The Otherist

September 9, 2012

Glass eyes from ‘The Otherist”, Amsterdam. 

Far from home, a traveller looks for places of rest and repose, wayside stops, little refuges, sacred spaces. Recently in Amsterdam I went in  search of some sacred space. Across the week I stayed there, I visited about half a dozen churches – all of them gobsmackingly old and huge. I was in awe of how much 3 dimensional space was occupied by these ecclesial structures, such great monoliths of christendom. They can’t all technically have been cathedrals in the administrative sense, but to the ignorant australian girl, they all sat in that scope. Architectural projects like these, that take several generations to build, often move me to tears, when I enter.

But at these churches in Amsterdam, the same conversation pattern halted me, and bewildered me, each time. It went something like this, with just slight variations:

Arriving at the door, I encounter a reception desk and an attendant. I look into the space in which I anticipate seeing pews and altars, lecturns and prayer boxes, but they are not where I expect them to be. Disoriented I ask the attendant –

“Is this not a place one can come to pray?”

And then the devastating assortment of answers all speaking the one truth…

“No. This  is a museum/monument/gallery/landmark.

“Oh…I am so disappointed.I have been to (however many I was up to) other churches and they are all like this.”

“I’m sorry,” the attendant apologises. “People do sometimes get angry at me that they can’t come in here like a church.”

“I’m not angry at you. I don’t hold you responsible for the demise of Christendom in Western Europe. You’re just the guy on the counter.”

“If you want to pray, there is a little church down the street…”

And they would try to give instructions to a functioning church, tucked away, which I never managed to find.

But I did find a sacred space eventually. It was this little shop called ‘The Otherist”

The name caught my attention first, because I like ‘other’ things. But also because in my quest for the sacred, this space offered two symbols which define  for me what it is to be a follower of Jesus. The ordinary and the other.

  • This quirky shop was filled with everyday things, quaint spoons, old iron keys, glass eyes, anatomical models from last century, animal skulls, mounted insects, curiously shaped pegs, seed pods, birds eggs, bottled sea creatures… Everything was wondrous though completely ordinary. Jesus makes the everyday things sacred things.
  • God ordains the ordinary and commissions the common to proclaim the truth, bear witness to the earthiness of creation and the creativity of the earth, so that we might know that God is very near, very present in the bits and bobs we have before us.

When I asked the owner of the shop why it was called the otherist, he gave an eloquent answer:

“Well, if one wants drugs, one goes to a druggist. This is a store for ‘Other’ things, so it is the place of the ‘Otherist’.”

“So you are The Otherist?”

While The Otherist wrapped my purchases, we talked about the churches that weren’t and about sacred space. As I left I commented that of all the places I had searched that this shop had held the greatest sense of ‘the sacred’ in all it’s quirky and not-quite-ordinary specimens.

Beyond the everyday pieces of life this shop held as precious wonderments, the name of the shop also tugged at the roots of faith. The stories of the Bible are tilted unmistakably in favour of the ‘other’. The one who is not part of the majority, the mainstream, the dominant group. The stories articulate God’s quirky preference for ‘others’. And more explicitly, God sets the agenda for us to be ‘Otherists’ – to imitate this bias, to think of others, to forsake the like for the unlike. So thoroughly does God expect and enable an ‘otherist’ ethic that ‘Love your enemies’ sits on the lips of the living Jesus. And even from the parched lips of the dying Jesus, love for his enemies croaks out in words of forgiveness, and cracks our categories and hearts to pieces.

And we see how in the very truly ordinary humanity of Jesus, the ‘other’ness of God is beyond our grasp and yet has completely grasped us.

We are still struggling as humans with each other. We are race-ist and sex-ist and class-ist and age-ist. We are against each other via those categories.

God, who truly is ‘Other’ is ‘Otherist’ – not against but for the other. God shows us first how we are very not like him, and then becomes as we are, so that we might become like him – and live as ‘otherists’ ourselves – for the other.

Our religious, political, philosophical, and even popular discourse is full of terms that ‘otherise’. Sometimes this is spun with the accolades of celebrity – in which someone is so utterly other and special; the Voice or the Look or the Thing. And sometimes ‘Other’ is demonised. The enemy, the opponent, the stranger, the outsider.

Jesus, who comes as ordinary and yet is truly God, exposes our folly to otherise in false adoration.

Jesus who comes as other and yet breaks down our dividing wall of hostility and reconciles all, exposes our vanity to otherise in false deprecation.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the way communities include, recognise, describe, manage and systematise children. Often, in our best efforts to advocate, educate and recognise children we end up thinking of them as so very different – they become ‘others’. When this happen we are walking in dangerous territory. When children are othered, they easily slip into being instrumentalised, objectified. We hear terrible stories of Professors who devote their life to researching children, only to be caught involved in a child pornography syndicate, or teachers who cross boundaries of exploitation, youth leaders whose passion overtakes them and they manipulate or coerce. We ought not be surprised, but we ought to be warned.

Many communities display a heavy rhetoric of thinking their children ‘special’, but this is a burden that does neither our children nor our community any good, disempowering us all, as we are hoodwinked into thinking there are ‘specialists’ who can’handle’ children. How easily, all the while under the banner of loving and caring for our children, we slip closer to regarding them as ‘other’ – not like ‘us’ – perhaps, though we would never admit it out loud, a little ‘less’ human than us.

There are also lots of ways in which children are held up us ‘more than’ ordinary.

Our culture is saturated with the expectation of ‘choosing’ to have children. They don’t (or in our well-manicured world shouldn’t) just happen ordinarily to us. But surely a more respectful experience of children is to allow them to ‘happen’ to us, to disrupt us, and to change the course of ‘ordinary’ life. You can see that this is a tender space, where the extraordinary wonder  we sense of children- their specialness- blurs with their place, their ‘right’ one might say, to occupy an ordinary existence.  Don’t misunderstand me: I consider every new child a breathtaking miracle. But I also consider, that living in a world that is God’s, miracles do happen everyday. Miracles, the things which fill us with wonder, and that make us wonder, are ordinary in God’s cosmos.

Jesus helps us to place children back in our midst, amongst us as we ask our questions, do our theology, our thinking, our creating, our deconstructing, walking the road, sitting in peace.  In the ordinary, the child is with us, not on a pedestal, or behind a glass window, or in a special program. But by our side. Doing as we do. And shaping us to do more as they do. Jesus, the reconciler shows us how to re-integrate what our culture has fractured and fragmented, to be together with children and the elderly and the in-betweens. This is not a new fad or a programming option for christian community. It is, as it always was, the ongoing gospel project of unity. There are now, as there always was, theological and pedagogical and pastoral and missional tasks to attend to, by which we will be well equipped, prepared, knowing all our gifts and re-envisioning how to use them in gathering and serving and sending. Can’t we hear Jesus wondering ‘If my people can’t manage to be together, including their own children and  elders – how will they go loving their enemies?

I walked from the sacred space of the Otherist- with wide eyed wonder, like a child, hearing the call of the ordinary and the call to the other.

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