Maintaining our Faith Community in a Time of Isolation
President Robin Baker

It was 1973 and I was in my first year in high school in a small town in Arizona. We did not have a movie theater, the internet was decades away from development, and on our best weather days we could get one television station out of Phoenix. It was a different time that students today would barely recognize.

There were two things that drew our community together: high school sports and church. The rhythm of our lives centered on those communal gatherings. Both served essential purposes: Sports reinforced the bonds that held the community together against the “outsiders,” and church worship provided us with a sense of purpose in life. Whatever problems arose, there was a sense of God’s presence and purpose in the midst of the challenge.

While the culture was struggling with Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, the 1970s were also a time of Christian revival for many people in the American West. The Jesus People movement emerged in California and a new generation claimed the Gospel of Jesus and presented it in new ways. Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel (Maranatha Music) introduced the rock band and praise music as new worship forms in church gatherings. At the same time, the culture tried to come to grips with “Jesus” in new musical forms with the launch of Jesus Christ Superstar, A Rock Opera (1970) and Godspell (1973). As a high school student in this era, it was considered cool to talk about Jesus.

The songs from those two musicals, although considered by some heretical at the time, still come back to my memory! The one that has been running through my mind over the past two months is from Godspell, and it has a haunting melody: “On the willows there we hung up our lyres …” The lyrics are drawn from Psalm 137:

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

As you probably know, the Psalm was written in the context of the Israelite exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been sacked and a remnant of the people of God were taken to a foreign land. The Psalm speaks of them gathering for worship along a river and their captors mocking them by demanding that they sing a song of their God. In the midst of their lament, the psalmist demands that they do remember Jerusalem, the place where they gathered as one in worship of the one true God.

Perhaps you are wondering what an old Psalm and Godspell have to do with COVID-19 and our current challenges. Well, many of us have felt like exiles and aliens over the past 60 days. At times, I too identified with the psalmist’s words. Our houses of worship have been closed (and the university as well).

Although we have been able to “attend” worship virtually, we know that God made us as relational beings, and that human touch and presence are essential for worship and for life itself. In a real sense, the virus has forced us to “hang up our lyres” as we isolate ourselves to prevent the spread of the pandemic. We can listen to the music online and hear the words of the sermon, but we long for something more: presence in the house of the Lord.

We are living in a time of rapid change, and it is certain that the digital world will continue to impact both the church and the university in the future. Nevertheless, whatever the future may hold, two things continue to bring me hope. First, even in difficult times we learn that God is present in our midst and at work making his will known. Second, the mission of George Fox University, expressed in the Be Known promise, will always be lived out in personal and communal form. We will have more digital course offerings in the future, but the essential nature of our spiritual formation work with students of all ages will always be personal, communal and centered on Christ.

Robin Baker
President