Address Marlborough College Chapel on the Second Sunday of Lent
This morning, I would like to think about the question: ‘What do we do when things get difficult?’ Where do we go, and how do we manage? That is a pretty important question for all of us, as for each of us there will be times when life is not as easy as we had hoped. It may be a disappointing mock result, or indeed exam result. It may be that you didn’t get your university offer, or you weren’t selected for the first team. Or it may be that someone close to you is ill and there is nothing you can do about it.
I am currently reading a wonderful book called ‘The Book of Joy’. It is a series of conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, which were held in 2015 on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. It is a book full of wisdom and indeed of joy.
At one point, Archbishop Tutu asks the Dalai Lama why he has not become morose, or sad after over fifty years of living in exile. Referring to the practice of an ancient Indian teacher the Dalai Lama replies that there are two possibilities. Either you can do something about the situation, or you can’t. If you can, then you should not be dispirited and do something about it. However, if there is nothing you can do about it, then worrying won’t help you either.
This ancient truth was put into prayer by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference. This very simply prayer has become known as the serenity prayer. It is a short but powerful prayer, that has helped many people when things got tough.
It is also a good starting point to answer the question: ‘what do we do when things get difficult?’ The first question you may want to ask yourself is if there is anything you can do about it. If you didn’t get the mock result you wanted, the answer may well be ‘yes’. You could have worked harder, but maybe you were just really unlucky with the choice of questions – although at the real exam, that’s not an excuse!
If you weren’t selected for the performance, the university or the team you wanted, it may well be that also here you need to work a little harder or more focussed. However, it may also be that within your year group there are just a lot of talented hockey or rugby players, which means that the competition is too strong. So, in these cases, the answer to the question if you can do anything about it, may be ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
There are also situations in which there is nothing you can do to make it better. This is for example the case when someone is ill, or when you break an arm just before the hockey season starts. It can be difficult, frustrating and upsetting, but there is just nothing you can do about it.
In those cases, the Dalai Lama suggests, instead of worrying, it is better to see what the positives are that come out of your situation. In his own case, his exile has given him the opportunity to meet lots of different people and to share his wisdom in a way he would not have been able otherwise. That does not mean that his exile is good, but that something good has come out of it.
All this is also expressed in the words of Psalm 121. The Psalm is a prayer in itself, and the author asks himself: where do I find my help? His answer is, you will not be surprised, God. However, it’s not as simple as ‘let God sort it out for me’. It is more like the opposite. A belief in God, as expressed in this reading will empower you to either see what you can change, or help you discover the opportunities the situation may offer you, if you cannot change your circumstances.
How does that work? If you think you are completely on your own when things are difficult, you can feel very isolated. However, when you realise that you’re not on your own, that someone is looking out for you, you will immediately feel very different. That is what is meant by the words ‘he who watches over you will not sleep’.
That, for me, is one of the most important realisations of a belief in God. That no matter what happens, I am not on my own. That doesn’t mean that I can fix every situation, and even less so that God will fix it for me. But it does mean that I worry a little bit less, and find it a little bit easier to pick myself up and move on.
And remember, God is not some sort of magician, but He works with us and through us. That means that often it is with the help of other people that we manage to keep going. The Dalai Lama puts it slightly differently, and maybe more helpfully for some of you. When you think you’re on your own, you feel lonely. But when you realise that you are one of seven billion, all people like you and me, you feel connected and empowered.
So to finish this morning, I’d like to repeat the words of the serenity prayer and take a few moments of quiet to reflect on our own thoughts.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference. Amen.