April 9, 2021
Dear ULS Community:
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
It seems like a long time since I have addressed you this way, but I’ve only skipped one week to observe Good Friday. I hope your own celebrations and observances of Holy Week and Easter were blessed and happy, even as we keep on dealing with the impact of the pandemic. Last Easter, when we did all this for the first time, I remember confidently telling people that whenever we returned to in-person worship (which I still hoped would be in just a few weeks) we could celebrate Easter yet again. I still believe this, but it has taken on a much deeper meaning for me now that a whole year has gone by—the idea that every single Sunday is an Easter celebration means much more for me now than the liturgy-class aphorism it once was. But now I think I can say with much humbler confidence that face-to-face worship has drawn much nearer for most of us.
I was able to receive a first vaccination in Holy Week, too, and look forward to a second dose in three more weeks. It was so exciting to put on my calendar for mid-May that beyond that I would be able to have (safe and managed) face-to-face meetings with donors and friends of ULS, and actually may be able to accept limited invitations to visit others off campus. As an institution, recognizing the extremely uneven levels of vaccination and the ongoing threat of the virus in our midst, ULS will remain in its current level of lockdown through Commencement and into the summer, but it is time for us to think about a new chapter beginning in the fall. The danger won’t disappear overnight, but I am hopeful it will be manageable by then. Stay tuned for updates in the Common Cup and by e-mail.
I have so much to say today and my heart is so full of the joy of Easter that this message might (paradoxically) be a little shorter this week—I don’t want to turn this into a “newsletter” recitation of things we’re reported elsewhere—but I simply must brag a bit about the great forum ULS is sponsoring this afternoon on public theology. We are hearing from some world-class scholars on the intersection between theological education and public life, and we are doing so in honor of one of our most beloved professors, the recently-retired Dr. Katie Day. Professor Day and I only know each other personally through a few meetings in the past, but I have long admired her work, and her impact on a generation of our students has been profound. Today’s forum (appropriately held on the feast day of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) will make a powerful point once more: truly meaningful theology always has a life-changing, public impact, and teaches us how to live in society and community. I salute Dr. Katie Day, and I am excited to have a small part in today’s event. You can find details on our website.
We also remembered at chapel this week the lives of two of our past presidents: the Rev. Dr. John Vannorsdall of LTSP and the Rev. Dr. Darold Beekmann of LTSG. They were both wonderful, thoughtful leaders, and the right people for those seminaries at that time. Pastor Vannorsdall had a great impact on my life when I was a beginning graduate student at Yale and he was the campus chaplain there. I was also starting candidacy for ministry in the LCA. He was the first church figure to whom I “came out,” and I will always be grateful for the way he didn’t flinch at that. That might not sound like much today, but back then it was huge that he didn’t for a moment seem disappointed in what I had to tell him, and he urged me not to give up on the church.
Over a decade later, I had three long and intense conversations in a single week with Darold Beekmann—by then president of LTSG—about possibly joining the faculty there to teach Reformation history. The unfortunate fact was, that I had already accepted a position somewhere else just days earlier. Dr. Beekmann knew that, and he didn’t really try to convince me to break that promise, but he did take quite a lot of time to explain how great it was to be at LTSG, how well I would fit, and how much he wished it was possible for me to come. I was tremendously flattered, and it was only later that I realized I was also giving him a chance to assess his own legacy at Gettysburg—he announced his retirement soon afterwards. But they were wonderful conversations and I will never forget them or him. They’ve been much on my mind recently, as I have spent more time on our Gettysburg campus.
The only thing that casts a shadow on my Easter week is the ongoing bad news in the world: the coup in Myanmar, ongoing global bellicosity among nations, the rising strength of nationalism and authoritarianism, and—in our own country, the trial of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. We all long for justice: even the imperfect, partial, human kind that laws and trials try to achieve but often miss. It is painful to hear the recounting each day of the pain and injustice the case represents. It is also painful to reflect on everything that brought us to this, and so many other cases less famous, every day. That “everything” includes racist assumptions and systems built on them, many of which are at the heart of our political structures, our laws, and our justice systems, and even our economic life.
I am no social revolutionary, but I am painfully aware—every day—of the sin and injustice that has gotten so deeply etched into our public life that we don’t always even see it. Being in Gettysburg last week reminded me of that very acutely: that the sacrifice of so many lives for the sake of a national ideal of equality and freedom was itself so incomplete—that the victories that saved the Union didn’t perfect it as they could have. That is part of the pathos of the battlefield, that even that level of bitter sacrifice couldn’t wipe out the stain of racism more than it did, and we still return to it again and again. We are a country of people afraid of each other, and that fear is exhausting and unsustainable for the long term.
So we need public theology: we need Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Katie Day in their different contexts, and all those who labor in the vineyards of meaning and understanding and movement toward social justice and greater dignity for every individual. We can never love each other as God has loved us, but we can achieve some understanding and find some hope in the ultimate fact of God’s love—shown to us on the cross and at the empty tomb. Servants of God and even sometimes martyrs, the Christians who surround us and teach us how to live together in love and mutual care are with us every day, inspiring and giving us their example.
I think that’s enough for one Friday; I am excited about the weeks ahead and will say more each week about that. Next week brings us another “visit” from accreditors—this time the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. We’ll be fine, and I am looking forward to it. More on that to come. Be well; get vaccinated; and rejoice in the glory of the Resurrected One, Jesus Christ!
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