Sid Phillips, Quentin, and the Judge of the Quick and the Dead blog post

1995 saw the release of the Pixar-created animated film Toy Story, to colossal box office success. The film’s antagonist was “Sid Phillips”, a vicious neighborhood bully, who delights to inflict pain and harm. His room is full of mutant toys that he’s dismembered and combined. At the movie’s climax, Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks, surprises Sid by conquering his fear and addressing him: “We don’t like being blown up, Sid. Or smashed. Or torn apart.”

The final great act in the drama of Jesus that Christians articulate in the Creed is that Jesus will, one great Day, “return to judge the living (or the ‘quick’ in older versions) and the dead.” This is an image many in the 21st century are deeply allergic to; we don’t like being blown up. Or smashed. Or torn apart. Judged.

The image of God or Jesus as Judge is extremely unpopular. Yet, even the most skeptical among us already live like it’s true. We live like it actually matters whether we abuse or aid the weak among us, like it matters whether we’re honest or deceptive. Life is unlivable otherwise.

In Arthur Miller’s celebrated and controversial play After The Fall, autobiographical of his failed marriage with Marilyn Monroe and her suicide, his character Quentin muses, “For many years I looked at life like a case at law. It was a series of proofs. When you’re young you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then, a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful or (whatever). But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption. That one moved... on an upward path toward some elevation, where... God knows what... I would be justified, or even condemned. A verdict anyway.  I think now that my disaster really began when I looked up one day... and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench... Which, of course, is another way of saying- despair.” 

If the cosmic bench is empty, life is unlivable. 

Here’s the counterintuitive surprise: in the Scriptures, that the cosmic bench is not empty is good news, not bad news. Throughout the Bible, God’s coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over. It causes people to shout for joy and the trees of the field to clap their hands. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, “That God judges the world also shows that creation is not a casual affair for God but rather a passionate commitment.” God refuses to ignore systemic injustice, violence, bullying, arrogance- and promises that he’ll act to put the world right. And that is good news! A God who doesn’t judge doesn’t care, doesn’t love.  

And, the One who sits at the cosmic bench is no Sid Phillips, but the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows who came not to condemn but to save.

Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).


Let Us Grieve

From James Bratt

With my mother’s memorial service just one week past, I hope you’ll accept one more post about encountering the end of life. Next time a different topic, I promise.

My biggest surprise in this whole passage has been the degree to which I’ve been surprised. When you’ve watched someone decline over a nine-year period—quite gradually at first, then accelerating, finally leaving very little of the person you once knew—you come to think (well, I came to think) that the last step would be rather small. I seem to have anticipated a process like a sunset over Lake Michigan. The sun drops slowly toward the horizon, then touches it, then is a quarter below the surface, a half, three-quarters, only a tiny slice left, and then entirely gone. Just a wee slipping away with no visible change in the light around us on the shore. So it went with my mom, only that last little dip brought on instant midnight. Or, to use another analogy, I suddenly found myself in a boat out of sight of land, twilight descending, wind rising, not quite sure where I was except alone.

“Of course,” kind friends say when I relate this experience, “it was your Mom! Doesn’t matter whether she’s 53, 73, or 93, she’s still your Mom.” Truth be told, it does matter some, even a ton, those age differences. Saying goodbye to a parent “old and well-stricken in years,” in the chiseled prose of King James, is not nearly as harsh as parting forty or even twenty years earlier. But, if better, it’s still not good. It’s a parting, a tearing away from the past, the loss of a center—even, one older friend said, the loss of a big chunk of yourself.


The Back that Bent Daylong...

From Jason Lief

This morning's guest blogger is James Vanden Bosch—English professor at Calvin College.

It was an ordinary day in the world literature class this week; we had already read a handful of poems by Baudelaire from the anthology and other sources, and we were now working our way through a few more.  Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal) had been infamous in its day; it is merely famous now.  In 1857, its publication in France caused an uproar, and it didn’t take the French authorities long to seize the book and fine the author.  Ten years later, Baudelaire died, infamous but not yet famous.  Today he is required reading for all those who want to study the turn to the modern in European literature. 

The themes and interests of this collection of poetry are pretty straightforward; Baudelaire wanted to explore the disgusting, ugly, or scandalous elements of modern urban life and then develop those topics in a way that allowed a kind of beauty to shine out of the decay and violence.  His subjects—prostitutes, criminals, soul-damaging depression, urban lowlife in the shadows and the darkness—were unusual, and the deep and relentless attention he gave to those elements of life in Paris was even more unusual. The collection begins ((“To the Reader” [“Au Lecteur”]) with a direct assault on the reader, whom the poem refers to as “Hypocrite reader!—You!—My twin!—My brother,”* and the poems that follow almost never relent. There is a famous love poem that focusses its attention on a rotting carcass by the side of the road, reminding the loved one that this is where all bodies are headed, suggesting between the lines that such knowledge should lead to a more intense enjoyment of our short corporeal existence. 


Fear-Filled Leadership and Communal Fractures

From Theresa Latini

I’ve been watching the unfolding stories about Ebola for months now. Fear of this gruesome disease has gripped many, including both those near to and far from it. When talking about the latest news, a long-time friend quipped, “If I was on that cruise ship with the nurse who had been exposed to Ebola, I’d have her thrown overboard.” I chuckled at first and then realized that this otherwise generous, kind person was shockingly serious. Duncan Thomas’ family has not only lost their home and possessions but also their community. Though no longer in quarantine, they have been ostracized. They have become the objects of fear.

Fear, especially systemic fear, fractures community, because fear and love cannot coexist. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:18).

The presence of fear, rather than love, and its deleterious effects on community is as evident in the church, in my estimation, as anywhere else. When pastors are gripped by the fear of being incompetent or weak, their capacities to connect with and understand congregants are diminished. So focused on reducing their own vulnerability, they may miss the beauty of fellowship or neglect to discern the Spirit’s quiet work. When a church council is driven by fear of diminishing numbers and/or dollars, the same is true. By focusing solely on what they lack and frantically attempting to compensate for losses, they may fail, on the one hand, to abide in God’s love and, on the other, to discern the changing shape of Christ’s ongoing ministry in their context. When a denomination is consumed by fear of division, they are more likely to experience it. Because the very thing needed to cross barriers is absent, that is, love.


ArtPrize, Nobel Peace Prize and Blasphemy Prize

From Jennifer L. Holberg

Guest posting for Jennifer today is Eric Sarwar. He is an ordained Presbyterian pastor from Pakistan, and founder and director of the Tehillim School of Church Music & Worship in Karachi. He is currently finishing his ThM at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Welcome, Eric!

This is a tale of three women from the same country that have all been in the news in the past week. At the annual ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, MI, I saw the beautiful installation “Intersections” by Pakistan artist Anila Qayum from Lahore, Pakistan. She not only won the public grand prize but was co-winner of the juried grand prize. Her art provided a beautiful positive image of Pakistanis in the USA.

The second breaking news on global media was of Malala Yousufzai, from the Swat Valley of Pakistan. She was the youngest person, at age seventeen, ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was honored for standing up for girl’s education after being targeted and wounded by Taliban extremists at the age of 15, along with few other girls from that area. Since then, she has become a spokesperson for all young women in Pakistan and beyond who desire an education. 

The third woman, Aasiya Noreen, also known as Asia Bibi, is one of the least of the least in Pakistan, a poor Christian farm worker and mother of three girls. While working on a farm in hot weather on June 19, 2009, she got into a dispute with a group of Muslim women who objected to her drinking from a well belonging to Muslim women and also drinking from their cup, because as a Christian she was considered “unclean.” Hours after the incident, one of the women claimed to a local cleric that Aasiya had made disparaging remarks about the Prophet.