How to Catch an Atheist

I finally did it.  I went fishing with my brother-in-law, Victor.  He had invited me to go with him more times than I can count.  And, I had denied him for a year and a half.   I chalk it up to a strange psychological disorder, where I saw this as some weird way of exacting revenge on all the girls who had turned down my requests for dates, dances, or homework help back in high school. Much like those girls who would have loved to go out with me had they not had previous commitments, (i.e. family reunion, detention, appendix surgery, or a date with a more attractive guy) I just couldn’t work it into my schedule.

Maybe I was just avoiding something?


Victor isn’t any ordinary fisherman.  Victor is a fly fisherman.  There is a big difference.

Ordinary fisherman like me see fishing as a diversion – something you do when you happen to be near a body of water.  But you don’t let it get in the way of you enjoying other near-water activities such as sun-burning, rock-skipping, beer-drinking, or making a fake duck beak using two Pringles potato chips held between your lips.

Fly fisherman are a different breed.  They come with accessories.  Wading pants.  Waterproof boots. Vests with secret pockets.   And let’s not forget the army of flies.  Flies for catching brown trout.  Flies for sunny days.  Flies for fast-moving water.  Flies specially made for fishing when the Democrats control the Senate, but are in danger of losing their majority.


I had a Syrofoam container full of dead night crawlers, a raw hot dog, and half a bag of frozen corn.

There was no real question who was going to catch the fish that day.  The only item up for debate is whether or not I would take an afternoon nap in the truck.  Victor said several times, “Scott.  This is an ALL DAY thing,” giving me plenty of opportunity to back out.

One of the best surprises was that my dad came along with us.  Any chance to hang out with my father is pure gold.  I got really nostalgic, thinking of all the times my brother and I went fishing with my dad growing up.  We would wake up at the crack of dawn, go find some pond, and he would spend his vacation time getting barbs stuck in his cheek, calf, and back, just to spend some quality time with his boys.

My dad is perhaps the best kind of fisherman.  On the inside, dad is an ordinary fisherman like me.  He feels much more comfortable using processed meat as bait.  However, on the outside, he looks like a fly fisherman.  Thanks to a Bass Pro Shops gift certificate, he has all the accessories to look the part.

So, Victor, Dad and I drove 90 miles at the crack-o-dawn to a special spot on the Caney Fork river.  We arrived in darkness, and the river was enveloped in fog.  Standing knee deep in the frigid water, Dad looked incredible.  I was proud to even be next to the guy.  It was like he’d just hopped out of an issue of Field and Stream.

Unfortunately, this issue of Field and Stream came tangled up in miles of fishing line.  Dad spent an hour-and-a-half trying to tie a fly on his line and cast it ten feet in front of him.  It was like looking at a drawing of Pig Pen from the Charlie Brown cartoons, only the curls of dust were tufts of nylon string that left a never-ending aura around my father.  His spirit was unflappable, though.  He stayed with it until the sun came up.

By then, Victor had already caught three fish, and I had already switched my bait from dead worm to corn, both equally unsuccessful.

Just before lunch, dad improvised by tying a fly onto a regular fishing rod, and skewering a worm onto the fly’s hook.  It was pure fishing artistry, as the functionality of his creation was seriously called into question.  Still, he caught a fish on his second cast.


But I was still a big goose egg.

We had lunch and traveled to a second spot, just below the dam.  There, we were surrounded by a couple dozen other fly fishermen.  I continued to fish using random items from the side order menu at Applebee’s.  Still, no luck.

Dad reprised his role of Pig Pen in nylon, until finally making his way into the water.  There, he quickly lost his footing and fell ass-over-eyeballs into the 55-degree water.  After his impromptu swimming adventure, he called it quits for the day and headed to the truck for a nap.

Meanwhile, Victor stood in the middle of all of the best fly fisherman in middle Tennessee, and proceeded to pull an entire Mrs. Paul’s fish stick factory from the river.  He was quietly shaming every last man and woman that stood waist deep in the water.  It was a sight to behold.  Fish after fish, while everyone else looked on.

Seeing all of his success, I decided to try my hand at it.  I unwound dad’s line and waded out to the middle of the river.  I mimicked the fly-fishing motion, trying to make the fly lightly touch down upon the top of the water.  Victor coached me.

“It’s a light touch.  10 and 2.  Snap your wrist.  You wanna’ just let the line float out there while the fly just lands ever-so-gently on the water.”

Easier said than done.  But at least it wasn’t corn.

I was enjoying myself, but I still wasn’t catching anything.  After an hour, Victor sympathetically called out, “You wanna’ try my pole?”

This is like asking someone if you want to drive their Rolls Royce.  The answer is “Yes.  I really wanna’ drive.”  The reality is that you are scared to the point of pooping your pants, praying to God that your insurance is paid up and you don’t crash.

Victor and I swapped fishing poles, and I began to cast with his fly rod.  Five minutes.  Ten minutes.  Thirty minutes later.  I still looked like a guy with a broken leg trying to tap dance.

Not pretty.

I said, “one more cast.”  It was 3:30.

I let the line drift out, and the fly like hit the water like a handful of gravel thrown into a bathtub.  Still, I let the fly float downriver to complete the cast.

As the fly reached the point where it was time for me to reel it in, I said, “Well… I guess that’s it for th…”

I pulled on the line to reel it in and felt a tug.

“You got one!”  Victor’s eyes were the size of Frisbees!  He said, “I am sooooo glad you caught a fish.  I was going to be so disappointed if you had come home empty-handed.”

I would like to say that I fought the giant trout for 20 minutes.  In truth, I fought it for a bout 30 seconds.  It was the size of a well-stuffed enchilada.   Victor grabbed the end of my line and hauled the fish in.  “Let me take him off the line.” he said.

Part of me thinks that Victor might have seen something I didn’t, and that’s why he wanted to take him off the hook.  Maybe I hadn’t really caught the fish with bait, by the mouth, but rather, I had snagged him.  Caught him drifting by.  A fish in the wrong place at the wrong time, minding his own business.  I probably hooked him in the spleen.

If fish have spleens.

And then, just as Victor had done with every single fish he caught that day, he looked at it.  Admired it.

And then he let him go.

It was a great day of fishing.  100 degrees outside.  55 in the water.  It was where we were supposed to be.

And so it is with us.

If we call ourselves Christians, one of the jobs we sign up for is that of fisherman.  We’re supposed to go out and try to encourage people to sign up to play for Team Jesus.  I think the Good Lord himself even asks us to be “fishers of men.”  Rain or shine.  So how do we do this?

Let’s make it a multiple choice question, shall we?

1.        What’s the best way to convert someone to Christianity?

a.       Plant churches in far off lands like some kinda’ U.S. Government subsidized Jesus farmer.

b.      Corner him/her in the pet food aisle at Wal-Mart, and among the stacks of Ol’ Roy dog food, ask them if they have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal savior.  Offer a $2.00 off coupon for Alpo as incentive.

c.       Go on a mission trip and serve the poor, all in the name of making me feel more thankful for the cars in my garage, the clothes in my closet, and my garbage disposal, which consequently, eats better than 50% of the planet.

Hmmm.  That’s a toughie.

Some opt for a) planting churches in far away nations.  Places like Angola, Belarus, Bolivia, Croatia, Gambia, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Namibia, Nicaragua, Panama, Philipines, Poland, Romania, Rwanda, Swaziland, South Africa, Uganda, Ukraine, Zambia, Zimbabwe.  To name a few.

All of which have a greater percentage of Christians than the United States.

Is that the best way to spend our time?

One of my friends has church plant in the Czech Republic.  Now we’re talking!  A paltry 28% of that country is Christian, versus 78% here.  There’s some definite Jesus marketing to be done in the former communist nation, to be sure.

What about b), the face-to-face, bum rush conversion at a discount store?

I have a relative who is an all around nice guy who reads this blog from time-to-time.  I love the guy.  He’s a genius with a photographic memory, and a generous spirit.  He’s refreshingly candid, and can talk intelligently about anything under the sun.  He’s a fantastic dad and someone I am proud to call a friend.

He's also an atheist.

He sent me a curious email recently.  I asked him for his permission to post it, and he gave me license, saying “Feel free to use my comments anonymously -- wouldn't want to lose my atheist badge or anything.”  Love it!

He wrote:

Hey guys, had a question.  I know the flooding didn't get you, but it got the parents of one of my best friends.  Yes, they’re a retired couple that live on Sawyer Brown Rd (River Plantation area - almost to Bellevue Shopping Center.)  The first story of their house was flooded to about 4' high.

I mention this because (a) they live 2.7 miles away from you [thanks google!], and (b) in completely tearing out their lower floor / moving furniture / rebuilding they received what by all accounts was incredible help from their church group.  You can see where I'm going with this.  They're in a church, you're in a church, and even an atheist like me knows there aren't that many churches that provide fantastic service to their people like tearing out flood damaged first floors.

So if you helped them out, I wanted to pass along my thanks (they're great folks, really), and if you didn't help them out, I'm sure you helped out another flood-damage victim, or you helped out someone during the flood, or you helped out someone sometime, which is all cool.

I’m not sure what your reaction to this is.  Me?  I love his writing style.  But more than that, I love that something piqued his interest in any form of church.  It’s never been my goal to “convert” him, probably because I’m not so good at Jesus sales.  I’ve mentioned before how I’m in more of a Jesus customer service role.

That said, I had to write back and probe about his comment.  It was a very unscientific poll with a sample size of 1.  Nothing that would stand up to scrutiny in any Christianity Conversion Journal, if there was such a thing (which wouldn’t surprise me.)   A guy like him doesn’t usually mention the church lightly, so I was curious what an atheist thought about fishing for converts.  His response is pretty enlightening.

I inquired about evangelism, and what he thought about it.

He responded pretty adamantly that he was deeply offended by the holier-than-thou Christians that spent lots of time deciding who was beneath them on the moral totem pole.  My guess is that he’d generally lump anyone who did the “bum rush” conversion technique into this category.  The very idea that someone would come at him proclaiming to be able to save his "heathen soul," while at the same time totally violating his personal space and not learning a thing about him, was pretty laughable.

And don't even get him started about the hypocrisy of professing a strong faith, yet committing horrible crimes that land you on the ten o'clock news.  Our 'forgiveness-minded" Jesus can be pretty convenient, can't he?  My cousin would be wondering, "So this guy embezzled millions of dollars, begged for his poor followers to fill the offering plate so he could own another Armani suit ('cuz God loves Armani), and he gets forgiven and goes to Heaven, but I'm destined to be lectured that I'm bound to burn in hell, even though I've never so much as stolen a paper clip from the office?"

You gotta' admit.  He has a point.

And, though he didn’t say anything about it, option c) to the multiple choice question above, and our take on mission and service trips could need an adjustment.     If the major learning that we come home with after serving abroad is a greater appreciation for what we have, have we really learned anything?  I’m as guilty as the next guy.  After coming home from Guatemala, I was pretty fixated on the appreciation of an on-demand hot shower anytime I wanted it.  But is that what Jesus really wants that experience to be about?

Let’s get back to the fishing analogy.  Whether it’s fly fishing or casting a net, we don’t catch anything unless the fish is interested.  The fish either needs to be drawn in by the authenticity of the bait, or we have to be casting a net in a place where the fish we seek feel right at home already.

Fish aren’t clubbed, like wives in the prehistoric days.

Fish aren’t shot from a distance, like wild game.

Fish aren’t shocked with electricity to be skimmed up when their lifeless bodies float to the surface.  They’ve made that illegal now in Oklahoma – go figure.

Nope, people, like fish, are drawn in by something that looks appealing.  Something that looks authentic.

Something about service appealed to my cousin.  It wasn’t our Bible-thumping, and it wasn’t our hard sales pitch.  It wasn't judgment, and it wasn't the fearmongering that has turned our news media (both left and right), and our churches, into a giant, national campfire ghost story.

No, I think it was the idea of serving without pretense.  Without asking for anything in return.  Not even a life lesson.  Selfless giving.

Our jobs as Christians is not manipulation and trickery.  Our focus shouldn’t be on noticing what’s different or “immoral” about others.  Instead, we should be living with an unquenchable desire to treat others with the grace that Jesus showed to all of His people.

And if we do that, whether by accident or on purpose, others will notice.  They’ll be drawn in.  They may even make it into our nets for a while.

And sometimes…

We let them go.

Because the best fisherman have a deep respect for what they’re trying to catch.  A genuine respect.  An authentic respect that comes from knowing we're all equal players on this planet.  Dependent on one another.

The good news is that Jesus  was never one to keep score or store trophies on a shelf.  He’s just happy we’re out there.  The expert angler.  The one tangled up in nylon.  And the accidental missionary in us all.