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‘She is at her most energetic when love needs to be put into action’

The adult children of Dr. Jacqueline E. Lapsley introduce their mother during her inauguration as Union Presbyterian Seminary’s eighth president

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — In one of the great introductions in the history of such speeches, the adult children of Dr. Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Emma and Sam, introduced their mother on Wednesday to an adoring crowd  present to witness Lapsley’s inauguration as Union Presbyterian Seminary’s eighth president, the first woman to hold that office.

Watch a recording of Lapsley’s inauguration here. The service, held in the Quadrangle of Union’s campus in Richmond, Virginia, begins at the 20:45 mark.

“Mom’s drives strengthen her communities. She sang in Princeton Seminary’s Chapel Choir, served on our church’s session and joined us and our dad (the Rev. Greg Bezilla, an Episcopal priest) every night at the dinner table — all while editing books, founding PTS’ Center for Theology, Women and Gender and eventually serving as the seminary’s academic dean,” Emma said. “She walked 80 miles of the Camino de Santiago with her church youth group in knockoff (sandals) after her boots failed.

“She did those things not out of obligation, but out of a boundless sense of care,” Emma said. “The two of us, her friends and her tightknit circle of high school and graduate school classmates — many of whom are here today — can attest that she is at her most energetic when love needs to be put into action.”

“Union Presbyterian Seminary, the promise of your partnership has convinced our mother to leave her home of over 50 years with joy and curiosity,” Sam said. “New Jersey to her is the land of 10-cent arcade Skee-Ball, sitting at the shore reading books with her feet in the sand, decades of church fellowship, and dinners with the Austenettes, her longtime friends and fellow fans of Jane Austen.”

“We can only find God’s peaceable kingdom through our shared commitment to build, change and challenge our institutions,” she’d tell her children, according to Sam. “Now, this is pretty strange advice to give to middle schoolers, but now we cannot wait to see her live out this commitment with the Union community.”

Their mother then took to the lectern. “Crying is not in the script, so that’s a problem,” Lapsley said.

When she asked her children to introduce her, they told their mother, “So, it’s kind of a roast?”

“I’m very grateful it was not quite a roast,” Lapsley said. “I love you both so very much.”

The co-moderators of the 225th General Assembly, the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace and the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, also made brief speeches. “We rejoice in this joyous moment with you,” Starling-Louis said. “It is an utter and deep and true blessing to witness this outpouring of communal love and the infectious excitement.”

“Friends, what a bold and historic moment,” said Santana-Grace, who attended Princeton Seminary when Lapsley did. “You go, girl! You’ve been called to serve this beloved place for such a time as this, a time when we’ve all acknowledged the church is wrestling with finding a way forward that is faithful, responsive and relevant for today … May you keep pressing on, because God is indeed doing a new thing in this place. Blessings!”

Scriptures used during the service were Isaiah 43:16-21, Matthew 13:31-34 and 51-52, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-18.

For her part, Lapsley offered thanks to many individuals in the crowd, and to the Almighty. “Most importantly, I give thanks to God for calling me to Union and into relationship with Spirit-filled people who love this school,” Lapsley said.

“The great force of history is that we carry it within us,” Lapsley said, quoting James Baldwin. “History is literally present in all that we do.”

Literary critic and historian Van Wyck Brooks “suggested the study of history could spark rather than inhibit creativity, if we focus on what he called ‘the usable past,’” Lapsley said. “Discernment is critical here. What elements of our history are unusable and need to be purged? Which elements do we need to steward, that we might have a usable past in service to a flourishing future for all?”

Some years ago, Lapsley lost many of her books in a fire. As she was placing what remained onto the bookshelves in her office at Union, “I paid more attention to them, their fragility more apparent to me now.” One such book is an advice book on how to have a happy marriage that her grandmother received in 1921, when she married Lapsley’s grandfather. The title of the book is “Quiet Talks at Home.”

She still has the Westminster Shorter Catechism her father earned from his Sunday school teacher at 11 for memorizing the lengthy document. She also has the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon he’d had since her father’s days at Union, a book he gave his daughter when she began her own seminary studies almost 40 years later. “I think he was glad to be rid of it,” she said.

Dr. Jacqueline E. Lapsley was inaugurated Wednesday as Union Presbyterian Seminary’s eighth president. (Photo courtesy of Union Presbyterian Seminary)

The question for Lapsley is, “How do we draw from the past for the sake of the future to which God is calling us?”

“The moment we are in — in the church and in society — is tumultuous,” Lapsley said. “It calls for creativity, for the art that is God’s new Creation. We are called in this time to be found artists, who in concert with the Spirit take the materials bequeathed to us and, shedding what has shackled us in the past — the racism, sexism, injustices and oppression — and forge the treasures into something new and beautiful that the world longs for and needs.”

“Doesn’t God take the found material of the cross and turn it into life-giving art of resurrection?” she said. “In concert with God who longs for all of humanity and all of Creation to flourish, we are called to take the treasures of the past, and, working with the Spirit, purge them of what holds us back and together forge them into a future of gracious flourishing for all.”

“This is the artistic work of new Creation, which requires much of us and is holy and life-giving work. Together, we will look at what we’ve inherited and ask, ‘What could you become? What could we become?’ Amen.”

Once the Rev. Dr. Christopher Edmonston, who chairs Union Presbyterian Seminary’s  Board of Trustees, asked Lapsley “to take a solemn pledge to engage her work in the seminary, to promote the glory of God, to strengthen the church’s witness to the gospel, and to further the flourishing of the world God loves” and Lapsley agreed, he declared her “duly installed. May God bless you and continue to show you grace upon grace as you undertake the work of president and faculty member in this seminary,” Edmonston said.

The Rev. Dr. Rebecca L. Davis, a faculty member at Union, offered a prayer, thanking God for “the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition that does not count itself as the only way or even the best way, but whose commitment to the ecumenical witness reflects the unity of your church.”

“We thank you for the call and sacred vocation that you have woven into the fabric of each of us, whether butcher or baker, pastor or educator-maker, and for the assurance you provide that we are not alone … Remove whatever noise-cancelling practices that drown out the cries of your people and your Creation, yearning for justice and liberation … Let us harness the goodness that was and lean into the curiosity and creativity and intelligence to serve you in a new time.”

“Beloved of God, shepherd what is good from our past,” Lapsley said during the charge and benediction that closed the service. “Discard what is unusable and join the artistic work of God in fashioning a new Creation for the sake of a more just and compassionate world.”

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