See I am doing a new thing!


As you make big decisions in your life, prepare to embrace surprise, says Dr. Beverly Lapp—it may be a sacred gift that God is trying to give you.

Saying 'Yes' to Sacred Surprises

Saying Yes (Sometimes) to Sacred Surprises

When she received Dock's Alumni of the Year Award in October 2021, Dr. Lapp extended her stay on campus to share with students in chapel on Monday. She titled her presentation, "Saying 'Yes' to Sacred Surprises," and it is a worthwhile read for anyone facing a potentially life-changing decision related to education or career.

It’s good to be with you this morning. More than 30 years ago I sat in these same benches during chapel at Dock. I remember generally liking having a part of the school day where the full community was gathered together, but I don’t remember much about the content. So I don’t expect you to remember much of what I say today, though just as some of the stories and ideas and challenges I heard in this space 30 years ago no doubt shaped my journey, I hope my story offers some encouragement as you look at a long and rich life ahead, full of dreams, unknowns, and surprises. Some of the surprises ahead will be sacred gifts that you may not recognize until years later.

You are in a stage of life when you get so much advice, so I think you definitely need more from me today. :)  My daughters are just a few years older than you, both in college now. When my younger one left for college a few weeks ago, I gathered some advice for her from my friends. I wish I had heard or remembered some of these words when I was an emerging adult. Many of them apply to any of us at any life stage, including high school, college, new job, or any new venture.

Try everything. Well, not everything.

Don't skip class. Things spiral quickly...

Don't miss assignments. Things spiral quickly...

Take your time finding your people.

Don't worry about who is cool. Watch out for those on the edges.

Never say a class is worthless. That's a ridiculous thing to say. You can always be learning something.

Remember how fortunate you are.

Watch for those who need a helper.

Be willing to ask for help.

It's okay to feel lost.

Make mistakes...lots of mistakes. We learn from failure.

Hang out with new people.

Talk to your teachers! Remember that your teachers and supervisors are people, too.

Don’t let your studying get in the way of your learning.

I have one more word of advice to add, inspired by Isaiah 43:19. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. My word of advice is to remember that God may do a new thing in your life, and to pay attention so that you can perceive it.

My word of advice is to remember that God may do a new thing in your life, and to pay attention so that you can perceive it.After I graduated from Dock I moved to Indiana, to a wonderful place called Goshen College that still celebrates every Dock graduate they recruit, because they know the quality of education you are getting here. You should take a look at Goshen College if you don’t mind long road trips with friends, excellent hands-on learning opportunities, and a campus full of some of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. Years later I moved to Chicago and met a guy from Kansas. We eventually figured out that Indiana was a good middle ground for us. I found Kansas a little too flat and wide open and he found the east more crowded than he liked. But this part of the beautiful state of Pennsylvania is still home for me, and with my brothers and their families in Philadelphia and my parents next door at Dock Woods, I will always feel a special connection here. And I’m so grateful for the teachers and classmates I learned to know at Dock and who supported me as a learner.

After a few years in Chicago, I was lucky enough to be invited to become a professor at Goshen College, and I did this for 23 years. In my 23rd year I took a big risk. I let go of my faculty position after years of working to finish a doctorate, getting tenure and promotion to full professor, and rising to leadership roles. Very few people who have full-time professorships like this just give them up, because these are very hard jobs to get, especially in the arts and humanities. And I did this before I knew what I was going to do next.

I’m not sure I fully understand why I gave up my job. I felt called towards something different and had conviction at the time that this is what I needed to do—to give up my job before I knew what I was doing next. But what I tell my own daughters and other young people is also true—you should not do what I did. Please, do not do what I did. I mean it.

Isaiah 43:19. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

When I began college I was thinking of being a high school English teacher because I was so inspired by my English teachers at Dock. But my music professors kept saying, “You belong in music.” When I declared a music education major with a goal of directing high school choirs, my piano professor said, “Why would you want to do that? You need to focus on piano performance.” I now feel a little disappointed in myself that I didn’t rebel against these professors telling me what I should major in, but I think my piano professor was probably right, because what I wanted to do more than anything else in college was practice the piano. As you are discovering in life, it is a gift to be swept up into passion for something we are learning and becoming good at, and to lose ourselves in the study or practice of that thing. Such passions may not make themselves known to us for a long time, while mine became clear in college. Piano was what I was best at.

It is also true that we need some nimbleness, some flexibility, for what we will  do in life. We are all more than one primary discipline, one talent, one vocation, one college major, one place of work.

In my time of uncertainty after I decided to give up my job as a professor, I found myself assuming that my next place of work would be less Mennonite. I grew up here in deep Mennonite country, where the oldest Mennonite community in North America spread from Philadelphia to the land we are on now. I went to a Mennonite high school, Mennonite college, married a Mennonite guy from another Mennonite hub in central Kansas, and then started teaching at that same Mennonite college I attended.

Whether you are Mennonite, Lutheran, Catholic, non-denominational, evangelical, Reformed, Methodist, pentecostal, Presbyterian, or another faith or have no faith will have turning points in your life where you will wonder—should I claim this tradition as my own? Should I lean in or should I lean out?

I fully claimed being a Christian and a Mennonite as an adult, but I was feeling a little restless about working in Mennonite spaces. I was wondering if it was time to lean out.

Dr. Beverly Lapp said 'yes' to a sacred surprise after 23 years as a college professor. "Pursue your passions while staying flexible about the path ahead," she says.

I also fantasized about working at an organization with vast financial resources—what would that be like, I wondered. Musicians and teachers are used to working in organizations and schools that scrounge for funding. I looked at Notre Dame University in nearby South Bend with longing as I thought about their massive endowment and wealthy infrastructure. I looked at public university job postings, and thought about expanding my world outside of faith-based institutions.

Isaiah 43:19. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

As I felt a little bored with the Mennonites, a call came to consider applying to be the academic dean at a Mennonite seminary. I laughed. I had long admired this seminary, but I felt unqualified to be an academic leader in such a place. And I resisted the idea of going even deeper, and wider, into the Mennonite church. And a seminary—you can’t get any more non-profit than this.

Sometimes, inner resistance can be God’s voice telling us to trust our intuition. But inner resistance can also be a sign that we need to stop and listen, to not only trust our initial reactions. Others saw that the seminary gig could make sense for me, so I listened to this. I learned more about AMBS and the talented professors they have there, most of them younger and much cooler than me.  I thought about past experiences that may have prepared me in unexpected ways to be a seminary dean. I thought about how I’ve always wanted to understand the connection between music and theology better, and that AMBS could be a place where I could delve into this. I thought about how worried I was about the Christian church, compounded by the co-opting of faith, the sometimes distortions of Christianity, that can happen in our politics. At AMBS I observed Bible scholars, theologians, and peace studies professors reconstructing and reclaiming faith. I was intrigued.

Isaiah 43:19. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

At AMBS we study the human story found in the Bible—this ancient and remarkably relevant story of displacement and violence, of lament and praise, of liberation and transformation. We study theology—the nature of God—and we study the very tangible work of peace-building with conviction that God’s yearning for the world, as told by the prophets in the Hebrew Bible and taught by Jesus in the New Testament, calls us towards peacemaking, justice, healing and reconciliation. We do this in the midst of what sociologists say is the church’s decline, and yet I have more stubborn hope in the role of the church in building peace in our world. This hope comes from the students and faculty I get to work with, who are not giving up on the church. As I think about our hurting world in which we seem polarized in ever more confusing ways, it is easy to think that there is more division now than ever. And perhaps there is. But we know that division among human beings is a story as old as time. The survival of the early Christian church was improbable in the Roman empire, and it was patience, as revealed in the scholarship of former AMBS professor and scholar Alan Kreider, that helped the church survive and eventually thrive. Kreider notes that “the focus of early believers was not on ‘saving’ people or recruiting them; it was on living faithfully.” Kreider shows that time and time again, when people focus, with patience, on living in the way of Jesus, others will want to join them.”

Christianity has been vastly distorted in the past, and this distortion continues today in heartbreaking ways. But what if rather than giving up on Christianity and the church, we join the work of reclaiming it?

Isaiah 43:19. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

When I took a big risk and gave up a job that is hard to get, I did not know what new thing was being prepared for me. I misread the signals. It took me a while to perceive the new thing that was springing forth. To my surprise, God cleared a path for me to go deeper into my Anabaptist Mennonite roots, at a small seminary that is training educators, pastors, scholars, leaders, and peacemakers all over the world. And I still can’t believe how inspiring and relevant this work feels in the midst of current events and challenges.

My prayer for each of you is that you trust that God is making a way for you in the wilderness, and will continue to do so throughout your life. The new things God is preparing for you will be different than what is prepared for other people. Pursue your passions while staying flexible about the path ahead. Be ready to be surprised, and to embrace surprise, as a sacred gift that may be God doing a new thing.

Dr. Beverly Lapp with her parents, Sam and Helen Lapp during her campus visit in October 2021. Sam has been a frequent substitute teacher at Dock over the years. Helen passed away a short time after this photo was taken, on November 30. The Lapps have sponsored the Sam and Helen Lapp Peacemaking Award, given to a graduating senior each year who makes a significant contribution to peace on campus.