December 4, 2020

Week of Advent 1


Dear ULS Community:

Though it’s only been two weeks since I wrote to you last, it feels to me like a lot of time has elapsed: it seems to be the nature of day-to-day living in the pandemic that even though our social options are narrower and our freedom of movement somewhat reduced, our minds and hearts are in overdrive and the emotional highs and lows are more intense. Certainly the Thanksgiving holiday was that way for me: Rob and I had a low-key dinner and a pleasant day together which in many ways was as lovely as a Thanksgiving could be; yet we both felt very powerfully the separation from the loved ones with whom we normally would have shared the feast.

Our entry into Advent, likewise, has been for me both intense and a bit unreal: some of the feeling is there, but also an awareness of the difference between this and other Advents. For me, Advent has always been a time of slowing down, of reflection on the gulf between what is and what should be, and a time to take stock of myself and my faith. I have always taken seriously John the Baptist’s call to repentance—to prepare my heart for Jesus’ coming in a more intentional way. I find the themes of preparation, anticipation, and readiness to be very useful correctives to the “now” focus of contemporary life, with next-day delivery and instantaneous answers to any question on the internet.

There is a particular poignancy to me in the very good news of COVID-19 vaccines becoming available to be shared with the public: we know now that there is light at the end of the tunnel—but at the same time, we know it is still in many ways still quite distant. And the infection and death rates in the United States are now as high as they have ever been. In the days immediately ahead, people who sicken and die, and their families, will have the added anguish of knowing that their losses come just as help is on the way. It doesn’t remove the “good news” of vaccines, but it is a reminder that even armed with that knowledge, we remain very vulnerable right now, and need to be more, not less, vigilant to protect ourselves and others from infection.

As long and hard as it has been, the impact of the pandemic on our lives may be especially hard to bear in the next six months. We are so heartily ready to be done with this. I’d like to be able to say that by the end of spring semester we will be able to return to a more normal teaching pattern and intensified community life, but I still can’t be sure we will. A return to normalcy in the fall seems like a more sure bet, and though I don’t want to give up on any chance that we can get there sooner, I also don’t want to tempt us to think the society around us will be ready for us to be face-to-face again by Commencement. Let’s plan for the worst and hope for the best.

When I’ve been asked how I would like ULS to mark my arrival as president (it is customary to have some kind of inauguration service) I have been hesitant to move forward with a celebratory event when so much else we love to do has been altered so much by the pandemic. I was not convinced that yet another Zoom event would lift our spirits, and combined with my own natural inclination not to make too much of myself, I hesitated to move forward. But now that we know things will be changing going forward, I am revisiting the question in my own mind—what can we do to mark my beginning at ULS as we also prepare for a new beginning for all of us, post-pandemic? How can this be done in ways that build community best? What will help ULS most? I’ll look for insights on this from everyone, and my mind is open. My first concern is to have a worthy Commencement observance for our graduating students of this year and last.

I do think it is helpful for us to focus on a few “horizon” events for a future that will be different from today. That may help us in what will be an emotionally intense period of gradual lifting of restrictions. No step will seem complete in itself; the process may feel unbearably slow. Having the end in sight will not make the last months much easier, I fear—and in some ways may make them harder. But if we stay close to each other, and articulate what we’re feeling, we may be able to support one another better in the near future, while hoping for the farther one. Maybe that, too, is our Advent discipline: to remember to keep both the near and the distant future in view at the same time.

I am still, at the beginning of my fifth month at ULS, feeling very “new.” I am hoping I will still recognize people when they take their masks off! I can’t wait for social time again, and to be able to show and receive the hospitality we all long to share. Thanksgiving made that ache a little sharper, but it also contained a gentle promise of joy to come, as gradually we can be together in greater closeness.

For those of you interested in such things, the Thanksgiving break also gave Rob and me a bit more free time to get unpacked and set up our new home near the Philadelphia campus in Elkins Park. We’re far from done but we are getting there. We have (though our house is the most modest on the block) quite a bit more living and entertaining space in our new home than we did in California, and we’re trying to furnish it with nice used furniture. I love the idea that we can make it “ours” without increasing the world’s burden of “new stuff.” It’s an old house (a 1930 Tudor-style) so it’s easy to find things that look good in it. Though it’s only been a month, each day it feels more like home.

The more intense lockdown provoked by the recent spike in COVID cases has kept us away from Gettysburg more than I had hoped, but we still have high hopes to take up residence in the president’s house there in the new year, and we may make one more “unofficial” visit there before Christmas in order to move that along. But at the same time, I am trying to model the same commitments we are asking of everyone, and staying off campus and out of ULS buildings as much as I can.

One of my favorite Scriptural figures is John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, calling the people to attend to the Word of God in their midst. There is something weird and compelling about that lonely voice, promising something not yet visible: preparation, potential, and promise all rolled together. That’s what Advent means to me. This Advent, that dynamic seems especially powerful as we look to our future as individuals and as a community, and call on Jesus to come to us swiftly and bring us peace.

May God bless you and keep you in these days of waiting!

Yours in Christ,

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

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