Sailing Lessons: Rope

What is the greatest invention of all time? The most common answer is “The wheel,” but as important as wheels are, the great South American empires didn’t have them. No, I think the greatest invention was rope. I am fascinated by the stuff.

Did you know the great Viking long boats weren’t held together with nails? They lashed planks of their ships with rope. From suspension bridges to flag poles, rope is found everywhere and holds so many things together. It’s amazing!

I love rope and while Jan sat swinging in a rope hammock suspended from the mizzen boom of our boat reading a good book, she swayed in warm, tropical breezes. I was unraveling the end of a length of line and splicing it into an eye for a new dock line.

Have you ever really looked at a piece of rope? It is made up of long strands wrapped around each other and twisted into bundles. The bundles are in turn twisted around other bundles until they form the right dimension for the project you are working on. A splice simply twists fibers together into a new form that carefully maintains the strength of the line.

I stared at my fuzzy handiwork for a bit and thought about how a rope could represent the church. The strength of a congregation comes from the strength of her individual members, their lives entwined. Alone, a single strand or a single member is pretty weak. There is no way you could securely fasten a boat to a dock or raise a sail or anchor a ship with a single strand but with enough filaments, carefully wrapped around each other, no load is too heavy and no job is too great.

“Honey, I’m stuck in this hammock. Would you go below and pour me another drink?” she asked.

“Knot now,” I objected. “I’m all tied up.”

“Very puny. Now take off that Viking helmet and please get me something cold to drink!”

Whether you’re talking about the filaments of a rope or the members of a congregation, we really do need each other!


Sailing Lessons: Keels & Sails

During our recent sailing vacation, Jan and I tried to think of the different ways sailing illustrated the Christian life. Here are two more “sailing lessons” from our logbook.

Santa Teresa under sail in San Diego

I love getting in our dinghy and rowing away from our sailboat, Santa Teresa. I’m not trying to escape but to gain perspective. I love to look at her sitting at anchor. She has classic lines from her long, beautiful bowsprit to the sweet upturn of her transom. (The bowsprit is a twelve-foot spruce and mahogany laminated beam that sticks out of the bow of the boat to hold the foot of the foremost sail. Thanks to Paul Yarrington, George Riley and especially Tom Donnellan for rebuilding it last spring! The transom is the back of the boat.)

The surprising thing is what you don’t see. If you don’t count the masts that hold the sails up in the air, there is much more sailboat below the water than above! The seven-foot keel sticks down into the ocean and weighs over 9,000 pounds. It stretches from the bow to the stern and her purpose is to keep us sailing upright. When the winds howl and threaten to turn us upside down, the keel fights back and keeps us on course.

For a Christian, the Holy Spirit is the equivalent to a keel. Temptations and trials may threaten to turn us upside down but the Holy Spirit keeps us upright and on course. While the Spirit is quiet, lying there just below the surface, he gives stability to everything we do and helps us pass through every storm.

Back on board, we raise the anchor and hoist the sails. Just as the winds move us along, so the storms of life drive us but there is an interesting twist to this story. Have you watched the boats in the bay? The wind blows the same on all the boats but some sail left and some sail right. How can that be? The answer is the set of the sails.

Some people put their sails on a starboard tack and some choose a port tack but the wind is the same for everyone. Likewise, we all face challenges and trials. Some people are overwhelmed and some people thrive. What makes the difference? The set of your sails. What you choose to do with your trials will determine which way you will go. What you choose to do with Jesus will determine where you will spend eternity.

Jan popped up from the galley with a steaming bowl of soup, hot rolls with toasted cheese and a mug of coffee. “Are you preaching to my friends the dolphins again?” I shrugged sheepishly and we both broke out laughing.

Sailing Lessons: The Kayaker

It felt like the perfect anchorage. Jan slowly motored into the shallow cove and I stood in the bow “swinging the lead.” (The old sailors would cast a lead weight and line into the water to find out how deep it was. As they coiled up the line, they would count the coils. Since an average man’s arm span is about six feet wide, each coil of the line measured about six feet of depth: a fathom.). At six fathoms deep, I let go the anchor. The water was so clear I could see it dig into the sandy bottom. Jan slowly motored backwards while I played out the anchor chain. It was beautiful and soon we were relaxed on deck enjoying the last of our cheese and crackers, sausages and fruit. The songs of a thousand birds echoed in the cove and the sun slowly sank behind the island. Seals were barking and we went to bed early, sorry our voyage was coming to an end but also looking forward to long, hot showers and the comforts of home.

It was a dark night (the moon wouldn’t come up until after midnight) but the light of a thousand, thousand stars, gently lulled us to sleep. Then someone was shouting! Lights were shining into our windows. I sprang on deck and a sixty-foot American sport fisher with half a dozen men was trying to get our attention.

“We’re on our way south but we found a lost kayaker at sunset. He’s an American from Rosarito Beach and got washed out to sea. We’ve contacted the Coast Guard. Can you take him?” They motored along side and a dozen hands passed a kayak, paddle and 30-year old man across.

We took him below. Perry was very muscular, had a shaved head that glowed red with blisters from the sun, a goatee and wore a grey sweat suit one of the fishermen gave him. Jan gave Perry a couple of bottles of water and began making soup. He had rented a little kayak in Rosarito Beach, eleven miles away on the coast. Then he had decided to paddle out into the Pacific for a look. The wind and the waves caught him and he couldn’t get back to shore. For eleven hours he fought for his life without food or water or even a hat. Wearing just a red shirt and shorts, his thighs were fried and he despaired of life but as the sun was going down, the Americans found him. They found us and now he was safe.

Perry said he was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder from his childhood and after talking, eating and drinking for a while, we bedded him down, and contacted the Coast Guard. Since he was in no immediate physical danger, they asked if we could bring him to San Diego with us in the morning.

Dawn was grey and overcast. As we motored back to the States I asked him, “You’ve had an amazing experience. What did you learn from it?”

“I’ve made some bad decisions in my life. Trouble always seems to find me.”

“It’s been my experience that we find what we go looking for. We all make mistakes Perry but the important thing is what we learn from them. You’ve been given a second chance at life. What are you going to do with it?”

Perry’s answer at least was honest. “John, I don’t believe in God. The Bible is just a bunch of myths written by a bunch of old guys. I’m going to buy a hybrid car and never go kayaking again.”

“That’s sad. God has given you a second chance at life. By all rights, you should have died last night. You have an opportunity to do it right this time. Why do you want to make the same mistakes you made before?”

“Can I smoke? One of the fishermen gave me a couple of cigarettes. I’ll hang real far over the back.”

He seemed very nervous as we pulled up to the police docks for our customs inspection. “Do you think they’ll do a background check? I have two outstanding warrants including one for assaulting a police officer in New Jersey…”

I shook my head and thought, Perry that is the least of your troubles. So what would you do if you had a second chance at life? You know you do. Our God is a God of Second chances. What are you doing with it?

Sailing Lessons: Changed in a Moment

It was time to start home but that was going to be a challenge. We had been blessed with strong winds blowing from the north to push us south on our journey but now we needed to sail north – against the prevailing winds – to get home to San Diego. On top of that, the cold California current runs north south and we would have to fight that too. It seemed like our best bet would be to use our tiny 35-horse power engine and scoot north during the night after the winds have died down.

Poor Jan was so excited she didn’t manage to get any sleep the night before at all so when I woke up at midnight, she was already awake. Ensenada had been a wonderful stopover. The people were so friendly and the food was delicious. A half-moon was just rising when we untied from the dock. The water in the harbor was mirror calm. The dimly lit green buoys were on our right and the red buoys on the left marked our channel out into the bay. Once there, we were greeted with large, slow swells that had traveled from distant shores. The boat began to corkscrew uncomfortably. We couldn’t see the approaching swells. Back and forth. Up and down. Side to side. It grew darker and darker. The motion was nauseating.

Dawn was welcome. It didn’t make much difference in the motion of the boat but at least we could see what we were up against. It was going to be a slow bash northward. At one point our speed dropped below three knots. “We’re walking to San Diego,” I complained. Jan was exhausted and I was green – very green. Soon I had the opportunity to enjoy the fine fare of Ensenada over again – and again.

We love sailing but not this part. I had to have a break from five hours at the helm and somehow Jan and I were able to trade positions behind the wheel on the bucking bronco without anyone going overboard. “I hate this,” Jan replied. I went below to check on the little diesel engine and try to find some relief. The way things were going, this was sure to be our last voyage!

Suddenly, I heard Jan laughing and squealing like a little girl. I popped up on deck just in time to see “Sally,” a 45-foot blue whale. (I knew she was at least 45 feet long because our little boat only measures 40 feet from stem to stern!) She was just a “biscuit toss” away and keeping pace with us. (Yes, she had to slow way down.) “I’ve named her ‘Sally,’” Jan announced triumphantly. Sally rolled up on her side and looked us over before crossing our bow and swimming down the other side. She seemed to shake her head as if in wonder. “What are these crazy people doing?” and then she sounded. Her massive fluke swung high into the air and she seemed to leave a hole in the ocean as she slipped beneath the waves. In one magic moment everything had changed. All of our troubles were forgotten and we were left with a sense of wonder and awe.

I can’t help but think it will be that way for Christians when we meet Jesus. All our troubles will soon be forgotten. Maranatha – Come Lord!

Sailing Lessons: Trust

Jan and I just returned from a vacation in Mexico on our beloved sailboat, Santa Teresa. We’ve owned Teresa for many years. She was built in 1969 from 16 tons of Mahogany and, as Captain Jack Aubrey said in the movie Master and Commander “There is enough of our blood in the wood to make her a near-relative!”

Santa Teresa at Sail

As we sailed, Jan and I tried to think of lessons the experience was teaching us about the Christian life. For example, I can’t think of a better lesson on faith than to check your chart and your compass and then sail “over the horizon.” You believe there is an island waiting for you out there. It will have a wonderful anchorage and delights for us to enjoy but to get there we have to sail out of sight of land. We trust the compass to show us the way but there is a very serious moment when the coast disappears and all you can see is an uninterrupted horizon of blue all around you. You keep sailing by faith and then there is a moment of magical joy when that fuzzy cloud on the horizon grows sharper and reveals the island you have been sailing for. It is one thing to sail from point to point but quite another to let go and step out on faith.

During the first week of our trip we had clear blue skies but the winds and the waves drove us on. We reached Isla Coronado Sur in record time. At one point our 16 tons reached 8 knots driven by the wind alone! That was glorious but when it came time to anchor for the night, the island didn’t protect us very much. All night long Teresa bucked and rocked at times threatening to throw us out of our bunks. Just a few yards away were dark, ugly rocks bathed in white foam. The shore seemed to be smacking her lips wanting to devour our little wooden boat. The only thing holding us in safety was a thirty-five pound anchor, a hundred feet of chain and two hundred feet of half-inch nylon.

That gives you a lot to think about as you lay in your bunk through the night. Is the bottom hard-packed sand or soupy mud? Does the anchor have a good bite or has it become fouled in the chain? Are the shackles tight or slowly coming unscrewed with each jerk on the chain? Is the rope chaffing against the hull or a rock? Are we fast or are we slowly inching towards those jagged rocks? Many times I sang the old hymn that asks, “Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?” Jan reached across the v-berth and took my hand. Even as the wind sang in the rigging, she smiled in the darkness and said, “I’m glad we used the best anchor!”

Faith in the chart and faith in the anchor are important but how much more important is our faith in a loving heavenly Father? Trim your sails and let’s continue the adventure!

We’re Back!

Thanks for all the prayers and kind wishes for us while Jan and I were away sailing. It was the most refreshing vacation we’ve enjoyed together in many, many years. It was just the two of us on our beloved sailboat, Santa Teresa. After stopping at the Municipal Docks (known as the “Cop Docks” because of the Harbor Police office there) where we were able to load our food, supplies, water and a thousand and one other “don’t forget the _____” items, we had a delightful, fast sail south to the Coronado Islands just across the border in Mexico.

The Coronados are a wildlife refuge and while you can’t go ashore, you can watch over 60 species of birds and 3 types of seals and sea lions. They say the fishing is great but we were too busy doing nothing to fish. (Now that is saying alot!) On the third day, we hoisted our anchor and had another wonderful sail to Ensenada, Mexico. While it is only 70 miles from San Diego, if felt like a million. We stayed at the Baja Naval marina where we were hosted in a most delightful way. The food, shopping and especially the people were truly wonderful. What surprised us was how uncrowded it was. Every three days a cruise ship would pull in but they stayed in a very small district and gave us the rest of the city.

Besides sea food, we enjoyed sidewalk cafes and coffee and nothing tastes better than hand-dipped ice cream on a hot August afternoon. We had time to sleep, read books, meet interesting people and do a whole lot of nothing. It was delightfully decatent!

From Ensenada, we sailed south between Punta Banda and Isla Todos Santos and on another fifty miles to Santo Tomas where we discovered guidebooks don’t always give good advice. The picture of the anchorage on the internet looked great but we we arrived it was open to the weather and choked full of kelp. We tried vainly to anchor three times but eventually gave up. We did collect an amazing harvest of kelp on our anchor and sailed north through the night back to Ensenada drawn on by visions of garlic shrimp and Cerveche.

Finally we had to come home so we slowly did the “Baja Bash.” (The wind and the currents run north-south so a sailboat has it’s work cut out for it going north!) Even though we started north at midnight when the winds were calm, we still fought corkscrew seas. On the other hand we met a curious “little” blue whale Jan dubbed “Sally” who swam with us a way. She was longer than our boat and was very curious. Sally would roll up on her side and look us over before crossing our bow and swimming down the other side. Her spout was enormous and when she finally sounded, she left a hole in the ocean. We also saw two different species of dolphins and a couple more varieties of whales but by the time we anchored by at Isla Coronado, we were truly spent.

Thursday night, after we had been in our bunks for a couple of hours, a large American sportfishing boat pulled up alongside and hailed us. A 30 year old American tourist had rented a small, sit-on-top, kayak at Rosarito Beach and had gone for a paddle into the big blue ocean. Unfortunately the wind and the waves that we had fought all day north, caught him and carried him out to sea. Perry was in shock and blistered by the sun. Can you imagine what it would feel like to paddle against the Pacific, alone, for eleven hours? Just as the sun went down, he was spotted by the fishermen and brought to our sailboat. Jan filled him with soup and drinks and we tucked him in bed while stowing his kayak and paddle on board. We contacted the Coast Guard and they asked us to bring him along with us to San Diego the next day. We thought he might have a problem clearing Customs without a passport or ID (those were left as a deposit for the kayak in Mexico) but the blisters on his shaved head and the glowing red burns on his legs apparently convinced Homeland Security his story was true.

All in all, it was a most wonderful vacation and I’ll be sharing some more of my meditations on the Holy Spirit from the book of Acts tomorrow. Thank you for your prayers and patience!


Jan and I are cruising in Mexico aboard Santa Teresa, our beloved sailboat.

By the way, she was named “Santa Teresa” when we bought her many years ago. Sailors are a very superstitious lot (Son’t begin a voyage on Friday because that’s the day Jesus died; don’t change the name of a boat; and especially don’t allow red-headed women on board! Well two out of three ain’t bad…).

When we moved aboard ST, Jan searched the internet to find out who Santa Teresa was. It turns out she is the patron saint of romance and headache sufferers. Now that’s a perfect name for a boat!

I am so glad so many of you have enjoyed my new book, Wind from the Shadows: Meditations on the Book of Acts. [Update: Through a special arrangement with my publisher, this book is now available free as an eBook! Visit the “John’s Books” link to receive your copy. Blessings! John]


Father of the Bride

The rental shoes of my tuxedo made a funny noise on the stone floor of the country club. I felt a little self-conscious. People I didn’t know swirled around me laughing and talking. The photographer’s assistant pinned a flower to my lapel and I looked around for a familiar face. The impression was joyful but I still felt awkward. My baby girl was getting married! I knew this was an important moment that I needed to remember but what did I feel?

It was going to be a hot one. What were they thinking? An outdoor wedding in Arizona in summer! But they were passing out fans and water and I knew it would be fine. I reached in my pocket for a handkerchief and realized I forgot it.

There is John Michael and there is Jennifer. But where is Charlotte? Someone pointed me to a door and someone else opened it for … for… “The father of the bride.”

I was quickly pushed through and surrounded by bride’s maids and mothers to shouts of “Door! Door!” It wouldn’t do for the groom to see the bride before she came down the aisle. It didn’t matter to me. I was transfixed by my beautiful daughter sitting on a little stool in the midst of a sea of silk. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. A little veil was pinned to her blonde hair. She held a bouquet of fall colored flowers and she looked up at me and smiled.

Somewhere under all that satin and lace, make-up and under-pinnings was my little girl. She was so happy. I tried to remember her whole childhood at once. The memories flooded past me now: pre-school Charlotte rappelling off the freezer in the garage in her “footie” pajamas, her and her brother scuba diving in the bathtub, learning to ride a “two-wheeler bike” in the park and watching her ride away as I bent over double out of breath. I thought of all the hikes and camping trips: her little teddy bear’s head sticking out of the top of her rucksack, watching her learn to throw a tomahawk and shoot a rifle at scout camp. Sailing together, catching fish, and most of all, reading bedtime stories.

Too soon it was time to go. Too soon we walked down the aisle. Too soon I shook the love of her life’s hand. Too soon I sat and listened to the beautiful words of two young people deeply in love. Warm tears slid down my cheeks. Someone passed me a handkerchief. Then they marched back down the aisle “Mr. and Mrs. Bentz.”

The reception was a giant party. There was food and drink and laughter and dancing and everyone had a wonderful time. I still felt a little lost. I made small talk and ate my cake. I strolled outside and someone tapped me on the shoulder. “It’s time for you to dance with the bride!”

Dancing? I don’t dance! Then I remembered twirling Charlotte in the kitchen. My little girl loved to dance and she judged a skirt by how it would twirl. Of course I will dance with the bride!

Every eye was on us as they cleared the floor. I took my little girl in my arms, kissed her cheek and we began to move. She made me look good and I began to relax. We laughed and her blue eyes sparkled. She twirled once more her skirts flying. I saw my little girl again. She is so much in love!

“Do you want to dip me?” She whispered as the song was coming to an end. “Of course!” I said. Everyone roared their approval and we were blinded by the flashes of every camera in the room. This joyful moment was frozen as I held my little girl in my arms one more time.

Being a father is one of life’s greatest rewards.

Holy Bug Zappers

My Grandmother use to say, “Where there’s light, there’s bugs.” By that she reminded me that if you start a good work, there would always be someone to criticize what you’re doing. So don’t get discouraged if people are complaining.

That’s great in theory but I’d also like to get a hold of the person who first said, “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but names will never hurt me.” He was wrong. Words wound.

My Grandfather, John D. McKeel

Let me tell you a story about my grandfather, “Papa.” Papa and Meemaw lived in Oklahoma City. They had a giant backyard (long but skinny) with a couple of great cherry trees to play in and lots of horned toads for grandsons to catch. We loved playing in the backyard but one-day Papa’s neighbor brought home a dozen beehives. He thought it would be great to raise them in his backyard. The bees might have been great for the cherry trees but they weren’t great for barbeques or little boys.

Papa went and talked nicely with his neighbor who could have cared less. He was a greasy-haired young man who always had a cigarette dangling from his mouth who only owned torn t-shirts. He laughed and slammed his door.

Papa checked with the city and yes, you couldn’t raise cattle in the backyard but there was no ordinance pertaining to bee keeping. As strange as it sounds Papa’s neighbor was fully within his rights to keep the hives back there.

Time stretched on and things only got worse. The gruff neighbor didn’t even share his honey! And then Papa got an idea. He went to the hardware store and bought several electric bug zappers and lined them up on the fence that divided their yards. I can still remember the little grin that use to cross Papa’s face every time we heard a “crack!” “Pop!” or “Sizzle.”

The church isn’t full of perfect people. In fact we have a few that call for more grace than you might expect. There aren’t any “Holy Bug Zappers” so that tells me God expects us to act otherwise. Here are a few rules I’ve found helpful when I’m called on to show a little extra patience with people.

When dealing with problem people, don’t become a problem yourself. (See the Golden Rule for a further explanation.)

  1. When you are being drawn into a conflict, draw closer to God!
  2. Even though that person may express himself in an annoying way, listen to what he has to say. He might just be right!
  3. The object is not to “squash the bug,” or run them away. The goal is always “transformation.” (See Romans 12:1, 2.)
  4. God doesn’t call on us to only love the nice people. We are to love people – stingers and all!

Changing Times

I can’t keep up with it all: MP3s, JPEGs, Memory sticks, G3 is now G4. (Were there ever G1s or G2s?) Do you remember vinyl records? You know those big, round things that look like black CDs? Oh that’s right CDs are now DVDs or are they Blue Ray? The conversation goes on: Beta, VHS, cassettes, and Eight Track. It seems the one constant is change!

The other day I was driving up the hill to Canyon View and I noticed Epiphras riding up Balboa on his donkey. Frankly, I thought he looked pretty good for a two-thousand-year-old man. He waved at me and I rolled down the window. “I’m looking for the Church,” he said.

“Well, you’re in luck,” I told him. With a sweeping gesture I pointed to the building up on the hill and said, “That’s the church over there.”

“But that’s a building,” he said.

“Oh, of course,” I blushed, “that’s the church BUILDING. It’s where the Church meets. Would you like to come in?”

“Yes, thank you. It’s been a long ride from Colossae.”

We walked in and I showed Epiphras our facility. “What are those?” he asked.

“That’s the pulpit and that’s where we sit during services. You know, when the communion trays are passed.”

“The what?”

“You know the communion trays.”

He looked at me with a blank stare so I changed the subject. “We’re pretty modern here. I’m sure there have been a lot of changes in the last two millennia. Why we even use PowerPoint slides for our song service!”

Another blank look.

“Perhaps you would like to walk over to my office and have a soda. I’ll just put your donkey in the courtyard.”

Poor Epiphras looked so bewildered until we sat down in my study. I took out a directory and we began to talk about the members. Epiphras revived. His face lit up as we shared stories about the people and how the Gospel changed their lives. That’s when we discovered some things never change! It’s always been and always will be about the people and God’s unchanging love.