Fisher of Men by John Miltenberger January 20, 2017
When I was a young teenager “back in the day”, I remember my dad teaching me what he knew about fishing. I guess he felt obligated to give me fishing lessons, a rather routine thing fathers did with their sons at that time. I wasn’t the world’s most skillful fisherman by any means, as my heart was much more interested in squirrel hunting, and I’m sure it bothered my father to watch as my attention span driveled out in an hour or so, and I began to throw tin cans into the fishing hole and shoot at them with my rifle! His day of fishing was over at that moment.
My normally impatient father became a different man when he had a fishing pole in his hand. I remember being astounded that he saw nothing odd or unusual about spending most of a day throwing lures into water that had never contained even one fish! For my young mind, watching my father fish where there were no fish, became the epitome of the classic definition of insanity, something I was to hear for the first time many decades later. Then came Rockbridge, Missouri.
My dad traveled a lot in his job as a salesman, and somehow he found out about a place in the Missouri Ozarks called Rainbow Trout Ranch, located near Rockbridge, not a town likely to be easily discovered. In fact, I think Rainbow Trout Ranch was Rockbridge, as the owner of the trout farm bought the entire cul-de-sac of a town, the bank building, old hotel, general store, old house, and the old mill, the picture of which became the retail logo of the business. Point is, there really were fish, hundreds of them, and my dad took the family there to fish.
On our first visit to Rockbridge, we had to sleep on the floor of the old mill, overlooking the mill pond and spillway, as the motel units had not yet been constructed for the future customers of the ranch. I have many fond memories of Rockbridge, as we went there for many years afterwards, but for this piece I would like to focus on fishing for trout, and how to “let them run”, and when not to let them run.
I was fishing with a monofilament fishing line that would easily break if I tried to haul a hooked fish into my landing net as soon as I set the hook, as most of the fish in that mill pond were heavier than my line could bear. My dad, finally able to provide a real fishing experience for a change, was able to teach me to let the fish swim free at first, while I was to maintain a taunt line without over-muscling it, to keep it from breaking.
I learned by experience that if I kept enough pressure on the line to avoid slackness, and only reel in a little at a time, eventually the fish would tire, and I could net him as he finally got close to shore. I was totally unaware at the time that the lesson was prophetic of what God would later do to me. He hooked me, let me run, and patiently reeled me in, and I never saw it coming.
Distantly akin to Samuel when God called him at a young age, I felt the call of God as a child, but didn’t know what I was hearing and feeling and I was too ignorant to even ask, if indeed anyone in my family would have known how to answer. I was always “different” and I knew I was different, but I had no idea what it meant. For many years, decades in fact, I felt secretly that because I was not like everyone else, I was deficient, thereby opening the doors wide for rejection, self-doubt, and etc. By the time I was a teenager I was a mess inside. All of my friends seemed skillful, competent and self-assured, while I felt alone, cold, and growing colder.
It was on a weekend trip to Rockbridge that I first heard the voice of God in my head. I had fished away the morning, and because it was a pretty day, I went snake hunting with my .22 rifle. I was old enough to be trusted in the woods, and I took my leave and walked down a path off the property. It was wild, Ozark country, and Rockbridge abounded in Copperhead poisonous snakes that liked to hide near the spring-fed river and hunt frogs. I didn’t have any love for poisonous snakes, and I loved to shoot them. It was just dangerous enough to be fun.
It was the fall of the year, and there were clumps of fallen leaves blocking my narrow game trail of a path paralleling the river, off property. Walking in the Ozark woods is a lot like playing chess, as you have to plan out each step in advance because of the snakes.
My dad always told me to never step on the top of logs, but rather to walk around them or step over them. If they were big logs, like downed trees, the chances of one’s foot breaking through into the hollow of the logs was pretty good, and snakes often lived inside rotten logs. So, as I approached a clump of leaves in my path, I began to step over it, and with my left foot raised above the clump, on its way over, a voice not my own said, “If you put your foot down, you will find your snake!” It must have happened quickly, because it froze me in mid step. Looking down into the clump of leaves, I saw the head of a Copperhead snake looking up at me! In slow motion, I withdrew my foot, and shot the snake. I was stunned by the voice! I don’t remember if I told my dad about it or not, but the memory has never left me.
I’ve written before that when I was fourteen years old, God sat next to me as I tried to hide in the mostly empty balcony of the church I begrudgingly attended. I knew it was God, and I was thrilled and yet at the same time, scared out of my mind! That never happened again, but I treasured the experience – I still do.
In college, January of 1967, I had a horrible car wreck in my VW Bug. Beginning the action at 75 miles per hour, the car rolled side over side, and then end to end, coming to a stop in a ditch. The other side of the highway was a steep downhill into a farmer’s field! My car was reduced to a metal thing about waist high. During the long, long wreck sequence, I was jostled around inside (before seat belts) like a carnival ride in a rubber room, and during it all I felt an incredible, indescribable, tangible love pouring over me like water from a waterfall! I walked away with five stitches to my left hand. I knew God had spared my life, of that I had no doubt, yet I did not turn to Him then.
In my twenties, I was to hear the voice again, as I sat in a Derek Prince meeting in a Presbyterian Church sanctuary. Derek said something, I now forget what it was, and the voice said to me, “That’s why you are here tonight, to hear the truth.” And I knew as I heard the voice that I had heard the truth about God, and I was aware of it for the first time in my life! I was stunned to find I was alone in a back pew, with no one around me…the voice had been that loud. The next week, in the same place in the same church, I heard another Charismatic preacher say something, and the voice again came, “And that’s why you are here tonight.”
I’m leaving out a lot, particularly about my Army experiences where the hand of God was obvious, even to me, but the point is, God is incredibly persistent. I was hooked and didn’t know it.
I gave my life to God in 1972, and I surrounded myself with other believers in my workplace and my private life. That lasted until 1979, when I felt led to dramatically change my career path. I was bored with my life, and wanted some excitement, so I began a police career that lasted until 2004. Some of it was exciting, some of it was boring, but during those years, I had begun, through my bad choices, to back away from God’s call on my life. Eventually I gave myself to sin, willfully and stubbornly, but God never let go of the line! He let me run, just like a fish, until He finally reeled me back in.
And so, the fishing lesson my dad taught me in the early 60’s still bears fruit today, and I’m honored to pass it on to you. God is the ultimate fisher of men, and He’s stubborn about not letting go of the line. I don’t know exactly what it would take to break that line, and I’ve told Him I never want to know, but He is Incredible.
I’ve failed God times without number, and I’ve done a fine job of it too, but He’s hung on and patiently reeled me in. Now, more than anything else, I want to find the shore and feel His landing net wrap itself around me.
If you feel even the slightest inclination that God’s called you, bring the memory back and ponder afresh your response, for if you still have it in your heart, it means He’s still holding the line. Quit fighting the Fisherman and let Him reel you in.
Perhaps you’ve ‘run’ long enough.