The Weather and the Whales

I was recently in Juneau, AK on an extended family trip. If you haven’t been there, the first thing I should tell you about the place is that it’s God’s country. More specifically, the town is in a temperate rainforest next to the ocean, surrounded by snow covered mountains with glaciers that descend from the Juneau Ice Fields at a higher elevation just outside of town, all of which which amounts to breathtaking views at every turn. The weather on our trip was cool and gray and misty, just what Arkansans need in August. And we had the good fortune to stay outside of town at a retreat center right on the water. We woke up to the sound of nesting bald eagles. We watched a salmon run in the stream right outside our front door. And at low tide, the extremely abundant star fish and sea anemones were on point. I think I should get some extra credit for saying “anemone” in a sermon. Anyway, the location was heaven.

The other thing I want to tell you is that the Alexander side of the family is adventurous. I come from couch-sitting people, the kind who take tour buses to see the sights. I appreciate a good seated tour. But the Alexanders tend to go off the beaten path in search of an authentic experience of a place. That’s how I found myself on one of the most technically difficult hikes there, going up Mount Jumbo. The name should have tipped me off. The trail was vertical and challenging. I may or may not have cried just a little. But the summit was worth it. At 3400 feet up, we were above the tree line, surrounded by alpine meadows. When the clouds occasionally parted, we could see the town below and the cruise ships that looked like toy boats. There’s no better feeling.

I guess the most touristy thing we did in Juneau was to go whale watching. We went out on two boats, each carrying 5 or 6 people and captained by family friends. One is a very kind pastor, and the other is a young woman who became a captain at the early age of 18. She told us about growing up on a homestead on a little island we motored past. It was a rustic and wonderful childhood, she said. Think solar power, bears, and no roads. It made her self-reliant and deeply in tune with her surroundings. I’m not sure I’ve met a more positive person. You can feel her joy for being on the water. And for the humpback whales we saw, up close. It was thrilling.

Jaylene was an excellent guide to the whales and the surrounding sights. But because we have some people in common, we also had the chance to ask her about her work and her life. She said that sometimes people hire her to take them out, and then have a terrible time, grumbling and cranky. The weather might be bad, or the whales might be elusive. That crankiness can get you down. But Jaylene has found a way to push through that. “I can’t control the weather or the whales,” she said. But she can put her best effort into each and every trip, and try to help people see that incredible place no matter what. Whales are just one part of an extraordinary web of creation there. There is always much more to see.

“I can’t control the weather or the whales” has become my new motto. It is gospel truth. We can be tossed about by weather or other difficult circumstances. And we can be disappointed if we don’t see whales or whatever other elusive things we chase after. But we can control how we steady ourselves in the midst of all that. Which I think has echos in
Jesus’ strange teachings about being the bread of life and the means to eternal life, gospel truth according to John.

The first thing I noticed about today’s gospel is the grumblers, like people who feel cheated out of seeing whales on their whale watching tour. People had been listening to Jesus about bread and wine, and flesh and blood, and they were starting to get cranky about the strange teachings. They had come for whales, for the spiritual wisdom they signed up for, that they could see and grasp and enjoy. Instead, Jesus was being odd and cryptic. Even some of his own disciples were overheard saying, “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” Many left.

But for those who stayed, what did they see that the others didn’t? Peter said that he would stay because Jesus had the words of eternal life. He had the words for something that is beyond words. Peter saw beyond the whales in the brochure. He saw the view from the top of mountain. How do you put into words something like eternal life? How do you describe the God responsible for the whole created order? And how on earth do you describe how you and I are in relationship to that God? And that we can touch God? Jesus chose bread and wine, which turned out to be a pretty brilliant option. They are a tangible sign to point us to the big picture that is eternal life, the very intersection between God and us.

Jesus shows us that the spiritual life is more than fair weather and the excitement of seeing a whale. It’s about being out on the water and knowing that we are part of a bigger creation. Jesus opted for words like body, blood, and eternity to point us toward that truth. If Jesus had used the same old words, the same old whales, he would not have broadened the imagination of those around him. Peter caught on to Jesus as a kind of master tour guide, and we can do the same.

One of the challenges for us in a passage like this is to ask ourselves whether we are looking for the same old whales in our spiritual lives. Are we usually trying to confirm what we already know? Or, are we open to God showing us a new thing? I think this is especially challenging in our culture. For example, we are surrounded by some pretty wonderful wellness industries. There is no shortage of ways for us to tend to the health of our bodies, minds, and spirits. For fun, Jason and I often ponder the question of what the difference is between church, and say, a yoga class, which we both love. Our yoga classes help heal our bodies and strengthen our spirit in community. We can measure progress, which is always great. But one difference is that in our exercise classes, we don’t expect a teaching out of left field like eating the bread of life so that we’ll live forever. That’s very different. The more esoteric teachings from Jesus come from above, above the tree line if you will, and are meant to shake us out of our limited perspective. The gift in that and the challenge is to be open to those teachings that are beyond what we think we already know.

Many of us have been looking for large things of whale-like proportions. Things like love and acceptance, meaning and grace, peace of mind and calmness of spirit. It turns out that love is bigger than we thought. That grace is bigger than we thought. That the divine is more connected to us than we thought. We sometimes have to look beyond the whales we expect to see to understand even more. A good place to start is that new motto, we cannot control the weather or the whales. And besides, there is so much more out there.

Kate Alexander