The sheer size and overwhelming vastness was what suprised me most. I’d heard of how “big” Alaska was, but I realize now that it wasn’t something I could really understand without seeing it myself. I had the privilege of traveling there with some family and friends this last June to fish for Salmon in the rivers which feed into Bristol Bay. We spent three days fishing on the Nushagak and Naknek rivers. I don’t know if you can imagine catching fish all day long until your arms get sore, but that’s essentially what it was like. To put a number on the amount of fish we caught would ironically sounds like just another “fish story”. Suffice it to say that I’ve never caught so many fish. All in all, this was one of the most epic experiences of my life.
Fast forward to early August and I’m fishing with 2 of the same guys in northern California’s Eagle Lake. Different fishing and a different experience, but fun in its own way. We fished five days total as we camped with our larger family. I caught one fish.
It has only been over the last few years that I’ve started fishing more regularly. I didn’t grow up doing it and in all honesty, I have a long way to go before I could call myself a fisherman, let alone a good one. But one fish? Alaska was like the Super Bowl of Christmas mornings and now I’m down to one fish in five days.
The illustration that Jesus uses to call Simon Peter and his brother Andrew has recently become very important to my understanding of discipleship. The first disciples of his eventual entourage are promised that they will become “fishers of men.” This of course is meant to engage their imaginations as they were fisherman by trade. However, in Luke’s Gospel we see the most detailed version of the story, allowing us insight into the life of a fisherman.
In Luke’s narrative Peter and his friends are just coming from an apparently unsuccessful all-nighter. They’re tired and putting their equipment away when Jesus challenges them to go back out and let out the nets. Peter does so with some reluctance and is blessed with an epic haul of fish (probably not as good as my Alaska trip, but seemingly still impressive!). Even with the obviously miraculous nature of this occurrence, this story illustrates one thing that is true of all fishing: sometimes you catch fish and sometimes you don’t.
Immediately after this Jesus tells Peter that from then on he will “catch men” (become a fisher of men according to Matthew and Mark). Considering what Peter had just experienced and that he was a seasoned fisherman, he had to have immediately understood this. I can’t imagine him knowing at that moment, if not in a later reflection that just like fishing, he’d sometimes catch people while other times he simply would not.
Coming back from my trip to Alaska my Father in Law and I were sitting next to each other on the plane. We got to talking and he, a much more experienced fisherman than myself, explained that in fishing you have to do everything you can to be ready for fish so that when you get lucky enough to actually get some in the boat, you’re prepared and able to do so.
I actually thought this was profound advice and applicable on several levels. However later on, in the midst of all this traveling, fishing and thinking on discipleship, I also realized how significant this was to college ministry. I have had a lot of experiences with college/young adult ministry where I came up with an “empty catch”. My team and I would put in all kinds of work and have literally almost nothing to show for it. There have been countless times I have been incredibly discouraged and even considered giving up.
Yet the opposite is also true. There have been times when I’ve had amazing “catches” of college students. This may happen for a night or even for a season. It may even happen when you’re completely unprepared, making my father in law a much better ministry consultant than he realizes. Either way, we know that for every day we don’t have a good catch there will be days when we do.
If anything this encourages me to be prepared for a catch and try to not be discouraged when I come up short. More importantly however, I’m also reminded that we too must do what Peter did. Even in the face of exhaustion and discouragement, if we’re going to catch college students, we will always need to get back in the boat and just go fishing.