The fairy tale of yore leapt off the storybook’s page and onto history’s stage. It was a “Cinderella wedding.” The dark-haired prince would, at last, wed his bride-to-be, no longer titled lady only, but also a princess.
Thousands gathered and 750 million others tuned in from afar to witness this “wedding of the century”: Lady Diana Spencer uniting in holy matrimony to Prince Charles of Wales, royal heir to Britain’s throne.
The carillon of St. Paul’s Cathedral rang of royal one accord. Commoners and nobility cheered from London to lands abroad. The July 29, 1981, celebration spelled something of the dawning of an endless royal summer, a “happily ever after” tale to unfold across decades to come.
Except that it wasn’t so. The fairy tale ended in divorce in 1996. And, heartbreak upon heartbreak, the princess’ own final chapter came to a crashing conclusion one year later.
On August 31, 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, dashed into eternity, a casualty of a car crash in a Paris tunnel, as an ever-present paparazzi followed in tow. In the blink of an eye, a royal life the world had followed incessantly through the lens of a camera was no more in this world. Lady Di, dead at 36.
Millions will forever remember that somber day, a tragic “The End.” And so will I–it was my 16th birthday.
Numbering our days
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:10).
As I celebrate my 35th birthday, these words of Moses—especially weighty, it seems, in King James parlance—ring more loudly today than in years past. Math is my measure: By Moses’ reckoning, I’m now officially middle-aged, halfway to 70. For now, anyway, millennial suits me just fine.
But the brevity of life comes into full view by way of Diana, Princess of Wales. Likewise, it comes to us by way of a less remembered August 31 death—that of John Bunyan in 1688, three centuries earlier. The English author and preacher’s memory is mostly tied to his allegory of the Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress, penned while in prison on preaching-related charges.
And splitting the years between the princess and the pilgrim stood an August 31 innovation that gave us a window into both: On that date in 1897, a New Jersey inventor received a patent for a machine that took still camera shots in rapid fire succession to create one seemingly streamlined motion picture. Thomas Edison’s kinetograph would become the gateway to the modern movie-making machine.
But what do these three lives and moments have to do with each other?
Lessons from a princess, a pilgrim and a patent
Centuries separated them. Classes divided them. But the princess, the pilgrim and the patent of an inventor—taken together in Edison-style snapshot—speak to a larger narrative, unfolding chapter by chapter even today.
Here are seven ways they may speak to us as we journey together.
1. Life runs on a reel of red, not black and white.
Princess Diana’s bloody death headlined London papers and distant dailies in big, black print. Bunyan’s readers journey through his Pilgrim’s Progress via black ink set to white paper. And Edison’s first movies ran in colorless form.
But the reel of history runs decidedly red. A scarlet thread weaves together “In the beginning” (Gen. 1:1) to “It is finished” (John 19:30) to “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7). From a wedding in a garden to a marriage feast in glory, all of redemptive history is tied together by the spilled blood of one Man, the Bridegroom Prince.
To miss the red is to miss the message altogether. Crimson is the color that awakens all the others. And the more the crimson colors the screenplay of one’s life, the greater the clarity to an otherwise dark and destructive picture.
2. Life is a pilgrimage.
Countless thousands pilgrimaged to London’s Westminster Abbey to pay final respects to the late princess of Wales. The Christian life, however, is one long pilgrimage—not to a church, but as a church. We are, like Christian in Bunyan’s allegory, headed from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:13) joyfully journeying as part of a heavenly King’s kingdom.
As Russell Moore notes in his book Onward, “[W]e are not pilgrims cringing in protective silos, waiting for the sound of trumpets in the sky. We are part of a kingdom—a kingdom we see from afar (Heb. 11:13) and a kingdom we see assembling itself all around us in miniature, in these little outposts of the future called the church.”
Like a man in a movie or a pilgrim in a book, life is always moving with time. But as we move forward chronologically, by the clock, are we moving forward spiritually?
3. Life promises no “take 2’s.”
The paparazzi snapped thousands of photos of Princess Diana throughout her lifetime, often looking for one lucrative shot. First takes in film, too, are seldom successes. Following in the footsteps of Edison, filmmakers often shoot dozens of single, few-second shots before piecing them into larger works. While re-takes make for good movies—and comedic outtakes—life offers no such luxury of the do-over. Bunyan’s allegory reminds us of the trials and temptations that can trip us up as pilgrims.
We can’t, unfortunately, rewrite yesterday’s fumbled script, walking back our missed cues and cleaning up our messed up lines. But as long as this moment is with us, we can write a better, more godward today and ending. We should, as the apostle Paul puts it, “forget[ ] what lies behind and strain[ ] forward to what lies ahead . . . press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14).
Falls and failures need not frame our final act.
4. The Light of life pierces our darkness.
The story of the Christian life is one of darkness to light. The God who “called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9) desires to use even our darkest days to cast light on the excellencies of his Son.
When all seems hopeless and lost, the Prince of Peace picks us up and plucks us from the powers of the defeated prince of darkness. He “bind[s] up the brokenhearted” and “proclaim[s] liberty to the captives.” He gives beauty for ashes and “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Is. 61:1–3).
God desires to take our worst chapters—whether our own trials or wrongs, or the evils of others hurtled at us—and redeem them for his greater glory. The best stories and plot lines, after all, have unexpected twists and turns and triumphs from tragedies.
5. Other lives will read and watch our story.
Little did Diana know, as a child, that her every move would one day be filmed and photographed, and her life painstakingly analyzed long after her death. Neither did Edison know, when assembling his primitive movie machine, that he would give the world a front row seat both to the wedding and the funeral of a princess. Nor, for that matter, did Bunyan know, while writing in prison, that the paper in his hands would become a bestseller, still in print three centuries later.
Not many Dianas and Bunyans and Edisons walk among us. But all of us, however unknown to the masses, are telling one story or another to those in our midst today. And that story, as Bunyan writes in his allegory, should tell of an enthroned King, who has “made many pilgrims princes, though by nature they were beggars born.” Or, as the psalmist puts it, “Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD” (Ps. 102:18).
Our lives today—in words spoken or written, in actions taped or displayed—can serve as godly living testaments tomorrow. Anyone with an iPhone or a GoPro might well thank Edison for that.
6. Our royal title and inheritance are secure.
Upon marrying Prince Charles, Lady Diana acquired a royal title and regal estate. But divorce would change all of that. While she retained her wedded title, princess of Wales, Diana lost the honorific title “Her Royal Highness” and much of her wealth, receiving an estimated £17 million settlement.
Few of us will bear the title prince or princess in this earthly life. But if we bear the name pilgrim, we ultimately bear a royal name, Christian, betrothed as a church to the Prince of Glory. As a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9), we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Our inheritance is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us], who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:3-5).
The seal—the “patent”—belongs to a singular Prince. “In him,” we “were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Eph. 1:13–14). The U.S. Patent Office need not certify it. The Holy Spirit alone confers it. And no man or monarch can strip or steal it.
7. The Author of life writes “The End.”
When Princess Diana stepped into a Mercedes-Benz one late summer night in 1997, she had no idea it would be the last time. Nor did Bunyan know that the Celestial City of which he wrote and belonged would beckon him home en route to his intended earthly destination of London.
Even as we may hope for “fourscore” years and beyond, our final step as pilgrims may come at any time as well. The movie of our lives, as it were, will one day conclude. The closing scene, the final curtain—“The End”—should be placed in the hands of the Author of life. “So teach us to number our days,” Moses entreated the Lord, “that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
Remembering the brevity of life will help to keep us on the right trajectory of life.
A meeting in an abbey
Today, Bunyan’s body lies, decayed and decomposed, in a plot of ground somewhere in England’s countryside. His was a simple burial.
But Westminster Abbey managed to make way for the deceased author-preacher to peer into Princess Diana’s funeral. A memorial window, installed in 1912, pays tribute to Bunyan, depicting him asleep and dreaming, surrounded by scenes from The Pilgrim’s Progress. And, as the princess’ funeral drew to a close, tearful mourners sang words that may have cheered Bunyan himself:
Guide me, O thou great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty,
Hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
Feed me now and evermore;
Feed me now and evermore.
A pauper meets a Prince
As I turn 35 this August 31, I ponder anew the lives and lessons of a princess and a pilgrim. They remind me of when, as a boy of just five, a pauper met a Prince. It’s the rags-to-riches story of all stories: a Bridegroom Prince gives his life as a ransom to rescue and redeem his sin-stained Bride—clothing her “with the garments of salvation” and covering her “with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is. 61:10). He ushers in a truly endless royal summer, a triumph amid otherwise tragedy.
We don’t need to pass through St. Paul’s to be betrothed to royalty. The road to royal blood may well begin in a cathedral, but it ends at a cross. A set of old stained glass panes in a London abbey tells that pilgrim story well. And, best of all, it’s no fairy tale.