December 18, 2020
Week of Advent 3
Dear ULS Community:
For me, one of the de-centering effects of the pandemic has been a loss of a sense of the normal passage of time: some weeks seem to rocket by, others to drag interminably. Part of that might be how intensely we connect in our Zoom moments with others, then how we wait—to do things safely—that we used to be able to do spontaneously.
One of the main factors for me has been the loss (or gain) of the time I used to spend traveling between work and home. Back in California, I spent almost two hours a day commuting to my synod office. As a consequence, I only went to the office four days a week at most—of course, some of my work was elsewhere in Los Angeles, so there was driving there, too. When I stopped doing that back in March, I found that my workday was magically enhanced by gaining that time. That feeling lasted only a few weeks before I realized how much I had depended on that commuting time to connect to and disconnect from work along the way. I had lost my “buffer zone” in the car, and now work began right at the breakfast table and continued relentlessly until suppertime.
Things are different now—I live in a new house, but my office(s) are still not a place I go every day. I don’t feel like I have fully “moved in” anywhere—our house in Philadelphia is still in the unpacking stage, and living in Gettysburg is “camping out” in a place we still haven’t been able to make a home. So a lot of my spacial boundaries have shifted too. And between these temporal and spacial dislocations, I have really had to work hard at staying grounded. I know that will change as life begins to come back to normal next year, and I know that Rob and I will be able to make our residences in both Philly and Gettysburg warm and comfortable—and hospitable—with time. But it’s been a year of constant change and it has been hard work just to stay centered.
I know it has been that way for many of you, too, even if you didn’t cross the country to make a new home during the pandemic—as I and some of our students have. Not being able to teach and learn as we prefer to do; not being able to draw a line between “school” or “work” and “home” anymore, requires us to commit more energy—in a sense—to knowing where we are at any moment, even when we’re literally at home all the time. I’ve learned a lot about myself in this, and how I can indeed make it work, but I’ll admit I’m still longing for a more settled feeling here at ULS—as I know you are. We’ll get there, but it’s an effort.
This Advent has been elongated for me by the pandemic as well—I feel like it has been months already, when we’re still only in the third week. Part of that is the unreality of not having the usual Christmas plans—no travel to relatives, no parties with colleagues or friends, not even the familiar worship services. We’ll have a beautiful and meaningful Christmas, but it won’t be a normal one, and for those of us who depend on the holidays for a deeper moment of connection with those we love, this will be a challenging time. Not to mention those who have lost loved ones to the virus, or who fear that they haven’t got too many holidays left to celebrate with family—for them, that loss we all feel will be even more acute.
I’m saying all this, not to describe how I feel (though I feel it), but to remind you that we are all in this together, even when we can’t fully share with each other what’s it’s like from day to day. We are all in the same boat. The seas around us are mostly the same, though some have had a rougher go than others. Where we feel isolation, I hope we can know at least in our minds that we are bound together by this common experience. We have to hang on to that, even if we can’t hang on to each other. And a day will come when we can be together again.
I am immensely grateful to the people of ULS—students, faculty, and staff—for their resilience and their sense of solidarity with each other. The pandemic has leveled our physical barriers, too—our three campuses have never been closer together than they are right now. And our experiences have melded into a pattern of staying safe, keeping life organized, and keeping our teaching and learning and work moving forward. We’ve done that very well at ULS—a semester and a half of it are behind us now, and—God willing—we may only have one more semester to go before things begin to change for the better. But it’s not nearly over, and this next semester might indeed be the hardest, as we strain toward the light at the end of the tunnel and our patience continues to wear thin.
There have been so many rich resonances this Advent between the unfolding story of the birth of Jesus we hear in Scripture and the waiting and tension we feel right now: the discouragement of a long wait; the anticipation of a new day; the uncertainty about what that “new day” will look like. And of course the political situation in the United States has contributed to that, though the clouds now seem to be clearing. Even that, in extended ways, can remind us of the longing for release and a new day that was strong in Jesus’ time.
So this year we hear the ancient words—the announcement of a new time, of a Savior to come and a child to be born—with the ears of people who long for renewal and hope. This is as true of the microcosm that is ULS as it is of our national community and of our world—all of us in the grip of painful uncertainties and with the strong sense of crisis around us. We go to the manger this year to look—as the shepherds and the magi did—for the future, for our future mirrored in the face of a baby. The Word made flesh did not come with a sword and a shield, but as an infant in the arms of a new mother. Helpless in himself, this infant God-with-us becomes the responsibility of the humans around him. That’s a powerful thought, and it speaks to me of the presence of God around us in the vulnerable and helpless we are called to help and serve.
Martin Luther famously compared the tenderness we feel in caring for an infant with the Christian love we should feel for our neighbors—how much easier it is to love an idealized Baby Jesus than it is to show care for the person down the street whose needs pressure us to action. Maybe this year, the helplessness many of us feel in the face of the pandemic will soften our hearts towards those who suffer both in and out of season, from poverty or illness or the effects of racism. It is to be hoped that a crisis like this pandemic doesn’t get wasted in selfishness but draws us to a deeper compassion with those in need.
As we leave a semester and a calendar year behind, it is my wish for all of us that we have deepened our understanding of what it means to be community—in bad times as in good—and that we will come out of this time chastened in our individualism and self-reliance, and strengthened in our sense of solidarity as human beings.
This Sunday we hear the angel’s message to Mary that she is to bear a son. We also hear, though not as explicitly, a message to ourselves: that we are entrusted with God’s Word borne in the humanity we share. May this shared trust in a God who is with us in our very lives, strengthen us to trust more deeply in one another and give us courage for the days ahead.
I hope the holiday recess is a joy and a respite to you all. I will rejoin you with a reflection again on January 8. Stay safe and well. Until then, may all the blessings of Christmas be yours!
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary