Remember Frodo’s comment to Gandalf? Frodo said, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf gently replied, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Often left off the famous quote, Gandalf concluded, “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”
Lockdown. Shelter in Place. Covid-19 Quarantine. Social distancing. The “Corona-cation” of 2020. We have far too many expressions these days to describe our uniquely historic moment.
Interestingly during these weeks, as I have met with 44 students in The Geneva School’s 8th grade over the new Zoom classroom environment, we have been surveying Paul’s “Prison Epistles”: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. In all four Paul makes explicit mention of being “a prisoner” (Eph. 3:1; 4:1) or that “my imprisonment is for Christ” (Phil. 1:13; Philemon 9); or Paul’s closing line in his letter to the Colossians, “Remember my chains” (Col. 418). And it struck me as I write this column that in a small way perhaps we have experienced just a bit of imprisonment ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that true incarceration is a completely different experience I am sure.
But perhaps you have felt a bit “imprisoned” in these days; unable to move about as freely as you would wish; unable to meet with and embrace friends. Certainly, our students miss their friends profoundly. They realize now more than ever the value of the comradery and fellowship in the hallways and the “living room” on the Upper School Campus. And trust me, all of us, teachers, staff, and administrators, miss our students so much it hurts!
I have repeatedly reminded my young student-friends over Zoom that they are not hearing my voice. They may be hearing a fairly good digital reproduction of it, and they see a semblance of my face in a small “tile” on the screen. But we realize increasingly that this is simply not the same as physical “presence” one with another in the classroom. And this is not what any of us consider a fulfillment of our vision for The Geneva School.
Our team in Student Services (Jill Kong, Isabel O’Driscoll, Scott Thigpen, Jenn Mendoza, and Dr. Vande Brake) is a group of friends who love to be together as we fulfill our common calling to serve students. Yet we are not together. We miss each other’s voices and the friendly banter and laughter that characterizes our days at Geneva.
Yet Paul, in the midst of his imprisonment, repeatedly returned to calling followers of Jesus to rejoice in the midst of difficult circumstances – even in the midst his imprisonment which he was certain God was using to further the Good News of redemption in Jesus. In the brief letter to the Philippian church (just over 100 verses), Paul mention “joy” or uses the verb “rejoice” 16 times! That’s once every six or seven verses!
As followers of Christ, living in a materialistic world, we need to cultivate contentment; but “joy” in the midst of imprisonment? Rejoicing while “locked-down” with “stay-at-home” orders? That’s another whole thing, right? But there it is. Such joy is closely related to contentment, of course. Many have spoken about “joy” being a disposition of the heart that acts like a thermostat that sets the soul’s temperature to a constant level. The sadness or happiness we experience may be compared to a thermometer that reacts to outward conditions we cannot control. But we can “set the thermostat” with joy to be thankful, grateful, and even to find peace in the middle of a quarantine.
Now to be sure, in our school community, we lament the loss of highly anticipated traditional events like the Spring formal dance, awards ceremonies, baccalaureate and commencement. But such loss can be turned to a deep joy as we hope for and anticipate some return to a “new normal” at some point and can again enjoy the fellowship of classmates and colleagues – whatever that looks like in the future. I recently sent a note to seniors with this encouragement: “Allow this sadness [of losing so many expected events] to be a deeply planted seed for gratitude in the future when life returns to whatever new normal you will have.” And I am “preaching to myself” when I say this. I went on to say to seniors:
I hope you know that so many of us are so sad for all this for you; yet I (and all my colleagues who love you) rest in God’s sovereign providence. Remember Frodo’s comment to Gandalf (not in the mines of Moria as in the film, but in Bag End before the epic journey to Mordor even began)? Frodo said, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf gently replied, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Often left off the famous quote, Gandalf concluded, “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.” So we have to decide, with joy, what to do with these times given to us.
I have also been reading in these days John Piper’s brief book Coronavirus and Christ. I highly recommend it to you. It can easily be read in 3 or 4 sittings by anyone 6th grade and upward. Piper proposes six answers to the question: “What is God doing through the coronavirus.” One answer is: “The coronavirus is God’s call to his people to overcome self-pity and fear, and with courageous joy to do good works of love that glorify God.” “Courageous joy”! There’s a thought! Incidentally, Piper’s book has a much broader application if you merely substitute any hardship for “coronavirus”: cancer, unemployment, death, whatever!
Finally, in the Wall Street Journal (Sat/Sun, May 2-3), numerous noted people wrote words of encouragement to the class of 2020 – good words for all people, but especially to young people leaving high school or college. In one essay, Rod Dreher called graduating seniors to a mission. He said their mission is, “to be a source of light in a world suddenly shrouded by the pandemic’s darkness, a source of warmth in a world struck cold by the hand of fear.” He concluded by saying, “Ask yourself: . . . What if the trying times you have been given are not a curse but a blessing – indeed, a severe mercy?”
Our future is unknown – always has been for that matter. But perhaps this unique time is indeed a call to a renewed and deeper commitment to trust in the One who holds all our futures in his providential hand. We who trust in Christ know the end of the story, regardless of what happens between now and then. So I encourage all of us in our Geneva community to press ahead with “courageous joy” as we seek to pursue Christ’s calling. May God give us such grace.
Michael S. Beates is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as the Chaplain at The Geneva School in Casselberry, Fla.