I can't recall many details from my 35th birthday. We might have been in Chicago, where Nicol and I were living at the time. If that's where we were, we probably walked to my favorite pizza place, Pizano's, which was "conveniently" [ :-) ] located just a couple of blocks east of our apartment on the corner of Chestnut and State (you MUST go there if you're ever in the Windy City and if you're there now, what are ya waiting for?), and enjoyed a deep dish pizza, half pepperoni/half sausage. Then we would have made our way to Starbucks, just about one block south, ordered lattes or maybe mocha chip frappacinos, and then sipped on them as we strolled up and down Michigan Avenue, enjoying the hustle and bustle of "The Magnificent Mile." If that's what we did that evening, believe me, it was a good time.
And if we weren't in Chicago, we were most likely in northern Maine visiting my family. In that case, we probably ate at Winnie's Restaurant, where I no doubt chomped down a large order of fried tenderloin clams dipped in buckets of tartar sauce, french fries and an icey Coke. After that, we definitely went to one of two places: Houlton Farms Dairy for ice cream or Tim Horton's for coffee... or maybe both. Another good evening... if that's what we did.
But the fact is, I really cannot remember where we were on August 6, 2004; nor can I recollect the particulars of how we celebrated my birthday. While my memory fails me on these two things, I can, with distinct mental clarity and ease, tell you the "thought for the day" that kept swirling through my mind: I'm halfway home. And though I've never had much of a grasp on that concept, it's a thought that has had staying power. Over the past four years, I've been reminded of it over and over again... even to this very day.
The basis for I'm halfway home came from Psalm 90:10 - The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty. Another version says it like this: We live for seventy years or so; with luck we make it to eighty. The point for me that day was that, at 35, my 70 years were half gone. And since I quite often think in athletic and sport terms, it struck me that the buzzer for life's first half had sounded and it was time to head for the locker room.
Now again, and you may have to bear with me here, I tend to think in terminology familiar to the athletic arena. And I guess I come by it naturally, having spent most of my childhood and growing up years participating in a variety of sports, and then coaching them for 11 years.
You may or may not know that not every sport has a halftime, but my favorite, basketball, does. For players, it's a time to get a breather, and usually includes rehydrating with water or Gatorade or Vitamin Water, and maybe eating something that will help with blood sugar and energy levels, things like oranges or sports bars. It's also a time to listen to the coach, who makes the necessary adjustments in strategy and communicates what went well in the first half, what didn't go so well, or maybe some combination of both. Whatever the case, it's a time to let the players know what to expect in the second half, how the team will go about their business in the third and fourth quarters. It's also a time to band together as a group and determine once again to work hard, to play together, and to persevere no matter what happens, until the final buzzer sounds. And with a little bit of luck thrown into the mix, maybe, just maybe, the team will come out on the right side of the scoreboard.
So there I was, having just turned 35 years old, realizing that, biblically (and statistically) speaking, I had entered a period of life that seemed to me appropriately dubbed halftime. As I began to reflect on the first half of my life, I realized that the majority of it hadn't gone so well, at least from the standpoint of walking with Christ. I had pretty much done my thing with little or no regard for His desires and plans for me. My journey had been spent largely on what author Richard Rohr calls the path of ascent. And its on the path of ascent that we young bucks fail to remember five very important realities: (1) life is hard; (2) I am not as important as I think I am; (3) my life is not about me; (4) I am not in control; and (5) I am going to die.
How's that for a halftime locker room spiel?
The obvious problem with the path of ascent is that it doesn't jive with the essentials of life, it doesn't deal effectively with any of the five realities that Rohr points out, and it certainly has no way of answering the second half of Psalm 90:10 - [speaking of our seventy or eighty years] ...their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone and we fly away. Again, as one other version puts it: And what do we have to show for it? Trouble. Toil and trouble and a marker in the graveyard.
Toil. Trouble. A marker in the graveyard. How's that for looking ahead to the second half?
I know that I am walking a tightrope here. And if you're thinking "this is too dark and depressing for me" please stay with me. I agree, all this talk of toil and trouble and death IS dark and depressing. But at the same time I don't agree because, again quoting Rohr, the path of ascent is the way of the first half of life and the path of descent is the way of the second half. And every one of us face the second half, whether it comes at age 12 or 19 or 24 or 31 or 38 or 47 or... it's coming. The only question is, What circumstances will confront us as we exit the locker room? What will life throw our way that changes everything?
Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves bounding out of that locker room and onto the court with no idea what has happened in the first half, or why. We aren't quite sure what went well and what was a train wreck. So, no adjustments are made and we jump back into the game, maintaining the status quo, clinging to what "worked" in the first half, believing that life really is a piece of cake, that it's all about me, that no one is going to tell me what to do, that I'm going to control my own destiny, and if I get in trouble or if trouble finds me God will bail me out. And we live as though we're never going to die. And then the game clock ticks down, it's crunch time, and a very harsh reality hits us between the eyes: I'm in some serious trouble here.
I once read an interview with Maine native and tremendously "successful" horror writer Stephen King. The interviewer was asking him about an accident that had nearly taken his life a few years earlier when King had been walking alongside a country road in western Maine. He was struck by a van and thrown into the ditch, left for dead. He said he laid there, his body broken, writhing in excruciating pain, and he thought, everything I have and everything I've accomplished means nothing right now. And the man had a lot. He had done a lot too. I've driven by his house in Bangor dozens of times and it's safe to say that he had it all. Mercedes 500SL. Corvette. SUV's. Vans. Huge house with an iron gate. And that's just what could be seen from the outside. Forget about the millions and millions of books he's sold, the hundreds of millions of dollars he's banked from those sales. And it was not unusual for him, in October, to pick up his son at Bangor High School on a Friday afternoon, drive to the airport and fly off to wherever the World Series was being played and they would watch the weekend games. He did the same thing during the Final Four. He was in a position to enjoy most any luxury this world could afford. And there he laid, in the ditch, fighting for his life, fully realizing that none of it matters.
It's life events such as Stephen King experienced several years ago that divert us from the path of ascent onto the path of descent. It's a wounding that never again allows us to see life the same... ever. We realize that everything this world has to offer cannot give us the answers we need for life's most difficult questions, nor can it satisfy the deepest needs of our soul. No wonder John warns do not love the world or anything in the world. (1 John 2:15) How does the song go? This world has nothing for me. This world will never satisfy us and it can't sustain us. It surely can't heal our wounds.. and we all have them.
The profound realization of the second half of life, following the great wounding of heart, soul, mind, and body, is that the path of descent is where the life of faith begins anew, and quite possibly begins for real. It's where gut-level change happens. It's where perspecitve is rebirthed. Rohr says it well: "Ive often said that if I had a way of naming Christianity, I would name it the way of the wound. I think what Jesus is telling the Christian tribe is that the wound is the way into the soul, into transformation. The act of suffering breaks down the imperial ego so we can ask deeper questions, broader questions, real questions. I would assume that no man can become a True King without having endured or triumphed over some major wounds. ... Everything pivots around the wounding. All the dramatic archetypes and heroic images are what the Hebrew prophets called ‘the stumbling stone.’ God will be something you have to trip over. He’s not just a ‘giving’ God. He’s a contradiction. I think that’s the transitional point where you have enough ego structure to let go of the very ego that you’ve built – and to move beyond it. The very self you’ve concocted in the first 35 years is basically what you have to slowly let go of in the second half of life. Jesus says to Peter that 'when you were young you dressed yourself, when you’re older someone else will dress you, and lead you where you would rather not go.' (John 21:18) It’s a both/and world. You don’t throw out the first half of life; you simply become less attached to it – to the formulations. You’re less dogmatic. It’s a compassion that you see in the old wise man. He deals with the imperfections, the flaws, and the brokenness."
This broken world is redeemed as Jesus takes broken people and transforms them as they journey down the same road He took, the path of descent. He changes us. He softens us. He mercifully coaxes us into letting go of our ego in favor of taking hold of His hand. He lets us trip and stumble and fall and then He gently helps us to our feet. He lets us ask the hard questions and grants us the confidence to both believe and trust Him with our unbelief. He destroys the strongholds of dogma that hinder our freedoms. He busts wide open the pathetic structures that we create in our attempts to define Him. He, the potter, tenderly shapes and molds and remakes us, the clay, according to his eternal plan and with masterful touch. As one of Nicol's former colleagues recently said, He helps us get over ourselves. And it's all done as we walk with a limp, wounded and bloodied, down the path of descent. Little wonder that Paul says it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him. (Philippians 1:29) Little wonder that Jesus said if anyone who would come after me, he must take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23) and anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27) and whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25)
Why the wounding? Why the suffering? Why the brokenness? Why the cross? Why must we surrender?
Because the wounding that leads to the descent is the path that leads to life.
And the wounding is usually horrific and it wears many faces.
It's the husband who walks out on his wife and never looks back. It's the young girl who is haunted by years of sexual abuse. It's the dad who abandons his children for a "child" half his age. It's the woman whose brother is killed in a car wreck, whose husband dies in a hunting accident, and whose daughter is brutally murdered. It's financial disaster for an unsuspecting couple. It's chronic pain for an otherwise healthy middle-aged man. It's a chronic, sometimes debilitating illness for an eager-to-be-active middle-aged woman. It's life in an abusive relationship. It's the son or daughter who forsakes his or her parents. It's the wife who is diagnosed with breast cancer. It's the husband who is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. It's the man who is abruptly given one hour to clear off his desk by the company he had given 40 years of his life to. It's the couple whose son drives to a cemetery and ends his life. It's the 65 year old woman whose son died from AIDS, whose husband died from a rare disease. It's the pastor who left his wife for the secretary.
It's the loss of a beautiful baby girl to complications from kidneys that didn't develop or function properly.
It's the sudden loss of our precious infant son to SIDS.
It's a never ending list of woundings that change life forever.
It's anything that happens in this broken world that marks us as those stumbling down the path of descent.
The promise? God is with us through it all.
But so is the wound and so is the pain.
And I think halftime is nearly over.