In academia, you are promised to meet quite an eclectic grouping of folks. Unless you have had both the joy and the sorrow of allowing an institution to shape and wreck you, you may be unaware of the weirdos housed inside. The pinnacle of peculiar persons takes shelter in a seminary. Yes, seminary is home to the misfits and marginalized that study Greek and Hebrew. Sometimes it’s studied for fun, but more often than not, it is studied in service to others. It is home to those burned and beat up by an institution that promotes restoration and peace. It is inclusive for those that have experienced severe exclusion. Most importantly, we welcome all here at this beloved seminary. We believe there is room for ALL at the table.
Stephen L. Lortz was no exception to this gathering of anomalous persons. At the time of his passing, Steve Lortz was sixty-eight years old. Sixty-eight years holds endless opportunities of growth, doubt, laughter, service, humility, joy, light, and hope for the next generation. His life embodied all of these things and much more. I must confess that I do not know too many personal details about Steve’s life. But I do know that he was once in a cult, he served in the Navy on a nuclear submarine, he taught middle schoolers, and he was a lifelong learner. Steve’s passion for academics and love for Jesus encouraged me as an incoming seminarian, lost in the new world of graduate education. I admired the way he persevered as an academic, despite battling his declining physical health. Steve always said that he counted class attendance as his physical therapy and I believe that his time in the seminary healed him in ways he, like many of us, was never able to put into words.
Steve was a regular in my seminary classes, whether or not he was officially on the roster. Even more so, he was a professional at deterring a class discussion, and almost always bringing it full-circle. When Steve would take a deep breath, adjust his cannula, and raise his index finger, we would all recline back because we knew some wild and wacky life lesson was about to unfold. He was never short on questions in class discussion, so much so that professors oftentimes had to beg Steve to allow other students to contribute. His thirst for academia could not be quenched! Each contribution was never shy of connecting to an eccentric story from his past life. Truly, I had lost track as to how many submarine stories I heard in hermeneutics class last semester. Or the number of times he related seminarians to rowdy seventh-grade boys. The details on the latter story are fuzzy in my memory, but the mentioning of pickled pigs feet and squirmish middle schoolers holds a permanent place in my heart. I often found myself thinking, “what hasn’t this man done?” because he truly lived an abundant life and he finessed those unique life experiences into each discipline.
My first encounter with Steve occurred during my last year of undergraduate studies. One morning, I was trailing behind Steve on my way to work in the library. Steve, with every fiber of intentionality in his being, slowly navigated his way up the steep hill before the library doors. He had a messenger bag across his body and pushed a quaint oxygen tank in front of him. Although I was running late, I rushed in front of him to open the door; I could tell he was struggling to make it up the incline (in reality, so was I—that hill is oddly steep). I opened the door for him then immediately tried to whisk off to make it into work “on time.” That’s when Steve in his precious manner began to speak to me. I halted my movement to engage in conversation. Like a proper preacher, Steve began quoting the scripture about serving the least of these. He said my actions made Jesus smile. I nodded, amazed at how much a small action could have such a large impact, told him to have a great day, and rushed into work. I often go back to that moment as a reminder that differences and life change occurs in small doses; it is never one big thing but rather a culmination of several little things that are the most impactful. Who knew that opening a glass door to the library could be seen as serving? Steve knew. He knew, he called it out, and he encouraged.
My last encounter with Steve mirrored much of the first. Almost a full year later, it was my first semester of seminary and, as usual, I was in a rush. Yet again, Steve slowed me down long enough to speak an encouraging word over my life. I am not sure if he was able to discern my weary spirit in that moment, but his words were perfectly timed. A dear friend and I were scurrying to get into the sanctuary as the organ was hammering out the final processional chords when he stopped us. Although we tried to scoot out, our attempts were feeble in contrast to Steve’s stubborn nature. He began to preach to his crowd of two on the importance of the church body and its gifts. In a poetic and roundabout way, I heard his words telling me that if I abandoned my calling, the church and the world would suffer. He was championing for women in ministry, pleading for us to hold tightly to the calling on our lives and have faith that all of our labors of exegesis and research would bear glorious fruit in the kingdom. He did not offer me a tangible truth or promise, but his intentional and sweet spirit told me to have faith in his words. It was refreshing to hear an older male encourage young females to pursue leadership in ministry: “we need you and your gifts in the church… you can do it!… you will change the world.” I believe the Holy Spirit used Steve to speak to me on that Sunday morning. Tears welled in my eyes as I poured out many thanks to Steve and then turned to hurry into the sanctuary as the ushers were closing the doors.
Steve Lortz left a beautiful legacy. Those of us that had the honor of knowing Steve and struggling alongside him in the classroom are better persons because of this divine appointment. His perseverance to wrestle with hard texts never wavered; his life is an inspiring testament to those of us that continue to pursue academia in service towards the church. In these two stories shared, I do not believe Steve knew he was teaching me in those moments. But in his own way, he was teaching me and reminding me to continue to be a lifelong learner. His advantageous spirit will always be remembered in our hearts and academic pursuits. Steve, thank you, sweet friend, for all the hope and love you gave to your fellow seminarians. We shall press on with your legacy etched across our hearts.
Images taken from the Facebook page of Stephen L. Lortz.