December 11, 2020

Week of Advent 2

Dear ULS Community:

Advent is often described as a season of preparation and of waiting. All our Sunday readings are anticipatory, and point us toward the One who is to come. It’s delightful to both know the good news in advance and to be able joyfully to anticipate what is to come.

At least that’s the way I used to see it. This year it feels a little different: we know there is good ahead, but instead of enjoying a contented anticipation, the waiting grows harder and harder. It never occurred to me before to see Advent as representing frustration and the slowness of change, or calling forth impatience and irritation instead of joyful calm. But maybe these have always been just below the surface: why doesn’t God act, already? Why do we have to wait so long for justice and peace and the healing of all?

I suppose I have always been aware of the dissonance between the happy anticipation of another Christmas and the impatient longing for a better world, but somehow 2020 has really tested me, as I know it has many of you. There are so many gifts to come: vaccines to protect us from the virus; political change (depending on one’s perspective) offers new directions and for many, new hope. And a reduction of the pandemic’s danger brings with it new opportunities to be together, to live more normal lives and enjoy community again in the familiar ways. There is so much to look forward to, and by the end of 2021 I hope we will be in a different and better place.

But that’s still months away, and there aren’t enough candles on our wreath to count the weeks before we can actually move freely and safely in society again. We don’t fully know how having a partially-protected, incompletely-vaccinated population will be different than now—and in some ways it will be different—but we can certainly guess that it will not mean some kind of sudden lifting of social distancing restrictions and it will not “reopen” society all at once. And there will—our being human—be confusion and misunderstanding and anger and pain, even as we move toward an end to the pandemic.

This, I think—Christmas through the first half of the new year—will be the hardest season we have yet faced: one in which we continue to wait while things gradually change. “Almost, but not yet,” I think, is more difficult to bear than “one of these days.” But I think we can take solace from two important things the last nine months have taught us: fortitude and resilience.

When early last March, as bishop, I asked my congregations to suspend in-person worship, I received criticism from some pastors for implying they were putting their people at risk if they did not. It was asking too much to upset all the well-planned Lenten preparations—and even I still thought then we might be worshiping together again by Easter. I smile now at the very thought.

But now, nine months in, we all know what we can do if we have to—we can fundamentally change our ways of being community and adapt to new circumstances if needs must. Not everybody, not everywhere, and not always easily, but we did adapt—and the lives of our communities were transformed but they—for the most part—have survived. I think we can be proud of the ways many of our congregations and communities have responded, and we have found strength we didn’t know we had. I find that encouraging, and in some cases inspiring. ULS has done better than most institutions in this regard, hard as it has been and as much pain as we have endured in the last two semesters.

Now we need a little more of that fortitude to see us through the home stretch. We need to stay flexible and resilient as circumstances continue to change. Strength is only half the struggle; flexibility the other—and patience (especially with each other) will make the work—and the waiting—much easier. We have lost a lot in the last nine months: the lives of loved ones; precious time together to grow love and build community; and the comfort of familiar social patterns. But we have grown and learned that we had resources we didn’t know we had, and strength we had never used before.

I am excited about the year ahead, and what it will bring. But I am also realistic that it will not come on my terms or at my speed, and perhaps will not be predictable at all. So I will wait, and hope, and practice patience. I hope you will be able to do that too. I hope we will not tire of helping one another and looking out for each other’s welfare. I hope we will also take care of ourselves. And I hope we will continue to pray. We await what we hope for but cannot yet see fully.

The mysterious but compelling figure of John the Baptist is described in this coming Sunday’s gospel lesson as one who “was not the light, but…came to testify to the light.” John was a herald of things yet unseen, speaking to a people who didn’t know quite what they were waiting for, but only that it was coming for sure. There are powerful ways we can understand that feeling right now, in this season of our lives and our history. Dear friends, keep testifying to that light, and don’t let it out of your sight—for it is the light of Christ.

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

Yours in Christ,

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

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