February 12, 2021
Week of Epiphany 5
Dear ULS Community:
I’m caught this week in the paradox that though much is happening, and our lives at the Seminary are busy and full—with more good things to come—at the same time, I am finding the day-to-day elapsing of time to be slow and tedious this February. Part of it is that through 20 years in Southern California I have grown unused to winter, and am having to re-learn that the hardest part is not the cold temperatures or the management of snow and ice, but the sense of being “shut in” in a fairly dark and gloomy season. T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but I am convinced February gives it a run for its money.
That is of course greatly exacerbated this year by all the pandemic precautions we are all taking. Even those fortunate enough to have been vaccinated still have to be moderately careful for the sake of the rest of us, and we who wait are anxious and frustrated as vaccines are tantalizingly close just as new and more virulent strains of the virus emerge among us. And, of course, I am concerned for all elders of color, who for so many reasons are finding access to the vaccines more difficult and are particularly at risk.
I have said before that I think this time of relative good news on the COVID-19 front will be at the same time the hardest time, as the roll-out is uneven and slow and doesn’t promise immediate safety for everyone. A gradual return to face-to-face interaction may be more frustrating even than the lockdown is. But at ULS we are hopeful that the fall semester will bring a much greater normalcy and some return to old patterns. We are beginning now to plan for that, and I hope we’ll have good things to announce going forward.
For now, we are doing the best we can with what we have to work with: I am confident that we will be able to put together a virtual 2021 Commencement that will be memorable and worthwhile, and that we can find ways in the future to invite both this class and the 2020 graduating class back to celebrate in person. This year we will have another excellent Commencement speaker, a voice I think we need to hear, and you may look forward to an announcement of that name fairly soon. We will also award our first two ULS honorary degrees at this upcoming Commencement, but those names will not be revealed until Commencement itself. This pandemic will not stop us from forging new ULS traditions that build on our collective history, and we will continue in spite of it to move forward into an emerging new identity as a seminary.
Also on the horizon is the annual “Preaching with Power” event sponsored by the Urban Theological Institute, which will happen March 14-17. This will be my first one, and I am very excited to hear from the astounding lineup of preachers on deck this year, especially a friend of mine (and alumna of ULS/LTSP), the Rev. Tiffany Chaney ’12, of Montgomery, Alabama. But the whole lineup is stellar. You’ll hear more about all that as it gets nearer and the anticipation grows.
I’m also excited about the Spring Convocation on April 21, the theme of which is “The Theology of Gathering” and which will feature two of our own faculty as presenters. You’ll hear much more about that in the days ahead. I have to say that hard as it has been for us as a community to be away from each other’s physical presence, the online platforms we have all learned to use have greatly extended our off-campus reach. Even as we go back to being in the same room, we’ll need to think of ways to keep those more distant connections vital and strong, and remember how much more able we are now to reach those for whom travel to campus is a challenge.
Farther down the road, the Board of Trustees and I have thought we might finally have a presidential inauguration in the fall, most likely in mid- to late October, and I hope we can connect it in some ways to the events (like the Luther Colloquy) that we always hold in that month to commemorate Reformation Day. I expect it will involve more than one day’s worth of events and will include both campuses in some way and also have a virtual component. But I ardently hope we can also gather in person by then!
I don’t think I can fail to point at least for a moment to the national drama unfolding in Washington during these days. In a somewhat ironic way, I think interesting that we find ourselves facing challenges to the body politic that seem new and strange to us, when they are not uncommon in other countries. We have just witnessed a military coup in Myanmar, which seems geographically and culturally distant from us, but is really no farther away than friends and ULS students who are from that country. Please pray for that unhappy land and its people.
In contrast, we are stunned by the “unprecedented” nature of the political conflict that is playing out now in the US Senate. I think this shock and dismay—which I freely admit I share—is in part a sign of how complacent we have been about how the real divisions of race and wealth and education in this country have been papered over by respectability. We somehow thought our common love of the principles of representative democracy and constitutional government (and a civil war fought for national unity and human freedom) had ennobled us collectively to be a country of selflessness and courage—the “of thee we sing” country of our hymns and myths—and not a bitterly competitive land of haves and have-nots and zero-sum thinking, rooted in a history of dispossession and inequality and fueled by grievance and ignorance. If we are lucky, the political drama of today is a warning and opportunity to correct that misconception and improve our collective sense of what it means to be the United States; if we are not lucky, it could be a harbinger of a more profoundly destructive political harvest yet to be gathered in.
No matter what your political stance may be, I think it is hard to look dispassionately at what is happening. For my part, I think it again shows America’s ugly side in ways that I will never be able to forget, and it makes me feel stupid not to have seen more clearly how unfinished the business of “equal justice” really is in this land, and how deep the sense of privilege is among those favored by the status quo—and in this I include myself. This is not a “party judgment”—I see this myopia in many points of view. There are real victims in this system and those who feel like victims, and they are at both ends of the political spectrum, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. No one defends an evil position believing that it is evil, but rather in defense of a good that someone else may not recognize as good, but feel instead as a hurt. The challenge is to balance clarity of view with charity of intention—a super-human task for a fallen humanity.
But know that I am not attributing moral equivalency to all points of view: de-humanization and material harm to any of our neighbors—especially if rooted in prejudice and fear—is deep and real injustice. In my view, such prejudice is entirely counter to the Christian witness to Jesus as the incarnation of God’s love for and with all of humanity. For I believe that any political view or group—“left” or “right”—that objectifies the “other” to claim the authority of Jesus for itself is a distortion of the truth the Spirit gives the Church. The empire of the privileged few, the empire of the “collective will,” and even the tiny empire of the individual heart are all alike human empires and not of God.
I welcome the rapid approach of Lent as a season of collective reflection and personal self-examination. Last year, we were disrupted in the middle of it by the pandemic lockdown, and we (or at least I) have felt off-balance ever since. I think back to my first sermon at ULS opening worship last fall and how we had to remove the purple Lenten parament still there from the previous March. We have pushed the “hold” button on much of our religious life together, and held it for a year now. We all hunger for better days. But this year we enter Lent with our eyes open: this will be another forty pandemic days in our virtual wilderness. And it won’t be easy. But it can still be holy. I look forward to sharing it with you, as we go deeper together toward the Easter light at the end of the tunnel.
For we still live in that Easter hope: for better days, for health and healing, for social calm and political stability, and to live out our callings freely as God calls us to do so. In this Sunday’s gospel lesson we see Jesus transfigured, and with his disciples, we wonder what this means. This year, we may see all this in a “new light”—as a brightness that shows us a vision of something different, something better in our future as people of faith. I trust in that vision still.
May God bless you and keep you safe.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary