Reflections from President Rev. R. Guy Erwin

January 7, 2022
Epiphany of Our Lord ​

Dear ULS Community:

Happy New Year! There is something wonderful and liminal about the set of celebrations that start in Advent and end in the season of Epiphany: we see signs and wonders, we feel the closeness of God in the birth of Jesus, and we take down all our calendars and put up new ones. A new year—and at ULS, a new semester—lie ahead of us. That is always exciting and hopeful.

Even now, with the pandemic in a new and dramatic phase, I feel quite a bit of hope for the new year. We’ve learned to temper our expectations in regard to COVID-19, since it has proven capable of mutating faster than we can figure it out, and in ways we can’t anticipate, but for most of us it is not quite as scary as it used to be. I’ll admit I’ve learned not to expect too much—I thought last fall would mark the return of normalcy to ULS, then I thought the second semester would be better than then first—then, suddenly, “omicron” hit. We’re tearing through the Greek alphabet in new and complicated ways!

I’m making a more formal announcement to the ULS community today about precautions we are taking for the next 6 to 8 weeks, but to be honest, we’re basically just asking all the members of the ULS community to be sensible and careful and aware of the risks, and to prioritize safety for themselves and their neighbors. Avoiding in-person gatherings for a few more weeks keeps us all safer, even though most of us are fully vaccinated and the risks are lower for us, the virus is still out there and in an even more highly contagious form. You can see the formal announcement here.

Ironically, the levels of infection are higher and the crisis of hospital overcrowding worse now in Gettysburg than in Philadelphia, due likely to the lower levels of vaccination in Adams County. But ULS has tried to maintain a unified “two-campus” pandemic policy, and we are still holding on to that: get vaccinated if you can; stay home if possible; avoid in-person gatherings if possible—and in any event, exercise caution for your neighbor’s sake as well as your own.

I pray that the new COVID-19 variant burns itself out in the next few weeks—as the experts suggest it might—so we can return to careful in-person gatherings and hold on to our spring events schedule. At this time, we still plan to have Preaching With Power in March, the Spring Convocation in April, and the usual Commencement festivities in May as in-person events, and we will keep you posted month by month of any changes. I so look forward to having a more active campus life in the months ahead, and am still hopeful we can do that.

More abstractly, I’ve been thinking how the Epiphany of Our Lord invites us to reflection on how God became “manifest” on earth through Jesus, and how through Jesus—the Word made flesh—God came to us in a way that was more than just an appearance, but an actual engagement, connection, and presence among us, with us, and with us. Words don’t seem adequate to describe the divine solidarity with us the Incarnation represents, but in this time of human anxiety, uncertainty, and fragility, the fact that God took on our flesh and lived among us is enormously encouraging and consoling.

In this moment (as always) the Church reminds us of that Divine presence with and among us and invites us to hold on to God’s promises. In the pandemic, in the anxiety of American political and social life, in the world’s complexity and fragility, holding on to God’s promise of life and love becomes a daily exercise of faith. My “New Year’s resolution” is to practice holding on to that promise as a conscious, daily faith commitment. I hope at ULS we can do that as a community, as well. We are not defeated but have leaned into the challenges; now we need to strengthen and support each other in the ongoing journey.

One thing that strengthens me are the conversations I and our Advancement team always have with our donors, alumni, Board members and friends at Christmas and year-end. The amount of good will and fond feeling toward ULS among our extended “family” is really heartening, and in a time in which we can’t be face-to-face as much as we would like, to be reminded so vividly of this love and loyalty is really helpful and encouraging. We need it, and I want you to know we appreciate it.

So I am holding on to the warmth and good feeling of Christmas—the careful socializing, the coziness of decorated homes and cheerful meals in our family “bubbles,” and the comfort of tradition—as I step into this new year of continuing uncertainty. Even if we have to keep doing it “virtually,” let’s hold on to each other, too, and step forward together as the extended community of United Lutheran Seminary. We have much to look forward to in the days ahead, and I am more sure than ever that though times remain uneasy, we have built up enough experience, strength and resilience at ULS to cope with whatever lies ahead.

This won’t last forever. Someday we’ll look back at these years not as “lost” ones, but as a time of insight, in which we were able to sift and clarify our desires and our hopes, shed what we don’t need, and redouble our commitment to what is really important: our call to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.

I’m grateful to God for all the blessings we still enjoy, at ULS and individually, and I am taking the last stanza of the old Slovak hymn “Greet Now the Swiftly Changing Year” as my watchword right now:

“’All glory be to God on high
and peace on earth,’ the angels cry:
Rejoice, rejoice, with thanks embrace
another year of grace!”

Yours faithfully,

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

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