The Lion Has Roared

“The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8, Catholic Study Bible)

The moral fiber of America is unraveling at a staggering pace. Tragically, Christians are doing little to stem the plummeting decline. We speak out, but at the risk of appearing hypocritical, I must point out that the majority of our rhetoric targets fellow believers. It is more comfortable to debate other Christians than stand out as salt and light in a desperately dark culture. Social media fosters this enfighting because, after all, our posts are largely read by our self-imposed circle of influence—those who have “friended” us. Huddling in protest is nothing more than impotent isolation. Since we do not address the world, I assume we are expecting unbelievers to eavesdrop on our dissent. This was not the way of the Church in ages past. Her influence was indelibly imprinted on unbelieving pagan cultures. The result quite often was the lions or guillotine or prison. We have lost sight that the word “martyr” comes from the Greek martur, meaning simply “witness.” Few seek or embrace that spirit today. We prefer debate to demarcation, passive aggressive outbursts in social media to inescapable mercy. This is not the way of costly grace. We have counted the cost and come up wanting.

Do not misunderstand my challenge. I am not calling for shouting in the public square, but imploring myself to serve the least among us. You may reject my words, but you can never refute unimaginable mercy. “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13, ESV). Mercy is compassion in action; it does not shrink from angry opposition. Mercy is selfless love on display. As such, it is not overly complex and actually simple to navigate. Extend human dignity to the homeless by making eye contact and refusing to turn away in disgust. Express appreciation to law enforcement for their sacrificial public service. Invest in relationships with individuals from cultural backgrounds other than your own. Employ non-violent protest of Planned Parenthood facilities and abortion clinics. Seek to enact legislation that protects the unborn and upholds biblical standards of human sexuality. Don’t just sit there with your face in your phone—enact justice. Seek to emulate Christ to the degree that it costs something, perhaps even your life. Be a martyr (witness). We are not playing the Game of Life. We are at war, but the weapons of our warfare are unsheathed in love, not hatred or fear.

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4 | ESV).

Glory and Love

“All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them.” (John 17:10 | NIV)

The Greek word translated “glory” is doxa. It likely looks familiar to churchgoers who grew up standing in Sunday worship to sing the Doxology. Its meaning comes from another root word that denotes “to be of reputation, honor resting from a good opinion.” In other words, glory refers to something or someone revealed in some way or other; hence, “to glorify” means to reveal the worth, value, or honor of another. When we apply this understanding to Christ’s statement in John 17, we grasp more fully your purpose and mine in this world. Collectively and singularly we reveal the worth, value, honor and beauty of Christ to the unknowing and unbelieving world. This harkens back to Jesus’ imagery in John 15 of a vine and its branches. The only way anyone discerns the value of the vine is by observing the beauty and tasting the quality of its fruit. Herein lies an opportunity of eternal consequence—my obedience, love and humble service shouts approval of the Son; in fact, all the stars and galaxies combined cannot reveal more fully the worth of God than each simple act of love on my part.

Make no mistake about it—I deplore inconsistent rhetoric, lawless destruction of that which offends, and politicians that employ fear tactics to paralyze opposition and garner votes for political and personal ambition. I will continue to rail against injustice of any variety, and endeavor to match opinion with corresponding action. But what disturbs most is when I detect a shift within me from compassion to cynicism, from love to disdain. A day will come when I no longer walk this way, and all that persists is the memory of how I loved or failed to do so. “If nature abhors a vacuum, Christ abhors a vagueness. If God is love, Christ is love for this one person, this one place, this one time-bound and time-ravaged self” (Christian Wiman). What I want most is to be remembered as a man who loved like a hurricane—stood strong by his family, adored his wife, hoisted courageously the banner of Christ, loved the unlovely, and cherished the forsaken. Will a sweet fragrance that reminds of Jesus remain, or will the stench of self-importance spoil my legacy? I learned the hard way that I can never control how others respond, but I can and must love from the inside-out, to the glory of Jesus Christ.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1 | ESV)

Stumbling Block

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-25 | ESV)

Fueling the out-of-control and irrational rage spreading like a dark disease and taking the form of violent vandalism, far-left activist Shaun King wrote this week that all crucifixes depicting Jesus Christ as a “white European” should be torn down and done away with. “Yes I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been,” writes King. His is one more distorted expression of those who have done nothing to contribute to societal improvement clamoring for anarchy. What masquerades as “revisionist history” is nothing more than virulent terrorism.

Ignorance matters! How, in the name of all that’s holy, does a bloody impaled thorn-crowned figure represent racial superiority? Jesus Christ never has and never will stand for ethnic supremacy, regardless of how one fills-in-the-blank. My heart breaks for the man or woman who looks at any image of the Savior and sees a racial slur rather than hearing the voice of perfect Love. The cross will always be a stumbling block to dark minds. The precious Son of God hangs in humiliation on the cross as an enduring reminder that all who will humble themselves and cling to Him as if their life depends on it will find mercy enough to last all eternity. O rebel heart, reject pride that blinds and stumbles toward destruction. Offer yourself a living sacrifice to the One who is the ultimate sacrifice, and discover in the dying eternal abundant life.

Draw me nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,

To the cross where Thou hast died;

Draw me nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,

To Thy precious, bleeding side. (Fanny Crosby, 1875)

Walk

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6 | ESV)

Don’t miss it. The key word in these familiar verses is not what you might expect. The defining centerpiece is the Hebrew verb yalak, translated as “walk.” It simply means “to go, proceed, depart.” In some instances it means “to carry.” It is a common verb occurring quite often in the Old Testament (1046 times in 938 verses). Walking with someone speaks of comfortable fellowship. When used more metaphorically, it can mean “to go along with” implying intercourse, agreement and acceptance. One does not walk with another except by agreement or command is the idea. Regardless, the critical image is one of ordinary routine. Note that walking never implies sporadic harried urgency. Walking connotes routine rather than reaction. That distinction is vital if we are to properly interpret and implement what the prophet Micah declares. Justice is a matter of course for those walking humbly with God. In other words, justice is an enduring mindset that cannot not be expressed with corresponding consistent action; it is anything but hypocritical knee jerk with accompanying bombasts and pride prompted gesticulation that smacks more of back patting than justice seeking. The distinction is profound, yet well meaning folks, secular organizations, and even religious entities fall into this well laid trap that springs on those who ignore justice until it is en vogue. Popular justice is rarely just, but magnifies what is at stake. When we fail to advocate for and practice justice as an expression of the imago dei, justice retreats into nothing more than a fad that whips into a frenzy for a time and then dissipates into distant memory. Beware of those who speak loudest in a moral crisis if they act and speak differently than they did before the crisis. Such rhetoric reeks with the stench of hypocrisy. They have taken a decisive step toward manipulating “justice” for public approval. Until we move beyond such theatrics, we will never resolve injustice. Unstoppable Justice flows from a heart that walks with the Father, because it would be unthinkable to do any other.

Nearly 20 years ago I was invited to present the chapel address at Wiley College in recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. The message (available in the college library archives) was entitled “A Mighty Long Journey: Moving from Civil Rights to Civil Charity.” Allow me to share an excerpt from the introduction:

“The theme for today’s Chapel here at Wiley College has been announced as—“Living as One in a Pluralistic World.” I definitely agree that this is a worthy goal; a definite ideal to which to aspire. My deep conviction, however, is that this will remain an illusive goal for the world until a particular group within the world begins to live according to that ideal. The particular group to which I am referring is the Christian Church, the Body of Christ on this earth…. To ignore this problem is to fail in our witness, and to imply the impracticality and impotence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To fail to do so is to forfeit any real relevance to the issues at hand and any prophetic instruction on how to truly love one another.

I learned an African-American prayer chant while I served as pastor of a multi-racial congregation in Houston:

It’s a mighty long journey

But I’m on my way—

It’s a mighty long journey

But I’m on my way… 

It may indeed be a mighty long journey, but I want to challenge us as Christ-followers today to begin the journey of moving from civil rights to civil charity. You see, there’s a huge difference between doing something because it’s right and doing it out of genuine love for someone else.”

Justice seeking is, by definition, a long and endless journey that we are expected to walk everyday. It cannot lower its gaze from what God intends. It will not bow to wisps of protest or temporary theatrics. It will be on our minds and in our actions at all times, because to be and do otherwise is to deny the validity of the Christ-life.

It’s a mighty long journey

But I’m on my way—

It’s a mighty long journey

But I’m on my way.

Drawing a Thin Blue Line in the Sand

“He who is not angry when there is just cause for anger is immoral. Why? Because anger looks to the good of justice. And if you can live amid injustice without anger, you are immoral as well as unjust.”— St. Thomas Aquinas

I am angry. Anarchy masquerading as legitimate protest is unjust, and that angers and disgusts me. Absurd voices calling for what amounts to mob rule target law enforcement as the problem out of cowardice and refusal to confront legitimate root causes of societal injustice. Defund police? Have people lost their minds, or is something more sinister afoot? As a volunteer police department chaplain, I have opportunity to see law enforcement up close and personal, and these women and men are not what the media portrays or what lawless mobs shout and curse. These public servants daily offer themselves as living sacrifices, and do so for inadequate pay and an unappreciative public, all the while battling personal demons and enduring incredible stress on their families. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why they do it, but I thank God they do. I, for one, choose to pray for them rather than revile them, value their service rather than disgrace it, and refuse to remain silent simply because it is unpopular to defend them.

“Blaming the police for what is amiss in America is akin to cherry-picking evidence to support a specious argument. Of course there are bad apples who must be held accountable for their actions in any institution, but these individual crimes cannot then be writ large over an entire institution in order to define it. It just doesn’t make sense” (Jack Gist, The Catholic World Report).

Painful Remembering

Repentance can only come from remembering. Eradicating hurtful memories does more harm than good, because I am then free to imagine my past however I so choose. Knowing myself the way I do, I confess I will always attempt to place myself in the best light. Remembering my past with all its ugliness and disgrace is excruciating and embarrassing, but holds tremendous power for transforming my future. I cannot bear the pain of who I have been, so I determine that with God’s help and all the courage I can muster, I will not repeat the sins of my memory. Spiritual markers are not always pleasant memories.

If Ever I Loved Thee

It is very late and I should be in bed with a book in hand awaiting that magical moment when eyelids sag and the book falls to a random spot nearby so that I awake in the morning without remembering exactly when I fell asleep; instead, I’m sitting alone on our front porch listening to music and reflecting on the chaos of the past week. A senseless killing, a splintered nation, justifiably angry victims of injustice, violence in the guise of free speech, peace officers brutalized for no offense other than keeping belligerent citizens safe, a small child murdered by his mother and hidden in a church dumpster, a friend who died much too young, and innocent individuals muddle through bewilderment, all while reeling from the threat of an unseen and little understood virus. I preached today to a gathering of believers seated six feet apart. Reflection brings no solace to this heavy heart, so I do what I’ve done since my mother taught me to cling to Psalm 56:3, “What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee.” In my own dark night of the soul, I hear a hymn from my childhood I had all but forgotten:

My Jesus I love Thee, I know Thou art mine.
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou.
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus ‘tis now.

I’ll love Thee in life, and I’ll love Thee in death.
And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath.
And say when the death dew lies cold on my brow;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus ‘tis now.

Despite all misconstrued evidence to the contrary, God is love. The love of God, and love for God is quite profoundly all that will carry me through the dark morass of a society stacked against the Cross. Created in the image of a loving Father and beloved Son, my prayer is that I may love so intensely in return that the family likeness will be unmistakable.

Litmus Test

The litmus test in chemistry reveals the general acidity of a substance. In the political arena, judiciary apply a litmus test to determine whether a certain nominee should receive their vote. According to Jesus, the straightforward litmus test that validates or contradicts the authenticity of our faith in him is profoundly simple—love one another.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:31-35 | ESV)

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:12-17 | ESV)

“Love is the most durable power in the world” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

“People who love each other truly and fully are the happiest people in the world. They may have little, they may have nothing, but they are happy people. Everything depends on how we love one another” (Mother Te

Violence

If God is love, violent reprisal violates His character and repudiates anything I may say to the contrary. It is impossible to pray for my enemy while endeavoring to destroy him. Praying for my enemy initiates an internal distillation in which God sifts and discards everything in me that does not resemble the Christ. This is not a painless process; in fact, someone must die for it to come to fruition. I may be surprised that the one who must die is me. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ who lives within me” (Galatians 2:20). The way of the cross always leads in the opposite direction of the well worn path down which the world is marching.

“At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” (1 John 2:8-11 | ESV)

Nativity of Mary, Blessed Virgin Catholic Church (photo by author)

Joy

I sat waiting for my wife in the chiropractor’s lobby, struggling to breathe without fogging my glasses in my homemade mask. My wife has crafted hundreds of them over the past two months for healthcare professionals, family members and friends, and this particular version is my favorite. But a mask is still a mask, and I fought against anonymous frustration aimed at no one and nothing in particular as I contemplated my disdain for the term “new normal.” The Oldies radio station coming through the speaker system played Steven Tyler of Aerosmith belting out “Crazy.” My knee jerk reaction was to say aloud, “You’ve got that right!” Brimming with conflicting emotions tinged with a dark edge, I turned back to finish reading Matt Malone’s editorial in the latest edition of “America”—the Jesuit review of Faith and Culture:

“There is a serious joy deficit in both the church and the world these days. Some of the most visible Christians, for example, look as if they haven’t had a joyful thought in 10 years. That’s a big problem, for them certainly, but also because joy is what makes our witness credible, what changes the mode of the giver and receiver. Joy is what makes our faith attractive, even what makes it intelligible. Without joy, to paraphrase St. Paul, we are just clanging cymbals. To have Easter joy is to live each day in the knowledge that God broke into time and space; broke into our house while we were sleeping and sprinkled every room with a dust of eternity. Then He rose and left through the front door, which remains open for us to follow.”

I confess the temptation to choose the dark side, bolstering anger rather kindness, feeding angst over against peace. Anger is a choice; self-inflicted lesion that atrophies from the inside-out. The worst possible consequence is that I become a side-walking version of Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore, a gloomy creature that repels rather than attracts persons to Christ. The antidote is joy. Joy is never self-serving; it abounds for the benefit of others. When I opt for selfless enduring adoration of Jesus Christ, He transforms my brackish cistern into an overflowing well to which others are compelled to approach seeking fresh water for themselves. Joy is to be the new normal for every Jesus follower.