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!
Erin Ahnfeldt is a high school English teacher who is constantly challenged by the