Gifts I Never Asked For | President’s Reflection

May 15, 2020

Years ago, I wrote a chapel talk called “Gifts I Never Asked For.” It was inspired by the childhood disappointment of one particular Christmas morning. I had asked for only one thing—the LP movie soundtrack of The Sound of Music. I saw the package under the tree; it was the right size, and I fully anticipated having my hopes rewarded—only to open the gift and find the Broadway soundtrack.

Re-telling this now, it sounds utterly ridiculous! But at the time, I was crushed. The problem was, I could not let on what was going on, because I knew that my parents thought they had given me exactly what I had asked for. I quickly grew up—at least for that moment—and kept my disappointment to myself. Eventually, I actually came to value songs on the Broadway version that were not even on the movie version.

Learning to receive the hidden gifts

This experience became something of a motif for my journey. I don’t mean that I am a “Pollyanna” (for those old enough to remember that allusion!). I am not at all cheery about life’s disappointed expectations. I also don’t subscribe to theological explanations that tie the world’s pain or my own pain directly to God’s planning. But I have learned that, in whatever circumstances that come to us, there are hidden redemptive surprises—good things that would not otherwise have come our way.

(Of course, we don’t know for sure that they would not otherwise have come to us. What we do know is that these good things have come to us in the context of experiences that we would never have chosen for ourselves.)

In my life, these hidden gifts have included the two years I spent in Student Life work when, at the time, this season looked like a frustrating detour on my road to a doctorate in history. They included, at the time of the chapel talk, being a single history professor when I had fully expected to spend my life as a pastor’s spouse. And, finally, they included finding myself for 23 years in California when I had set my heart on staying in Minnesota.

Can any good possibly be hidden within COVID-19?

I am coming slowly to see the potential gifts hidden deep within this COVID-19 season. I say this cautiously. For one thing, we are still too much in the middle of this. Secondly, the range of pain is very great, and I don’t want to speak in a way that seems to trivialize this pain.

For some, this season has meant merely the annoying inconvenience of acquiring new habits (donning masks or keeping social distance); for others, it has meant disrupted and disappointed travel or other personal plans. For still others, it has meant agonizing separation from loved ones; for millions around the world, it has meant lost livelihood; and for hundreds of thousands, it has meant losing spouses and parents and children.

For everyone, it has asked us to make friends with a level of uncertainty that defies our practiced calculations of risk. This pandemic will be the defining moment for the emerging adults of this generation.

Naming the gifts of this season

And yet, even in this very moment, I want to be bold enough to name some of the gifts that I see. Last weekend, we experienced Houghton’s first virtual Commencement. While I missed deeply the Seniors’ ritual final march around the quad and the joyful flurry of celebrating families all around campus, I was glad that there was no imposed ticket limit on how many people could fit in the chapel to see the Commencement ceremony. There was room for everyone to be there.

While there are inconveniences and costs of varying sorts to having our campus closed, I am hearing co-workers talk about the extra time they are having with their children. In some cases, this has meant the unexpected return home of adult children for an extra season.

Intensified imagination and innovation

For Houghton, this pandemic is pushing us to a level of intensified imagination and innovation that we would not have embraced voluntarily—and of which we would not have thought ourselves capable. It is a level of change that we ought perhaps to have chosen freely. It is most certainly a level of change that is essential if we are to be able to steward well the lavish riches of a Christian liberal arts education for the learners of coming generations. We look forward to sharing more of these changes with you in the coming months.

It is my prayer this morning that, somewhere in the midst of your own COVID-19 journey today, you may begin to glimpse some hint of a “gift” that you would never have asked for—and yet, having received, would not even think of exchanging.

Peace to you today.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976


Featured image by Shirley Mullen