A Crossings Encomium – Jerome Burce

Delivered at the Eighth International Conference

January 27-30, 2019

on behalf of the Board of Directors

by Jerome Burce, President

+ In Nomine Jesu +

When people in the know tell the story of the Crossings Community, they are quick to mention a pair of brilliant, determined servants of Christ whose passion for the Gospel drove them to formulate and hone the theological method at the heart of what we do. After that they peddled it with vigor. I speak here of our founders, teachers and mentors, Robert W. Bertram and Edward H. Schroeder. In our budding hagiography—every organization has one of these, even brief and little ones like ours—Bob and Ed are the Indispensable Two, without whom there is no Crossings.

And now the truer story. When speaking of Crossings, one really ought to tell about the Indispensable Three. Beside Bob and Ed, you see, there stands another, a third and equally passionate servant of God’s Gospel in Christ Jesus without whom none of us would be here today either.

Not that this person would ever dream of saying so, or would think to sit there quietly, without protest, as others tried to say it. Still, Cathy Lessmann, please come up here and allow me for the Lord’s sake to embarrass you for a few moments.

I think you all know Cathy, if only as the person who greeted you with so warm a smile when you arrived for this conference and has now and then been popping up in our ensuing conversation to tug the theologians back to earth where ordinary people live. Cathy has long had a knack—St. Paul would call it a gift of the Spirit, I think—for keeping the eggheads on mission. What they prattle about either serves to deliver the Gospel goods to the likes of her and her children, or else it’s hot air. Paul and Luther would agree.

Mission—God’s unfolding mission to the world in Christ Jesus, to be precise—is in Cathy’s blood. And why not? She is the daughter of missionaries, born and raised in the Philippines. She attended Valparaiso University in days of drama and high excitement, when Gospel was being taught and told from classroom lecterns and chapel pulpits with a certain freshness it had lacked for decades prior. (Whether she knew then of the role that Bob and Ed had played in sparking this at Valparaiso, I cannot say.) Later she married a pastor’s son who went into medicine. They settled in St. Louis. God delighted them with four children. Venturing from homemaking, she at some point stumbled into classes that Bob and Ed had developed for people who weren’t aiming for “professional ministry” but even so were hungry for some serious theological education. Cathy was an avid student. She will say that she heard the Gospel in those classes as if for the first time, and tasted joy—the wild joy of a sudden escape from the terrible thicket of “have-to’s” and “should’s” that common Christianity keeps penning people up in. To share this joy with others became the second passion of her life, running neck to neck with her calling as mother, grandmother, and wife.

Early on either Bob or Ed, I know not which, recruited Cathy to help with the nitty gritty associated with the fledgling organization they were trying to launch. There were newsletters to fold, mailing lists to maintain, checks to bank, books to keep. Soon Cathy was Crossings’ de facto office manager—unpaid of course; this too is the church, or the service of Christ, however you choose to see it. An appointment to the Board of Directors followed quickly after that. Along the way the Lessmann home became the organization’s operational center and the vastly preferred venue for the board’s annual meeting. The hospitality was simply grand, at once rich and generous and ever so down-to-earth, without a trace of pretension. It still is. Husband Gary’s patience with us seems also of the Spirit.

I have served on this board for about fifteen years. Cathy has been the glue holding us together. Of board members, several have come, several have gone. Cathy has remained, now enduring with patience as we thrash for direction, now pushing us forward, always insisting with a dogged determination that Crossings is a gift which must be shared with the wider church. Others may step back from that imperative, but she will not. Nor will she let the rest of us forget for a moment that genuine Gospel—this word and work of God bringing freedom and joy in Christ—is in dreadfully short supply in the church. She knows. She has sat with a drooping heart through all too many sermons in all too many congregations, later dragging home in the grip of a sad and dreary disappointment. Christ was not preached that day, his benefits shelved and concealed as if they were somehow beside the greater point of getting people to think right, or to behave themselves.

“We can do better than this,” Cathy keeps saying. “We have got to do better for the sake of the children and the Church we love, and the world Jesus died for.”

In 2006 we settled on the idea of organizing a first-ever Crossings conference. It happened in January 2007. Others had a large hand in planning the program, but Cathy was the one who found this venue at the Shrine; who organized the publicity; who took the registrations; who brought the evening refreshments; who sorted out the transportation and welcomed the guests; who settled the bills; who compiled the evaluations; who took a strangely eager delight in prodding us to plan for the next one. And so it has been ever since. This is the thirteenth such event to thank her for. I pray that most all of us will be going home with our evangelical batteries recharged, so to speak. I say this in a distinctively Lutheran way—a Lessmann-esque way. If you do notice that little jolt of joy next week sometime, thank God for the immense role Cathy has played in making it come about.

Pray too that God will keep Cathy at it for a few more years at least. Bob Bertram is long since in the age to come where he’s asking Karl Barth if he finally got his wits together—that’s a theologian thing, yes. Of Ed it must now be said as was never said of Moses, that his natural force is all but abated. I put this in the King James English of Deuteronomy 34:7. Ed, the farmer’s boy, would say more simply that he’s plumb wore out. This leaves us in the present Crossings moment with Cathy, for now our indispensable one-and-only. I say this in strictly human terms, of course. Others are on the verge of emerging should God so grant, but none are prepared quite yet to fill so large a set of shoes as Cathy has worn for us for so many years. So yes, pray for her, not forgetting as you do to pray also for Ed, and for Marie, his wife.

I bring this to an end by saying plainly what I have so far implied: of all the gifts God has granted us through Cathy, none matters more, or is more precious, than her joy in Christ Jesus, and her passion to share this as widely as we can.

Please stand and help me thank Almighty God for our sister in Christ, our splendid co-worker in the Gospel, Cathy Strohschein Lessmann.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +