Darkness (The Only Free Man, pt. 1)

This is the first of a multi-part set of posts on freedom and sin.

Have you ever been caving?  Maybe you have been on one of those guided tours where they turn the lights off on you and forced you to experience pure pitch black for the first time in ever?  No starlight.  No ambient light.  No glow of the city on the horizon.  Or maybe you have been on your own in a cave, all by yourself, and watched your light dim, flicker, and give out; watched as the last faint glow of the tungsten in its center slowly faded to a memory and then that too went; the blackness all you knew? 

I have.

I moved to Kentucky when I was nine and even went to undergrad there.  Many people have heard of Mammoth Cave.  Growing up, that was Kentucky’s claim to fame, next to bourbon, horses, and hillbillies.  The largest cave system in the world. 

Part of that system connects to smaller cave systems across the state, and one of those was not far from the little college I attended in Eastern Kentucky.  Those caves were a great diversion for bored college students. 

Consider the other options, plummeting off cliffs into a nearby lake or spending the wee hours of the morning between Friday and Saturday doing scavenger hunts at the 24-hour Wal-mart Supercenter thirty miles up the road. 

Going caving was a relatively worthwhile way to whittle away the hours. 

One of the caves in that local system we gave the affectionate name, The Matrix Spider Cave.  Why?  It was full of cave crickets, which look like big, weird, transparent spiders, like that bug they stick in the guy’s stomach at the beginning of The Matrix.  Unlike the movie, these bugs were harmless, but they looked scary.

To get into The Matrix Spider Cave, one removed one’s pack, pushing it in front, and army-crawled into a hole that my shoulders barely squeezed through filled with these “spiders.”  After maybe twenty or thirty yards, with the less fortunate bugs constantly crunching underneath, one would eventually encounter what appeared to be a wall, though really the tunnel just sort of twisted underneath and curved back out, eventually opening onto a ledge over a shallow, foot-deep subterranean lake. 

Getting through that little loop-de-loop was tricky; the action was sort of like what Olympic swimmers do to reverse direction, moving full-speed towards the wall and shifting their whole body around at the last moment to throw their feet out so they could kick off and launch the other way.  We were doing that same basic motion, but slower, and swimming through bugs and rock instead of water, and if we pulled it off, we had to be careful not to fall of a ledge.  Subterranean Stimulation!

Once through, the path divided.  To the right it was made up of a couple of ledges over a crack that widened and narrowed periodically for about a half mile eventually pouring out on the same side of the ridge we’d started on but closer to the top.  Travelling that way, there were a few challenging parts, like one where the ledge narrowed to a few inches, requiring one to brace against the opposite cave wall which became tricky when the distance spread to several feet.  Moreover, the gap beneath deepened to the point that a fall could be quite painful if not actually perilous.  I know this because we did it on more than a few occasions, and I would not take my kids that way now without the right gear. 

Alas, we were poor stupid college students.  I might try to claim a light sense of self-preservation kept us from going that way most of the time, but it usually just boiled down to our hastiness and that was a longer path which did not come out near a place to park cars.      

To the left, the path wound down to the water, then into it as the ceiling fell, eventually reaching a point where one either turned and went back or dropped into another army crawl in foot deep water for about 50 yards until the ceiling rose again.  Things opened up then, and the lake became a stream flowing a few hundred yards through a small tunnel.  Eventually it opened to a larger chamber where the stream cascaded down a series of terrace-like ledges in a crystal cascade to a lower stream that carved another tunnel which led in a few hundred more yards to daylight.  Walking down that cascade was also rather treacherous, but it was prettier than the other way.    

Another advantage was that this path cut through the ridge, emptying out on the other side near a good place to park the cars.  We always left a car parked near the waterfall exit with a change of clothes because as stimulating as army-crawling through cave cold water is, none of us really wanted to get hypothermia in the car on the way back.  Plus getting back to the entrance on the other side of the ridge was a thirty minute drive by road, or three hours by trail over the top.  So you could literally walk under the mountain in a third the time it took to go over it. 

As thrilling as it was, however, there was some personal psyching necessary for whomever went first.  It took guts to stick your head in that hole, bugs crawling all around you, knowing you would be flipping around like an acrobatic earthworm in short order.  Because of this, we usually drew straws to see who would go first.  Such was my honor when the batteries on my light decided to give out. 

I can remember it was fall and a little chilly outside, cold enough that I knew it would be warmer in the cave, at least until we hit the water. 

My light had been good the week before and when I started into the cave it shone against the wall in front of me, though the ambient sunlight hid how dim it had already become.  The first fifty to a hundred yards with its bugs and flip was something one did more or less by rote, so I didn’t notice how dim my light actually was until I was through and sitting on the ledge waiting for the others to come out. 

I was just resting, catching my breath, and taking it all in when I first realized my situation.  The batteries were already to the point that I had the opportunity to watch as the light gradually dimmed and puffed out like slowly twisting one of those round nobs on an adjustable lamp.  The red glow of my bulb only held on a few moments before it too faded, and eventually even the little glow on my disappeared as well.  In no time I was in utter darkness.     

I should admit here that I was not really in trouble, except maybe of being a clutz.  I had a spare set of batteries in my backpack and so long as I didn’t drop them I’d be fine.  I’m an Eagle Scout.  Be prepared! But even if I dropped them, my companions would be along soon enough.

I could have swapped out the batteries right away, but it was rare to be in such a situation, especially not by choice.  Pure darkness.  Sure, we turned the lights out from time to time on these excursions, but the mere fact that there was a degree of separation between my batteries and my light meant that there was just a mere hint of increased risk in the situation right now, and risk implies adventure! 

Naturally, I began to ponder, which is dangerous in pure darkness, could I get out of here without the light?

I reasoned that I probably would have made it back through the entrance easily enough.  It was maybe twenty feet away and though I had not (at that point) done the flip the other way (we’d have to remedy that), it seemed manageable enough. 

Going up the ridge to the right was just too dangerous to even try in the dark, but what about towards the waterfall? 

Just getting down to the water was a little perilous without light, not to mention that I would likely never be able to get back up here; a foot in the wrong place and one could spill over the drop off, probably getting banged up before landing all cockamamie in the water below.  Assuming no catastrophic falls, crawling through the water might be easy enough, I could just reach up every few feet to feel the ceiling above me, but I don’t think there would be a safe way to get down the waterfall, much less get through the tunnels on the other side of the falls.  But I could follow the water, and within reason take as long as I needed.  That was something. 

But I might starve in that timeframe, and flooding was always a possibility in here.  Really, in the absence of light operating strictly off the knowledge I had of the cave specifically in relation to where I was sitting at that moment, my best and only real option was to go back the way I came. 

But a heavier thought hit me.  That would only work because I knew exactly where I was.  If I had slipped and woken up in an uncertain location, if I did not know my precise location and was blindly searching out an exit, I don’t know if egress would be possible.  Tom Sawyer was crazy lucky. 

Even an adjustment of a couple yards in any direction could spell doom.  Really, just a few things going different from how I expected, slipping and injury, or simply losing my bag, or let my friends leave for any reason, and it was entirely plausible that I could be lost and even die right there, not 100 yards from the surface.  In the absence of the light, I dare not move even a little, lest I lose myself completely.

As this realization settled in, a genuine sense of paralysis began to overtake me.  I realized this was panic, so I breathed deeply and carefully began to feel out the clasps on my bag, searching for the spare batteries.  My fingers had just brushed against them when a flash shone against the wall opposite me accompanied by muffled grunts from the entrance.  My friends had arrived! 

And with that all fear was gone.  The peril dissipated with the light.  In no time the batteries were swapped and my light added to that of the others.  I was ready to continue through the cave, and it was a great hike.    

This experience has long stood as representative for me of several truths in scripture about sin, its place in our lives, and Jesus’ light.  John 1 talks about the darkness that is the state of our world and describes Jesus as the light.  In our post-enlightenment world, where reason and science have seemingly driven off the dark, we often feel that even the metaphorical darkness, like the monsters that used to populate the edges of our maps, has been done away with.    

That is a cute fiction, one history readily gives lie to.  Hitler, Stalin, Mao, these guys were only the early twentieth century.  Post-enlightenment history is replete with examples of the entrenched darkness in man.  This darkness described in John 1 is not a monster external to us.  It is the natural post-sin home of our souls.  It is the environment in which the essence of our being operates.  It is sin and the grasp of sin on our hearts and lives.  Scripture makes it clear that we are inundated in this darkness.  

And our natural response to this darkness in our lives is stupidly enough to ignore it, stumbling foolishly through life.  But when we stop a moment and really note its presence, we react like I did in the cave.   None of us want to be there.  We all would rather be elsewhere.  We ponder how we got there, how we can move forward, and whether we will make it.  Our minds populate the darkness with all sorts of grim holes, falls, twists, and spikes

Sometimes we carefully feel our way forward, an inch at a time, and seem to make progress, so long as we don’t encounter any of the deadfalls we dread.

Sometimes we rush on headstrong, arrogantly mistaking panic for determination.  We impulsively plow into new territory, and sometimes have a straight stretch where we appear to really know what we are doing.  But it is impossible to navigate our world in such darkness without picking up bumps, scrapes, and occasional falls, and given adequate time, one of them will get us.    

And sometimes, after we have exhausted all the other options and the fear has blossomed within us, our inertia gives out and we crumble to the ground in tears.  Exhausted and overcome by fear, we dare not try to go back, but we no longer have the will to move ahead. 

In the absence of light, our ability to navigate out of the sin-darkened situation of our souls is hopeless.  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12).”

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