Dear friends in Christ,
Many of you know that I graduated in 2005 from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkeley, California. As I type those words, in some ways it seems very long ago and in other ways it seems like only yesterday.
PLTS’ campus was on top of an extremely steep hill in the eastern part of Berkeley. There was one street that allowed you to drive directly up the hill, but doing so felt like your car was about to flip over backwards. The city had eliminated all the stop signs going up the hill, because too many motorists had stopped and then not been able to start moving again. Usually I would drive the long way, up the switchbacks, or take the bus and ride my bike down those switchbacks (talk about an exhilarating ride!).
Once you got to the top of the hill, it was like being at a retreat center or a camp. It was a between place—the western side of the hill was a residential area packed with homes who wanted that beautiful view over the San Francisco Bay. The eastern side of the hill was a stunning state park with steep ravines and hiking trails. The seminary was right in the middle of the world and the wilderness. The buildings were Spanish-style, lots of stucco and tile, and the chapel (named the Chapel of the Cross) was modeled after a chapel in France with modern architecture—a wedge-shaped worship space, a sweeping asymmetrical roofline, and a large steel-beam cross poking up from behind the building. It was the heart of the seminary.
A few years ago, PLTS made the heartbreaking decision to sell the property and move down the hill to the middle of downtown Berkeley. As an alumna, I knew this was a good move, both financially and strategically. In the center of town, PLTS is much closer to the Graduate Theological Union and UC Berkeley, public transit, housing options, grocery stories and restaurants, you name it. PLTS sold the property to Zaytuna College, the first liberal arts college in the Muslim tradition in the United States, which made many alums proud as well. But it was still heartbreaking to think of losing that beautiful spot on the hill.
Of course, once Zaytuna College took possession of the property, one question in particular loomed on the horizon. What would they do with the Chapel of the Cross? As you might expect, the day came when they dismantled the steel beams of the cross. It was not a surprise, and they were respectful in the way it was done, but of course it was yet another sad moment for the PLTS community.
Zaytuna was kind enough to give the pieces back to the seminary, and the wheels started turning in the minds of the seminary leaders. What emerged was a new cross, cut from the steel of the old—a cross with open metalwork, and within there is a new shape—the shape of a phoenix, with a smaller cross to be inscribed on the heart of the bird. The phoenix is an ancient symbol of rebirth, a mythical bird that is consumed in fire and born again in the ashes.
What better reminder could we have of our Easter faith, the belief that life comes out of death? The conviction that out of loss comes grace, out of darkness comes light, and out of sadness comes joy. This is the faith that sustains us through all of our days, the faith that supports us and leads us through the season of Lent, through the journey of Holy Week, and into the joy of Easter resurrection.
I am holding this cross in my memory and in my heart as we walk through these times together, both liturgically and in real life. What appears to be the end is not really the end, because God always has something new in mind, something that we can see only through the lens of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. A blessed Lent and Holy Week, and a joyful Easter to you all this month.
Together in Christ,