, this fisher for God spent most of his time in quieter waters with schools of fish (disciples) who already knew the value of safe harbor (church congregation) and just needed me to help tend the pond. I have had a rich life in the community of faith. Most of the churches that I served and most of those we have been blessed to visit since retiring, at the end of 2016, are organized to reach and nurture the faithful fish (souls) who are already in their pond and especially during the specified Sunday morning hours.

These churches donate money and sometimes volunteers to expeditions beyond their walls and at other times during the week, but it is easy to forget that many of the “fish” that Jesus wanted Peter and Andrew to catch for the kingdom were swimming in the deep waters of life, far from the safe harbor of anny established faith community. Jesus led these brothers and others to angle for the likes of tax collectors, sinners, lepers, hated Samaritans, the poor, the unclean, and uncircumcised Gentiles who were rarely welcomed or seen in the sacred halls of synagogue or temple.

I have also observed that faith communities that forget completely how to fish for God beyond the walls of their sanctuaries eventually die.

Over the years I have confirmed from “experience,” as a fisherman for God that most of the people Jesus wants us to reach with the gospel of love, hope, forgiveness, compassion, purpose, promise, and grace will never be swimming through the sanctuary door at the designated hours for worship.

It still takes intention, patience, and effort to position yourself like a three-year-old kid in a boat in the pre-dawn hours on a mountain lake to be ready when and where the fish are biting.

Here are just a few of the hard to reach places that have come to the attention of this fisher for Christ.

I learned from three years of monthly visits to a friend in prison that many incarcerated persons have a hunger for human contact and a great willingness to consider the concepts of faithful living. There are chaplains who can help qualified volunteers find ways to be of meaningful service. There are also places like 70 times 7, vital ministry engaged in helping those who have served their time transition from prison back into society. There are 54,000 persons currently incarcerated in Michigan prisons and jails.” Let’s go fishing. 

I once took our church teens on an all-night Friday-Saturday field trip, visiting places where people were working while the rest of the world was home in bed. We toured the power company, the third shift in a local factory, the hospital emergency room, the 911 emergency call center, the local police department, a 24-hour big box retailer, and a dairy farm. I will never forget our 2:30 AM late-night-snack-stop at Denny’s restaurant. We waited 20 minutes for a table because the restaurant was packed. The staff was hustling to handle the crowd surge. The waiter explained that this was typical. The bars all closed at 2 AM and many of those customers were not ready to go home yet. I know some devoted servants of Christ who provide free rides home from the bars at 2 AM on weekends. Persons who struggle with all kinds of addiction, grief, loneliness, and depression need relationships with compassionate fishers. Those persons are more likely to be encountered in the deep waters at 2 AM, waiting for a table at Denny’s, then on Sunday mornings in church. Let’s go fishing.

A friend’s daughter recently participated in a ministry at our southern border with Mexico that seeks to offer hospitality to desperate asylum seekers. 1% of the world’s population, 68.5 million people, are refugees. I know from church and family experience what our friend’s daughter confirmed in her post mission reflections. The love of Christ is welcomed and appreciated in places where man-made and natural disasters have upended people’s lives. So many places where volunteers can make a difference … feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely in places like nursing homes, tutoring at risk children in local schools, listening to real problems on crisis help lines, offering comfort to the dying as a hospice volunteer, supporting ministries to the homeless, and rescuing those caught in sex trafficking slavery. Let’s go fishing.

It’s been 63 years since Grandfather Rhodes took me out on Two Medicine Lake to first introduce me to fishing. He has been deceased for almost 62 years. I wonder if he is still fishing in heaven with Grandmother, his children, and my brother, Doug?

Thank you, Grandpa, for teaching me one of life’s most important lessons.

“A fisherman,” Grandpa opined, “must be patient. It helps to know as I have had to learn, where in the lake the fish like to swim and when they like to eat and what kind of lure or food on the hook will attract them.”

“How do you learn all this stuff, Grandpa?”

“Experience. Learning from other fisherman, like I am teaching you.”

Grandpa, I haven’t forgotten you or your important life lesson. I want you to know I am still fishing . . . for God. Thank you!

I pray that others will learn from me what you and God have taught me about this ancient and essential skill.

The Rev. Dr. Glenn M. Wagner is an Elder in The United Methodist Church. He came to Michigan from the Northern Illinois Conference in 1992 and served Community UMC in North Muskegon, Holt UMC, and Church of the Dunes in Grand Haven. He retired in 2017. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Holland, MI.

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