I have to admit to feeling a bit sorry for Prince Harry as I watched him making his way alone into Westminster Abbey to witness his father’s Coronation last Saturday. Irrespective of your views on his and Megan’s choices and behaviour over the last few years (and I’m sure there will be many and varied views!), he cut a lonely figure as he took his seat some distance away from other close family members.
I wonder what he was thinking as he witnessed the ceremony and ensuing celebrations from afar? Perhaps he was pleased to be free of all those sometimes cumbersome royal responsibilities. Perhaps he was thinking of a hundred and one other places he’d rather be, or maybe he was thinking if only… if only things were different, if only things hadn’t developed as they did, if only my circumstances had changed. Perhaps he felt like running away!
I’m not sure about you, but sometimes I feel like running away. It might be as simple as feeling a strong desire to remove myself from the most boring, long-winded and pointless meeting I’ve ever attended as I ask myself, “how did I get here?”! Or perhaps that feeling may arise on a far deeper level as I look at wider circumstances in my life, and wish some things were different. Either way it’s sometimes difficult to accept the reality of our current circumstances, especially when they’re tough.
On occasion Scripture witnesses to that same sense of ‘if only’, often accompanied by the desire to run away, or run back to seemingly better days of old. As the wilderness journey began for God’s people, they soon began to ask ‘what if' questions. “Leave us alone”, they grumbled, “let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness!” (Exodus 14:12). Again, as their journey continued; “If only the Lord had killed us back in Egypt,” they moaned. “There we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” Exodus 16:3. Fast forward to Elijah, and after his awesome mountain top victory he ran for his life exclaiming “I have had enough, Lord… take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” (1 Kings 19:4).
However, standing in stark contrast to asking ‘if only’ questions and seeking to run away, I was struck recently by a quote from Elizabeth Elliot who profoundly comments “The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.” In a sense she echoes God’s call to His people in exile to settle down, build community and pray for the prosperity of the area, even when the reality of their circumstances appeared difficult. Of course, on occasion God does call us to leave behind the old, and venture to the new (Isaiah 43:19), yet I have to admit a slight concern with a theology and church culture that’s always constantly venturing on to the next new, shiny, packaged initiative, vision or project.
I’m actually becoming more and more convinced that talking about pain and honouring reality is not hopeless but is a valuable part of the Christian pilgrimage. Indeed, I have witnessed real spiritual growth and deepening of relationships as a Christian community or family have navigated very difficult, painful waters. To really understand joy, we are called to travel through times of suffering. Likewise, sometimes we are called simply to stand (Ephesians 6:13), endure, honour reality, and stay put; however much we feel like running away!
So, however difficult your circumstances may be today, and no matter how many ‘what if’ questions you face, might the practice of honouring reality bring you closer to learning once again that “the secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.”
God of peace my perspective is so limited.
I find it hard to see beyond present suffering.
But today I choose to trust that you see further,
and you love more faithfully and fiercely than I ever could.
Thank you that you are working for my good,
even in the worst of circumstances.*
Alistair Birkett Director, Northern England & Scotland
*Lectio 365, 24-7 Prayer International Feb 2023