Erskine College and Seminary President Dr. Robert E. Gustafson spoke about peace and wholeness from God, shalom, as he addressed students, faculty, staff, and community members at this year’s Formal Opening Convocation August 30. He took as scripture texts Jeremiah 29:4-7 and Philippians 4:4-9, both of which refer to peace.
Gustafson began by recounting his experience on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan was attacked by al-Qaeda. Then serving as headmaster of the Stony Brook School on Long Island, he was only about 50 miles away when first one hijacked plane, then another hit the towers.
In a time before nearly universal cell phone use, it fell to Gustafson to break the terrible news to faculty and students during a chapel session. Audible gasps greeted his announcement. “They had parents and friends in New York City, and we had alumni working at the World Trade Center,” he said.
He decided to read from Psalm 27, which begins with “The Lord is my light and my salvation,” Psalm 46, which begins, “God is our refuge and strength,” and the familiar Psalm 23, with its opening words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” As he read from scripture, “I could sense the peace, the shalom of God as it settled in that chapel,” he said.
While stressing the significance of the academic enterprise at Erskine, the president said, “Any artist knows that how you frame a work is important. And there is a frame around what we are doing academically.” He characterized that frame as “peace—peace with God, peace with others, peace with ourselves, and peace with the natural world.”
Gustafson cited the scriptural account of the fall in Genesis, in which Adam and Eve lose their peace with God and are afraid to respond when He calls them. “They go from fellowship to hiding,” he said.
They also lose their inner peace, experiencing conflict within themselves; their peace with each other, as each blames the other for their disobedience to God; and with the natural world, as the ground yields thorns and thistles.
The president told students that while we may think we are seeking God, it is God who seeks us. “If you have any sense, come out into the open,” he said. “Each of you students—God has a plan for your life.”
Christian believers have a responsibility to be “shalom bearers,” Gustafson said. They ought to be “instruments through which God is bringing peace, reconciliation, shalom” and ought to pray for the country or city in which they find themselves, as the Lord instructs the captive Israelites (Jeremiah 29:7).
The prophets of the Bible “dreamed of a world where God would put things right again,” Gustafson said. In shalom, which is the goal of education, there is universal flourishing and wholeness—it is “the way things ought to be,” he said.
“May Erskine College and Theological Seminary be a place centered on God’s love and peace.”
The setting for the Formal Opening Convocation, marking the 180th year of the college and the 182nd year of the seminary, was the Due West ARP Church.
Erskine Theological Seminary Dean Dr. R.J. Gore gave the invocation; Seminary Provost Dr. R. Leslie Holmes offered welcoming remarks; College Provost Dr. J. Thomas Hellams presented scripture readings; and the Rev. Paul G. Patrick, chaplain of Erskine College and Theological Seminary, prayed for the college and seminary and pronounced the benediction.
Musicians for the service included the Erskine Choraleers, directed by Assistant Professor of Music Dr. Keith D. Timms and accompanied by Prof. Tobi Otekayi, pianist; and Rodney Cleveland, organist.