I actually listen to more novels than I read. When I was a minister in Saskatchewan, I found that I had a lot of driving and I often drove 2 or more hours to a meeting. And for quite a while I was an Interim Moderator at a church in Kipling, Saskatchewan and I would preach at Dunleath at 9:30 in the morning, Yorkton at 11 am and after that, go through the McDonald’s drive through, get my double quarter pounder with cheese meal deal, and drive one hour and fourty-five minutes to Kipling to preach at 2 pm before driving the hour and fourty five minutes home.
And so, listening to books on tape helped pass the time for all this driving.
And I continued listening to audiobooks when I eventually came to Edmonton, and listen to them when I drive, and when I try to get my 10,000 steps in every day, usually walking at least an hour a day. And they are no longer cassette tapes. They are audio files.
I find that a good narrator can help a book come alive with inflection and accents and various voices for the different characters.
And one of my favourite listens, which I probably listened to almost ten years ago was a book called, The Help.
Written by Kathryn Stockett and published in 2009 it tells the story of a young white woman Skeeter, who has recently graduated from college and wants to be a writer. This is in Jackson, Mississippi in the sixties. She ends up writing the stories of black maids. In the book they are called “coloured” because that is what they were called in the sixties.
Skeeter sees that “the help” are often struggling and exploited, although there are good stories of loving relationships too. In the novel, Skeeter tries to tell the true story of what it is like to be “the help” in the southern United States in the sixties.
The audiobook was narrated by four women which added depth and character to the story as I heard it.
I found the book fascinating and funny, and at times horrifying, and sometimes over the top. I understood it as fiction. I understood it as someone trying to get into someone else’s space and understand what that might be like.
I understood it as trying to understand “the other.”
The concept of “other” is I suppose a complex one. In some ways since we have the concept of “self” every other person is other, and we can never completely understand or be in the head of another.
However, from I think, a kind of sociological perspective, “the other” is somebody who is part of “they” over against “we.”
And the phenomenon we all know happens, is that often we use “they” and “the other” as a way to delegitimize those with whom we have differences. This has been especially apparent with those who have power, and often the “they” or “the other” is drawn around classic lines of race, or class, or gender, or age, or sexuality, or religion, or wealth, or political stripe.
When we “other” people, we usually point out that they are wrong, or inferior, or bad, or weak, or a threat, in order to increase our power and wealth and boost our ego or status.
“Othering” implies a hierarchy where we are better and it serves to keep the power in the hands of the powerful. Colonialism is one example of “othering.” The Residential school system in Canada is a powerful example of “othering.”
And so, it is helpful sometimes to try and walk in the moccasins of “the other.” …to try and understand what it might like to be “the other…”
…and fiction can sometimes help us do that a bit.
The problem is however, whether one who is from the powerful group, can give adequate voice to “the others” who are the less powerful.
One criticism of the novel “the Help” is that a white woman writes of the struggles of black women. And since it is fiction, there is the possibility that it strips black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment and making money.
However, the whole point of fiction in some ways is to enter the space of “an other” to imagine what it is like to be someone else, to try to enter different ideas, different cultures, different worlds, without which there would be no literature, no movies, no science fiction, no mysteries, etc…
…but when we enter the world of the “other” I suppose we also have to recognize that this is a kind of sacred place that is not ours, and we are not just using that space or exploiting that space, but trying to respect that space, seeking to discover the value of that space, seeking to understand that space, and respecting that space.
A hard thing to do…
And so, we get to the book of Ruth. It is a remarkable book in the Old Testament.
The title itself is remarkable. It is one of only two books of the 66 books in the bible that is named for a woman. It is the only book named for a Gentile, or a foreigner, or an “other.”
Let’s be clear that this story is not some little sentimental love story about a woman who falls in love with a man…. This is a story about gender, and race and otherness.
And the story that is like it in the New Testament is called the Good Samaritan.
In Jesus story of the Good Samaritan, it is the despised enemy, the despised other who shows what is means to love the other, to love the neighbour.
And in the book of Ruth, it is the Moabite woman who is the figure that best exemplifies the love of God. It is the foreigner, the other, who says to her mother-in-law:
Where you go, I will go; where you abide, I will abide;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
That is the promise of Jesus to us… to never leave us or forsake us, to not other us, to be with us in this life and the life to come, and that not even death can separate us from Jesus and his love.
In the book of Ruth it is the other who shows us what love and faithfulness is…
Throughout the Old Testament there runs this theme of otherness, that one is not to despise the alien, or the stranger, or the foreigner or the other.
Even though the prophet Ezra spoke against foreign women like Ruth and called for Israelite men to divorce their foreign wives.
Even though the prophet Amos said that God called Jews alone.
Many other places call for love and concern towards the other, because…because… the Hebrews themselves knew what it was like to be “othered.”
They themselves had been the aliens, the foreigners, the strangers in Egypt and had been horribly treated.
Do not other people because you were othered in Egypt.
Moses called his firstborn Gershom, because he had been a stranger in a strange land. He had been the other in the land of Egypt.
And not only do the Hebrews, know what it is like to be the other, so too does Jesus.
One of the most famous passages of othering in scripture maybe from Isaiah 53. We believe it is talking about Jesus.
“But he endured the suffering that should have been ours,
the pain that we should have borne.
All the while we thought that his suffering
was punishment sent by God.
5 But because of our sins he was wounded,
beaten because of the evil we did.
We are healed by the punishment he suffered,
made whole by the blows he received.
6 All of us were like sheep that were lost,
each of us going his own way.
But the Lord made the punishment fall on him,
the punishment all of us deserved.
7 “He was treated harshly, but endured it humbly;
he never said a word.
Like a lamb about to be slaughtered,
like a sheep about to be sheared,
he never said a word.
8 He was arrested and sentenced and led off to die,
and no one cared about his fate.
He was put to death for the sins of our people.
9 He was placed in a grave with those who are evil,
he was buried with the rich,
even though he had never committed a crime
or ever told a lie.”
Jesus became the other, to show us how to love one another, to forgive one another, to reconcile with one another, as he forgave us and wouldn’t other us.
And so, when Jesus talks about the greatest commandment to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, he linked it to love for the other.
How do you show God that you love God? By loving the other…. By loving your neighbour.
Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God… anyone who does not love, does not know God, for God is love…
And Paul the apostle takes up the theme of the other and concretely puts it into words. He uses the phrase “one another” many times.
In fact, one another appears in the words of Jesus and in the epistles something like 46 times.
“Love one another.” Appears 14 times.
Here are some others:
“serve one another in love.” (John 13:14, Gal. 5:13)
“Be at peace with each other.” (Mark 9:50, 1 Thess. 5:13, 1 Pet. 3:8)
“Be devoted to one another with mutual affection.” (Rom. 12:10)
“Honor one another above yourselves.” (Rom. 12:10)
“Live in harmony with one another.” (Rom. 12:16)
“Stop passing judgment on one another.” (Rom. 14:13) “Accept one another as Christ accepted you.” (Rom. 15:7)
“Agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you.” (1 Cor. 1:10))
“Carry each other’s burdens,
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Eph. 4:2, Col. 3:13)
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:13, 1 Thess. 5:15)
“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5:21)
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.” (1 Thess. 5:11, Heb. 3:13)
“Don’t grumble against each other.” (James 5:9) 24. “Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
“Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Pet. 4:9)
“Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” (1 Pet. 5:5)
When the spirit moves among us, the Spirit breaks down walls of hostility and prejudice so that we stop judging others and separating ourselves from others, and creating “we” and “them” with others.
And we start loving others. That is why Paul several times with different images says that we are one body, or one holy temple with different gifts. Our differences are not bad, not threats, just differences. And differences mean that we have different gifts to offer.
The other, has something to offer, because of their otherness.
Brian McLaren in the chapter we read just over a week ago in bible study writes:
More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel. Not fear, but love. Not prejudice, but openness. Not supremacy, but service. Not inferiority, but equality. Not resentment, but reconciliation. Not isolation, but connection. Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality.
McLaren, Brian D.. We Make the Road by Walking (p. 217). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.
You know this is a good time for the Presbyterian Church in Canada to put this into practice.
After years of prayerful debate and study, and much passionate and heartfelt discussion, The Presbyterian Church in Canada at the last General Assembly in June agreed to make changes to its theology and practice regarding marriage, permitting people to choose to define marriage as either as a covenant relationship between a man and a woman, or a covenant relationship between two adult people. These decisions provide Presbyterian ministers with liberty of conscience and the freedom to choose to officiate or not officiate at the marriages of same-sex couples.
Additionally, the church agreed that LGBTQI people (whether married or single) can be ordained and are welcome to serve as ministers and ruling elders.
These decisions accompany other resolutions about policies and programs that will help the church include LGBTQI people more fully in all aspects of ministry.
Maybe one of the groups that have been most “othered” by the church for centuries is the LGBTQI community. And we have a public apology hanging on the wall as you go into the Arthur Newcombe Room. It is a public apology from the Presbyterian Church in Canada to the LGBTQI community for all the harm done to them.
The church had talked about that apology for years and I, in tears, made the motion at Assembly a few years ago, to make the apology that year.
What is interesting recently though, is that the Presbyterian Church made, what I think is a bold move, by not choosing one theology over another and saying the other is wrong. There are two understandings of marriage.
I and our one of our elders Barb Acton, and one of our youth Julia Don Edwards was at the Assembly back in 2019 when this two-theology solution was proposed and we supported this solution.
I will not speak for them, but in part I supported this solution, even though the original motion was that there would be a new understanding of marriage and all ministers and elders would have to accept it.
I supported the two understandings of marriage because I did not want to other those who had, and wanted to maintain a traditional view of marriage.
Barb and I, and Julia Don took some flak for our stand.
However, we believe that people have differences and the church needs to live in harmony even with people who have strong differences.
Our Session has agreed that same sex marriage is allowed at First Church, but we respect the position of those who have a different point of view. You are all welcome here, and you are invited to live in harmony with one another and love one another, and be one family with differences.
What Jesus commands of us is to love one another. There are no limits to who that “other” is, and we thank God that even though we were in our own sin, alienated and “other” from God, God chose not to “other us…
…but in Christ to never leave us, or forsake us, or other us…
..that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love. Not even death itself.