I can remember one summer day when my brothers and I decided to explore the rocks at the base of the cliff. We had climbed over the rocks numerous times, often times stopping at the "big cave". It wasn't a cave in the classical sense, it was actually a hollow created by the arrangement of the way the large rocks lay on top of each other. We would sometimes find bones laying on the floor of the cave, igniting the imagination...and perhaps a little fear...in the mind of this young adventure seeker.
What kind of bones could they be? Maybe the remains of some unlucky hiker ravaged by a hungry bear. Or perhaps the bones of a deer or some other wild animal that had spent their last moments under the protection of the large flat stone that served as the roof of the cave. The fact that most of the bones we found in the dirt floor of the cave had neatly sawed edges didn't occur to the active minds of those young boys. We were exploring and reality rarely invades the minds of an adventurous spirit.
As we worked our way along the rocks in the heat of that summer day, my little brother Geoff yelled over to us.
"I think I found a real cave", he hollered. "The opening isn't very big, but it looks like it goes back a long way."
My older brother Frank and I climbed up and over the rocks to where Geoff was on his hands and knees, his body neck deep into a small opening in the huge stack of rocks and boulders.
"How far can you see?", Frank asked. As the oldest, he immediately took charge, encouraging Geoff with a pull of his shirt tail to back out of the "cave" so he could get a better look.
Soon, Frank was working his way into the opening between the rocks. At first, his head and shoulders moved through the crack. His hips and finally his legs and feet soon followed. Geoff and I knelt on the hard rocks outside this newly unearthed cave, waiting and wondering what kind of treasure Frank was going to get to discover while we waited outside.
"Wow!", we soon heard coming out of the opening. "It was kind of tight getting in here, but it opens up into a big room. You guys should come in here."
It didn't take another invitation for Geoff and he was quickly slipping in through the hole, his body wiggling and sliding inside. I moved closer to the opening, slowly peering inside. It was a lot darker than I thought it would be. The "big cave" was never this dark. Of course the fact that it was only about eight feet deep with a six foot opening would explain that, but I wasn't thinking about that right at that moment. Instead, a feeling of fear and dread slowly crept around my chest, squeezing my heart and lungs until I could barely breathe.
"Come on, Mark", I heard from inside. I couldn't tell whose voice it was...Geoff's or Frank's. "Could they be that far in there?", I wondered?
I leaned closer to the opening. "It's probably getting pretty full in there with both of you now", I yelled in. "If I come in, we probably won't be able to move around or explore." I figured that my words and my "selflessness" would be warmly received and my brothers would simply start exploring this new discovery on their own.
"Come on, you chicken!" I didn't have to try to figure out whose words those were. My little brother was calling is as he saw it. I was standing outside and he was inside and he knew I didn't really want to crawl in that hole
"I'm not a chicken!", my voice weakly replied. "If we don't have room to move around, it won't be my fault", I bravely yelled in. I lowered myself to my belly and started to work my way inside this narrow cave. The air was cool and smelled of fresh dirt and an odor you can only discover by being underground. I soon found my entire body underneath the rock at the base of that third cliff, moving slowly deeper into the core of the mountain.
"How much further?", I called out.
"You're almost here", Frank replied. "Pretty soon, you're going to feel the edge of the tunnel fall away. There's about a two foot drop and then a big room." Sure enough, in a couple more wiggles of my body, I could feel with my hands that the floor of the tunnel was gone. I pushed myself a little deeper and as I bend over the edge of the end of the tunnel, I could feel the floor of the cave with my scraped hands. I soon found myself inside a room that was blacker than anyplace I could have ever imagined. No matter which way you turned, you couldn't see anything.
Suddenly, I was nearly blinded as the explosion of a match lit up the room. As the match settled into a small flame, I could see Frank and Geoff in the middle of a room created by the position of numerous rocks laying against each other. As the match slowly burned down, we looked around the room. Hoping that we might find treasure or maybe even Indian paintings on the walls, we were disappointed to simply see grey rock all around us. Geoff moved around the room, looking in the corners. Soon we were in pitch blackness once again and I could feel that tightness around my chest returning.
"Hey, light another match", Geoff called out. "I think I found another opening over here." The room was soon bathed in the warm, yellow light of another match as we looked around, once again seeing Geoff's legs and butt poking out of a hole in a far corner of the room.
"Can you see anything?" Frank asked. "No. It's really dark down there. Give me a match and let me see if I can see where it goes", Geoff called back. Frank handed him the book of matches as Geoff retreated from the opening. Grasping one of the match in one hand and the book in the other, he crawled back into hole. We could see the faint glare of light as it leaked around his body, poking out from the hole in the corner of this dark room.
"It looks like a tunnel that goes down for a while", Geoff said as he slid out of the opening and back into the room. "I think if I go in feet first, I can slide over the edge to maybe another room deeper in", he continued. That constriction grabbed my chest again.
"I...I dunno", I said, with probably a little stammer in my voice. "It's getting kind of late. We should probably head back don't you think?" The room was pitch dark, hiding the fear that would be so visible on my face and on my body that was visibly shaking by now. "Come on", Geoff pleaded. "Let me see if I can reach the bottom."
Outvoted, I stood back as Frank lit another match and Geoff moved into position at the opening to the hole, his feet wiggling into the dark opening. He continued to push himself back until only his face was visible. "I'm at the edge", he said. As the match faded, Geoff disappeared from our view as the cave was once again veiled in the darkest blackness.
Frank was just striking the match when we heard it. "Help!" We peered into the corner where the opening was and Geoff was no longer visible. "Heeeellllpp! I can't reach the bottom", he cried out. As Frank bent down, he could see Geoff's fingers on the edge of the tunnel ledge, his body completely out of view. "Hold on", he yelled. Dropping the matches, he slid into the tunnel after my little brother. I fell to my hands and knees, scrambling to try to find the matchbook as I heard Frank continue to tell Geoff to hold on...that he was coming. My hands worked back in forth in front of me, trying to find the place where the matchbook fell. Soon, I could feel the paper of the book cover and as I pushed back on to my knees, I grabbed a match and struck it with my trembling fingers on the rough strip on the back of the matchbook.
"Shit", I cried as I felt the match disintegrate without lighting. I opened the book and grabbed another match. I could tell without seeing that the book was almost empty. I tried to slow down my breathing as it felt like my heart was going to explode. I could still hear Geoff in the mountain, calling out...fear in his voice. Something you didn't often hear coming from my daredevil little brother. I could hear Frank's voice but couldn't distinguish what he was saying. I slowly struck the match and suddenly, the room was filled with light again.
"Hold on to my hands", Frank was saying. As I looked over, I could see his body slowly coming back into the room. At the end of his arms, my little brother's hands were clasping his. His face and hair speckled with dirt, my brother looked like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen as he finally emerged completely from the tunnel.
"Wow! That was sooo cool!" I shouldn't have been surprised to hear those words as they erupted from Geoff's mouth. I wanted to run over and hug him, but I think I wanted to hit him even more. Fortunately, the room was still bathed in darkness and the tears on my cheeks were invisible to both Frank and Geoff. We decided that it was time for this adventure to be over and Frank lit another match and pointed to the opening that would lead us back out into the bright, warm sunshine.
I was the first to volunteer to go out. It didn't seem to be nearly as long of a crawl going out as it did going in. We soon found ourselves back out on the sea of rocks and boulders, looking up at the big cliff above us.
"I'll bet that went down at least a hundred yards", he said. "When a couple of rocks fell away as I was hanging there, I couldn't even hear them hit the bottom of the pit. I never would have gotten out if you wouldn't have grabbed me."
I think of the darkness of that cave on that warm summer afternoon every so often. I can still remember the fear and weight of the darkness that was so complete and overwhelming. I've never liked the darkness...I don't know if it's because of that adventure or if it's just an innate fear that I think God put into all of us to a certain degree. I've felt that weight at other times during my life, even when the lights were on around me. The weight was the result of choices that I was making and the fear of being found out.
Of course, like that day in the middle of the summer during my childhood, I couldn't stay in that darkness for ever. It was a bottomless pit, and like Geoff, I never would have found my way out unless a hand would have been extended to me. For me, that hand was extended on a cold, February day in 2004 as my life crumbled around me. In His mercy, God extended his love and grace to me, shining His light into my life so that I could see the sin that I had immersed myself in. I had been in the darkness for so long that I had become blind to the choices that I was making and had no idea how to get out of the "cave" that I had crawled into. Fortunately, I accepted that hand that was extended.
There is a Christian song that's on the charts right now that remind me of the darkness that I was in and a reminder that I was never alone in that cave. It's a song by Meredith Andrews called "You're Not Alone". The song ends with the following verse:
I've come to believe the truth of the words to that beautiful song. Like most people, I've been in some of the darkest places imaginable. And even when I felt so alone...so afraid...I know now that I was never alone. He was there with me...waiting to lead me out of the cave.