Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R Guy Erwin

July 16, 2021
Week of Pentecost 7

Dear ULS Community:

When I wrote to you two weeks ago, Rob and I were just about to travel to Washington, DC, for Independence Day weekend for a baseball game, some fireworks, and a visit to old friends. That’s now a pleasant memory of a very full weekend, when for us—for the first time—life really seemed to be back to the way it had been before the pandemic. We still never forget to stick a mask in a pocket when leaving the house, but more and more often the masks come home unused, as more places are open (to those vaccinated) without them.

It’s almost unnerving, how tentative and almost scary it feels to go back to old familiar ways when we have “sheltered at home” so long and restricted out movements so much. To be in a baseball stadium packed with people; to ride public transportation; to eat in a restaurant; to go to church—and sing!—it almost seems like an overindulgence. Almost there, and not quite yet. We went to church together for only the third time in person but the first time unmasked, and it was hard to leave the coffee hour even though we had never met a soul before—it was just too good to be together among people.

There is something about this liminal feeling I want to hang onto for a bit, as impatient as I am for a return to full functioning. It involves some re-discovery of once-familiar things, and I want to enjoy that as it unfolds, and try not to rush headlong into all the experiences I have been waiting for. I don’t mind a bit of deliberateness in savoring each thing as it comes along. I can even tolerate the little Communion packets a few more weeks, for the delight that will come some day ahead.

Something about all the slowing down has become a little precious to me—the lack of worry about always needing to “be somewhere” when the laptop screen was my front door to work and the world, was in some ways nice. The time preparing meals at home instead of going out; the slower pace of social life; the time to talk—these were all welcome even if involuntary. You who have been reading these reflections know how much Rob and I have taken advantage of this “in-between” time to nest in our Philadelphia and Gettysburg homes, and if we have sometimes seemed a little furniture-obsessed, it was because setting up the house was one of the few ways we could really control and shape the (small) world around us without leaving home too much. I’m going to miss that when I’m too busy to think about it anymore—and I can see that day approaching.

Today, at the midpoint of July, I feel like the summer is officially half over, and the fall semester gets closer by the minute. That’s exciting and scary in equal parts: I am so looking forward to being able to see the people of the ULS community face-to-face, many still for the first time; but I am worried that somehow, in spite of a year’s preparation, I am not quite ready for the maelstrom ahead. But mostly I am excited. We have a lot of plans and some new things to try in the new academic year—I’ll be making a series of announcements about some of those in the weeks ahead, in messages more formal than this one.

Meetings being held now are giving shape to next year’s plans: the opening of the semester, a new schedule of worship on campus, both in-person and “polymodal” (a word I learned recently, that does seem a little better than “hybrid” to describe something experienced together, but in different modes); Fall Convocation; the UTI annual lecture; the presidential inauguration weekend in mid-October, and all sorts of other exciting and (I think) fun things to look forward to.

Less fun, but still important, is some work we need to do to finish up our ATS and MSCHE reaccreditation processes this summer. We’re hosting a very quick in-person visit to both campuses by an ATS staffer this week, and we have some more reporting homework to do for MSCHE this fall before that process is formally ended. But we can be assured that our reaccreditation for the period we hope will follow now in due course.

My calendar is slowing filling up with weekend events, too, and though I expect I will never have such heavily booked weekends as when I was serving as bishop, I can see that I will need to be careful not to overbook visits to congregations or I’ll be preaching every Sunday! Still, I have to admit that those visits give me energy and joy, and I am a person who thrives on seeing, doing, and learning new things and meeting new people. I can already see I’ll be getting around a lot both in Pennsylvania and beyond.

One highlight of the fall will be our first visit back to California since leaving last August. I am going to take a week of vacation after the first week of the semester is completed, visit my elderly mother in Montana briefly and for the first time in almost two years, and go on to Los Angeles for the installation of my successor as bishop of the Southwest California Synod on Sunday, September 12. The new bishop will be the Rev. Brenda Bos, whom I brought onto the synod staff a few years ago to work with candidacy and mobility and other aspects of rostered ministry. Bishop-elect Brenda is the first “out,” married lesbian among the bishops of the ELCA, and in electing her my old synod has made Lutheran history yet again. I feel a bit like lightning has struck twice in the same place, and it’s thrilling for me to be able to ceremonially hand over the reins of the synod I love so much to such a good friend and such a remarkable, talented leader.

Two other installations this fall (besides my own!) will also be events to look forward to: a former student of mine, the Very Rev. Dr. James Turrell, will be installed as the dean of the (Episcopal) School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee at the very end of September; and of course our own Rev. Dr. Kristen Largen will be installed as president at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, on the first weekend of November. We’ve all saved things up to celebrate, and the first half of the semester will see us catching up fast! I’ll admit, though, that it makes me feel kind of old to be seeing my former students become bishops (two of those already!) and seminary deans.

Another exciting aspect of our new-found ability to schedule in-person meetings is that I can finally pay the courtesy calls I have intended to, to the judicatory heads of the denominations with which we have close ties at ULS or have full-communion relationships with the ELCA: the AME Church; the Church of God in Christ; the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, the UCC, and the Moravian and United Methodist churches. I have been appointed by the ELCA to be one of the Lutheran members of the shared committee that oversees the ELCA full-communion relationship with the Moravian Church, and I am looking forward particularly to cultivating that long and historic friendship.

Most of all, I am excited about being able to spend time one-on-one with faculty and students, and to be able to host people at events on campus and now at home, too. I can’t wait for our physical campuses to become places full of life again, and for our sense of community to grow as we become used to being physically together again. None of us will ever forget what it meant for us all to move to the “third campus” for 18 months, but neither will we completely leave it now—I expect we’ll all continue to do more online learning and working from home in the future than we did before the pandemic began. That, I think, will turn out to be a blessing.

This week is ending with a bit of fun for Rob and me: we are going to our first Phillies game tonight, and so adding another ballpark to our personal list. We were well-equipped with Phillies gear by friends wishing us well on the trip East, and now we get to wear it. I generally root for the home team (unless they’re playing the Dodgers, of course). We’re going with some friends from the seminary, and I will have to work at not talking shop too much during the lulls in the action. Rob will poke me if he thinks he needs to.

That’s enough for now. I’ll be back in two weeks. Pray for those who are suffering from the extreme weather that climate change is helping create around the world: drought and extreme heat and wildfires in some places; excessive rain and flooding in others. Stay safe and cool. God bless you all!

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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