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.