Pressing Through the Midway of Our Journey
- Tim Laitinen Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2013 3 Dec
Are you a single believer of, shall we say, “a certain age?”
Even if you’re not, you’ve likely spent some melancholy times looking over the history of your life. Yet perhaps, for those of us who’ve been successful in our careers, or have an eclectic stable of reliable friends, or any other measure of worldly success, there’s still room for dissatisfaction, isn’t there? Like there’s something we’ve missed.
No matter our marital or economic status, we achievement-oriented Americans tend to dwell on those areas of our lives that we don’t consider as accomplished. If we’re never-married, or divorced, it’s easy to lament what might have been. If we’ve never been a parent, or we’re a single parent, we wonder what our children might have been like if things were different.
Turns out, these aren’t new, post-industrial, post-Christian, or Generation X-Y-Z ponderings. Boomers don’t have a corner on the “should have, would have, could have” market, either. Have you ever heard of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? He lived from 1807–1882, and his first wife died before he was 35.
In 1842, Longfellow wrote a famous poem about being “midway in the journey of our life,” and he even titled it with that phrase in Latin, Mezzo Cammin.
With how much of his poem can you relate?
Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.
It’s all there, isn’t it? The aspirations of our youth, and the grandeur we’d planned on accomplishing for ourselves, whether in business, or ministry, or non-profit charity, or teaching, or the performing arts, or parenthood, or being the ideal spouse.
Yet things happened along the way, didn’t they? Those things that, taken collectively, we call “life.” Day by day, even if we denied ourselves pleasures so that we could realize greater things, and made conscious efforts to not let daily cares and worries press us down, somehow, where we are today isn’t where we planned on being at this point in our lives.
We’re halfway up life’s hill, and looking back, we think we see better things that could have been. From our current perspective, they remind us of how much less time we have to try and correct what we consider to be life’s disappointments.
Hmm. Pretty melancholy, isn’t it? These are narratives where frustrated nostalgia seduces us into assuming things could have been different had we worked harder at avoiding whatever scenarios have contributed to our current condition.
Meanwhile, we don’t have any proof of how different things might have been, do we? For those of us who believe in a sovereign God, we know He allows certain things to happen, even if they’re the direct result of our stubborn free will. None of us really knows the mechanics of how God’s sovereignty and our individual free will interact, and if we did, we wouldn’t need faith to trust God for His guidance and peace.
Which, really, instead of dwelling on our own “mezzo cammin,” is how we need to respond when we, even as we take stock of our life, hear “the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.”
As God’s child today, maybe you’ve reached a point in your life that you don’t particularly enjoy. It may be small comfort, but the prophet Habakkuk was in worse straits than we are, because his people, the nation of Israel, were in exile. Yet, in Habakkuk 3:17-19, we find hope in the prophet’s prayer to God that He would renew His glorious deeds for His people. Habakkuk prays that in the Lord’s wrath, He would be merciful, even though things were looking pretty desperate for Israel:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.
Longfellow considered the heights to be foreboding, a perspective from which we can all too easily see what we assume to be our life’s failures and unrealized potential. Habakkuk, on the other hand, considers the heights to be places where we can be reminded of God’s faithfulness and goodness to us, despite our circumstances.
The apostle Paul has even less use for whatever happened behind us. No matter our past, whether it’s full of holy accomplishment or heartbreaking disappointment, Paul encourages us to advance, focused solely on Christ.
Consider this energizing passage from Philippians 3:7-14:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Even if you’re in a place where success in your career, your family, your ministry, your personal relationships, and whatever else towards which you’ve devoted yourself makes you confident in your future, you still need to “forget what is behind.”
It’s just easier to do that when our sense of accomplishment is less robust!
Paul considers everything except Christ to be “rubbish,” which, when taken in context with the rest of the Bible, we know is a literary exaggeration on his part. God allows many things to happen to us – both the enjoyable, and the painful – to teach us about Himself, and build our faith in Him. Paul isn’t saying that we’re to denigrate everything about our past. But he is saying that nothing in our past, or even in our current status, can compare with the glory of Christ that we will experience when our sanctification is made complete in Him, in Heaven.
In other words, to borrow from Longfellow’s metaphor of ascent, it may be all uphill from here, but that’s a good thing!
Forgetting what is behind – no matter how good, bad, or indifferent it is – and straining towards what is ahead, we press on for and towards Christ.
From his smorgasboard of church experience, ranging from the Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Laitinen brings a range of observations to his perspective on how we Americans worship, fellowship, and minister among our communities of faith. As a one-time employee of a Bible church in suburban Fort Worth, Texas and a former volunteer director of the contemporary Christian music ministry at New York City's legendary Calvary Baptist, he's seen our church culture from the inside out. You can read about his unique viewpoints at o-l-i.blogspot.com.
Publication date: December 3, 2013