Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Praying Habakkuk 3 in a Mezzo Cammin Life

"Who am I?  Why am I here?"

Those of us who remember Ross Perot's presidential campaign back in 1992 likely also remember Perot's dubious choice for his running mate, retired admiral James Stockdale.  During the vice presidential debate that political season, Stockdale began his remarks by asking these two universal questions, ostensibly to point out how he was virtually unknown to the American public.

Stockdale's questions might have faded into political obscurity, if not for Phil Hartman, who soon mimicked them into immortality for a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Hartman's hilariously fuzzy caricature of Stockdale better captured the public's perception of Stockdale than the actual debate itself (apparently, Hulu owns the rights to this video, and has removed all copies of it from the Internet).  Stockdale, himself a decorated Vietnam War hero who eventually would become a respected academic, seemed confused and disoriented during that televised debate, and him asking "Who am I? Why am I here?" seemed to sum up, however erroneously, his general competence.

As far as the existential nature of these questions is concerned, however, has anybody ever gotten through their time on our planet without asking them?  Who are you?  Why are you here?  Do you know the answers; or, like almost everybody, are your answers a work in progress?

Lately, like a lot of men my age, I've found myself asking those questions, and chalking it up to that mid-life crisis thing that's supposed to be hitting us men about this time in our mortal existence.  I'm a couple of years away from the Big 5-0, which has historically been a time of reflection, contemplation, and outright angst over where guys my age have been, where we are, where we're going, and how much money it's gonna take to get us there.

Almost a year ago, I alluded to this existentialism in an article I wrote for, incorporating the haunting poem, Mezzo Cammin, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

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.

Kinda eerie, isn't it?  Did you start off your adulthood with grand plans, only to see them languish?  Do you sense an air of encroaching doom as your time has begun to run out?  After all, you've been fortunate that God has given you as much time as He already has on this Earth.  But none of us have deserved this time, and we don't deserve any of the time that might be remaining for us - however long that may be.

If I am having a mid-life crisis, sadly, it's gonna have to be
without this 2015 Corvette Stingray convertible.
A friend who manages a local Chevrolet dealership
wouldn't waive the $70,000 sticker.
For me, let's take my pesky diagnosis of chronic clinical depression out of the picture for a moment.  I've learned that much of my "Mezzo Cammin disappointment" may stem from being a really, really bad planner.  In fact, it seems I'm not much of a planner at all.  When friends in high school were mapping out their lives, I was studying to pass the next exam.  When fellow classmates in college were scouting grad schools, I was putzing away working my dreary college job at the clothing store.  When I managed to find myself in grad school, I balked at the amount of effort other grad students were pouring into their studies so they could get the most prestigious internships and employment.

I figured all those folks either were insecure about their abilities, or they enjoyed schmoozing with our professors.  In retrospect, I now realize I was either over-confident in my own abilities, or underappreciative of the doors professors could open for their schmoozing students.

During my working life, I've simply shifted from one gig to another, working for whomever will hire me, and not really taking seriously my own individual responsibility for climbing career ladders, making myself look good for promotions, and indeed, making myself more employable at all.  Naively, I readily shared credit for stuff I did well, and viewed competition as something in which people who couldn't advance on plain merit engaged.  It took me forever to figure out that capitalism isn't all about merit.  It's about competition, and I never planned for what would happen if I ended up consistently being on the losing end of that competition.

After all, in the eyes of many people today, I'm a loser.  I've lost whatever chances I might have had when I was younger to get my hands dirty on the lower rungs of corporate ladders.  Maybe I figured that marriage and family duties would automatically fit the pieces of my job life into place as we went along; my spouse, kids, and me, cruising through suburbia.  Hey - people who seemed far less competent than I were making it!  I was relatively intelligent, people told me I was a good worker, and I guess I just assumed that rewards are earned, not won.

Boy, have I been so wrong!

I look back now, and wonder what I was thinking.  How could I have been so stupid?  How could I have been so blind, or was I simply lazy?  All these 30 years since graduating high school, I've been waiting, but not planning.  I've been presuming, but not acting.  I've been walking, but not jockeying.  And now, it seems that everybody else my age has kids in college.  What?  Where did all of this time go?  The years have indeed slipped from me, and the aspirations of my youth?  What were they?

Let me think:  the aspirations of my youth...

Hmm, you know what?  I'm drawing a blank here.  They had something to do with enjoying a comfortable lifestyle when I got older, and for a while, I tinkered with the idea of being a lawyer, and in college, I started out studying architecture, and in grad school, I studied urban planning...

If I was a striver and an achiever, I'd have pushed myself to get both the graduate degree in urban design and the law degree, right?  I'd be hiring myself out to municipalities all over the world as a consultant on their big urban renewal programs, and guiding them through complex legislative agendas.  Or maybe browbeating recalcitrant landlords with rezoning requests, and lobbying city halls for developers, or trying to find funding for massive new mass transit infrastructure projects.

But I'd probably be hating it!  Looking at that job description, I have no desire to do any of that.  In a way, I'm relieved that my life hasn't turned out looking like that at all.

Still, if I was doing anything even remotely associated with such work, I'd probably at least have money in the bank, a compounding retirement account, and a home to call my own.  And without the kids - and the spouse - all of that money would be mine, right?  Even if wasn't the big dollars I somehow assumed would be growing on trees in my backyard.

Instead I've got none of it.


Enter the testimony of God's unlikely prophet, Habakkuk.  In the third chapter of his Old Testament book, Habakkuk writes of a despair even more grim than mine:

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.

Meanwhile, am I joyful?  Have I rejoiced in the Lord?

One of the questions that haunts me even more than "the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights" is my sober confusion over why, despite my profession of faith, I have a woeful lack of joy in my life.

Habakkuk himself seems to have had plenty of reasons to lack joy in his life.  He's the prophet, you'll recall, who asked God a lot of pointed questions about why He allows so much misery to infest His people.  And God's reply was basically to remind Habakkuk that he should be silent before his holy Lord.

How many of us today would be insulted if God told us something like that?  I know I have a stubborn prideful streak.  How about you?  Yet God told Habakkuk to tell us that He is in His holy temple, and that we are to be silent before Him.  Granted, that's more of a metaphor than anything else - from the fuller context of God's desire for a relationship with us, we know that He invites us to fellowship with Him, and that it's not a sin to ask Him questions.  Doubt isn't even always a sin, because our gracious God looks at our hearts, and doesn't just hear our crude mumblings.  Yet still, doesn't it seem as though Habakkuk would have been within his rights to demand more direction, more answers, more concrete proof of God's divine providence?  But he doesn't.

Instead, Habakkuk confirms, "the Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights."

In our North American culture, the "heights" generally refer to the best, or the pinnacle.  However, what if the "heights" for many of us are not here on Earth, but in Heaven itself?  Then again, Habakkuk says we go "on" the heights, not "to" the heights.  Might these heights not be as much of a destination as they are a state of being?  A state of being as a child of God that requires sure-footedness and accurate perception, so we don't stumble and fall (way, way down)?

Perhaps one of the reasons I don't rejoice in the Lord stems from my belief that I have more in common with Longfellow's Mezzo Cammin than I do Habakkuk's third chapter.

I think I need to concentrate less on what I've gotten wrong in my life, and more on the strength available to all of God's children through His sovereignty.

For however much of this life I've got left.

How about you?  Though your fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on your vines, though your olive crop fails and your fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in your pen and no cattle in your stalls, will you yet rejoice in the LORD?  Will you be joyful in God your Savior?

Dear Lord, please help us to!

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