President’s Reflection | Edging into Hope this Thanksgiving

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, I am reminded of my late grandfather’s words whenever he was asked how things were going. “Never had it so good,” he would say with a curious smile—as if he knew something the rest of us did not. It was not that my grandfather’s personal or professional life was easy. It was not. But he had long since made a habit of cultivating a grateful mind and heart in the face of life’s realities.

Gratitude does not come naturally to any of us. Nor will it happen by default. It is a discipline. But once we make it part of our lives, it changes everything. It does not—or should not—make us less able to engage with the pain and suffering of the world. Rather, it provides us with the perspective with which we can be more present than ever to those around us—and to our daily circumstances—because our foundation is grounded in Hope and not Fear.

This year, we have many reasons to Fear. COVID-19 has disrupted our lives, the economy and the entire world. Despite promising signs of a vaccine, it isn’t going away anytime soon. Here in the United States, our would-be “idols” (those things that, despite our Christian faith, we find ourselves relying on for stability in our daily lives)—of government, financial security, diversionary entertainment, travel to favorite getaways, even social time with family and friends—have all been threatened or taken away from us altogether.

Choosing Hope—in the Face of Fear

In this Season of Thanksgiving, we are invited once again to choose Hope over Fear—grounded in Gratitude for those gifts and often surprising signs of Grace in our lives, even in this strange year of 2020.

Here at Houghton, our Gratitude list would include. . .

  • The students who treasured their life together so much that they chose to return to campus this fall—both in Houghton and in Buffalo and Utica—despite the unfamiliar patterns of “social distancing,” wearing masks, postponing intercollegiate athletics and all the other changes to help us keep the COVID-19 virus at bay. It has not been easy. Embodied community has always been at the heart of a Houghton education. We have all felt the strain as we learn what it means to do community through a screen.
  • The students who have not forgotten to reach out to others in the context of their own challenges. We heard this weekend about three of our students who found themselves behind a customer at the local Dollar General who apparently had forgotten her wallet to pay for her groceries. They stepped up and took care of the bill.
  • The fact that, up to this point (and there are only six days left), we have had no COVID-19 cases on campus.
  • The faculty who have worked tirelessly to prepare their classes to be offered either in person or remotely—both to accommodate those students who have not been able to return to campus and in case we were required to return to remote learning during the semester, as a number of our sister institutions have here in New York.
  • The technical staff and others around the campus who have created an entire semester of rich virtual programming—including concerts, Homecoming, Advancement in-service, pre-election panels, off-campus speakers—for both our own campus and our alumni and friends.
  • The character traits of resilience, curiosity and openness to new ideas that have been strengthened in this season as we seek to learn all there is to learn from this experience that none of us would have chosen!
  • The commitment of our Houghton family to engage in difficult and controversial discussions, exacerbated by the polarization of our culture and made even more challenging by the complexities of this election season, and to do all of this via ZOOM. I have been deeply moved by the commitment of our alumni and friends to maintain Houghton’s compelling and distinctively Wesleyan witness to the Truth of the Scripture that transcends the binary categories of partisan politics—and to do this even during a pandemic. The future of the college is in good hands—with alumni who care so much for their alma mater!

Grounded in God’s Faithfulness

Most of all, I am thankful that we serve a God who has proven to be faithful over the centuries—who continually reminds God’s people—Joseph in Egypt, Esther in Persia, Jeremiah in Jerusalem under the threat of Babylon, Daniel in Babylonian captivity—that, despite appearances, we have absolutely no reason to be afraid, that God is fully in charge, that God is making future plans for our prosperity and our role in God’s purposes even in the very midst of anticipated or prolonged suffering.

This capacity to cultivate life-shaping gratitude is one of the gifts of a Houghton education. We have been given a long view of history, thus freeing us from the tyranny of the moment or the fear that the future will be like the present. We have been given the gifts of curiosity, imagination, empathy and a dozen other tools to help us develop this habit of daily thankfulness. Finally, we have been given a rich foundation in the scriptures, in theology and in church history so that we are able to put our stories in the context of the larger story of God’s people over time.

It is my prayer that, for each of us, we may be able to say truthfully that we “never had it so good” as we prepare for this one-of-a-kind Thanksgiving 2020.

Gratefully,

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976

President