Keeping Right Side Up in the Darkness

Jon Sutton

The past couple of months have been challenging professionally, mentally, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. There have been a number of sleepless nights, and at times it seemed like I was surrounded by impenetrable darkness. It was hard at times to know which way was up, and which way was down. I recognized that I needed to take some time away with the Lord to pray, to search His word, and to process my thoughts with Him.

For some time I have desired to ride the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP); an old railway converted to be a bike trail that runs from Cumberland, Maryland to Pittsburgh, PA through some of the most beautiful country there is. For my prayer retreat I decided to ride the first 32 miles of it from Cumberland to Meyersdale, PA. There are not a lot of distractions along the trail accept for the beauty of nature, and there were very few people. With nothing to do but pedal and stay on the trail ahead, it gave me time to pray. And God did some great work in my life during that retreat.

The experience that had the greatest impact on me, however, came in the middle of the Borden Tunnel. The Borden Tunnel is located 2.5 miles north of Frostburg, MD. It was built in 1911 and is 957 feet long. Unlike other tunnels on the GAP, there is no light provided and cyclists are encouraged to have their own light. I came prepared with a light and what I thought was a charged battery, only to find out my battery would not power my light. Just looking at the tunnel it doesn’t appear to be that long, and the “light at the end of the tunnel” was very strong. It seemed to cast enough light on the surface of the trail that I felt safe riding through it. I decided to keep my eyes on the light and just pedal forward. However, half way through the tunnel a very powerful thing happened. Because of the intensity of the darkness around me, and in spite of the light I had in front of me, my brain seemed to lose the ability to distinguish which direction was up and what was down. I started to correct and over correct my steering as I began to wobble and almost crash. I couldn’t keep pedaling, and the only control I had left was to grab the brakes and put my feet on the ground. Even with my feet on the ground it took a moment for my brain to realize that I was stable. All I could do was walk until there was enough light for me to be able to pedal again. I rode away thinking, “That was really weird. What just happened?”

After spending a few hours in prayer in Meyersdale, I rode back down the trail the way I had come. That meant passing through the Borden Tunnel a second time. This time it seemed the light was even brighter and I could see the path better. I reasoned that if I just rode through the tunnel faster, I might pass through the dark spot faster and not have to stop pedaling. After all, the light seemed brighter this time. Care to guess what happened in the middle of the tunnel? I did not crash, but because of my greater speed I came closer to crashing when I once again became so overwhelmed by the darkness that I could not distinguish between what was up and what was down. Once again I had to grab the brakes and stop, put my feet on the ground, let my mind regain its bearings, and walk until I could once again ride.

It is my understanding that airplane pilots can also experience a similar phenomenon when flying at night when they cannot distinguish between the stars and the lights on the ground. They can even become convinced that something has malfunctioned with their instruments and turn the plane over and fly right into the ground. It takes training one’s mind to trust the instruments and not feelings to remain oriented. I assume that I was experiencing that phenomenon but on my bike and without instruments that would tell me which way was up.

As I rode the rest of the way back to Cumberland, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between what I had experienced in the tunnel, and what I was experiencing professionally, mentally, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. In many ways it had all become so dark that I wasn’t sure I could distinguish which way was up and which way was down. I can see “the light at the end of the tunnel” (I know the Lord, hear His voice, and know His calling and have what I believe is a vision from Him for the future), but in the middle of the tunnel I find myself wobbling violently. It is not a good feeling. Frankly, it caused a great deal of fear and anxiety. What God showed me through that experience is that, like I did on the bike, the best thing I could do is stop and take the necessary time to reorient myself before moving forward. Like I did on the bike, I am often tempted to believe that to overcome a challenge I just need to not think about it, or to hit it harder or faster and not slow down, but that only makes the crash that much worse.

As I was riding, I couldn’t help but think about how many people there are who may be facing a situation similar to mine. You thought you were prepared to face any challenge, but when the challenge came and it was time to trust your resources, they failed you or were insufficient to meet the challenge. You find yourself riding through a tunnel, and you might even be able to clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at this moment you find yourself confused about which direction is up and you feel that a crash is imminent. It could be a professional, mental, emotional, relational, physical or spiritual challenge, but the darkness is so thick that your life feels entirely outside of your control. Can I make a recommendation from personal experience? Hit the brakes and put your feet on the ground, rest for a minute and regain your orientation.

You may feel like you can’t afford to do that. Sitting in the darkness is not comfortable. In that tunnel, my mind told me, “Get going. If you were a criminal, this is a perfect place to ambush disoriented riders. Who’s waiting to attack you in the dark?” I am a pastor, and slowing down to reorient is not always an option because the rhythms of my life are often dictated by what is happening with everyone else around me. I can’t tell them, “I’m sorry, I can’t minister to you right now because I am disoriented and need to spend some time getting reoriented.” Maybe you feel the same way. The deadlines are still very real at work. You have a family of four that is running in 10 different directions. The timelines for necessary medical treatments don’t wait, etc. But, if pressing forward when you need to stop results in a crash that lays you up for weeks or months, or maybe even for life, what good does that do for you and all those around you who are depending on you?

Over the past month since I had that experience, I am learning that God not only wants us to stop and take time to reorient ourselves when we are in the dark tunnels of life, but also when we are riding happily along the trail in the daylight. In Isaiah 40:30-31, God says, “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” One gift God has given to His people is the practice of Sabbath (taking one 24 hour period to rest from our work, to reflect on and worship Him, to take stock of the reality of our lives and to let Him speak into that, and to let Him reorient us and renew us for the week ahead). Sabbath rest is not popular in our “time is money” and “FOMO” (fear of missing out) world. But if you find yourself questioning what is up and what is down, taking a weekly Sabbath to do what I have listed above is a great place to start. Prayer rides and prayer retreats, maybe taking your bike into the “wilderness”, are great opportunities to get reoriented, but these take intentionality. Many people plan vacations for months. When was the last time you planned a “praycation?” Of greatest importance is to ensure that you are using a firm foundation for your orientation. If you need to know which way is up, and which way is down, put your feet on the solid rock of God’s word (Proverbs 16:9; Psalm 139:23-24; Psalm 119:105; Psalm Matthew 7:24-27).

Finally, I just want to say that if you find yourself in a dark tunnel wondering which way is up and which is down, you are not alone. I would encourage you to reach out to others who can help you and pray for you and whom God might use to help reorient you. There is no shame in asking for help. May God bless you, and help you keep your wheels, and if necessary your feet, firmly on the ground.