Spirituality and Stinky Fish

I grew up in Herring Cove, a quiet neighborhood along the water eight miles south of Ketchikan, AK. I spent my summers roaming the neighborhood on my bike, or swimming in the ocean, and I did a decent amount of fishing.

Herring Cove is something of a rare gem. It’s a beautiful place, peaceful, not heavily populated, and it is usually teeming with wild-life.  This is due in part to a fish creek that is home to a salmon hatchery.  So every summer, from about July to October, the waters are full of activity as animals and fishermen alike take advantage of this plentiful harvest.

There is also a smell associated with Herring Cove this time of year, and it is not pleasant.  One can normally begin to smell it about a half-mile out.  It’s the smell of dead, decaying fish.  Salmon are something of a wonder in biology.  They swim around the ocean for awhile, then manage to return to their place of birth so that they can fight the current, swimming upstream, where they spawn and die.

The fishermen in Herring Cove are usually going for Silvers (Coho Salmon), or King Salmon.  Nobody wants the humpies.  A humpy, or Pink Salmon is smaller, the meat doesn’t taste as good, and usually at this stage of life, they’re pretty nasty – having lost their scales, their skin turns black and scarred. Consequently, there are millions of them. Their jumping sounds like rain in the night in Herring Cove. humpy carcasses line the bottom of the creek by late summer.  High tide and a nice breeze will bring some respite from the smell, but not for long. Low tide comes twice a day, leaving many a furry fish high and dry to perfume the air. Oddly enough, a part of me has come to enjoy the smell. Especially when I visit my home, it takes me back to my childhood memories. I know, I am a sick individual.

My brother and neighborhood friends and I would often jump off the bridge at high tide.  We made sport out of dive-bombing the humpies. At low tide, if we accidentally caught one instead of a silver, we’d play cruel games like throwing large rocks on them from the top of the bridge, ripping out their gills while they were still alive, or stepping on them and watching the eggs or milt (salmon sperm) spill out.  I know, I am a horrible, evil human being.

I don’t think a person can truly encounter Christian Spirituality until we realize just how alike those stinky fish we are (allegorically speaking). Let me explain this:

There is definitely a problem in our universe, and we can all sense it. It seems we are all wired to do good. We have a sense of what is right and wrong (even if we often disagree as to what that is), and there is an innate value placed on altruism. We cheer when someone performs self-less deeds of mercy. We marvel at the heroism of someone who jumps into oncoming traffic to save someone else. We recoil at injustice when it rears its ugly head – unwarranted bloodshed, sex trafficking, genocide… even the jerk that cut someone off in traffic.  There is a definite sense of good, and an unspoken agreement that we are supposed to be good.  We’re wired for it, made for it.

But for some reason, actually being what we know we’re supposed to be does not come naturally. Doing good is the harder thing to do – like a salmon biologically wired to spawn in the river, we’re wired for a purpose, but living that out is more like swimming upstream. Being genuinely self-less is definitely the harder, more unnatural thing to do. It consumes our energy, wears us out, and when our true selves begin to show, we lose our shine, we fight harder, and we notice all the decaying casualties of others like us lining the bottom of the river, and we begin to wonder: What is the point of this? For all my striving, my ultimate destination is to be one of a million smelly carcasses lining the riverbed.

I’d like to think I am naturally good.  I’d like to think that if all societal constraints were removed, I would not slip into the anarchy, chaos and depravity that I see in other human beings, like the ones committing genocide in Darfur at this time. Am I capable of such atrocities? I’d like to say no. Take away the law, and I’d still follow it because I’m a good person. But ironically, I do drive differently when there’s a cop behind me. I believe in marriage.  I believe that a successful marriage depends on a self-less, giving love for one another. And yet, all too often I hurt my wife and cause her pain (not physically… but then, am I really incapable of that too?).

We form party lines based on what we believe is right and the best way to accomplish good.  We say “I am a Democrat!” or “Republican!” Or even, “I am a Christian!” Then we point fingers and say “they are the reason for our economic decline,” or “It’s their policies that are promoting child-labor,” or “if we can just defeat the other party, we’ll take care of the problem of abortion.” I can get passionate about these issues, because I have a God-given concern for what is good, and I react when that good is violated.  The problem, however, is that if I really look at myself, I see cause to question my motives.

Intended for good, I am narcissistic by nature. Most of my day is spent thinking of myself.  What will I do today? What will I eat?  I can criticize my government’s financial irresponsibility, but am I really that responsible? I believe we should help the poor and fight poverty both at home and abroad, but how much of my money and effort is directed at others compared to myself?  No matter how hard I try to swim upstream, it seems my fate will ultimately be the same. There is a problem, and it’s not them. I AM THE PROBLEM. I know, I really am an evil human being.

Christian Spirituality is not a matter of ascending a mountain through various disciplines and acts of good, then finally arriving at the top and achieving enlightenment. To the contrary, I would argue that it is when one sinks low enough into their own depravity, realizing just how hopeless they really are, having exhausted themselves to the point of death.  It is only when one comes to grips with his / her own inadequacy that they become desperate enough to truly cry out to God – and this is where we truly find Him.

The beautiful thing about Jesus is that he became one of us.  He knows our struggles. God became flesh and dwelt among us. He willingly endured all of my smelliness. He himself lived a sinless life, and died a death He didn’t deserve. The death that I deserve. He was raised from the dead, and now he offers me this promise: That if I will truly entrust my life to him and stop trying so hard to swim upstream, but let him lead, He will make me new. I think Jesus truly does want me to come to grips with the fact that I am a smelly, rotting fish. Not because he doesn’t like me, but because he loves me and the rest of our broken human race enough to let us know that if we want to be able to deal with Darfur, we have to first deal with the person staring at us in the mirror.

As crazy as all of this sounds, there is something in my innermost being that is crying out for this. I want it. I connect with it. I am made for an inseparable connection with God.  Without it, I’m just a dying fish swimming upstream.  With it, the burden is lifted from my shoulders, Christ becomes my righteousness, and I am made new again.  A second chance. A new start. Redemption. Healing. And I don’t have to hide behind any masks. I am a smelly fish with nothing to hide.  And that is what identifies Christians with one another. We are smelly fish. We don’t adopt some form of religion to ignore the stench or cover it up like high tide. This doesn’t mean that I give into my sinful desires. What it means is that I can trust Christ to rid me of what I could not rid myself of. Only he can truly make me new again. There is no self-exaltation or pride in that. If I may boast, I boast in Christ alone.

We share a common identity that has come to grips with the truth of our own depravity – having nothing to hide, but also sharing and spurring one another along in the hope and truth that in Christ, we are together made new.  He is now my cleanliness, and he smells a lot better than I do.

– Michael Rauwolf