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The Last Message — A Free Story For Covid Captivity Blues

Today I add my second story, and the overall sixth freebie we’ve offered. Last week I told you the completely true origins of the COVID-19 virus (click here to read it if you didn’t catch it). Today I zig a little.

Several years ago I wrote The Last Message as a short story available on Kindle. I want to personally thank the seven people who bought it. I have brushed that story off a bit and added some ‘futurist’ to it. I still think it is quite the tear jerker. A big thanks to Athanatos Publishing Group for permission to republish it here and to the Austin-American Statesman who ran an article about this topic seven years or so ago that started the creative juice. This one is a little longer, but only about a ten or fifteen minute read.

This is a free story — no hooks, gimmicks, or paywalls. Enjoy it. If you like it, consider buying a book or four over at Amazon or wherever you by books online. You can even buy, if you like, the original version of The Last Message, and become #8!


THE LAST MESSAGE

Jamie D Greening

Lois cradled the smartphone in her hand. 

She knew she shouldn’t. It was an indulgence, a weakness, a crutch she knew was not good. Her friends and husband had warned her to stop. “This leads to a bad place, Lois. You must move on,” is what the therapist said. Her pastor echoed almost the same thing, only she evoked God by adding, “Jesus will give you the strength to get beyond this, if only you will let him.” 

But she didn’t want to let Jesus do it. She didn’t want to move on. She wanted the phone in her hand. The phone was more comfort than Jesus was providing. If Jesus wanted to do anything he should go back in time and stop it. She knew that wouldn’t happen, so all she had was the phone. 

With her thumb she clicked the phone icon. Her finger’s muscle memory took over after that, bringing up the messages menu and then pushing the play message button. 

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

The phone beeped, the message ended.

Tears poured from her large, dark eyes. Lois’ chest heaved and her mouth opened but sound would not come out. Having lived this moment hundreds of times in the past six months, Lois knew how to steady herself—deep breaths and then long slow exhales. She repeated the rhythm four times. The feedback loop reloaded and she pushed play again. 

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

And again.

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

And again.

Hi Mama, we’re leaving the gym in about five minutes and then we’re gonna take Julia and Renee to their apartment. I’m gonna stop for dinner at the half-way point. I expect to be home around 9:30. Save me a slice of pie. Love you, bye.

The tears continued their tributary path down her cheeks, over her jawline and then crashed on the floor. She leaned over from the couch, clutching the phone close to her breast. The shaking was coming on. The shaking would be followed with yelling and finally a physical collapse and numbness. Last week’s episode ended with Xanax and the rest of the day in bed.

“What are you doing?” Tina snapped the question at Lois.

Lois said, “Nothing,” and sucked up her sobbing and slipped the phone between the seat cushions of the couch. She knew she had been caught in the act, but the human instinct to hide the evidence was automatic.  

“Nothing, huh?” Tina tossed her purse and keys on the kitchen counter. She turned on the faucet and washed her hands then ripped her mask off. She opened the refrigerator. “Do you want a soda to sip while you do nothing?” 

“Sure.” Lois attempted to regain her composure and fend off her sister’s sarcasm.  

Tina grabbed two large glasses from the cupboard and filled them with ice. The ice crackled when the cold soda washed over. Tina put a green straw in her soda and a red straw into Lois’. She brought the glasses from the kitchen then placed them onto handmade coasters on the coffee table. She sat down directly across from Lois and took a sip.

“You were listening to her last message again, weren’t you?” Tina’s eyebrows raised and her head tilted to the right.

“What if I was. It is none of your business and it’s no big deal.” 

“It is a big deal, Sis. You know what the counselor says, that every time you play that message it is like you are dragging Stephanie’s body out of the grave and then you have to relive the whole thing all over again. You’ve got to quit picking at the scab if you ever want it to truly heal, but you won’t stop. Instead of healing, you make it bleed fresh and new all over again. Every single day. You are a drug addict with track marks; the drug is a memory and the marks are on your heart.”

Lois did not reply. 

Tina continued, “Do you think your daughter would want you to do that? Do you think Stephanie would want you to spend the rest of your life sitting in this living room crying? No, she would not. You must learn to live again if you really loved her.”

Lois, who’d buried her head in her hands during Tina’s lecture, looked up at her and mumbled, “I don’t want to live anymore.” 

Tina thought carefully about her next words. “Well, then the worthless piece of garbage who got all drunk and decided to go driving around that night in March didn’t just murder Steph. He killed you too.” Tina was not angry at her sister, but she was forceful and direct the way family can be.

“Hand me the phone, Lois.”

“No!” Lois stood up and stuck the phone into her front jean’s pocket. “No, I won’t let you. I know what you’re intending to do, and I won’t let you. It’s my phone! She was my daughter and it’s my message on my phone. You have no right to take it from me. It is all I have left.”

For a moment Tina considered physically taking the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d taken something from her younger sibling, but she decided that was not the best course of action. Not this time. 

“Oh, sit down, Lois. Don’t make a big deal of it. If you don’t want to give it to me, fine. I will not take it from you, although we both know I could. We’re just talking, remember? I’m not the bad guy. I don’t know what it is like to lose a daughter, but we both lost Mom at the same time from the virus. So, I understand, at least, a little.”

The silence forced Tina to change the subject. She asked about Rick and when he would be home again from his business trip. It was the first business trip Rick had taken since the second round of coronavirus restrictions were lifted for air travel. Tina and Lois made their grocery lists while they finished their soda. Regardless of how badly they might feel, today was their ration window. If they missed it they wouldn’t be able to buy for another ten days. They donned their mask and gloves and tried to have a good time. 

 After provisions were bought, Tina was hesitant to go back to her home and leave Lois alone. She offered to let Lois come stay at her house. 

Lois refused. “I’m okay. I’ll be okay. I know you’re right and nothing I can do will ever bring her back. It’s just, hearing the voice on the message makes it feel like, even for a split second, that she is still alive and any moment she’ll come barreling through the door, talking a hundred miles an hour about her business class, a cute boy she met at the basketball game, some drama with her friends or whatever. In that moment I hear her voice and life feels normal. But the message ends. It always ends. I realize she is never coming home again, ever. Life will never be right. That is when it hurts the most and the only relief comes from going back to the moment when the message is playing. It feels like she is alive while the message is playing. You know, before she was forced to come home. Before the virus. Before the accident.”

            Sometime after midnight, a taxicab dropped Rick off at home. Exhausted from the flight from St. Louis, he left his bag at the door, plopped off his shoes and pulled off his trousers, sanitized his hands and face, then climbed into bed beside his sleeping wife; he was snoring within seconds.

Lois awoke well before her husband that morning. After she fed the cat and made coffee, she tried to read a book Tina gave her about healing her inner wounds. She kept reading the same paragraph over and over again. She closed the book and sneaked back into her bedroom and grabbed her phone from the nightstand. With ninja stealth she tip-toed out of the room and closed the door behind her. Rick would never know.

Just one more time, and then I’ll stop. I promise.

The familiar lie helped her mask her dependency.

Lois unlocked the phone and her thumb quickly hit the icon. She sat down in her old rocking chair, the one she got as a gift from her mother when Stephanie was born. The virus, in its way, had taken both of them from her. She used to rock Stephanie to sleep in that chair singing church hymns to her. 

Her finger found the messages tab and she pressed it lightly as she took a deep, controlled breath.

A death scream, then shouts of, “No. No, no, no, no, no. Not now, not now. Why? What happened? Why?” followed by pathetic heartsick weeping, erupted from Lois. 

Rick jumped out of bed, startled and uncertain. He ran into the living room and found his wife in the rocking chair.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s gone. It’s not here.”

“What’s gone?”

“The only thing that matters, the last message, it’s gone. Just gone. She’s been erased.”

“What do you mean, gone?” He thought a moment and then took the phone from her. Scanning the display, he asked, “Did you erase it, I mean accidentally maybe?”

“Of course not.” Her face now red and shaking, snot bubbling from her nose.

Lois grabbed the phone back from him. She repeated the same motion, manically hitting the phone and message icons over and over, hoping each time that the message would reappear. It did not. 

She glared at her husband as a treacherous idea formulated in her mind. She violently launched the phone at him. It hit him in the chest then bounced down onto the soft blue carpet. She screamed, “You erased it! You came in last night and erased it. Tina called you, didn’t she? Tina called you and the two of you conspired against me. You erased it and took my baby away from me. Why? Why did you do it?” She charged at him and began swinging wildly. Rick caught her by the arms and pulled her in close and surrounded her with a giant, confining embrace.

“I did not erase anything, sweetheart. I would never do that.”

Lois surrendered to him and went limp. The fight left her.

“You didn’t talk to Tina?”

“No. What happened with Tina?”

Through choppy, sobbing words Lois told Rick about her conversation with Tina the day before. Rick affirmed that he had not spoken to Tina or anybody else, then he brought his own phone into the room and showed her the call log. That was when he noticed some of his messages from his boss and the office back in St. Louis were gone too. 

He held his wife’s hand and the two sat in silence. It was the kind of silence that, between two people who have loved each other for many years and have endured many ups and downs, can communicate more than is possible with words.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and called the cell phone company. After five minutes of navigating the laborious automated menu options he finally reached a living soul. 

“Yes, this morning my wife discovered that a very important phone message on her voicemail had been deleted, and I also see that some of my work voicemails have been deleted. There must be something wrong with the system and I was just wondering if you could tell me how I could get those messages back.”

“Thank you for calling, sir,” the cheerful woman said on the other end. “Yes, we are glad to announce that many of our operating systems for our phones have recently been updated to the newest software. This will add many features that weren’t there before, and it will allow for better reception in some areas as well as provide optimal service for voice data, video streaming, and text messaging. To avoid interrupting service as much as possible, most of these updates were done in the night, starting at 3:00 A.M. Eastern Time.”

“That is all well and good,” Rick said, “but what does that have to do with our missing messages?”

“Well, sir, when the new system came on-line, it automatically cleaned up your memory and your voice files to provide for greater storage in the future.”

Rick gulped. “You mean you deleted our messages?”

“That’s right, sir. The process automatically deleted any messages older than one month.”

Now Rick was angry, and Lois could see her husband’s eyes twitching. She had stopped crying and was now feeling badly for the hateful way she’d treated Rick. 

Rick yelled into the phone, “What gives you the right to do that? Did you ever stop to think that people might keep an old message for a reason?” His voice got louder and increasingly more intense as he spoke. “We wanted that message. We needed that message. How could you?”

“Sir, please lower your voice. There is no reason to get angry.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Rick was very angry. “I want to speak to your supervisor right now.”

“Gladly sir, please hold.” 

***

 “Did the phone company do anything?” Tina asked her brother-in-law. 

“No, of course they wouldn’t,” Rick ran one of his large hands through thinning hair. “I spoke to four different levels of supervisors until it became clear they were either unable or unwilling to give us our voicemails back. I really do hope it was a situation where they really weren’t able to. I mean, I work in the business world and I know that sometimes technology throws us for loops. When something is lost, sometimes it is lost for good. It happens. I get that. But at the same time, I get this unnerving feeling that they could if they wanted to, but they just don’t because if they ever did it once, then it would become an expected service.”

Tina shook her head in disbelief. “It just seems a bit malicious.”

“Well,” Rick said, “I was thinking about it a little later. I mean, if this were a court case, and a lawyer had phone records subpoenaed, you know they would be able to get that voicemail somehow. If this were a matter of government security or a crime had been committed, you can bet that law enforcement would have that voicemail. But honest citizens can’t. That is just the way the system works. That message is out there. We, however, will never be allowed to hear it again.”

Tina and Rick turned their heads toward the hallway to see Lois walk zombielike out of the master bedroom and down the hallway. Her face was puffy and eyes red. 

“When did you get here?” Lois asked her sister.

“About ten minutes ago,” she glanced at her watch, “After Rick told me, I came right over.”

 “That’s sweet, Sis, but you don’t have to. There is nothing you can do. Besides, at least you’ll get your way now. I won’t be listening to it anymore. Ever. Aga. . .” Before she could finish her words a fresh wave of grief crashed into her. 

Rick asked his wife, “Do you want another pill, Hon?”

“No.”

 The doorbell rang. Rick put his arm on Lois’ shoulder as he rose and whispered, “I called Pastor. I thought a prayer might help. Words of hope or comfort couldn’t hurt, right?”

Lois nodded. She didn’t have the energy to disagree.   

Pastor Mary stood in the doorway. She wore dark trousers and a summer top. Her hair pinned back. Over her face was a mask that had the classic Chi-Ro symbol on one side and the star-like logo for their church, Christ Redeemer. Black gloves covered her hands and forearm then tapered at the elbow. She gave Rick an air hug at the door to keep from touching but to try and communicate something of humanity. She walked through the room and knelt beside the chair Lois was sitting. She took Lois’ naked hand into her protected hands. “Rick told me what happened. I don’t know what to say, Lois, other than to affirm that our faith tells us together we will find a way.” Pastor Mary’s words somehow gave a glimmer of hope to Lois, Rick and Tina in an intangible way. Through the entire trauma of losing Stephanie, their pastor’s presence and ministry had been both stabilizing and encouraging. Somehow, just being there made things better.

Pastor Mary then lifted up and moved to the sofa. 

Lois said, “You didn’t have to come.  I know it is not really a big deal and it is probably bothering me more than it should. You are so kind to come over like this, especially with the person-to-person restrictions.” She wiped her eyes with a tissue, “It just feels like our child has died all over again. Of course, we have her on some videos and lots of pictures, but none of those were like that voicemail. It was spontaneous, you know, normal, and just a part of her everyday charm. Even her asking about the pie, saying how she was taking her friends home; the whole message was just a beautiful snapshot of who she was as a person—you know—the bubble in her voice and then the almost singsong way she said ‘Love you, bye’ at the end. And now we’ve lost that treasure forever.” Lois’ lip quivered. “I just wasn’t ready for it.” Lois balled up her fist and slammed it down. “I wasn’t ready for it. I’m so mad. I’m mad at the driver, I’m mad at Stephanie for not leaving earlier in the day. I am mad at the government for sending all the kids home when the coronavirus panic struck. I am mad at the whole world. And I am mad at God.”

“Well,” Pastor Mary said, “It is okay to be mad at God, for a little while. Children often get angry with their parents. But you know you’re not really angry at the Lord. You just hurt because of the loss.”

“That’s right,” Lois nodded.

“We’re never ready for loss. It jumps up and slaps us, and what we learn to do is move forward by honoring the memory of what and who we lost while at the same time remaining true to our commitment to life, and to Christ, and to the world. You have to find a way to let Stephanie rest in peace. Her work is done. You must continue on with the life God has given you. It might be hard right now, but one of my prayers for you is that at some time in the future you will learn to see this day when the last message was taken from you not as a curse but as a blessing. I pray some day you will finally let your daughter go and embraced life again.”

 Lois gave Pastor Mary a steely glare. That was not what she wanted to hear, but the wise and experienced minister didn’t flinch.  

“I also have another prayer for you Lois, and it starts with words of comfort from the ancient Hebrews.” Pastor Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a small Bible and read from Isaiah 40.  

He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

“The Lord will give you strength you didn’t know you had, Lois.” 

Then she asked for Rick and Tina to lift their hands. “Back in the old days we would have joined hands, but now let’s just raise them with palms up.”

Lord, please bring peace to my friend, Lois. Cradle her and her blessed husband in the bosom of your goodness. The past six months have been very hard. First her mother and then her daughter. Today has been a chilling reminder of the tragedy which visited this home in the dark hours of the night that awful evening. Now my prayer for her is specific today and it is twofold. First, Lord, I ask that you turn today into a blessing and transform these ashes into beauty and mold these tears into laughter and strength. My second prayer, Lord, is somewhat harder, at least from our perspective. I ask that you do something supernatural, something amazing, something we could never expect that would ease dear Lois in her time of need. She has loved you, ministered to your people, and served your world for many years. Please remember your servant now in her time of need. We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

***

Rick gave Lois another pill before bed. The day had been too much to absorb. Lois offered to share with Rick, noting she had two more refills left on the prescription, but Rick declined. They turned off the lamps and rolled over in different directions to try to sleep. The first hour was fitful, but eventually they both nodded off.

At 3:45 Lois woke up to go to the bathroom. When she came back, she sat on the bed with her feet hanging off the side. Moonbeam shown through the gap in the curtains and illuminated her cell phone on the nightstand. There was a pull toward it, an unexplainable desire to pick it up and listen to the message. She knew the message wasn’t there, but the desire was. The phone beckoned her.

She knew it was fruitless, but she picked up the phone anyway and brought it to life. The screen glowed, illuminating the screenshot of her, Rick and Stephanie at the Lincoln Memorial from two summers ago. Before she went to college. Before the virus closed the Lincoln Memorial. Before the virus forced her baby girl onto the road to come home. Before the driver took his first drink. Before blue truck smashed into the green sedan. Before her world ended. Back before, that had been a very good day. Stephanie was so impressed with the landmarks of Washington D.C. and the tours of Congress that she’d decided to pursue politics in college. That dream didn’t last long as business caught her attention. 

If only she’d lived long enough to keep dreaming new dreams. 

Lois unlocked the phone then her muscle memory pushed the phone icon and then the messages icon before she could tell her hand to stop, before she could tell it there was no use trying, no message was there.

But a message was there. A new message from a number she’d never seen before. Afraid she had missed an important call, Lois left the bedroom and walked into the kitchen to listen to it.

   She pushed play.

Hi Mom, it’s me, Steph. I can’t explain it all to you, but because of some praying I was allowed to tell you that I’m okay. I know that it happened too soon, and I had plans for life, but I’m okay. In fact, I’m better than okay. I just want you to know that life doesn’t end at death and that someday we will be together. I love you and Daddy very much. Thank you for giving me a great life filled with love and adventure. I gotta go, but don’t cry anymore for me, OK, because where I am is wonderfully perfect. I’m saving a slice of pie for you. Love you, bye. 
 
 
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Another Outstanding Free Story Just For You!

We (and by we I mean my co-conspirators Joe Shaw, Joseph Courtemanche, and Kathy Kexel) kick up our super duper offer of free stories to entertain and enlighten you during your COVID-19 Captivity. No paywalls. No newsletter signups. No gimmicks. All we ask is that if you like the freebies, you consider buying our books over at The Amazons. And yes, we’re not too proud to beg.

The first off this week is Joseph Courtemanche. Last week he had ABBA on his mind (click here to read it), and today he finds a fresh target in this . . . imaginative Lavinia Did It. Click on the Washington Monument to read the story.

Click the base of the monument to find out what is really going on

Tomorrow I am sharing a freebie that is rather long for a short story. Until then, Enjoy!

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What I’m Learning in COVID-19 Captivity

I Woke up this morning to the cold realization it was week two of the church in exile.

The feeling is so strange that it qualifies as as an out-of-body experience. My entire remembered life I have gone to church on Sunday with precious, very precious few exceptions. I have never missed a Sunday of preaching because I was sick. Even on vacation I go to church.

But here we are.

I thought it would help me this morning if I went ahead and acted as if I was going. I trimmed my beard a bit, cleaned up, and put on a white buttoned down instead of a t-shirt, and a nice wrist-watch rather than the Timex I’ve been wearing on quarantine.

These thoughts bring me to what I’d like to share with you this morning, and that is namely what I am learning during the COVID Captivity of 2020. I don’t know how historians or sociologists will label this time period when they study it, but I do think a lot is going to change about how most of us live. I’m not certain we will ever be ‘normal’ again. That might be good because maybe what we called ‘normal’ was actually quite abnormal. These changes will flow from what we learned, and most of all what we learned about ourselves.

The first thing I have learned is from the malaise I woke to this morning. I have learned I really, really, really love church. I miss gathering with the people of God more than anything else about this. The church is in exile, pushed underground (necessarily so, but still underground so to speak), meeting in clandestine family units huddled around television screens and smart phones desperately trying to connect in some way with the body of Christ. I miss the hugging, the handshaking, the close talking, the hand-holding, the patting on the back, and the warmth of community. I miss it and I have learned that I am significantly less human without it. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and that is a very high holy day for us with ritual and Holy Communion. My soul longs to gather with the festal procession of my brothers and sisters, and I eagerly desire to eat that meal with them. I miss it, and the thought of missing it disturbs me.

I will never take Sunday morning for granted again.

Another thing I have learned is how much my family and their presence means to me. I can’t imagine going through this without Mrs. Greenbean and the sprouts. The youngest sprout was sent home from college and the oldest is still working through Zoom and digital presence, but she is able to be at the house quite a bit. Our family has always been close-knit, but now more than ever. Because those binds that tie are so tightly wound around the four us, we are not breaking in this. We are growing stronger.

I’ve learned how much I depend upon presence, touch, and personal interaction in pastoral ministry.

I’ve also learned what I can live without. I can live without the false gods of this world — sports, musicians, Hollywood movies, shopping, workplace esteem, and so many other 21st century deities which have been stripped of their power like the gods of Egypt before Moses and his staff. I don’t need these things to be happy and whole. I miss my church, but I don’t really miss watching the NCAA basketball tournament as much as I thought I would. I miss eating in a restaurant with family and friends but I don’t really miss the movie theater that much.

The flip side of what I’ve learned I can live without is what I can’t live without. I can’t really live without the grocery store being open and the truck drivers delivering goods. I can’t live without the clerks, stockers, and diesel mechanics who are literally keeping America fed and our coffee pots happy when everyone else is on lockdown. When this is all over we as a society need to radically rethink the pay scale disparity of athletes and grocery store workers. Who are really worth the big bucks? And while I’m on it, it doesn’t apply to me as my children are grown, but many of you are realizing the value of your child’s teacher, school, and daycare. Again, remember that when this is over.

I’ve learned doctors and nurses are heroes.

On the darker side of Greenbean, I have learned to be suspicious of people who don’t take this seriously. This may sound judgmental, and I apologize to a degree if it is, but whether it is someone in the media, politics, or a cranky neighbor, anyone who doesn’t take the advice of professionals, experts, and scientists is a fool who should not be trusted with anything or any decision making process. If you fail on this, in my opinion, you’re disqualified from making decisions in the future on anything. Put another way, I’ve learned to see people’s reactions to COVID-19 as a filter on their values.

Having gone dark for a paragraph, though, let’s brighten it up. I have learned that the Lord is still crafting, molding, and shaping me. He is good, and he is still blessing, even in the midst of societal upheaval. I give thanks that I am healthy, and I give thanks for those who are ministering to the sick. I give thanks I have plenty to eat and I was able to buy toilet paper. My family makes me smile and we played Scattergories and Mexican Train and watched old DVDs. Our church staff is amazing and they are working so hard to keep as much ministry going as possible. The needs of the world, Italy, Spain, China, Iran, and New York City drive me to my knees in intercessory prayer, and that is a good thing. I recognize our interwoven existence, and that each one of us depends upon the toil and wellbeing of everyone else. Remember that famous phrase, “No man is an island” — it was written by John Donne during the plague, and at a time when he himself thought he was dying from it.

Ultimately, I have learned that I am still learning. The Lord is still teaching. And life continues under his shepherding hand. All of these bring forth praise from my lips.

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Decide What To Do With The Time

This famous quote from Tolkien has been rattling around in my brain for the better part of a week. It squeezed out of my mouth in Sunday’s sermon, perhaps the last sermon for a while as we all hunker down for COVID-19 contingencies. It is one of the better sentiments on crisis one can internalize.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and 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 us.”

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2

First an observation completely applicable to my thoughts. In the novel, this line comes very early as Gandalf is letting Frodo in on the history and darkness of the ring. The line helps set us up as the reader for the peril that is to come, and for Gandalf’s philosophy in how to handle it. By contrast, in the movie version, this conversation is moved deeper into the film, in the Mines of Moria.

I love the movies but one complaint I have is Hobbits should all be fatter

This matters a bit. The movie has these words when the trouble of the times is fully on them, after the Council of Elrond, after Weathertop, and after they are trapped inside the dark mine. We know the story will get darker yet, but from Frodo’s perspective, in the movie, he probably thinks it is already as horrible as it can get. Getting these words in the middle of it is one thing.

But Tolkien wrote them at the beginning. When Frodo is still in The Shire, around his fire, with clean clothes and a full belly. In the novel, Frodo’s words are about trying to avoid difficult times altogether, in which Gandalf basically says, ‘Hard times can’t be avoided’ In the movie, Frodo’s words are about ‘I wish I wasn’t in this horrible time.’ to which Gandalf essentially says, “we all do.”

The highlighted page from my copy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Why am I thinking so much about this exchange? Because we are in the beginning of some very difficult times. Gandalf is telling us we can’t do a thing about the fact we live in these times, and pining away for the past–even if that past was only two months ago–doesn’t help. We have to choose, decide, how we’re going to react and behave right now. And to answer that, there are three options.

  1. We can live in denial. “There is no threat,” or “It is all hyped up and overreaction,” or perhaps, “I’m young so it will not bother me.”
  2. We can panic and live in fear. These are the emotions which are producing bare grocery store shelves and people talking about the end of the world.
  3. We can choose to be true to our calling in Christ and fulfill the great commandment.

As you might imagine, I encourage you to reject denial, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and all sorts of bad ideas. I also think we need to not feed the panic and fear. So how do we fulfilling our caring in Christ? How do we rise above it and decide the noble, highest use of the time we’ve been given?

It starts with perspective. The Lord put you on the planet to love people, which means to be a helper. You can help the entire world by practicing social distancing, follow the recommendations of health officials, and staying home.

But that is not the only help. I encourage you all to be proactive. Reach out to your neighbors and friends and make certain they are okay. You probably have vulnerable people near you — older people, those with chronic immune illnesses, COPD, and other respiratory issues — and these people shouldn’t be anywhere near a grocery store or in the population right now. So you can help. Make sure they know you’re available to go to the store for them, deliver meds from the pharmacy, or just to call and say hi.

It also helps everyone when you stay calm. Calmness comes from remembering two things. One, this is not the first crisis we’ve had. We are being asked to stay home and watch Netflix, our grandparents were asked to leave home and fight the Nazis. See the difference? The second thing it helps to remember is none of this was a surprise to God. He knew it was coming, and he has prepared you–indeed if I may — he has chosen you for this time. This is your time to shine; so do it. And do it well.

It will also help if you smile. Say encouraging words. Be playful. Give thanks. Worship the Lord. Love.

It is when times are tough that our true character emerges and our actual core values take center stage. I believe we are a noble people, and I believe the Lord is working right now to show us how to live better and behave better by loving each other.

But these aren’t my only thoughts. Time is subject here from Tolkien’s novel. Literally, not figuratively, literally many of us have been given time. Time at home. Make the most of it. Play games with your family. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Paint the deck. Increase your exercise routine. How about read a book — I happen to know some great books by this Greening guy . . .

Get creative. Paint a picture. Write a poem.

Clean the house. Mop the floors. Call your mom/dad/brother and talk.

Read the Old Testament. Read the New Testament. Study the words of Jesus. Pray more. Pray different.

You and I can’t get out of the time we live in nor can we change it. What we can do, is our time well. This, right now, is the time we’ve been given. What are you going to do with yours?