Time To Be a Monkey Fist

Background Passages: Psalm 107:23-30; 2 Corinthians 8:8-9; 16-17

I don’t know if you caught the YouTube video recently of cruise ship passengers riding out a storm in the North Atlantic where 30-40 foot waves regularly crashed against the window of their cabin. It’s one of those unnerving images of pending disaster that haunts a lot of travelers whether they travel by sea or by air. I’ve never cruised in waters that rough, but, in almost every port, I remember the gratifying feeling of being docked securely in the harbor. It’s a feeling similar to when your plane lands safety at its destination. Being back on solid ground offers great comfort.

As we arrived in that safe harbor on our last cruise, I watched from the deck of the ship as the captain used his starboard thrusters to ease the vessel toward the pier. He stopped the thrusters, leaving the ship 30 feet from the dock. The crew scurried to moor the ship by sending hawsers—thick ropes three inches in diameter–across the void from the ship to the bollards on shore. I remember thinking how hard it would be to toss the heavy ropes that distance to the pier.

Instead, the crew attached a 60-foot, thin rope to a rope ball about six inches in diameter, tying the ball to the hawser. They swung the ball around on the end of the rope like David’s slingshot and sent it flying across the emptiness between the ship and pier, carrying the thin line behind it. The workers on the dock picked it up, pulled the rope across the water, eventually dragging the hawser with it. They tightened the hawser, drawing and securing the ship close enough to the pier for passengers to disembark. It was a slick operation that allowed us once again to step upon firm ground.

I’m told the thick ball at the end of the thin rope was called a “monkey fist.” In the maritime world, the monkey fist, which dates back to the early 17th century, is a specialized knot wrapped around a stone, an iron ball or other heavy weight to make it easier to toss the heavy hawser onto the dock.

It’s this monkey fist that stirred my thoughts today.

Over the past several weeks, several friends and family members have found themselves at sea, struggling in the midst of life’s storms, most of which are not of their making. These difficulties, like waves on the ocean, crash against our lives threatening to sink even the strongest among us into depression and despair.

The psalmist used the poetic language of ancient mariners to indicate the difficulties we sometimes face.

“They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
In their peril their courage melted away.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
They were at wits end.”

Yet, the psalmist knew that God provided a safe harbor for those who trust him and call upon his name.

“Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
And he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
The waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
And he guided them to their desired harbor.”

There is good news for those of us who commit our lives to Christ and know how precious it is to have him as our safe harbor. When the storms of life batter us, we know we can tie ourselves securely to him, confident that once we wrap our hawser around his bollard, nothing will separate us from his safe keeping. We know within the trouble and distress, he can calm the storm to a hushed whisper.

I have been in that position. The difficulty comes when my strength fails. When my courage melts away. When I am at my wits end. I can’t draw close enough to the Father on my own to toss him my mooring line. My burden too heavy. The distance between me and the Father too great. The line itself much too short.

In times like that, I need someone to hurl the monkey fist. Someone to make it easier to drag my hawser to the dock and tie it off to the bollard, safe within the arms of God’s love, care and protection. Invariably, I find a pastor, a spouse, a friend, and at times, a stranger, willing to tie all things together through word or deed that allows me to reconnect with God in the way I need it most.

We will all need that connection from time to time. Paul knew what it meant to find comfort in Christ. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 8:8-9, 16-17:

“We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

When our batteries need recharging or when we need time out of the wind and wave to gather ourselves again for ministry and service, it’s comforting to know that we have a haven in Christ. I am grateful in my life for those who gripped and tossed the monkey fist on my behalf when the safe harbor seemed so far away.

This week many individuals will cross our path with lives torn apart by broken relationships, lost jobs, illness, injury and death. Those who struggle to make ends meet. Those with little hope for the future. Their seas are high and frightening.

We must look for opportunities to toss the monkey fist for those in need of the peace and comfort that only God can provide. May we be the ones that draw their storm-tossed vessel to the safety of the harbor and allow them to set their feet again on solid ground.

The Elephant in the Room

Background Passages: John 10:30-34; John 14:1-11

Given our difficulty as Christians in handling some of the social issues of the day, it seems we have a hard time understanding the true character and nature of God. We make attempts to classify him by putting God in a box of our own creation. We define him on our terms and, too often, in our image. If we need God to be anti-immigrant, we find a way to make him so. If we need God to take a stance on health care for the poor, we make it for him. If we need God to smite a specific nation, we find a way to justify the smiting.

It has been that way since the beginning. Mankind has always sought to define God. It’s why the ancients worshipped idols. Why they invented a god for every act of nature. Throughout history mankind has defined God within the limits of his understanding. God knew it would happen when he created us, knowing one day he would reveal himself to his creation in a special way.

I remember my third grade teacher, Ms. Wallace, reading a specific poem in class. It made me laugh. John Godfrey Saxe, a 19th century American satirist and poet, penned his poem The Blind Men and the Elephant in 1874, his take on an old Hindu story. Though entertaining, I did not find it particularly provocative until it was read again in my university philosophy class. The poem, as interpreted by a number of West Texas philosophers, became emblematic of the search for moral truth and necessity of religious tolerance.

I stumbled across the poem again this week in my study. Allow me to set aside the extended philosophical and theological debate with apologies to the original Hindu storyteller and to Saxe.

The poem, based on an old Hindu text, tells the story of six blind men who had never encountered an elephant. When given the chance to get up close and personal with the massive beast, they each touched a different part of the animal. One the elephant’s side. Another its tail. One its trunk. Another its ear. And, so on. When asked, then, to describe the elephant, each responded within his only frame of reference. Why, certainly, the elephant was like a wall…a rope…a snake…a fan…

Take a look at the last two stanzas.

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong.

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean
And prate on about the Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Work with me here and forgive the metaphor. God wants a relationship with us. He wants us to know him. We were unable to fully grasp his character and nature as long as God stayed in his heaven. So, he became the elephant in the room, introducing himself to the world through his son Jesus Christ. He sent his son into the world to walk among us, to reveal the nature and character to God to us in the words he spoke and the ministry he performed.

Still we struggled to understand. As Jesus prepared his disciples for his death on the cross and the inevitable time when they would carrying on his work without his physical presence among them, the disciples had a hard time putting Jesus and God together.

Jesus offered comfort amid their confusion. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” He told them he would prepare a place for them in his father’s house and that they knew how to get there. Thomas, ever confused, confessed his lack of understanding. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, the life…If you really know me, you will know my Father as well.” In the haze of uncertainty, Phillip asked Jesus to “show us the father. That will be enough.”

Jesus’ sad response to Phillip explains to us how we can begin to know the character and nature of God. “Phillip,” Jesus said, “don’t you know me, even after I have been among you for such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the father…Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and he is in me or at least believe in the evidence of the works themselves.”

So if we have trouble understanding the character and nature of God, we need look no further than the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Our understanding of him, grows the more we touch him. The more we experience him. So, like the blind men with the elephant, if we limit our experiences with Christ we will never know all we can about who he is…who God is.

You see, God is not passive and silent, forcing us to guess about his nature and what he expects of us. He tells us what he likes and what he expects. God, in Jesus Christ, gave us a standard by which to measure our actions and our thoughts.

We don’t have to grope in the darkness to understand God from a limited perspective. Our understanding comes through the direct revelation of God through Jesus Christ. No other religion makes a similar claim. Jesus declared it clearly and succinctly. “I and my Father are one.” He declared to his disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

How much more would we learn of God if, unlike the blind men, we didn’t stop with that first touch? God calls us to look beyond the nail-scared hands, as important as that experience might be. Watch, listen, and learn from the one God sent into the world to show us how to live.