The beginning of this month, I flew to the edge of the continent. From one shore to another—Lake Michigan to Alaska. Flew to Anchorage and then Kodiak Island. Boarded a bush plane, hugged the interior mountain peaks, landed on a gravel strip at Larsen Bay. Hauled my bag down to the black rocky beach. Climbed into one of two waiting skiffs with a group of writers. Motored seven miles through Uyak Bay, salted wind blowing through my curls, looking for whales and sea otters.
And then, coming around the bend, my fourth year in a row, I saw the island again.
The small, cliff-lined, up-thrust of earth on the edge of the Shelikof Strait where the salmon run wild and are caught in set-nets by the Fields family, each picked by hand and sent off across the globe.
The place I’ve come to love Leslie Leyland Fields, the woman who has taught me how to harvest and prepare my own true story. She is a master at writing all the ups and downs and turnarounds of life showing God’s wild grace for us all. In her newest book, Crossing the Waters—Following Jesus Through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt, and the Seas (NavPress), Leslie shares experiences from her fishing life on Harvester Island and her solo walk around the Sea of Galilee, giving us profound insights from both bodies of water and showing us what we all have in common with the first fishermen disciples.
In the following excerpt, Leslie reflects on the harrowing experience with her two young sons—one severely injured and in need of urgent care—aboard an Alaskan bush plane about to crash into a fog-obscured mountainside. She identifies with Peter’s fear and doubts when walking on the water toward Jesus in a storm and the salvation that comes by the able hand of God, the Son, right where the fierce winds were against him, frothing up the waves, threatening to drown—the same sort of overwhelming places God meets us and helps us see His great and sufficient love for us all . . . all the time.
Now, my honor to share Leslie with you!
We missed the mountain that day. The plane rose until it felt like we had hit heaven’s door, and then the engine let go. We leveled out and picked our slow, painful way to town, around every cliff and pinnacle, the only plane in the air for a hundred miles. Noah was on crutches the rest of the summer. He healed from his injuries, with just a few scars to remind him.
But neither story, mine nor the disciples’, is over because Jesus was not done with his people. “O you of such small faith!” he chides Peter as he sinks, horrified, into the waters. But I’m not sure that he chastises Peter for sinking in the waves. Peter’s not supposed to be walking on water. He has a boat. He’s supposed to be in the boat. I’ve read this story wrong for too long. We love Peter’s impetuousness. It warms our heart, this passionate fisherman who, crazy with faith, leaps into the storm. This follower of Jesus who wants to imitate whatever Jesus is doing, a true talmid. And surely yes, we all must take leaps of faith into the scary unknown at times, but Jesus never asked him to get out of the boat. Leaving the boat wasn’t Jesus’ idea. Peter leaps over the side into the maelstrom not out of faith—but disbelief. Peter cannot believe that Jesus is there with them in the storm. Peter cannot believe that Jesus is who he said he is that night over the churning sea, though he reassures them three times! “Take courage!” “It is I!” “Do not be afraid.” In response to Jesus’ voice and his clear identification, “It is I!” Peter shouts back, above the wind, “If it is you . . .” He leaps out of doubt, not faith. He walks atop the waves anyway for a few steps, but fear opens his eyes and ears too wide. He hears the wind; he feels the water at his ankles. He knows this is impossible—and he sinks.
I think Jesus scolds me too in my own plane of a boat that day. Because I did not see him until I knew we would die. I should know better. He has been with me all these years and still I miss him. Still I am blind to his presence in so many ways. In the midst of feasting, I am afraid of loss. In a gale, I see ghosts, the height of the waves, the lash of the wind. My faith is overshadowed by fear and the storm and even by satiety, but he comes into my narrow heart anyway. He makes room and enters when I think I am dying, and only then do I see him. Only then do I believe his love for me. And this is what I must do, what we all must do—see him as fully in the living as we do in the dying.
Even in the dying they did not see him that night. Nor did they see him in the bread that very day. That afternoon they carried away those baskets, each of them with his own reed basket full of Christ’s bread broken for each of them, personally, and their hearts were hard, the gospel of John tells us. They didn’t recognize what was happening, that the bread he was feeding them with was himself, that he was soon to give his own body for the life of the world, for the life of each one of them.
They wanted bread, all right. The kind that fills your belly, but not the other kind. They thought their problem was hunger, not an appetite for power and revenge. They thought their problem was political oppression, not their own slavery to sin. That night, they thought their problem was the storm, not their blindness to Jesus’ presence and love. They thought their problem was impending death, not disbelief.
But he comes to them anyway and they are so not expecting him, they cannot believe it is him even when he identifies himself. Even when he says his name to them: “It is I”—the “I AM!” They have themselves seen his mastery over the water, but still they are expecting a ghost more than they are expecting Jesus. They are believing in their own folklore, in a phantom, more than they are believing in Jesus. They are believing in their fear of the deep more than Jesus. They do not yet know that he is with us wherever we are, that he will even walk on water in the middle of the night in a storm to come to us, that nothing can keep him from us, nothing can separate us from his love, not the present nor the past, not wind or waves or fire, neither height nor depth neither living nor dying. Nothing can separate us from his love.
But they are beginning to know. They are beginning to see. Wet panting, exhausted, they answer their own question that day when his voice calmed the sea: “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” They answer it now aloud and in their hearts again and again, huddled, soaking to their skin, as bone-weary from rowing as though wrestling with an angel all night: “Truly you are the Son of God!” They say it in submission, in wonder as they bow before him, now safer than they’ve ever felt before.
The danger is over, though other storms will surely come. Jesus has come not to save them from the waters—death is not the enemy—but to save them from unbelief and their still-small faith. They don’t know yet that Jesus is about to enter the biggest storm or all—death. And he will save them by himself leaping into the waters we cannot swim. He will be the better Jonah, thrown overboard into the deepest seas and tallest waves, and he alone will overcome it. He will trample the sting and the storm of death.
I felt it that day, and I knew the question that stung at our feasting table last week was answered: if Jesus takes away all that he has given, is he enough? Kneeling on the floor of the plane, my blond-haired baby on one side, my bloodied half-conscious son on the other, speeding toward the mountain, I knew the truth. My faith fell away, no longer needed. Jesus, I whispered through a clenched jaw, with closed eyes. I was ready to sink, to shatter, to fall, to rise into the One I had always hoped was there—and he was. And he was more than enough.