March 12, 2021
Week of Lent 3
Dear ULS Community:
Rob and I spent this week in Gettysburg, and the truly spring-like weather we have experienced has been truly lovely. We saw our first crocuses yesterday (photo courtesy of Rob Flynn), and the daffodils outside the kitchen door of our residence, Lewars House, are now tall enough that the flowers themselves are clearly not too many days away. These signs of spring feel like signs of hope to me, and the passage of the seasons reminds me of the shortness of life. It is no wonder that Christianity, with its origins in the Northern Hemisphere, should link Lent and Easter to spring—to the coming forth of new life in the natural world—as a time of resurrection and new life in Christ.
I’m a fairly early riser, and I am often awake to see the dawn. That’s a really precious moment, and as I have grown older, I have come to appreciate it more. The Osage people to whom I belong have always experienced the sun as a spiritual guide: sunrise and sunset are especially holy moments in the passage of each day, and the midday sun directly overhead is for us another reminder of the unity of nature, time, and the lives of God’s creatures. I didn’t grow up in a family that kept Osage traditions in a conscious way, but I was aware of them growing up, and they have grown more important to me with the years. I am happy to greet the rising sun as my ancestors did, with a prayer of my own, that I—and all of us—might live together in harmony with God, nature, and one another.
This week I spent several hours in the service of the Association of Theological Schools, one of our accrediting agencies, as a member of a committee “visiting” another seminary (of course, by Zoom). Our own accreditation visit by an ATS committee is only two weeks away, and I thought it might give me some insights into the process to take part in it from the other side—and of course it would show respect and appreciation for the process as a whole. But ATS asked me to do this, particularly, because of the nature of the seminary they were visiting: an innovative program providing theological education and degrees to Indigenous persons across the continent. The “seminary” in this case owned no buildings, no library, and had no full-time staff, but for 20 years it had educated Native (and an handful of non-Native) persons for service to God and their communities. Mostly Canada-based, and depending on the institutional support of established physical seminaries spread across the land, this program provided deeply contextual instruction by (mostly) Native teachers, following Native-centered pedagogies, and in ways flexible enough to ensure that their students could study in ways that did not disrupt their lives and service in their own locations.
This was a fascinating experience for me as a seminary president, both to see this very impressive commitment to their mission, but also to see what could be done with very little investment in overhead. But it was as a Native person myself that this experience has its greatest impact; my life as an Osage and my vocation as a Christian theologian and educator had always existed in parallel for me, and were not meaningfully connected. Here I could see a program that included people like me—and I was blown away by the experience. I don’t yet know what it will mean for me beyond this week, but I was very much encouraged and excited to know about it, and I hope my work at ULS can be informed by what I learned this week.
That was a kind of “mountaintop experience” for me, and I am grateful to ATS for inviting me into it. It also gives me great confidence that an institution as stable, enduring, and prosperous as ULS is, has nothing to be anxious about in its own upcoming accreditation review. Though our troubled recent history has created somewhat of an internal narrative to the contrary, ULS remains a very strong, diverse, influential, and solid seminary even in this time of rapid change. But we can also learn confidence and adaptability from seminaries that are bold and courageous in their mission, even without ULS’s advantages.
That was a highlight of this week. Less happy is, of course, the ongoing slog of work in the pandemic. The one-year anniversary of the pandemic lockdown has brought up all kinds of feelings among us about that, I know. It’s been hard, and still is. I never would have predicted that we would have to go through so much, so long. Some things will never be the same again. We don’t get this time back, and to rebuild from what has been lost in the larger society will be arduous.
But my main concern within our ULS community in regard to the pandemic is the impact it has on us as individuals. Our lives have been disrupted. We feel anxiety, fear, even anger at what has happened—and sometimes we focus that on others. Certainly our inadequate national and local public health infrastructures, and the racism and class discrimination deep in our system all played a part in making this pandemic even worse than it might have been. But we need to be really aware, I think, of the toll this has taken on each of us, that we might be kind to one another—and to ourselves—even now, when things seem to be getting better, but not fast enough.
The recent history of ULS—the consolidation of two campuses, faculties, systems of work and cherished legacies—plus the added trauma of a rough beginning, histories of racism and homophobia and acrimony among our people, had all combined to make ULS an extremely “anxious system” even before the pandemic. When I arrived, the situation was already significantly calmer, but I know that anxiety remains just below the surface. I have seen it, and am trying to learn. I have seen amazing commitment to ULS nonetheless, from all segments of our community, and if there is any blessing at all in the pandemic experience, it is that when we must, we can rally together well for the good of the whole. I am impressed every day by the fortitude of our students and faculty, staff, alumni, and donors, and their amazing unity in the face of the current challenge.
But it is all wearing thin now, and as we set our course toward a hoped-for return to in-person instruction and events in the fall semester, I think it may be even harder to hold on to the patience and strength that got us this far. We are only human; our patience is not limitless; and we may have grown a little rusty at interpersonal work, filtered as our lives are by distance and electronic communication. Both local experience and what I see reflected in the wider society show me that this is a time when microaggressions are more keenly felt and more easily committed by people who are unable to look each other in the eye and interact only through screens and electronic devices.
I think we need to be especially vigilant in the weeks and months immediately ahead to be conscious of the toll this has taken on each of us. We each bear a burden in this—and some of us very acutely. Grief, loss, fear, and anger are still powerful realities in our lives, and in our distress we may not always be able to appreciate the burden others bear. So I ask you: be kind to one another. Assume the best. It is difficult to put the best construction on others’ words and actions when you yourself are hurting. But we have no other choice than to live and work together. We who have survived, have lives to rebuild and losses to mourn. Let’s try to find ways for those of us whose lives are centered on ULS to do this together—hearing one another’s hurts, and seeing how this great disaster has left a mark on each of us. We owe each other this: to be patient and to try not to take offence when pain is speaking to pain, and loss to loss. The grief is not evenly spread, and those who have experienced less will need to try to move only at the speed of those most hurt. We’re in this together, and no one can be left out.
But as we hold on to each other, let’s be grateful that we are still here, and still functioning, and that we still have a wonderful community to restore, gorgeous campuses to inhabit, achievements to celebrate, and an ongoing call to bring Christ to the world. The pandemic came suddenly, it seemed a year ago—now we know that it will not end quickly or all at once. Yet even now, the rebuilding can begin—as more and more of us are vaccinated, we will slowly begin moving around with less fear and greater freedom.
I can hardly wait for that greater freedom—my embrace of you has been painfully delayed by these months of being at arm’s length. Know that you are in my prayers, and that I love you all.
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