Boys love drainage tunnels. With each step deeper into one of those unknown man-made caves, the anxious voices and the splashes through the trickling water echo off the corrugated steel walls. Light fades. Those places, on the edge of darkness, are where boys aspiring to be men, prove their worth.
During my middle school years in the heat and humidity of a Virginia summer, we all affectionately called our proving ground “Snake Tunnel”. It was the perfect name for a tunnel that slithered its way under our neighborhood. The broken-down fence around it was easy enough to slip through, and many had before us. The graffiti testified to that. Our wiry middle school bodies fit perfectly two by two as we stood at the entrance, and thank God; it helped to have a companion at your side in case of trouble. There was always great anticipation walking into that echoing silence. With wide eyes, we paused looking at each other to be sure we were really going through with it. Then, ever so slowly, we moved forward, each footstep echoing off walls we could not see.
Once our eyes adjusted, we could see the cobwebs and the light behind us reflecting off the water. Four or five of us walking into that tunnel made quite a sound, and we never spoke what we all thought: What if our noise was alerting someone. . . or something of our presence, and it was crouching, ready to pounce?
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this guys,” someone would yell out. That would be followed by four heads turning to him with a mighty, “Shhhh!” Two or three more steps and someone else would whisper, “What was that?” We all stopped to listen, our minds going back to that questions nobody wanted to voice. Was someone else there?
Hearts pounding in us, we continued, light getting scarce and fear growing. Finally, someone would yell, “I heard it too. I think something’s coming.” The yell in the midst of the vast unknown would be too much, and we would turn toward that little circle of light and run as fast as we could. Now, this would never be a controlled stealthy maneuver out of the darkness. Fear always seemed to get more intense when our backs were turned to the perceived threat. We were confident something was chasing us, so we screamed like little girls. If terror had not made its way into our hearts by then, the noise of the screams and crazed splashing as we ran for our lives would certainly send that terror like electricity through our bodies. We wanted that light like it was life itself.
We’d explode out of the tunnel and hunch over, hands on our knees, to catch our breath. Then, in all that brightness, we’d laugh with full on belly laughs until tears rolled down our cheeks. I wonder about that laughter. What was so funny? Maybe our panicked reactions struck us as funny when we thought about them in the light. Maybe it was relief. The fear was behind us and we would live another day. Most of all, I think we laughed as a reaction to our freedom from the unknown. We were captives in the tunnel, but we could see in the sunlight that there was “something more” beyond the darkness.
We’re living in a time that feels a lot like the darkness of Snake Tunnel. Confusion and noise reign supreme. Someone makes a comment, and it echoes off the walls of social media. The splashes of political tension explode into broken friendships, and a virus has everyone confused. Mask or no mask? In-person or quarantine? Vaccinations or no vaccinations? And when you add to all that our own mess—the woundedness, the fear, the pride--that tunnel can feel pretty overwhelming.
That’s what makes the little circle of light at the end so beautiful. My friends and I saw it, and we ran toward it, with reckless abandon. The circle got bigger and bigger until the darkness was gone. And it wasn’t our maturity that got us there. I mean come on; we were middle schoolers. It was because we were so freaked out that we were about to soil ourselves. We were desperate.
Peter says God calls us “out of darkness and into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The irony of the times we’re living in right now is that all this darkness only makes the light that much more beautiful. It drives us toward the light, and we won't get there because we're so spiritually mature. We'll get there because we're desperate. A moment to pray, a Bible verse that comes to mind, a song on the radio—those moments of light are more “marvelous” now than ever before. We need them because we're hungry to see what's just outside our tunnels.
My friend Lois Taylor chooses to paint in the midst of her tunnel. It’s her way of "dancing in the storm". What you see here is her “doorway” to healing. The cave is the symbol of her brokenness, pain and confusion, but then just outside are trees, blue sky, and guess what else? Light!! What I love about this painting is that the cave is only a small part of it. Yes, the suffering and confusion are there in that little cave. The hard parts of living are very real, but the “something more” beyond the cave is what dominates the painting.
There are times in life when it feels like the darkness and noise of our caves and tunnels is all there is, but like Lois’ painting so beautifully portrays, it’s not. There will be a day when the light will overwhelm the darkness, and Jesus, the “light of the world”, will be there. He’s calling us out of the darkness, and He’s not just yelling into the tunnel, “Get on out of there!” He walks beside us, and He uses our desperation, like those middle school boys, to help us see “something more” beyond the darkness, glimpses of what's ahead. Our belly laughing moment of sunshine is coming, but until we get there, we need to hold the hand of the One walking beside us, look for the light, and move toward it.
That's all for today! One of my greatest joys in life is to use words to encourage. I hope to do that with these stories, and someday soon with a book. If you think others might be encouraged by these words, please consider sharing this on Facebook or forwarding it to a friend. And if someone sent this to you, you can sign up here to get these stories twice a month. Thank you for your support!
A COVID Shocker
Helplessness is a common feeling these days. Storms shut down cities, leaders debate, and a virus continues to keep everyone isolated. It feels like any action we take would be as helpful as dumping a glass of water on a forest fire. We’re small compared to these national and global problems, but we do have one powerful option—we can pray.
That’s what motivated twenty grown adults to sneak into a garage.
It was the night before the statewide cross-country meet. As the runners ate their team dinner, the parents circled up next to an SUV to pray for them. Apparently, this happens every year, but since this was my son’s first year on the team, the tradition was new to me.
Linda gave an opening prayer for protection. Then it was quiet. The floor was open. Honestly, the prospect of praying with all those people was terrifying. My heart beat so fast, I could hardly breathe, but this was special, and when Isaiah 40:31 came to mind, no matter how much I tried to avoid it, I wondered if maybe God wanted me to pray. Yikes! Finally, with a trembling voice, I broke the silence: “God, thank you for the young men on this team who’ve been examples for my son. . .” Two big breaths. “. . .Isaiah 40:31 says, ‘Those who hope in the LORD will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary.’” I paused, thinking about that verse. The word "hope" stood out. “More than running or being fast, please help these kids to put their hope in you.” There were more powerful prayers of blessing and strength. Then, someone said “Amen,” and after some lingering conversation, the garage was empty.
That night, David went to bed early. He wanted to be well-rested for the big race. This would be his first high school state meet. In his estimation, this race was what he’d been training for all his life. The whole family was excited, and when I turned off his light, I wondered if he’d be able to sleep.
The phone rang. “Hello.”
“Hi. Is this Mr. Ahnfeldt?” The voice sounded heavy.
“Yes it is.”
“This is the Athletic Director from your son’s school. I’m afraid I’ve got bad news.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“We need to put David in quarantine.” He paused for a minute, letting the news sink in. “He won’t be able to compete tomorrow. I’m so sorry.”
I thanked him for doing his job, and he acknowledged it wasn’t easy. When we hung up, I went downstairs to tell David.
“David?” I whispered into the darkness.
I walked into his room, letting the light in from the hallway, and sat next to him. “The Athletic Director just called.” I waited to see if he was listening. “He said you’re in quarantine. . . and. . . .” He knew what was coming, and his eyes were wide with shock. “I’m sorry, Buddy, but you can’t race tomorrow.”
“No! You’re kidding me?” he asked.
“No. . . I’m so sorry.”
As reality set in, the tears came. He turned his back to me and pounded the mattress. “Why?!” he yelled, but he didn’t want an answer, and I didn’t have one. “I’m so sorry buddy,” I kept saying, but nothing I said helped.
The next morning, I got up, grabbed my earbuds and took a walk. The leaves were a gorgeous yellow, and the air was crisp. God and I needed to talk, so I let it out. I told Him I didn’t know what to do, but I thanked Him for the love poured out from the coaches and teammates. After putting in my earbuds, I listened to some music, and my heart began to settle. Then I heard a voice. It was Clara, a character in the movie War Room, and her prayer was introducing Steven Curtis Chapman’s song Warrior. As I listened, her voice and Chapman’s became God’s voice to my heart. Her words were filled with victory: “You did it again, Lord, you did it again. . .” The hopeful tone was leading my heart to a different place. God was doing something good. Chapman’s guitar kept playing as he sang about a warrior who fights battles on bended knees, and when Clara prayed, “Raise up a generation, Lord, that will take light into this world,” my eyes filled with tears. It was clear. God was raising up David!
As soon as I got back, it was time to leave for Hope’s soccer game. We hit the gap between Colorado Springs and Castle Rock, and I asked Deb to play the song Warrior. There was Clara’s voice praying again and Steven Curtis singing the lyrics, and again I had to wipe away tears. My prayer from the night before came back to mind: “More than running or being fast, please help these kids to put their hope in you.” When the song was over, I looked at David in the rearview mirror. “David” I shouted over the noise of the traffic. He was looking up at me. “I’m proud of you.” My voice was trembling, and I could barely talk. “God chose you! He chose you to show the world what it looks like when a young man puts his hope where it should be—not in running or in being fast, but in Jesus.”
He gave me a subtle-teenager smile, and whispered, “Thanks Dad.”
I’m ashamed to admit it, but sometimes I pray without fully absorbing the incredible truth that God’s actually listening. He heard me in that garage and gave me an answer I didn’t see coming. Then He saw my reeling heart on a trail and gave me truth to share. This life right now is as blinding and chaotic as a whiteout blizzard, but even if we can’t see anything, God sees us. He sees our stories from beginning to end, which means He might choose us for storylines we don’t like. He’s the Author, and knowing that He can see us may be just the encouragement we need to do the only thing we can do, in the midst of all this smoke, and call out for Him to lead us through. That's all for today! One of my greatest joys in life is to use words to encourage. I hope to do that with these stories, and someday soon with a book. If you think others might be encouraged by these words, please consider sharing this on Facebook or forwarding it to a friend. And if someone sent this to you, you can
sign up here to get these stories twice a month.
Thank you for your support!
Every year, my students and I talk about a boy and a tunnel. In fact, we draw it. Either some brave students pick up the colored dry erase markers and show us what they’ve got on the whiteboard, or I torture them with my stick figures and blobs that are supposed to be rocks. If I’m drawing, I tell them, with a smile, not to be intimidated by my artistic abilities. They laugh out loud or roll their eyes.
A few of them offer up their notebooks to show me what they’ve done, proving I’m clearly not the best artist in the room. With our blue textbooks open to Doris Lessing’s Through the Tunnel, we draw the safe beach, the one with the soft sand and the orange-peel umbrella, the one the boy's mom would prefer he never leaves. With her husband gone, he’s all she’s got, so she holds on tight. We draw the rocky bay, the place the boy longs to see, where the rocks are sharp and the boys are older. He watches the boys disappear under the water, and when they don’t come up, he panics, thinking they’re drowning. Eventually, he discovers their secret—they’re swimming through a tunnel. We draw that too. The boy spends most of the story trying to get through that tunnel, trying to be like those boys. His nose bleeds, the tunnel itself bangs him up, and he almost drowns. Worst of all, it’s dark, but he feels driven to get through it.
When we’re finished drawing, I ask, “What's happening in this boy’s life?” Hands shoot up, and we talk about the safe beach being his childhood, the rocky bay being adulthood looming ahead, and that tunnel being the passageway from one to the other.
“Everyone get out your journals,” I tell them, looking up at the clock. They pull out their notebooks with the usual groans, and I ask, “What’s a ‘tunnel’ you had to go through that forced you to grow up?” The silence comes quickly, and I let them write.
A few minutes pass, and I ask, “Would anyone like to share?” I’ve done this same lesson every year for the last 10 years, and I’ve never gotten a response like I got two weeks ago.
Jenna raised her hand in the front. “Yes, Jenna,” I said, pointing at her.
“So . . . my brother is a crackhead, exactly like the ones you see on TV.” She was smiling, trying to be strong. “He’d come home from wherever he’s been, and I’d find his kids asleep in my room.” She was looking down at her desk, fidgeting with her pencil. “He’d be crashed in his room, so I’d have to take care of his kids. Being the youngest, I wasn’t used to that.”
More hands were going up. I pointed at Eden.
She was quiet. I knew raising that hand took a lot.
She spoke with a Spanish accent. “I’ve moved six times since I started school.” She looked up at me, and there was a heaviness in her eyes. “Each time I moved, I wanted to make friends, but I couldn’t speak English, so I was alone.” She looked back down at her desk. “I had to learn to make it on my own.”
I looked at Eden. “That would be hard,” I whispered, and everyone nodded quietly.
One after another, kids shared, many with tears, and I thanked each of them for their courage, but beyond that, I felt helpless.
Lacie raised her hand. She had been gone for a few days, so the class hadn’t heard much from her. “Go ahead Lacie,” I said, looking at her.
“I’m still going through my tunnel,” she said, tears already running down her cheeks. She turned around in her desk and looked at the class. “You guys probably noticed I haven’t been around for a few days.” She waited, gathering strength for what she was about to say. “I tried to kill myself last weekend.” Students looked at each other and looked up at me.
I looked at Lacie, watching her cry, hoping God would give me the words. Finally, I said, “We all walk these halls with no idea what people are carrying, and when you share what you just had the courage to share. . .” I paused, waiting for their attention. “You’re not only letting go of the stuff inside of you; you’re letting others know they’re not alone.” There were more nodding heads, and when the bell rang, I watched Emma and Kaitlyn walk over to Lacie and wrap their arms around her. They all left, and I dropped into my chair, exhausted.
Two days later, I saw Kay in the teacher’s lounge. She lost her son last year. He took his life, overwhelmed with a depression he felt helpless to shake. I’ve watched her carry that pain and still manage to love kids at our school. Now, her son’s friends sit in her room at lunch; her office is a safe place for them. Conversations with Kay aren’t superficial. She lets the tears flow when she feels them coming, and she’ll open up to anyone who’ll listen. “Erin,” she said, looking me in the eyes, “these kids just want to be seen.” Her eyes were glistening. I could see a passion there beyond anything I had experienced. “More than grammar or getting through some curriculum, these kids need to be heard; they need to feel loved. . .” She tilted her head, wiping away another tear. “. . .and you can offer that to them.”
I walked back to my office, thinking about the tunnel conversation. It felt like too much. It left me staring blankly at empty desks, like I was sitting there in the dark. But there’s a God who loves to use women like Kay. He moves freely through the halls of my school, just as freely as He does through the pews of any church, and He used Kay’s words, spoken out of brokenness, to keep me going. We may not have all the answers, but as people around us struggle, we can be with them. Despite our feelings of inadequacy, we can feel the warmth of God’s smile when we sit with people in the cold, darkness of their tunnels, because when we’re there with them, so is He.
You’ve probably noticed. Each new year brings more change.
My knees hurt a little more going up the stairs, my daughter is going to parties with girls and boys, and my son now uses the word “dude,” a little too much if you ask me. The “baby” in the family is now 10, and she gave away her plastic kitchen set years ago; there are no more “blankys” or conversations with dolls.
Time goes by, and it’s not easy.
That reality hits me even harder when I look at my parents. My dad and I took a walk last week. We hiked up through some trees on my grandpa’s farm and then down toward the creek. He had a walking stick, and each step was careful. Whenever he came to a steep hill or a ditch, I found myself standing nearby, ready to catch him if he fell. He smiled the whole way, proud to be out again, walking after his back surgery. This is the man who was invited to try out for the Boston Red Sox. He used to take me down in wrestling and beat me racing to the mailbox. He’s probably reading this and thinking to himself, “I probably still can.” Think again Dad. He shouldn’t be playing tennis anymore, but he still does, and he comes home pretty wiped out. Watching my parents get older makes me think about time. It makes me think about saying goodbye to them when they go and saying goodbye to my kids when I go. Honestly, it makes me a little anxious.
To add to the heaviness, much of my Christmas break has been spent grading papers about Euthanasia. It’s my own fault. I gave my students the topic. It seemed to fit with Of Mice and Men, a book highlighted by a couple of scenes when life is taken away to avoid suffering later. The kids in my class struggle with those scenes. Tears even come. Then I struggle when I hand out two pieces of writing that I know will shake them up even more. One is an article by Brittany Maynard. She was 29, facing a difficult end to a battle with cancer, and she explained why the suffering coming made her want to leave before it came. The other piece of writing is a letter to Maynard from Kara Tippetts. She pleaded with Maynard to not end her life early, writing about the beauty that comes in the last moments. We talked about it in class. During 7th period, Grace raised her hand. Her face expressed the heaviness we all felt. I called on her, and she was almost whispering: “Death scares me. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. I mean, do we keep living or is this all there is?” Her honesty was beautiful. And I get it. Opening that door of our limited time here on earth usually means facing the fear lurking on the other side. A few more hands went up with more questions. Sam asked why I was making them write about something so heavy. I told all of them that facing death, especially as teenagers, is actually healthy. Too many of us pretend we’re going to live forever and never ask questions like the ones Grace asked. The bell was about to ring, and I smiled as I said to them, “Well, have a great day!” As they reached for their backpacks, I got a few weary smiles and chuckles, but most of them were shaking their heads.
Last Saturday night, we asked David, my son, if he was comfortable leading our family in doing church at home. With a little sheepish 7th-grade grin, he said “yes.” The next morning, with eagerness in his voice, he gathered the family. Some took a little more time to be gathered than others, but we eventually made it. Then, cuddled up on the couch in our pajamas, he had us read about Simeon, a man who met Jesus a few days after His birth. One verse really jumped out at me: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace” (Luke 2:29). Simeon probably spent much of his life waiting and looking for the One who would be called Emmanuel, God with us, the One God promised he would see before he died. When that day finally came, filled with joy, he told God that He could now “dismiss his servant in peace”. That’s how he saw death.
“Dismissal,” in a teacher’s mind, is the joy of every student. When that bell rings, kids run into the halls ready for home, for friends, for food, for whatever waits beyond the classroom door. Seeing death like that, like being dismissed from class, makes sense. In fact, it may be God was using David to do a little work on my anxious heart. I didn’t ask him to share those verses, but they spoke to me about something God knew was weighing me down.
Christians facing death, or any changes in life, can have peace. There is a God who always has something good waiting for us around the next bend, even on the other side of death. Having that peace is what makes us different.
On the night when the angels appeared to the shepherds in that dark field outside of Bethlehem, they filled the sky with light and shouted into the darkness that there would be “peace on earth on whom God’s favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Bells will ring in life for us to move on from healthy knees to achy ones, from plastic kitchen sets to “dude” and from parents who can take us down in wrestling to parents who could use a little help on walks through the pasture. Eventually, a bell will ring for us to say goodbye and leave this “classroom” we call life, but that bell brings a peaceful dismissal for those who know God loves them. There are friends waiting, feasts to be eaten and a home to enjoy that is much better than anything this world can offer. As the changes come, God has good plans for us. Simeon rested in that, and if we can look for Jesus like he did, trusting He loves us, we can rest in that truth too.
Erin teaches English at Doherty High School, and he and his family attend Pulpit Rock. Read more from Erin on his blog where he writes about seeing God in the public school classroom and in the every day.
The word "awesome" is tossed around a little too much, but when it comes to moose, it fits. Who can resist the majesty of a moose? I certainly can't. Standing in a circle with our backpacks resting against our knees, we were a little nervous about what was ahead. Our backpacking guide asked, "What are you guys hoping to get out of this trip?" The answers came one at a time as they went around the circle. "I really hope to experience closeness with God," someone said. Then another answer came: "This is my chance to face some of my fears." The profound answers kept rolling, and then all eyes were on me. I was one of the adults leading these kids, but I didn't want to just be spiritual for the sake of being spiritual, and I knew what was at the front of my mind, so I just said it: "I'm hoping to see a moose." Some people smiled politely, and we moved on to the next person. As soon as all answers were given, we helped each other with our packs and headed out.
With some kids who had never been camping and quite a few others who gravely underestimated what they were in for, ideally that first day would be nothing but gentle downhill slopes and sunshine. It was none of that. I'm just going to say it. That first day sucked! Most of the first few miles were uphill, and about a third of the way into the trip, rain began to pour down. It kept falling for the next 5 miles, the entire time we set up camp, during dinner, and as we got ready for bed. Kids were standing under trees blowing into their hands to stay warm. Two others asked me if it was too late to go home, and one had a migraine. He was throwing up under the canvas fly that the guides told us would be our "tent".
The two backpacking guides asked the two adult leaders, Rachel and I, to meet with them to assess the situation. Our faces were not exactly glowing with enthusiasm as rain dripped from our hats, and then one leader recapped what the kids were hoping to experience on the trip. Their desire to grow spiritually touched him, but there was one answer that didn't fit: "Didn't someone say he wanted to see a moose?" He laughed shaking his head, and I smiled awkwardly, too embarrassed to point out that the dumby who said that was me. We finished the meeting and headed to our sleeping bags. The only problem was there was not much room under the fly. The tiny space that did exist was next to the kid throwing up, so I grabbed my bag I was really hoping was waterproof, positioned my head under a pine tree and tried to sleep. Rain poured down all night. The wet bag made me feel like a newborn kicking around in a uterus while I tried to make air holes to breathe through the jacket I threw over my face. As I watched the rain come down around me and prayed for the night to be over, I asked God what he was doing. It was definitely not how I expected the trip to go.
Finally, despite frozen feet and a soggy sleeping bag, I fell asleep, and then, in what seemed like minutes, my eyes opened to sunshine. Everything was soaked, but birds were singing, and sunlight was warming the cold ground, warming me. I didn't want to disturb the sleeping camp, so I quietly unzipped my bag and pulled myself out of the soaked uterus. Everything was beautiful! Raindrops resting in the pine trees were twinkling in the sunlight, and the meadow next to our camp was a rich Ireland green. I could barely see the night before. Now it was all lit up. I walked toward the meadow, enjoying the warmth of the sun, and as I stretched my arms, enjoying the view, my heart skipped about 4 beats. I almost dropped to the ground. Right there in front of me was a huge, brown mother moose and her baby eating in the meadow. Nobody else was awake but me, and after my heart stopped pounding, I just stared at them in silent awe. God was giving me a private viewing. Why? I know why. He wanted me to know two things: He loves me, and He sees. In Genesis 16:13, God comes to the rescue of a desperate woman alone in a desert, and when hope fills her, washing away the despair, she cries out to Him with a heart full of thanksgiving, "You are the God who sees." God saw me. He saw me as we stood in the circle and I told the group I wanted to see a moose. He saw me trying to encourage the guys that it would get better as rain poured down on us, and He saw me feeling stupid when one of the guides chuckled at my very unspiritual desire to see a moose. It wasn't unspiritual to God. He knew exactly what I needed. Like Gandalf breaking through the darkness of Helm's Deep with the dawn, God showed up just when I needed Him with the freshness of a new morning and a moose. The doubt and discouragement of the night before were gone in one move. He was near to me, and that was all I needed to know.
Erin Ahnfeldt is a high school English teacher who is constantly challenged by the