Watching the Water

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by David Pettit

I tie flies in the spring. One can actually fish year round in Colorado. But I learned my rhythms on eastern streams. Late winter it starts. The anticipation. Tying flies. Watching reports of stream flows. Driving by rivers with peering eyes. For the last eleven years the annual flow and rhythm of life for me has been punctuated in part by the flow of water, the emergence of spring, oncoming insect hatches, and the patterns of trout.

But for all the preparation and anticipation, the apex of fly fishing for me is the moment when I wade into the stream, with the cold steady push of the water adjusting my stance. The birds swoop near the water announcing the activity of hatching flies that my eyes start to see as my eyes adjust to the light, to their tiny bodies emerging and fluttering on the surface. My ears tune into the wind, to the tiniest slap of a tail on the water over my shoulder, and my eyes discern the subtlest sip of a trout along the far bank. In that moment I stand at the creation of the world, as colors and movement come forth, and creatures, great and small, roam before me. I behold the world as it is. The tying on of a small hand-tied imitation, the rhythm of my rod bending, and the line coursing through the air are my attempt to enter in to the world happening before me.

I learned to fly fish around the time I was navigating the ordination process. So for me fly fishing is a meditative activity so closely tied to ministry and to close reading, to listening, to study, and to reflection. Sure you can dangle a worm in the water on any given day, and be successful some of the time. Fish do eat worms. But can you stand still long enough to discern what is going on around you? How do you do with nuance? Can you be patient enough, and not need to force it? Can you be ok on the day that the hatch doesn’t come off, or the fish are napping under rocks and you go home empty-handed?

I have reflected on lives these last two months of Sundays, and the task of eulogizing; of saying something about what has happened in the life before you. It is a meditative practice that requires our closely tuned eyes and ears, to behold the signs of what is going on, to hear the slap of a tail on the water, the signs of what is hatching. How is God at work in a life with all its complexity and its confusing web of virtue and vice?

I grew up in a tradition where there was one essential narrative for a saint—you could overlay it on any worthy subject as they lay in their coffin. They were a sinner who at some point said the sinner’s prayer, who then became a good person, enriching all those around them, and they now enter into the reward of eternal life. It’s the pattern applied more or less evenly. For me, it is akin to fishing with worms. For the power of forgiveness and grace and a spiritual journey is discerned most robustly in the nuance and in the detail. For to stand in the waters of someone’s life is to discern what heavenly drama has unfolded; to name with power how worlds have been made and un-made. And like the typical biblical narrative read closely, it is often a lot more nuanced and messy than we would like to acknowledge. But it is also more beautiful.

People fish for different reasons. I fish for the absorption into the natural world, to participate carefully enough that the fish takes my fly. So it always strikes a note of discord for me when the trout does take my fly, and its body starts to convulse and whip, to jet through the water, and jump into the air – all in the effort to get away from me. Connection in a deep way is tricky business. It is hard not to impose our needs and wants onto another. Like any discipline, fly fishing is limited. I come to the stream with my own romantic notions and intrude upon the world of an unsuspecting trout.

William Stafford writes, “If you don’t know the kind of person I am / and I don’t know the kind of person you are / a pattern that others made may prevail in the world.” We come so close to connecting, but so often miss one another. Perhaps we don’t listen long enough. But as the trout slips through my fingers and moves with a tired motion back to its lie behind a rock, I feel a tinge of guilt, maybe even loneliness. But my eyes quickly become entranced in the moving world before me, and I pick up my rod, and I let my fly once again course through the air and fall to the water, hoping that I have discerned well enough that a trout will rise once again.

David Pettit is a minister of the Reformed Church in America currently serving as pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado and pursuing doctoral studies in Hebrew Bible at the University of Denver.

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