February 26, 2021
Week of Lent 1
Dear ULS Community:
As I have said in these weekly reflections before, and will doubtless have reason to say again, one of the hardest parts of living in a pandemic is waiting for things to change, especially when change seems so slow and hard to see. Those who have been able to receive the vaccine have crossed a new threshold, to be sure—but back into a place where the rest of us are still waiting. It doesn’t change the rest of the world much that some individuals have been made safer within it, as welcome as it is it know that the most vulnerable and their caregivers are each day in less danger than before. But as the rest of us wait for our turns to come, our day-to-day reality isn’t altered much.
If my circle of contacts at ULS and social media and family and friends is any indication of broader social reality, this last week was a hard one for many. It’s been a week where better news seems (like spring) to be just around the corner, but the burden of the quotidian still bears down hard on us. I am relatively lucky in this: Rob and I are well and healthy and being careful; we have some personal household goals to work toward together, and I have plenty of work at ULS right now. Neither of us has more than the normal set of worries about people in our extended families or our surviving parents. And yet, even for the two of us it is hard to hold off the depressing feeling of being trapped in a repeating pandemic “Groundhog Day” of the same small precautions and moving in the small circle of what we think it safe to do. We ache for a change in the routine.
But at least Rob and I get to do it together. I am especially concerned in these long days about those who have loneliness to add to the burdens they bear. But even those with people in their lives can feel isolated and alone in the stress of this time. Our favorite Christian answer to this—to go to church and have some fellowship—is less useful when “church” is on Zoom or has become a spectator activity. How do we sustain authentic community in a time of physical separation? Every pastor and church congregation is asking that, and has been for months. We ask it at ULS all the time: how do we keep community alive on our campuses when they are mostly empty? How do we keep building a common sense of community between those on the two physical campuses and the virtual one of distance learning? In many ways, we are stalled by the limitations of the present moment.
But not all is bleak. We have learned, through the shared experience of remote communication and Zoom classes and meetings, that we are all “in the same place” conceptually. Some separations have been decreased, including the one between those who teach and study and those who work in the administration—and of course, between those in Gettysburg, those in Philadelphia, and those in neither place. My days on Zoom are quite similar to that of those who teach and learn online—though most of my meetings are probably shorter, they are very numerous. Is this a consoling reality or a depressing one? For me, it depends on how I feel that day. But I know that at least when I describe all this, those who read these words probably understand very well what I am saying.
A second point of hope and help for me is social media. As much as we love to hate it, and as much harm as it can do, social media is both a platform for communication among us and an amplifier of our collective feelings. We’ve seen both terrible things and inspiring ones come through these channels in the last year, but I have to say for me it has been a lifeline. I feel better connected to more people I care about right now than I ever have. I have made a few new “friends”—people I think I might enjoy as much in person as I do online. And I have been encouraged by the fact that while I might be in a funk on any given day, someone else—somewhere—Is perky and filled with joy and making something delicious for supper. It’s a small thing, but it seems real, and it helps me at least.
Somebody said or wrote somewhere this week that what we’re doing nowadays is not so much “working from home” as it is like “living at work.” Some of you, I know, are both working and studying at home, and your boundaries may be even more blurred. Others have care-giving obligations for children or parents on top of that. Whatever your situation, you’re constrained in ways that make life harder. And we are all in that same boat. This is what I want to stress: we are all in this together, even though each of us is struggling uniquely and some may feel alone right now.
This is where we can make a difference to each other: remembering always that we are part of a story bigger than ourselves, and keeping a sense of proportion and a sense of connectedness in a situation that magnifies our personal challenges and affords fewer kinds of relief. Sharing how we feel, and acknowledging what others share, is part of the way we show solidarity with each other in times like these.
For me, as someone who has entered into leadership in a community in such strange times, it means I know much less of what I would normally, casually learn in day-to-day personal interaction with community members, and (conversely) much more about the struggles of some individuals who have been hard hit by the pandemic but whose challenges have been shared with me. It isn’t betraying any personal information to say that it is important for all of us at ULS to understand that others among us bear burdens invisible to us that have been made much worse by the pandemic. I urge us all to an extra measure of patience and kindness with one another today and in the months ahead.
I also can’t help but relate this in some ways to the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, where Jesus calls his followers together expressly to tell them that being his follower will be much harder and more all-consuming than they can even imagine. They will need to “take up their cross” in order to follow him. I have always found this episode intriguing, especially because Jesus seems to be purposefully discouraging anyone who is not fully, completely committed to discipleship from even attempting it. This is not the wide front door of most of our evangelization schemes, for sure!
As I look around me today at all those caught up in the pandemic together, and see that at any given moment some are thriving and some not—some glad to be home together, others struggling to bear already heavy burdens, some finding new joy in simple things, and everybody just getting tired, I think about Jesus asking his followers to be “all in” for him—for God—and for each other. And I wonder, “What does taking up the cross mean right now, for us, in this pandemic?” I see my answer around me too: in those whose burden is heavy, and those who—in spite of that—can find space to take on others’ burdens as well. And even in those who must for a time pull back to restore themselves but stay in solidarity with others—because we need not just to help each other, we need to keep ourselves alive. I have never lived in a time in which the lives of people I don’t even know are so closely connected to my own, but I—and most of us—have never lived through a pandemic before, either.
Our commitment to each other will fray if we don’t keep the longer end in sight: to live lives of service to God and to our neighbor. We are living in exceptional times, but also ones that bring into higher relief our mutual interdependence. The pandemic has erased some of the social and economic and political walls we build around ourselves; the threat is so universal that our response to it must be wholehearted and complete—we need to bear one another’s burdens not only for our safety but for that of others. We take up our cross when we help one another get through this long slog to a day of greater security. If only it were just 40 days more!
So be strong in faith and hope, and live as kindly as you can toward others. Remember that you are not alone. Take care of yourself as you care for others, and know that this, too, will pass. On the other side of it—one day soon—will be joy abounding, and holy fellowship, and a feast to share.
May God bless you and keep you safe in these Lenten days.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary