November 13. 2020
Week of Pentecost 23
Dear ULS Community:
This has been another busy week at ULS: our work goes on as usual, with the added pressure of the coming holidays and the end of another semester approaching all too soon. Somehow things build up when we get to the home stretch, and we remember all the things for which we have deadlines but which haven’t been completed, and all the hopes we had for the time that is now disappearing so fast.
I realized this week how much mental and emotional energy I had put into managing my feelings about the presidential election—and I am trying very hard not just to continue spending that energy on the rehashing of the results. I am ready to move on—even if not everyone else is—and I am confident that the outcome is clear and the next steps will follow in due course. On January 20th a new administration will take office in the United States, and whether that is good news to you or not, the very fact of a peaceful transition will be a victory for our democratic system, just as it has been every time it has happened before. Normally this is not something I would even feel I needed to comment on, but this year has been extraordinary in many ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also still big news: it is hitting now with great intensity in parts of the country where it was slow to arrive. In urban areas like Philadelphia we have never been off the hook, but now there is a new resurgence of cases. The approaching holidays are a temptation to take risks with socializing that may not be wise. It’s hard to have to choose between cherished family gatherings and public health directives, and many will choose being together. But that actually increases the risk for everyone, so please be as vigilant as you can, and don’t let pandemic fatigue tempt you to lower your guard.
My elderly mother in Montana (where the virus has now hit with sudden virulence) says that it feels like they were careful for months when it didn’t really seem to matter, and now that it does matter so much, some are so tired and bored by the precautions that they are less careful just at the wrong time. It’s important to understand that the virus doesn’t care how we feel, but its spread is still determined for the most part by our actions and choices.
At ULS, after an initial burst of hopeful optimism about having some kind of carefully-managed socially-distanced Christmas events for staff & faculty, we have decided to go back to our now-familiar video and mail greetings. Our normal holiday events for donors and friends of the seminary will be digital; our Music, Gettysburg! Christmas concert and our ULS Advent Vespers will all be online. But our Advent Star devotionals are the same, sent out on paper to dinner tables and other family gathering points around the country.
It will be an odd holiday season but we need it to be that, for health and safety’s sake. Our ULS on-campus community has been—thank God—relatively unscathed, and we are determined to keep our teachers, learners, and the staff who support them as safe as we can.
This week also brought the monthly faculty meeting, which I enjoy chairing and which was full of very normal, very hopeful items to work on together. I love seeing and hearing the creative and constructive ideas of our dedicated and (in spite of everything) enthusiastic professors. Considering how unusual the circumstances are, I am taking every bit of “normalcy” we can manage at ULS as a small victory for perseverance and commitment.
On Wednesday we did two important things together as a seminary: we remembered the nation’s military veterans both personally and collectively with a special Wednesday worship service (which I thought was very well done); and we hosted a preliminary visit by the chair of the MSCHE team that will be undertaking our accreditation review this spring. The team leader, Fr. Edward Mazich OSB, rector of St. Vincent’s Seminary in Latrobe, PA, met with the ULS review steering committee, me, a selection of faculty, a group of students, my president’s cabinet, and finally, with the executive committee of the board of trustees. In each of these groups he explained how the review and the “on-campus” (but actually digital) meeting this spring will work. An on-campus committee has been preparing ULS’s written self-study for months, and it is nearing completion.
Accreditation reviews and all the detailed academic and institutional assessment they require are not the prettiest or most stimulating part of academic life (at least to me) but they are necessary for us to keep ourselves in line with the standards of higher education in general, to ensure that we live up to our own vision and stated goals, and—most importantly of all—that we keep the promises of quality we make to ourselves, our students and the churches we (and they) all serve. I am confident that this review will go well and be helpful for us, but a lot of work still lies ahead.
It’s also nice that we are reviewed by academic peers (the review team is made up of higher ed professionals from other schools in our region) so that we can gain perspective and be reminded that ULS is part of a higher education environment that shares many challenges across the board. The challenges we face at ULS aren’t unique (or even rare), and though that may not answer all our questions, it should help us feel that we are not in this alone. I am actually part of a review team for a seminary in Canada, so I can see this from the reviewer’s perspective as well, and appreciate the solidarity that reviewers feel with the institutions they review.
This Sunday’s lessons revolve around the “parable of the talents” from Matthew 25. Each of those servants were entrusted with part of the master’s resources, then later were called to account for their use of these funds, and rewarded commensurately with the growth in value they presented back to the master.
The one who could only show that he had preserved the master’s capital was scorned and punished for not having been productive even in passive ways. It’s not a particularly happy story, and I know many preachers wrestle to find a positive message in what seems like a rewarding of riches, but what I take from it in this year of pandemic and politics is that growth is possible even in adversity, and that God expects those who are aware of the value of the gifts of life not just to hoard or defend them, but to make them fruitful for the benefit of others.
At ULS, we teach and learn and administer the resources entrusted to us in ways that we hope will bring rich fruit in our church, our congregations, and our communities. We teach a gospel message rooted in God’s love shown to humankind in Jesus Christ, a message of divine love that is inclusive and generous. At the same time, we recognize the Christian duty of neighbor-love, a love that goes beyond mere regard to include an active concern for our neighbor’s material and relational welfare.
We value the gifts and resources we have been given at ULS, and in all that we do—remembering our past, assessing where we are today, and building fresh hope for tomorrow—we sow seeds now, trusting in God for the increase we know will come, that the church once planted remains fruitful on this soil.
May God bless and keep you in these days!
Yours in Christ,
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary