God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

balance-1475025_1920One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him. Both of these are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, but how?

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive, or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the wicked.

A recent reading from the Letter to the Hebrews at daily Mass (Saturday of the First week of the Year) presents us with a balance. It speaks of two very different experiences of God, both of which are needed to balance each other.

The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:12-16).

The two parts of this passage are very different. The first uses somewhat violent imagery in describing how closely the Word of God examines us, exposing our hidden thoughts and actions. It speaks to God’s justice, His passion to set things right. The emphasis is on the sobering and frightening truth that we will have to render an account to the Lord for every word, thought, and action, no matter how hidden. Jesus is our savior and brother, but He is also sovereign Lord and judge of the world. He is not to be trivialized, minimized, or domesticated. He is the Lord and we will have to answer to Him.

In contrast, the second half of the passage bids us to remember that we have a compassionate Lord, one who sympathizes with our weakness and offers us mercy, grace, and help. We are encouraged to approach the throne of grace. The emphasis here is on a merciful and kind Lord, ready to be approached and to give us every assistance we need in order to be saved.

So, notice the balance in this passage between God’s justice and His mercy. Remember that both are necessary. God’s mercy is needed now because there is a day of judgment. God is not going to stop being God. He is all-perfect and all-holy. He is the Truth Himself, the refulgent light of all glory. We cannot simply walk into His unveiled presence without first being prepared and purified. And thus He makes every help and grace available to us. He is good to us and patient with us. He is merciful and kind.

In this way, God’s mercy and grace prepare us for us his Justice. But there is no justice if sin is unanswered, or injustice is not rectified. That is why we need both His grace and His mercy. Their purpose is to bring the needed changes so that we can be ready for the day when we shall see the Lord.

As a whole, the text therefore speaks of the Lord Jesus in tightly woven tapestry of darker and lighter themes. It requires careful balance.

Too easily in our times we set mercy and justice in opposition to each other. But where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good; that is why the balance of this passage is necessary. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

So, orthodoxy is in the balance. Both visions of the Lord in the reading from Hebrews above are accurate and necessary. To overemphasize or minimize one is to harm the other.

A mercy that would cancel the requirements of justice would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, a justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

So, balance is the stance of orthodoxy. We cannot ever hope to attain to the glory of God without both the justice and mercy of God.

Balance or bust!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

How Justice and Mercy are Alike with God

Many people today set mercy and justice in opposition to each other, but where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to the justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

Mercy that canceled the requirements of God’s justice and His law would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him; both are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the unrepentant and wicked.

The balance of orthodoxy holds that justice and mercy are alike with God.

  • The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
  • Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne: mercy and truth shall go before your face (Ps 89:14).
  • Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).

Yes, in God, justice and mercy meet.

https://youtu.be/XFj-3RHGkrY?t=2786

Seeing More as God Does

Today I’d like to reflect further on the Gospel reading from today’s Mass (Thursday of the 13th week of the year). It tells the story of the paralyzed man whom Jesus tells to have courage because his sins are forgiven.

In one sense this is a rather peculiar response to a paralyzed man: Jesus looks at him and says, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” Now we might be tempted to tap Jesus on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, Lord, but this man is paralyzed. His problem is paralysis; that’s what he needs healing for!” (The Pharisees and scribes get all worked up for a different reason: they don’t think that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.)

Of course, Jesus is neither blind nor lacking in intelligence. Unlike us, however, when Jesus looks at the man he does not consider paralysis to be the most serious problem. To Jesus, the man’s biggest issue is his sin.

Living as we do in this world, most of us have the world’s priorities. The Lord sees something more serious than paralysis, while we wonder what could possibly be more serious than paralysis! But not as man sees does God see. For God, the most serious problem we have is our sin. We don’t think like this even if we are told we should think like this.

Influenced by the flesh as we are, most of us are far more devastated by the thought of losing our health, or our money, or our job, than we are by the fact that we have sin. Threaten our health, well-being, or finances, and we’re on our knees begging God for help. Yet most people are far less concerned for their spiritual well-being. Most of us are not nearly so devastated by our sin (which can deprive us of eternal life) as we are by the loss of our health or some worldly possession.

Even many of us who have some sense of the spiritual life still struggle with this obtuseness and with misplaced priorities. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers are often dominated by requests that God fix our health, improve our finances, or help us to find a job. It is not wrong to pray for these things, but how often do we pray to be freed of our sins? Do we earnestly pray to grow in holiness and to be prepared to see God face-to-face? Sometimes it almost sounds as if we are asking God to make this world more comfortable so that we can just stay here forever. This attitude is an affront to the truer gifts that God offers us.

So it is that Jesus, looking at the paralyzed man, says to him, Your sins are forgiven. In so doing, Jesus addresses the man’s most serious problem first. Only secondarily does He speak to the man’s paralysis, which He almost seems to have overlooked in comparison to the issue of his sin.

We have much to learn about how God sees and about what are the most crucial issues in our life.

Joseph and Mary were told to call the child “Jesus” because He would save the people from their sins. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes,

Joseph is entrusted with a further task: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). … On the one hand, a lofty theological task is assigned to the child, for only God can forgive sins. So this child is immediately associated with God, directly linked with God’s holy and saving power. On the other hand, though, this definition of the Messiah’s mission could appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the kingdom of David, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.

Benedict then cites the story of the paralytic and comments,

Jesus responded [to the presence of the paralyzed man] in a way that was quite contrary to the expectation of the bearers and the sick man himself, saying: “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). This was the last thing anyone was expecting; this was the last thing they were concerned about.

The Pope Emeritus concludes,

Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady.

Yes, God sees things rather differently than we do. There is much to ponder about the fact that Jesus said to the paralyzed man, Your sins are forgiven.

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Fatherhood and Mercy

Blog-07-19Last weekend I was out in Anacortes, Washington (about a hundred miles north of Seattle) preaching at the Faith on Fire conference. One of the talks I gave was entitled “Mercy and Fatherhood.” In it, I spoke about how a father can show mercy to his children. What follows is my notes for that talk. What does a priest know about being a father? Why don’t you read this post and then tell me? Remember that I have been the son of my father, I have two brothers, and I am uncle to 12 nieces and nephews. I am also a careful observer of life.

So consider these seven observations from an outsider and observer.

I. The merciful father loves the mother of his children.

One of the most merciful things a father can do for his children is to love their mother with tender affection and gentle, protective support. Children bond with their mother very closely, especially in their early years. They are reassured by seeing love, tenderness, and support shown to their mother.

In contrast, when children see their mother dishonored or, even worse, abused by their father, they are easily struck with fear and a sense of dread.

How beautiful is this mercy of a father! It also helps his sons understand how to treat women, and helps his daughters understand how men should treat them.

II. The merciful father attends to his own healing and maturity.

All of us have character defects and “issues” that affect others around us. Some have anger issues; others are too fearful and non-assertive. Some have problems with drinking; some with pornography. Still others can be lazy or impatient.

A father can show mercy to his children by working on whatever ails him and thereby avoid inflicting frustration and pain on his children. Scripture says, They made me keeper of vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept (Song 1:6).

It is a work of mercy for a father (and a mother, too) to work through his own issues and thereby spare his children pain. There is an old saying, “If I get better, others get better too.” In doing this, not only are children spared pain, but they are better able to grow in virtue.

III. The merciful father does not allow his career to eclipse his vocation.

Whatever career a man has, his vocation as husband and father is more important. And while the two are not wholly separate (since a father provides for his family), there is far more to being a father than being a breadwinner.

Children need their father in their lives, not merely off in the distance sending money. It is a great work of mercy for a father to cherish his children and to share in their lives. It is a necessary component of their maturity for him to manifest the masculine genius of being human even as their mother manifests the feminine genius.

Children want their father’s support, encouragement, and approval. A young man deeply needs his father’s model. He also needs his father’s affirmation as he grows into manhood. There is perhaps no greater mercy than for a son to hear his father say, “I’m proud of you; you’ve done well.”

A daughter delights in twirling her skirts and in being the apple of her father’s eye. He models for her the love of a man who loves her for her own sake, without lust. This can help her learn to distinguish love from lust and to develop the self-esteem that will help her to navigate the complex years of courtship and to discern a good husband.

A man who is more wedded to his career than to his family is too seldom around to have these crucial effects, which are far more precious than the extra money or additional possessions earned by long hours at the office.

Be careful, fathers. Career can be big on the ego and it can easily ensnare you. Home life may be less glamorous and less immediately rewarding in terms of money, but there is no greater satisfaction than to have raised your children well. The rewards will be enormous for both them and you. And this is a very great mercy.

IV. The merciful father is the spiritual leader of his home.

He establishes the structures of grace. In our culture, too many men leave the spiritual and religious lives of their children to their mother. But Scripture says, Fathers … bring up your children in the training and discipline of the Lord (Eph 6:4). This does not mean that the wife has no role, clearly she does.

A father is to be the spiritual leader in his home, sanctifying his family (see Eph 5:25-27). He should be the first one up on Sunday morning, summoning his children to prepare for Holy Mass. His wife should not have to drag him along to Mass. He should read Bible stories to his children and explain their meaning. He should teach them God’s law. While his wife should share in this, the father ought to lead.

Surveys show that the highest predictor (by far) of children going on to practice the faith in adulthood is whether their father practices the faith.

A father should also seek to establish his household with the structures of grace. He should live under obedience to God and insist that his children do likewise. This makes for a home that, while not free of sin, makes it easier to live the Christian faith rather than more difficult.

All of this is a great mercy that a father extends to his children. Through his leadership, a father molds his family into the beloved community where God’s justice and mercy are esteemed and exemplified. By God’s grace this mercy reaches his children.

V. The merciful father listens and teaches.

It is a beautiful work of mercy for a father to actively listen to his children and to give them his undivided attention whenever possible. It bestows on them a sense of dignity, because they see that what they say and think matters to their father. And it reassures them that he cares for their welfare and what is happening in their lives.

After listening, a father should also respond and teach, giving his children guidance. Too many children today are not being taught by their parents, especially regarding the critical moral issues of our day. If parents do not teach their children, someone else will! And that “someone” is not likely to be an individual with godly views. More often it will be some pop-star, musician, or teen idol. Perhaps it will be a gang leader or a rogue school buddy. Maybe it will be the police officer or a judge in a legal proceeding.

Fathers, it is a great mercy to teach your children. You have their best interests at heart. You want what is truly good (not merely apparently good) for them. Their lives will be much simpler and more productive if you insist that they do what is right from an early age. Otherwise, hardships and painful lessons await them. Show them mercy. Instruct them in the ways of the Lord.

Scripture says, Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). He who raises a fool does so to his sorrow, And the father of a fool has no joy (Prov 17:21). A foolish son brings grief to his father and bitterness to the mother who bore him (Prov 17:25).

When a father brings up his children in the discipline of the Lord, it is mercy not only to them, but to others as well!

VI. The merciful father praises and punishes.

Children are delighted to get their father’s esteem and approval. They love to be praised, especially when they believe they have done well.

A paradoxical form of mercy is for a father to punish his children. The purpose of punishment is to allow the child to experience in a small way the consequences of his transgression so that he does not experience the full and more painful consequences later. Scripture says,

My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son … For what children are not disciplined by their father? … We have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).

And thus punishment, properly understood, is a great mercy, because it saves children from great woes later on. Clearly, punishment cannot simply be a father venting his anger or exacting revenge. Punishment is not for the benefit of the father; it is for his children’s sake.

VII. The merciful father uses his authority and has his children’s long term interests in mind.

The cultural revolution of the late 1960s was not just about sexuality, drugs, and feminism; it also ushered in a wide-scale rejection of authority from which we are still reeling. And it is not just that those under authority reject it, but that those who have authority have become reluctant to use it. Too many clergy and too many parents do not make necessary decisions, enforce important policies, or punish when appropriate. Too many who have lawful authority are more concerned with being popular; they do not want to risk being questioned or resisted.

Authority involves a lot of effort and brings with it a great deal of stress. Many seek to avoid all this and thus those who need leadership and guidance often do not get it. Scripture says, And indeed if the trumpet gives an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? (1 Cor 4:18)

Whether they like to admit it or not, children need their father to be strong and to lead. And when he does this it is a great mercy. It may not always be appreciated in the moment, but most children eventually recognize with gratitude the leadership of their parents, of their father.

Every leader needs to know that he will sometimes take some heat for his decisions, and he must be willing and courageous enough to make those decisions anyway. A father must remember that he has to be more concerned with his children’s long-term interests than with their current, short-term happiness. Their anger or discontent in the present moment will usually be replaced gratitude and relief in the future.

A good father will mercifully hold the tension of the moment and keep his children’s best interests at heart. He will serve their true good (not merely their apparent good) through the use of his authority and through his decisions on their behalf. And this is a very great mercy!

These are some of my thoughts on mercy and fatherhood.

Justice and Mercy Are Alike for God

Justice and MercyI recently prepared a talk to present to a group of lawyers on the relationship between justice and mercy. The following is a summary of the basic points:

I. Distinctions – From our perspective as humans, we tend to distinguish sharply between justice and mercy.

For us, justice is the rendering to each person what is due to him or her. There is a kind of “You did it, you get it” mentality (whether praise or rebuke, reward or punishment). For us, justice is about exactness; it about what is required or due.

In contrast, mercy to us is the giving beyond what is strictly required or the withholding of due punishment. Mercy is about tempering the stricter requirements of justice.

Not only do we tend to distinguish between justice and mercy, but we also often set them in opposition to each other. Thus mercy challenges justice and asks it to lessen its demands.

In God, however, justice and mercy are alike; they are as one, simply. God has no “parts” as we do; He is utter simplicity. He is I AM.

As an illustration, think about how, even in created things, aspects that we distinguish from one another exist simply so as to be one. Consider a candle flame. We can discern many different aspects of the candle flame: its heat, its light, its color, and so forth. And while these distinctions can help us, in reality they cannot be so simply separated. I cannot wield a knife and separate these qualities so that I put the heat over here, the light over there, and the color in yet another place. In my mind I can distinguish between these different aspects, but in reality they are so together as to be one.

In God we can distinguish many traits, but in Him they are so together as to be one. Justice and mercy are like this. They are not “opposite” modes in which God acts as if He were subject to mood swings. In God, justice and mercy are not isolated or opposed; they are united as if to be one. This is true with all of God’s aspects. What we isolate, divide, and distinguish, are in God more simply united. They are one in Him, who is being itself, who describes himself simply as I AM.

Therefore, when we discuss the relationship between justice and mercy in the Church and in God, we must avoid distinctions that merely see them in opposition. We must seek to see them as rooted in God, simply, and in a way that harmonizes them.

As always, St. Thomas Aquinas is of great help in both distinguishing between and uniting justice and mercy. He reminds us that our understanding of God’s justice must always include that fact that it presupposes His mercy and is founded upon it! To those who would set justice and mercy in opposition St. Thomas says,

It is said (Psalm 24:10), “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.” … Thus justice must exist in all God’s works. [But] the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon …. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; [but] his being man is on account of the divine goodness. So, in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy. In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause is more intense than that of second causes … (Summa Theologica Pars Prima, q. 21 art 4).

In other words, whatever may seem due to us by God (given that He has created us and that we require certain things in order to be what we are), we ultimately confront the truth that we are not necessary beings; we are contingent beings. Our entire existence is therefore an act of pure mercy and love by God. Yes, whatever might seem due to us on account of God’s justice is ultimately founded upon an act of His grace and mercy: our very existence.

For God, therefore, justice and mercy cannot so easily be set in opposition to each other. On account of His mercy in creating us, his justice is built and it flows. Though justice and mercy are distinct in our minds, In God they exist more simply. Some of this is brought out in the Book of Psalms, where the rhyme is in the thought rather than the sound. Similar thoughts are paired together and rhyme. Consider just three examples:

  • The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
  • Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne:
    mercy and truth shall go before your face
    (Ps 89:14).
  • Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).

Notice that in God, justice and righteous rhyme with mercy and faithfulness. That is to say, they are more alike than different.

II. Definition – How, then, can we define God’s justice?

God’s justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises. This definition unites God’s justice and mercy and shows how His justice rests on His mercy and presupposes it.

As an illustration, consider one of the most fundamental promises of God in the Old Testament and see how it makes for the foundation of God’s justice and the whole of the moral law:

[O My people], I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my statutes (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

This merciful promise of God to us should revolutionize our understanding of His law and the justice it declares. It moves law from a merely prescriptive set of requirements to a more descriptive assertion of what God will accomplish for the believer as a work of His mercy. God’s law is a description of the transformed human person. It is what become like when God mercifully cleanses us of our idols and then takes our stony hearts and gives us true, transformed hearts.

This is a very different understanding of God’s law than conceiving of it merely as a list of requirements (that we’d better do, or else). No, God’s justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises to save us from our sins, to transform us, to configure us to what is right and just, and to restore us to a right relationship with Him and one another. It is a work of God’s mercy to conform us to His justice!

III. Delineations and Difficulties – We see that God’s law is not a threatening or oppressive expression of raw justice in the detached, worldly sense. Rather, it is an expression of His merciful promise to restore us and transform us.

The law does provide metrics. The transformed human person is one thing rather than another: he is generous rather than greedy, chaste rather than impure, he loves God and neighbor, he has authority over his anger, and so forth. The law paints a picture; it is a description before it is a prescription.

True charity and mercy do not abridge or dilute the law. Mercy points to the law, it is its origin and manifestation. To dilute the law or to think that mercy merely sets it aside is a foundational error and is in fact most unmerciful.

But what about difficulties and seemingly paradoxical realities such as punishment, warnings about Hell, and suffering?

Punishment – Scripture is clear that God’s punishment is rooted in His mercy and love:

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).

Punishment is, therefore, an aspect of mercy. The purpose of punishment is to help us to experience the lesser consequences of our sin so that we do not experience the fuller, more dire consequences. Punishment also imparts a greater a greater understanding of God’s justice and vision for us, as opposed to the false promises offered to us by this world.

For many of us today, it is difficult to see punishment as an aspect of mercy, because we tend to equate love and mercy with mere kindness or approval. It is an immature notion of love that says, “If you love me you will always be nice and kind, and you’ll let me do and be whatever I please.” God loves us too much to yield to that notion of love and mercy.

Hell – I have written much on this topic before. Briefly, Hell exists as a manifestation of God’s respect for our freedom. By a sheer act of His mercy, God created each of us and summoned us to love. But love requires a fundamental freedom that is not haphazardly abridged (or set aside altogether) by God when we make choices that reject His plan for us. Scripture indicates that many people mysteriously reject God, and they do so in ways that tend to become ever more firm over the years if they do not yield to the grace of repentance that God consistently offers. Heaven is not a designer paradise. It is the full manifestation of the truths and values of God’s Kingdom. It includes the deep love and ongoing worship of God. It fully manifests things like love of one’s neighbor (and even one’s enemy), esteem for the poor, chastity, forgiveness, and generosity. There are some people who do not esteem or want things like this; God will not force them to esteem or accept such virtues or the fruits that come from them. Hell is a place apart that some mysteriously prefer in an ever-deepening way. There comes a moment when our decision becomes final and forever fixed. Judgment and the “Depart from me!” that God utters is rooted in His respect for our freedom. This freedom is a glory He mercifully gave us and which He mercifully respects, even if it means accepting that we reject Him and the Kingdom He offers. To force Heaven on those who do not want what it clearly is, would neither be just nor merciful.

Suffering – God offered Adam and Eve the paradise of the Garden of Eden. But despite being warned of the suffering and death it would bring, they still freely chose to know and experience evil for themselves rather than trust God’s teaching. As a result of this, we now live in paradise lost. All of us have ratified their choice by our own sins. In His just respect for human freedom, God did not overrule Adam and Eve’s free choice. Instead, he mercifully works with and through the very suffering and death they/we chose as a way back. It is the way of the cross, and justice and mercy meet at the cross. Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced (Psalm 85:11). In the suffering heart of Christ on the cross, we see the truest and most vivid way that justice and mercy are alike in God. While there are many mysteries related to suffering, God permits it for some greater good. In allowing suffering, God respects our freedom. Most of us know that suffering promotes growth in us, prunes our heart of often-disordered desires, and bestows on us greater wisdom than do the mere frivolities of this life.

IV. Duties – Having set forth some insights into the relationship between mercy and justice in God’s Law, I cannot in a brief reflection propose a complete legal philosophy for civil lawyers. As human beings we cannot comprehend all things or embrace them “simply,” as God does. God’s Law as revealed is perfect and eternal; our laws are imperfect and passing, as circumstances sometimes require.

And yet what is best in our human legal system does reflect God’s law, which we access by both reason and revelation. In order that our imperfect legal system may better reflect God’s perfect law, let me propose to you that as Catholic and Christian lawyers you do well to ponder (especially in this Year of Mercy) how to make it better reflect that mercy and justice are not opposed to each other, but go hand in hand.

Thus, one error to avoid is that of legalism, which idolizes the letter of the law and forgets that even its human authors conceived of it for the common good. The law is a mercy before it is a mandate. It is meant to be for man, not against him; It is meant to promote our welfare not imperil it. As such, the law must have some leeway that accounts for special circumstances and unforeseen situations. Law speaks to the general, but not to every specific. “Zero tolerance” policies should be rare; they often result in foolish, excessive outcomes.

And yet the opposite error is also to be avoided: dismissing the role of law in setting norms and ensuring an equitable playing field. Too often today, sentimentalism seeks to supplant the role of law in ensuring justice. Paradoxically, ensuring justice is actually a very merciful thing to do. It makes the world more certain and stable; it enables people to maneuver more freely and to have recourse when problems arise. The truest freedom is a limited and circumscribed one. Too much freedom is anarchy, which promotes the bondage of chaos, power struggles, and the tyranny of relativism. In its best moments of securing justice and equity, the law supplies precious mercies such as stability, recourse and redress, commonality, and protection.

If God’s Justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises, then a Catholic and Christian lawyer ought to consider if and how our legal system enshrines the merciful promises that our Constitution seeks to promote: justice, equity, equality, the common good, individual dignity, and the individual rights of every person (including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).

If God’s law paints a picture of the transformed human person, then our laws should also paint a picture of the virtuous citizen, who properly provides for himself and his family and who also participates in and respects the common good.

If God’s law provides for punishment with a remedial purpose in mind (and this is mercy), then a Catholic and Christian lawyer ought to consider if our penal system does this to the appropriate degree. Incarceration and other punishments may be necessary to protect the wider citizenry (and this, too, is a mercy), but how do we assist the criminal in becoming a better and more productive citizen (thus showing mercy to him as well)?

Justice and mercy therefore are not opposed to each other; they come from the same font, which is love. Love rejoices in the truth, which the law seeks to enshrine. It is the truth that sets us free, and this is a very great mercy! Even in civil law, justice and mercy walk together and seek the same goal: liberation in the truth.

With God, justice and mercy are alike. Why not with us, too?

Blessed (and also very smart) are the Merciful

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by RRKennison|Rebecca K Licensed under Creative Commons

If, on the way to court, you received advice on how you could influence the judge to be less severe in your case, would you not consider following that advice? Surely you would, unless the “way” involved bribery, or something corrupt.

And in fact Jesus, our very judge, has described an upright way that we can avoid severity on the Day of Judgment. Simply put, the way is for us to show mercy.

Now I don’t know about you, but I am going to need a lot of mercy on the Day of Judgment. So I, and probably you as well, am glad that the Lord has shown how we can positively influence the Day we are judged and see that mercy is magnified. Consider some of the following texts:

  1. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt 5:7)
  2. For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6:14-15)
  3. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. But mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12-13)
  4. If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered. (Proverbs 21:13)
  5. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)
  6. For the measure with which you measure others, will be the measure by which you are measured (Mark 4:24)
  7. And then there is the terrifying parable too long to quote here of the man who owed a huge debt he could never repay. The king cancelled the whole debt. But the man refused to cancel the debt of one who owed him a smaller amount. To this unmerciful man the King then decreed: You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:32-35)

So the basic point is clear enough: if we want to be shown mercy in our judgment (and trust me, we’re all going to need a LOT of it), then we need to pray for a merciful heart.

Let’s go so far as to say that if anyone is harsh, mean-spirited, unforgiving, hypercritical, or condemning, he is a fool. He is simply storing up wrath for himself on the Day of Judgment. Now why do that?

Mercy is our only hope of avoiding strict judgment. And these texts show us that mercy here will lead to mercy there.

It is true that there are times in this world when punishments must be issued and penalties assessed. But to the degree that these are made with an eye to correction and reform, they are part of love, and relate to mercy. For fraternal correction is a work of charity. It is better to suffer punishment here that leads to reform, than to evade punishment here and possibly end in hell. Thus, not all punishment is excluded by the edict of mercy, but, only let mercy and love be the sources from which it comes.

So, some advice to the wise: bury the hatchet now. Ask the Lord for a merciful and forgiving heart, or suffer the full force of a strict judgment. Pay attention! The judge is willing to be influenced on our behalf and has signaled what will move him in our direction. Why hesitate any longer? The merciful are blessed because they are going to be shown mercy. And without mercy, we don’t stand a chance.

Here is the great Miserere by Allegri. The text, sung in Latin is Psalm 51 which begins, “Have Mercy on me Lord in your great mercy.”

 

Do the Math! Learning the Mathematics of the Kingdom is important for Salvation

091213There is a remarkable set of sayings of Jesus, in Luke’s sermon on the plain that we have been reading recently at daily mass (Click here to See Gospel). These things present a kind of mathematics of the kingdom of God. In effect the Lord says to us, “Pay attention! You are going to be judged by the same standard by which you treat and judge others. So do the math, and realize that you were storing up for yourselves a kind of standard by which I will judge you.”

The key statement from today’s Mass comes at the very end, wherein the Lord says the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:38). But this statement comes at the end of a long string of statements were in the Lord summons us to be generous, forgiving, merciful, patient, and reluctant to condemn others.

In effect, the Lord says “Do the math, and realize it if you are merciful you’ll be judged with mercy. But if you are harsh and critical you will be judged with a harsh and critical standard. If you have refused to forgive, you will not be forgiven.

Like it or not, this is the mathematics of the Kingdom of God that does not mean that we earn salvation, but it does mean that we have a lot of influence over the standard by which we will be judged.

So, if you are going to need mercy and grace on that day, (and we all are) it is good to do the math of the Kingdom, and store up mercy and grace for that day.

We will all, one day, answer to God. And that day, as Scripture repeatedly teaches, it is a day about which we should be sober. Sadly, there are many who give little thought to this truth, and some who outright scoff at it.

Remarkably we can influence the manner in which God will judge us, the standard he will use! Now here, we speak of the manner of God’s judgment, that is whether he will be strict or merciful. We do not refer here to the content. It is an obvious, and axiomatic truth, that God will judge our deeds. Hence, we should avoid grave sins and wickedness, and repent quickly when we commit such sins.

But again here, we ponder the manner of God’s judgment, the standard which he will use. Namely, whether he will judge us strictly, and or severely, or with lenience, and great mercy.

On the one hand, it would seem that we could have no influence on this. For, it would also seem that God is no respecter of persons, and judges with perfect justice.

And yet, there are passages which do speak of ways that we can influence the standard God will use, the a manner of His judgment. Let’s consider a few scripture passages wherein we are taught that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us. Lets look at four related areas that will have influence:

I. Whether we show mercy –

Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). James says something similar, and develops a bit when he says Always speak and act as those were going to be judged under the law of freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. So mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12 – 13). And thus we are taught that by observing mercy, and patience, in our relations with one another, we will influence the manner in which we are judged.

It is a fact that, sometimes in life, it will be required of us, especially if we are parents, or in leadership roles, that we will need to punish, and/or assign consequences for those who transgress moral laws, or legal limits. Hence, texts like these do not mean we should never correct with punitive measures. Such a way of living is unwise, and often confirms people in bad behaviors. But even when corrective or punitive measures are needed, it makes sense that we should seek to be lenient where possible, and use lesser measures before firmer ones are employed.

It is also clear from these biblical texts, that it is highly foolish to go through life with severity toward others, with a lack of compassion, or a harsh unyielding attitude. We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy at our judgment. Therefore, how misguided, how foolish it is for us to be harsh and unmerciful toward others. For indeed, these text tell us the merciful are blessed, and warn that the unmerciful will be shown no mercy. Can you or I really expect, that we will make it on the day of judgment, without boatloads of Mercy?

Now therefore is the time for us to seek to invoke the promise of the Lord, Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

II. Whether we have been strict or lenient

In a related text, the Lord Jesus says, The measure that you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Mark 4:24). Here again, if we hope for, and need a merciful judgment, if we want a merciful measure or standard to be used, the Lord makes it clear that he will use the measure or standard that we have used for others. Have we been strict? He will be strict. Have we been merciful? He will be merciful, and so forth. Be very careful before demanding that sinners and others who transgress receive the strongest penalties. There may be a time for penalties, but it is not always true that the most severe punishments be used.

In John 8 the Pharisees wanted to invoke the most severe penalty for a woman caught in adultery (stoning to death). Jesus reasons with them that before they demand he throw the book at her, they might want to recall there are a few things about them that are also written in the book. One by one they drift away, seemingly considering the foolishness of their demands for the most severe penalty. Somehow they realize that the measure they want to measure to her, will be measured back to them.

III. Whether we are generous to the poor

Luke, relates this text more specifically to our generosity: Give and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Luke 6:38). And this leads us to a second area which the Scriptures teach us that we can influence the day of our judgment.

Jesus, after rebuking the Scribes Pharisees for their severity, and their extreme legalism, says to them, who obsessed about cleaning the outside of the dish, You fools, did not the one who made the outside of the cup make the inside also? But if you give what is inside the cup as alms to the poor, everything will be made clean for you (Luke 11:40 – 41). It is a daring text, in the light of the theology of Grace, and almost implies that we could somehow “purchase” forgiveness. But of course, it is the Lord himself who says it, and he does not say we can somehow purchase forgiveness. But surely, he does teach that generosity to the poor will in fact influence the day of our judgment.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus develops the thought saying, I tell you, use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into trouble dwellings (Lk 16:9). It is a complicated text, but Jesus seems to be saying that our generosity to the poor, will surely gain for us advantages at the day of our judgment. Indeed, blessing the poor gives us powerful intercessors, for the Lord hears the cries of the poor. And on the day of our death, and our judgment, the picture that is painted here is of those very poor welcoming us into eternal dwellings.

Scripture elsewhere warns, If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be heard (Proverbs 21:13). So once again, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner, measure or standard that will be used by God at our judgment. To the merciful, mercy will be shown. The generous too will experience that their cries are heard, for they heard the cries of the poor. And the Lord more than implies that those who have been generous to the poor will have powerful advocates praying and interceding for them on the day of judgment. Indeed, a number of the Fathers of the Church remind us that, in this life, the poor need us, but in the life to come, we will need them.

IV. Whether we have been forgiving –

A final area to explore in terms of how we might have influence over the manner of our judgment is the matter of forgiveness. Just after giving us the “Our Father,” the Lord Jesus says the following, For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14 – 15).

Later in Matthew, Jesus tells a terrifying parable of a man who had huge debt, a debt that was forgiven him. But when he refused to forgive his brother a much smaller debt, the king grew angry and threw him into debtors prison. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35).

So yes, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us, over the standard he will use. And while it is true, God will judge will judge us by our deeds (cf Romans 2:6), yet the manner in which God judges us, whether with strictness or leniency, does seem to be a matter over which we have influence.

As we have already considered, it is a plain fact that we are all going to need lots of grace and mercy, for if God judges with strict justice and strict standards, who can stand? We will all have much to answer for. All the more reason for us to follow the teachings of the Lord, in his Scripture, and be sure that on the day of our judgment, mercy, and the grace of leniency will prevail in abundance. Do we want mercy? Then show mercy. Do we want a gentle standard? Then we must measure out gentleness. Do we want forgiveness? Then we must offer forgiveness. Recruit some good intercessors for the day of judgment, by giving to the poor. They will be the most powerful intercessors for us as we leave this life and go to judgment.

Indeed, God has shown us how we can store up a treasure of mercy, waiting for us in heaven, at the judgment seat of Christ. Some good lessons here to heed.

Perhaps you might like to add some other ways we can influence the standard God will use to judge us.

Photo credit: I have come for division – The Curt Jester

Here’s a funny video that illustrates that the measure we measure to others will be measured back to us:

The Story of Hosea and What It Says About God

The story of the Prophet Hosea and his troubled marriage are a powerful testimony to us of our own tendency to be unfaithful to God but also of God’s passionate love for us. The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy and we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. But here are the basic facts along with some of the “fill in” required:

  1. Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2)
  2. Together they have three children each with symbolic names: Jezreel (for God is about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (not pitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people). It is also possible that these children were not of Hosea but rather of Gomer’s various lovers for, although they are born during the marriage, God later calls them children of harlotry.
  3. At some point, though the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Hosea’s wife Gomer, leaves him for a lover and enters into an adulterous relationship with him. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and likely anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea, but as we shall see, God’s reaction is well attested.
  4. After some unspecified period of time God instructs Hosea: Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1) Now, while the quoted text is not clear to specify that this is the same woman he is to love, the overall context of chapters 1-3 of Hosea demand that this is the same unfaithful wife, Gomer. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back Gomer and re-establish his marital bonds with her.
  5. Hosea has to pay a rather hefty price indeed to purchase her back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. (Hosea 3:2) The willingness of her paramour to “sell her back” indicates quite poetically that the apparent love of the world and all false lovers, is not a real love at all. It is for sale to the highest bidder.
  6. Prior to restoring her to any intimacy a period of purification and testing will be necessary: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you.” (Hosea 3:3)

This story is both difficult and beautiful. It’s purpose, as you likely know, is not merely to tell us of the troubled and painful marriage of Hosea. It’s truer purpose is to show forth the troubled marriage of the Lord who has a bride, a people, who are unfaithful to him. We, both collectively and individually, have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism and renewed by us on many other occasions. But all too often we casually sleep with other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps it is money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, philosophies or arts and sciences. Some have outright left God, others keep two or beds, still speaking of their love for God but involved with many other dalliances as well. Yes, this is a troubled marriage, not on God’s part, but surely on ours.

And through it all, what does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride and a quite a cost too: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid highly to draw us back to him. Even still we stray and often show little appreciation of his love. An old Gospel song says, “Oh Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”

A deeper look at Hosea also reveals a look into the grieved heart of God. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to look at describes God as grieved, angry, and weighing out his options; also as loving and almost romantic. At one level we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. God is said to be like this. But God is not angry like we are angry. He is not grieved like we are grieved not romantic like we are. Yet though we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor we cannot wholly set them aside as having no meaning. In some sense, God is grieved, angry, loving and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how he experiences these is mysterious to us but He does choose to use these metaphors to describe himself to us.

With this balanced caution. Let’s take a look at excerpts from the second Chapter of Hosea wherein God describes his grieved heart to us and also his plan of action to win his lover and Bride back. All of these texts are from the Second Chapter of Hosea.

  1. Thoughts of Divorce!Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. The text here suggests a God who is weighing his options. But perhaps the better explanation is that this line is for us who read so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. But he will not. For though we break covenant He will not. Though we are unfaithful God will not be unfaithful. If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:13)
  2. The bitter charge against her Let her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts….., “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing. But so often we do not thank him. We run after the world, and after the powerful, thinking it is they who provide our wealth. No. It is God. But instead we love the world and forget about God. We sleep with the world. We give credit to medicine, science and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry for we are enamored of secondary causes and not God who is the cause of all. So we get into bed with the world and its agenda and adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is grieved at our ingratitude and adultery and is presented here as a wounded and jealous lover. Is God this? Remember these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God is not grieved or angered in the way were are. And yet, we cannot wholly dismiss these words as having no meaning. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that, though he is not passionate as we are, neither are we to regard him as indifferent to our infidelity.
  3. Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishmentI will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully……., I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers……I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities……I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense…..If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them she shall not find them. This text could be seen as descriptive of God in a jealous rage. But as we shall see, God has a result in mind. He does not punish as some uncontrolled despot cruelly exacting revenge. He punishes as medicine. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not merely sinners in the hands of an angry God we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion.
  4. The hoped for result: Then she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.” God’s intent was to bring his bride back to sanity. To bring her to a place where she is ready to seek union once again. For without this union she will perish, but with it she will be united with the only one who ever did love her and can save her.
  5. Passionate loverSo I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked. See how God wants to get alone with his bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare again his love for her in a kind of marriage encounter weekend. She, now repentant and devoted, will renew her love as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that, when we die, we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world, lovers known as creature comforts, power, pride, poor priorities and the like. So as we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this he restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.
  6. Renewed CovenantI will make a covenant for them on that day……I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. ….and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” God renews the marriage bond with us, both corporately in the Church and individually!

Here then is the astonishing, undying and pursuant love of God for his bride the Church and for all of us. After all our whoring and infidelity we do not deserve it. But God is a passionate lover. As he said to Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God buy us back at a high price. Now to be sure, he did not pay Satan. Rather, the payment he rendered was an indication of high sacrifice he had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far and he had to journey far and carry us back.

This song says, Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.