The circumstance? Or your relationship to the circumstance? Which will have the final say in your life?

Last week, during a clergy continuing education event I had the opportunity to watch the movie Invictus again. In case you have not seen it, Invictus tells the story of the weeks immediately following the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa.

In what seems to many to be an odd choice of emphasis, Mandela (played – naturally and impeccably – by Morgan Freeman) devotes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to helping South Africa get ready to host the World Cup of Rugby in 1995.

Mandela forcefully opposes the movement to change the national rugby team’s name from the Springboks and the team colors from the traditional green and gold – both holdovers from the country’s apartheid past. He also invests precious time and energy working to foster a new appreciation for the team among the people in Johannesburg’s black townships.

About halfway through the movie, there is a pivotal moment in the movie. It comes when Mandela is trying to inspire the Springbok captain (played by Matt Damon) to urge his team to greatness. Mandela pulls the captain aside and shares the poem that sustained him through 27 years confinement in the Robben Island prison.

The poem is the famous Invictus, by William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

 In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

 It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

 In the history of poems, this offering stands particularly tall. It was quoted by prisoners of war in Vietnam to one another… it was regularly read by the exiled Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi… it sustained the city of London following the terrorist bombings in 2005 and has no doubt provided needed encouragement to countless others around the world facing similar dire challenges.

The person of faith, however, is quick to notice one distinctive trait of the poem. We notice that the poem – though inspiring and ennobling – mentions God in only the most generic lower-case “g” sense. Invictus is in fact an ode to the strength and relentless potency of the human spirit, lacking even the smallest nod to the assistance – or even existence – of a divine Higher Power.

Does that mean the poem is flawed? For me, I would have to say yes. This omission certainly disqualifies it from the Christian canon. It probably also means I will not likely read this verse at a parishioner’s bedside as they face major surgery.

But I might.

And yet, I don’t consider this linguistic lapse to be a fatal flaw. Because Invictus – read thoughtfully – still points us to a profound spiritual reality we can find throughout the pages of scripture – in the old as well as the new testament.

This poem stands as a reminder to all of us – even in the middle of one of the more surprising and shocking presidential elections in the history of ever – that our immediate CIRCUMSTANCE is never the pivotal issue. Even when the circumstance is dire. Even when it is fraught with doom and gloom, in the minds of some. Even when you assess that it absolutely, positively, totally STINKS.

As we are reminded in scripture again and again – by Abraham, by Moses, by Job, by Jesus, by Paul, by John the Evangelist, and many others I am not naming here – our RELATIONSHIP TO our circumstance is far more important than the circumstance itself.

Job, the most benighted man in the history of bad luck, after the fourth of fifth installment of his personal soap opera, said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth…” (Job 19: 25, NRSV).

Jesus… counseling the anxious ones on the hillside that day… told them, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25, NRSV)

The well-traveled apostle Paul told the faithful in the house church gathered in the city of Philippi, “… I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” (Phil. 4:11, NRSV).

So today… whether you are one of the cheering throng out celebrating the victory of your preferred set of circumstances, or one of their grief-stricken, incredulous political opponents mourning the defeat of yours… let’s pay attention to the wisdom of Invictus AND the Bible.

Let’s spend our energy and prayers working on the way we relate to the circumstance we have on our hands.

And as people of faith, let us relate to it as Jesus did: with wisdom and love.

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