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When the Real is Just a Little Deeper Down

by the Rev. Scott Walters

 

On Sunday afternoon, Ardelle and I packed up the Subaru and headed west for a few days away. Our itinerary is to read, write, fish, eat, walk, rinse, and repeat through Thursday. So, after a few hours of reading Monday morning, I headed down to the Little Red River with my favorite fly rod.

 

The last time we were here, the owner of the local fly shop said the trout were hitting midge droppers tied to a bead head nymph, under a strike indicator, of course.

 

Pause game. I have a theory about why Episcopalians are overrepresented among fly fishers. In church and in fly fishing, we seem to relish arcane terminology and will strut about smugly in what are, by any objective standard, the most ridiculous articles of clothing. An expensive pair of Simms breathable waders still look like rubberized overalls (size XXXL) and a Whipple surplice is essentially a very expensive bedsheet. To the uninitiated, that is.

 

Back to those midge droppers. A fly is called a “dropper” when it is tied onto the bend in the hook of another fly with a short length of line. In this case, the larger fly (which is still smaller than your pinky fingernail) sinks 16” or so beneath the surface, and the really tiny fly, the midge, trails behind. A trout might strike either fly, but I caught more than 30 fish on this setup yesterday, and every single one of them hit the midge. And when I eliminated the larger fly and fished only a midge, I didn’t catch a single fish.

 

I know. You find this as engrossing as a debate about the difference between a cotta and a surplice. But there’s a metaphor coming eventually.

 

You see, fishing is quite literally about discerning what’s happening beneath the surface of the river. And those midges had to be taken a little deeper down into the water to put me in touch with what’s really going on.

 

“Beneath the surface” has been worn into a cliché from overuse. But something about realizing how oblivious I would be about this one aspect of the river’s life if my fly weren’t carried deeper registered differently for me yesterday.

 

Earlier that morning I’d been reading “I’m Still Here,” by Austin Channing Brown. In the first chapter, a frustrated 10-year-old Austin demands that her parents explain why they gave her her name. She had just returned from the library, where the librarian was only the most recent stranger who didn’t believe the name on her library card could possibly refer to the little Black girl standing in front of her with an armful of books. Austin’s mother finally relented and said, “We knew anyone who saw it before meeting you would assume you were a white man. One day you will have to apply for jobs. We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.”

 

What follows is a lifetime of Austin Brown’s experiences navigating a world “made for whiteness.” She writes in clear, personal, accessible prose. And I felt like I was being taken, once again, beneath the surface of things to a realm of the real to which I remain so oblivious.

 

That much of Austin Brown’s adult life has been spent working within progressive Christian organizations is important to name. If we think we’re ready to face some of the dark truths about America’s racial past, most of us do so with a sense of separation. A sense that the forces that produced Jim Crow laws and lynchings are forces we have to fight in other people, rather than forces that are still alive in the conscious and unconscious assumptions we carry, alive in our fears and our false senses of security, alive in our stories and our vernacular and even in the metaphors we use. Like one about an Episcopalian fly fisherman who drives a Subaru. That one screams whiteness louder than the name Austin Channing Brown, don’t you think?

 

But Jesus used stories and images and metaphors from the world the people around him knew, and he used them to expose what goes on in the depths of ourselves. He exposed our hidden fears and our judgments about people because they don’t share our group’s precious terminology or standards for beauty, or because they suffer in ways that are strange to us, or because of the places they come from or how they say their prayers or what they eat. Women, lepers, Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, “sinners”… All these terms have a (probably 2-dimensional flannel) place in my Christian imagination. But I know they still haven’t taken me into the depths of my culture and into the complexities of my own heart like Jesus still hopes they will.

 

What I’m reminded of today is how desperately we need people with different experiences and perspectives on the world to take us deeper down into the way things are. Especially we need the perspectives of people who have been diminished, excluded, ignored, demeaned. Because we don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t see what we can’t see. Which is why I’m so grateful right now that, by the grace of God, the likes of Austin Channing Brown are somehow still here. Still here, perhaps, to turn familiar, sacred stories in on themselves until they carry us into the invisible depths where God’s transforming work has always seemed to happen.


4 thoughts on “When the Real is Just a Little Deeper Down”

  1. I didn’t know you were a fly fisherman but I should have known cause – Arkansas.
    Suburus, however, I would have figured cause – progressive Episcopalian
    LOL
    Will this be a sermon?

    1. I’m a cliche. But a happy one this week. Thanks, Chris. This blog is probably all the sermon this scene will make it into. But there will be more sermon illustration research excursions in the future!

  2. Yikes. Lost the reply I was writing. Uninformed and snooty local people disregard the Arkansas rivers (White, Norfolk, Little Red, Sylamore Creek)—like prophets from their own country—as being unworthy, and think you have to fly to Montana, laden down with recognizably impressive, expensive logo-ed equipment. Wrong.
    You can learn every one of life’s most effing important lessons (count joy and humility as banners) within a 3-1/2- hour drive from your driveway from Memphis.
    The first midge I ever saw fished was a quickly tied, microscopic 21-size one on one of Dan Berry’s legendary dry-fly casts. Hearts stopped. You can’t ever be the same lame-jawed uninitiated after that. The unspooling of that line—putting real time into slow motion—and the atavistic (is it OK to use a word like that here?) electric rise of that brown in dimmed but sparkled light, is with me forever. (Some aide in a nursing home will probably be muttering, What in the world nonsense was that old woman talking about any way?).

    Just drop mentioning Subaru and Semmes and Orvis. And get rid of waders unless it’s under 57 degrees. And get rid of the vest. Everything necessary attaches to pocket or wading belt.

    26 rivers in 25 states. Fisherman’s Mercantile (Montana), the one fishing experience in a lifetime in a league of its own. Jesus under every rock—but you don’t know that till afterwards.

    So, so glad you do this. Jesus knew to pick fisher people.

    1. Lovely, Suzanne. Well said, as always. Of course, only a Memphian of a little privilege would accidentally type Semmes for Simms. 🙂

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