Reflections from President Erwin
November 5, 2021
Week of Pentecost
Dear ULS Community:
It’s been two weeks since I wrote to you last, and I am still wrestling a bit with the timing and spacing of these messages. Some weeks—like last week—so much is going on that a weekly reflection on top of it seems too much of a climb. This week things are a little calmer, but the pattern of work is not yet as predictable as it may become going forward. (Of course, I used to say that when I was a bishop, and it never happened then, either.) Maybe that’s just my wish that life should be orderly, bumping up against the reality that it never quite is.
Right now, we are in the period between Reformation Sunday and All Saints Sunday (as Lutherans observe them in the U.S.), and I want to reflect with you for a moment on the church calendar and the remembrance of the past as ways to deepen our understanding of the work of God in human history—and I’ll throw a little “Halloween” in there, too. I have always loved this time of year: the autumnal crispness in the air, the changing leaves, the raking angle of the sun making sunsets and sunrises especially vivid—all the signs of fall.
The Reformation-to-Thanksgiving period is especially intense. On campus in Gettysburg last weekend, we celebrated a cut-down—but no less festive—version of the traditional “Luther Bowl” gathering in spite of COVID-19 and considerable rain. That was very welcome to us all, and we’ll plan a similar event in Philadelphia for the spring. Through the wonders of technology, I was able to preach for Reformation in four different places this year—you can see a version of that sermon on the ULS YouTube channel—it was at our Reformation-themed midweek worship on October 20.
As a child, Halloween was my favorite holiday. I have always been drawn to the way the holiday invites us to “play” with an idea we would normally avoid—death, and the fear of death. As a child I joined in that play wholeheartedly, without any sense of the fear that a grown-up would have, and I think that prepared me later to deal with the real anxiety that surrounds us about our mortality. I don’t see much sign of that in all the Halloween merchandising of that very basic reality, but I do see that Halloween is still a playful dance with human fear—but now that includes the whole range of childhood fantasy, as kids play with their dreams and put their imaginations into what they are going to “be” for Halloween.
Rob and I don’t have children of our own, so we’ve had to experience this vicariously. But it’s still fun to see at our door on Halloween night the array of TV characters, horror symbols, and fantasy creatures today’s kids want to “be” for this night of the year. We live now (in our Philly-area house) in a neighborhood that has some trick-or-treaters, and it was really fun to answer the door that night. Two streets adjacent to ULS’s campuses (Springs Ave. in Gettysburg and Boyer St. in Mt. Airy) are almost overrun with kids on Halloween, and I have heard from the faculty who live on those streets that this year’s numbers were getting back toward pre-pandemic highs.
At this point in my life, though, it is the Reformation commemoration on October 31 that overrides everything else. The connection isn’t coincidental: since in Luther’s time the academic and liturgical calendars were the same, and the winter semester began on All Saints Day (November 1), his posting of the 95 Theses on the university bulletin board the day before was a natural (if rather last-minute) thing to do.
All Saints Day (and All Hallows Eve the night before, and All Souls Day the next day) were one of those “thin places” in the church year when the ancient European ancestors believed us especially close to the dead—beloved and otherwise—and the mischief-making of All Hallows Eve in the British Isles was a way of managing the fear of bad spirits. Martin Luther, too, was being brave in the face of danger by posting his challenging theses. I like remembering that. Maybe we who live in the shadow of the pandemic also know something about the simple courage it takes, sometimes, just to live normally.
This has led me to think also about the many brave saints we remember in the church’s calendar and beyond, and this week I have thought a lot about Daniel Alexander Payne, whose life earned him a place on the ELCA’s calendar of commemorations on the anniversary of his death on November 2, 1893. Possibly the most famous of all the alumni of the seminary in Gettysburg, Payne was part of the founding generation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the venerable bedrock denominations of the Black Church traditions in the United States.
Like Jehu Jones before him, Payne was an African American leader whom Lutherans encouraged and helped educate, but whom they couldn’t imagine in leadership within their own Lutheran churches. Well-meaning in some ways but short-sighted and blinded by the prejudices common to white people of their time and since, the white Lutheran church leaders of the first half of the 19th century could not imagine an integrated Lutheran church. Still, in these two special cases, they educated and ordained African American pastors who, in Payne’s case especially, went on to have a great impact on American Christianity.
In a few days I will take part in the official welcome of the Rev. Julius H. McAllister, Sr. as the next bishop of the historic First Episcopal District of the A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia. I’ve been asked to say a few words of greeting on behalf of the Seminary. I will be stepping into a historic moment and treading on holy ground as I greet one of Bishop Payne’s successors and welcome him into another era of connection with United Lutheran Seminary. I’m happy to see that this event includes his wife, Mother Joan McAllister.
As you see, I’m getting out and about again—and the pace is picking up. I may be appearing at a congregation near you soon! As I move around our “territory,” I have been gratified in the last couple of weeks to meet so many extended members of the ULS community—alumni, donors, and friends—who tell me that they read these missives and feel not only that they know what I’m working on at ULS, but even that they know me and Rob as people. That’s heartwarming and has made us feel much more at home in our still-new setting. As it becomes safer to travel and meet with people face-to-face, I expect we’ll have many more such welcome encounters. We look forward to that!
I give thanks to God for the witness of all the saints—those who are gone, those who surround us, and those who are to come. Often I feel that at ULS, I am in a “thin place” where the legacy of past faithfulness and the potential of God’s future meet in a powerful way. Please join me in this special place through your generosity on “Giving Tuesday,” November 30, as you do at other times. God bless you all!
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary