At a critical point in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, the Hobbit whose burden it was to carry the Ring toward its destruction—the destruction that would save Middle Earth—has grown weary and disheartened. He’s afraid and uncertain. He says to the wise wizard, Gandalf the Grey, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf replies: “So do all who come 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.”

We don’t get to choose the times we live in, and we can’t completely control, no matter how strong and vigilant we are, what happens to us. None of us chose to live in the wake of terror attacks, a foreclosure crisis, and the collapse of real estate values. We didn’t choose an era of high unemployment, growing homelessness, and alarmingly expensive health care. We didn’t choose these times and conditions.

And, some things have happened to us that confuse, frustrate and disappoint us. They feel undeserved and unfair.

Disease intruded or disaster struck and dashed our dreams just as we were starting to live them.

Failure came and took away our confidence.

Or, we gave everything we had to give—our hardest work, highest hopes, and deepest yearnings—to people who did not, would not and, for that reason, could not know and love us.

There are times when we understand Frodo: “I wish this had never come to me. I wish this had never happened.” And we need Gandalf’s wisdom: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

Life isn’t so much about what happens to us as it is about what happens in and with us as a result of what happens to us. What happens in us and with us can be hopeful and healing, joyful and renewing, if we make decisions that are consistent with who we are and what matters.

We are children of God, and what matters most is finally and always love. The overarching priority for any follower of Jesus is compassionate, creative and tenacious love for other people and devoted, growing and grateful love for God. The Great Commandment is also a constant invitation: keep learning how to love God with all you are and your neighbor as yourself.”

So we ask, over and over again: what responses can I make that will help me to become more empathetic, understanding, open, and giving? More committed to the ways of peace, mercy, justice and joy? How might the circumstances I face stretch my heart, widen my mind, clarify my values, and strengthen my courage? How can the challenges and opportunities I face become my teachers in the ways of love?