By Heidi Shott
My older brother Jimmy, who lives on an island in Southeast Alaska, is a mate and pilot with the state ferry system but he also makes part of his living by hosting fishing charters in the icy, capricious waters west of Ketchikan. The tourists who hire him and his boat hope for the big 200 pound halibut. He tells me that sometimes he has to go farther off-shore than he would like in order to find them. But that’s what his guests pay him to do. And for that reason, since a particularly fateful day, he always packs a couple of peanut butter sandwiches in his cooler.
A few years ago Jimmy took a party of young men in their early twenties on a charter. They were keen to have an Alaskan adventure and with dreams of catching the big fish. After an unsuccessful morning, they finally hauled up some big ones off a point that extends several miles out to sea. The return trip—rounding the point and heading back to the harbor—was rough. The wind came up and the current near the point worked to push them back. As the waves grew so did the uneasiness of his guests. The bravado of the early morning dissolved into seasickness and downright fear.
“I wasn’t so thrilled to be out there myself,” said my brother, one of the most affable, easy-going guys on earth. “I made sure everyone had their life-vests on. I was nervous but, as the skipper, I sure as hell couldn’t show it.”
That’s when he asked one of his guests to reach into his cooler and get him a peanut butter sandwich. Jimmy recalled, “I told him I was hungry, which I wasn’t, but I knew that doing a normal thing like munching a sandwich would calm everyone down. And it did.” After awhile they cleared the point, put the wind behind them and surfed the big swells to the safety of the harbor.
Eating a peanut butter sandwich when you’re not hungry...whistling in the dark when your lips are parched…those are visible things we do for the people who need us to be strong. Jesus, who calmed the seas with a word, was the master, of course – the Chief Whistler of the Faith.
The lives we lead, we Christians, are full of blessings and unexpected moments of grace: illnesses cured, joyful mid-life weddings, children who ride chairlifts down the mountain by mistake and by some miracle don’t fall off. How easy it is to whistle and feast on sandwiches at those times.
But the lives we lead are also fraught with sad news and hard truths - especially in these recent months of recession and uncertainty – lost jobs, troubled marriages, fragile children, tragic diagnoses, and bad choices by people for whom we care and are powerless to change. Those times and the troubled times we live in, can make us justifiably afraid.
But fear need not turn into despair. As that great theologian of children’s literature, Marilla Cuthbert, says to Anne in Anne of Green Gables, “Despair is when you turn your back on God.”
If despair is a choice, then it is one we most often reach for when we are alone. A way to keep fear from slipping into despair lies in choosing to be together as a community centered on hope and faith and by propping open the door to keep watch for others who might find comfort in our company. Our success in battling the despair we see in the world around us will be proved by how well we live together and by how freely we welcome others under the cover of our love.
There will always be some among us who are better and stronger whistlers in the dark, those who lighten our load and make us feel brazen and confident in our life and faith. But I think each of us should be prepared to eat the occasional peanut butter sandwich and hold the wheel steady when the winds of fear and change would drive us back, not only for ourselves but for those who need us to be strong.
Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.