For those of you who have done any high-angle rock climbing, you'll know that the sport requires a great deal of trust - trust in your equipment, trust in the rock you're ascending, trust in yourself, and trust in the person who is belaying you.
Frequently the person belaying the climber cannot see the person climbing, so most ropemates have an established system of communication.
Verbal commands are most common.
Typically, once a belayer is securely in place and has command of the climbing rope, he assures his partner all is ready by calling down something like, "Belay on." Once the climber is ready to start, she signals her intention to climb by calling up, "Climbing." When the climber finds her rope is too loose for safety, she might call out, "Up rope," or if it is too tight to allow her to move freely, she might call out, "Slack." If the climber happens to fall, she ought to warn her belayer by calling out, "Falling."
When that happens, the belayer needs to hold the rope securely to arrest his partner's fall, but if the rope has no stretch to it, he may have to let the rope slip slightly through his gloved brake hand so that his partner doesn't stop so suddenly she is injured. Good communication develops through both sensitivity toward one another and experience climbing together.
When I once finished a short but difficult pitch on steep rock while climbing with one of my brothers, he smiled as I reached his perch and commented, "You'd better be glad I'm not feeling any sibling rivalry today!"
I laughed but Bob's remark made me just a little cautious.
Another climbing partner of mine once suggested I might become more sensitive to my environment if I would hike with him while I was blindfolded, using only a cane.
He works with people who have handicaps and regularly guides his blind students through the hazardous streets of San Francisco. Tom gave me some basic instruction in "caning" my way along the trail so that I could identify declines and inclines and obstacles of all kinds.
In order to become more sensitive to his directions, I even let him guide me short distances along the trail with only his voice command. After all, I thought to myself, if he teaches his blind students to ski why shouldn't I let him guide me in a skill I already have mastered with sight? I confess I moved slowly.
Several months later, he sent me a photograph via e-mail. It showed a yellow Lab sitting at the base of a vertical rock cliff looking up a climbing rope, which rose out of sight at the top of the photo.
The Lab was wearing the handle harness of a guide dog. The title of the photo was "Blind Belay." I laughed until I began to look more carefully at the details in the photo. It was clear that the dog was in no way attached to the climbing rope. Both ends of the rope apparently were being carried by the climber, leaving only the loose coils of the middle touching the base of the cliff.
I concluded either that the climber was blind in more than one way, or that he was executing a more sophisticated method of belaying himself with a jumar, which allows the rope to slip through its teeth only one way. My friend was being clever!
The title of Tom's photo intrigued me greatly, for I sometimes feel sorry for myself and begin to think that I am climbing with a "blind belay," with a rope partner that I cannot see even with my good eyes.
The Old Testament character, Job, could not understand why he had undergone so many personal losses in his life - his health, his circle of friends, his belongings, his family. In frustration and anger, Job complained, "If I go forward, (God) is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him" (Job 23:8-9). Job's God was hidden; Job was tied in to a blind belay.
When I've been pressed really hard and have begun to feel God was hidden from me, often I have realized later that I had given up my attempts to converse with God, to share with him my doubts, my anger, my frustration, to ask for his wisdom, his assistance, his presence in my life.
Once that communication is cut off, I quickly lose sight of my Lord. Sometimes God has remained hidden from me because I have held too tightly to past convictions about God; in doing so I realized I'd been looking for him in the little box in which I'd try to contain him for many years only to find in times of trial that he is not there. Sometimes my God has remained hidden because I refused to look for him in the right places.
As I look now at the photo my friend sent me, I am prone not so much to laugh - though there is humor in it - as I am to feel sympathetic towards the climber I cannot see.
Doug Rich is the pastor of Pioneer Presbyterian Church in Clatsop Plains in Warrenton.