One of the happiest memories I have from my childhood was when our family would go on fishing trips “up North.”
I’m as Minnesotan as they come. I’m sure the Almighty put the purple blood in our veins so we’d all come to our senses and root for the Vikings.
I knew how to munch down tater-tot hotdish and shovel snow six months out of the year before I was in kindergarten.
The annual flight of the mosquitoes and the invasion of wood ticks were accepted annoyances in pursuit of the great outdoors, especially once the ice melted in spring.
One such pursuit entailed the magical quest of gathering up the gear, getting gas for the boat, and ascertaining that the fishing rods had suitable monofilament line on them to pull in a lunker. It was the fishing opener, and I loved it! I remember not being able to get to sleep the night before a fishin' trip; I was too excited.
One year, our family went north from the Twin Cities to Lake Kabetogema in Voyageurs National Park, right on the edge of the Canadian border. I remember getting up there and the weather was horrible. We had to venture by boat several dozen miles out to an island to set up camp for the week. The undulating waves made me want to puke.
We finally got out there and the rest of the week was pleasant, sunny and warm.
Then the fishing began.
Our Uncle Dennis was the fishing guru of the trip. My dad enjoyed the fishing and caught his fair share, but Uncle D was the real fish-whisperer—he knew every knot, every proper jig placement, what bait to use. He even taught my brother, my cousins and me what color chartreuse was and when a guy would want to use such a clashing spinner to land the ever-elusive walleye or a northern pike.
I had a problem though.
I couldn’t reel any in. When you fish for walleye, you want to “feed” them line when you feel a bite so the fish gets the bait in his mouth so you don’t lose him. Then, you’re supposed to hold tight on your pole, and jerk the tip of the rod upward, so the hook punctures the fish’s lip and you can fight him in.
It’s called “setting the hook.” I didn’t do it right.
But my Uncle D eventually got after me to teach me how to do it. There was no pussy-footin’ around; you had to pull back, hard. And if there wasn’t a fish swimming with your bait in his mouth in how many unknown fathoms below . . . well, so be it. You had to be serious about setting the hook.
I finally caught on. I set the hook and reeled in dozens of fish that week that my mother delighted in frying for us when we got back home.
Later in life, I had set another hook—or, more properly, it had set itself in me. I was a raging alcoholic and a dedicated pillhead. Drugs and alcohol were such a part of my life, I hadn’t seen how close I’d come to losing everything.
Lucky for me, my Higher Power intervened and I got arrested. Twice.
First for a DUI. Then for felony trespass.
I was working as a graduate school-educated, ordained and commissioned Lutheran pastor.
My bottom was, I suppose, doubly hard, because I was supposed to be in a field where I was helping—guiding even—others along a spiritual path. But just as a lure on the bottom of a glacial lake doesn’t discriminate which fish it hooks, so too drugs and alcohol do not discriminate, either.
When I finally found recovery (or, it found me) I began to work the Steps. When I finally got through Four and Five, my sponsor went directly to Six and Seven the same day. We said the little Seventh-Step prayer in the book, and that was that. I moved on to the next without really knowing what I had done.
Six and Seven remained a quandary to me for some time . . . until I worked them again—and read again the wisdom the Twelve by Twelve had to convey:
In our struggles, so many of them well-intentioned, our crippling handicap is our lack of humility. We lack the perspective to see that character-building and spiritual values must come first, and that material satisfactions are not the purpose of living. Quite characteristically, we confuse the ends with the means. Instead of regarding the satisfaction of our material desires as the means by which we live and function as human beings, we take these satisfactions to be the final aim of life.
Therein lay the answer: it was about humility, and allowing that humility so to rule my life in such a way where I could find new purpose and meaning. For me, that purpose and meaning is my Higher Power. It is a part of what I call God’s manifestation in my life.
The character defects I identified in Steps Four and Five—and those that I became willing to give up in Six—didn't suddenly vanish. I simply asked, humbly, that my Higher Power continue to take them away. The work I had to do myself.
It’s a lot like setting a hook. A new hook, not of material things, or getting high, but a hook to learn how to trust in something other than ourselves.
A guy out fishing doesn’t know if there really is a fish below the water that’s been nibbling on his bait. You can see the fish. No, he’s too deep. You trust; then you wait; then you . . . SET! And you reel it in. (Or you don’t and your buddies laugh at you.)
Step Six is feeding out the line. Step Seven is setting the hook. Or, more appropriately, allowing your Higher Power to set a new hook in you.
Come to think of it, I think fishing is a pretty decent comparison to what this new spiritual life is about. After all, there was another guy about two millennia ago who taught chumps much like yours truly—stinky fishmongers all of us—how to fish for people's souls. And in so doing, he shared the hope that a new life is possible for anyone.