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Portrait of a hero: John Roll

In a day when we seem to have lost the definition of true courage, I want to pay tribute to a genuine hero. No, he’s not an athlete or a rock star, the type of celebrity we erroneously name as heroes. I’m speaking here of a man who lived – and died – by firm convictions.

Those convictions were revealed on Jan. 8 during the massacre in the Safeway parking lot in Tucson, Ariz.

This hero’s name is Judge John Roll.

He had just attended mass and stopped by the event where Rep. Giffords was speaking to make a social call. Then tragedy struck. Deranged killer Jared Lee Loughner pulled out a pistol and began firing. When it was all done, six people were dead.

Among those who died was Judge Roll. While most of the media seemed obsessed with finger-pointing and trying to find some cause and effect between talk radio and the actions of a lone, deranged shooter, a story of heroism has been largely missed.

A video of the massacre revealed that Judge Roll literally laid his life down to save another. The judge was shot in the back as he knocked down and then shielded congressional aide Ron Barber from more of the bullets fired by Loughner. According to a sheriff’s department employee who viewed the video, Judge Roll placed himself over Barber while Loughner continued firing.

In a final act of hatred, the hardened Loughner shot Judge John Roll in the back.

“The judge is a hero,” said Pima County Sheriff’s Chief Rick Kastigar. “Judge Roll is directly responsible for directing Mr. Barber out of the line of fire and helped save his life.”

We all wonder what we would do under such circumstances, but I am convinced that Judge Roll’s Christian faith played a major roll in his actions on Jan. 8. I know this because Judge Roll’s son, Robert, wrote me only a couple of days after his father’s death to talk about the private life of this hero.

Robert granted me permission to use his letter in this article. He wrote:

Dear Greg,

I wanted to take a moment to send you an e-mail to tell you thank you. My dad, Judge John Roll, was one of the victims that passed away in the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8. My dad would download your podcasts daily and listen to them on his way to work. I am not sure if he sent you a letter in the past, but he always enjoyed your preaching. We would talk weekly and discuss your podcast. You have also given me strength in the past through your preaching and helped me guide my family. Again I wanted to say “thank you” for your work, and the spiritual strength that you had given my dad and the inspiration and strength you have given me. Please keep us on your thoughts and prayers.

Robert Roll.

I was deeply moved and humbled by the e-mail from Robert Roll. We have a radio broadcast called “A New Beginning” and a related podcast that airs Monday through Friday of Bible teachings that I do from Harvest Christian Fellowship, the church that I pastor in Southern California.

I am so thankful that Judge Roll and his son found those messages to be an inspiration. In a link to an article Robert Roll sent to me, it was said of his father: “He liked mentoring young Christian attorneys because he believed their faith gave them a better moral foundation for the vocation of law. He was more of a father figure than a boss. He knew our families, and he always wanted to hear the news about them. …”

That’s the kind of man John Roll was.

He was a man who loved God and His word, a man who loved his family and co-workers and a man who even loved a stranger enough to die trying to save him.

I call that a hero.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). That’s exactly what the judge did on that tragic day. In a split second, he made a decision to literally sacrifice his life to save another.

It has been said, “Character is not made in crisis, it is revealed.” John Roll put that character on display at 10:10 a.m. in a parking lot in Arizona, and serves as an inspiration to us all.

So I pay tribute today to a man of faith and courage, Judge John Roll. I trust that the good judge will hear the Heavenly Judge say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord” (Matthew 25:21).