Our True Greatness

I’ve been wondering what makes us great. Is it having more riches than others by far? No, riches alone do not prove one’s greatness, for riches can be ill gotten gains. Is it having the mightiest standing army of them all? No, armies cannot fight all battles – not even with all the weapons and technology at their side. Greatness is far more than that.
I’ve also been watching Merlin and every few episodes you see flash of what will be great about King Arthur’s kingdom; it’s not his wealth or his army – but his stand on his principles.
The Round Table, for one, represents equality where no one person had more importance than any of the others around the table. “They believed in equality of all things.”
“When the rules are wrong … you re-write them!” In some episodes, an innocent person loses their life because that is what the rules demanded. When the rules are unjust and unfair, they must be erased.
Arthur’s Kingdom was one of principles – ideals, beliefs – the ancient romances are full of them: courage, faith, trust, hope, goodness, kindness – what made us great was that we were a nation born of these principles.
The principle that everyone could transcend what station they were born as and work to better themselves. The principle that hard work would be rewarded. The principle that we could forge relationships on trust and hope and faith. The principle that a stranger was just a friend you hadn’t met yet. We opened our doors to anyone and everyone – promising them opportunity and prosperity. That is our greatness.
So locking that door shut, building up walls and casting our neighbors out of our land isn’t us becoming great – it’s turning our backs on the greatness that we can’t lose if we remain true to our beliefs.

A Deep Betrayal

Just the other day I was eavesdropping (I’m really good at that) and heard the story of a young man who found himself in a rather desperate situation. A close relative of his had suffered an injury and her medical care was beyond his means. So he went to the man he worked for to ask for some more money; he was making minimum wage and he needed just a little bit more. He knew his boss was a good Christian man, one who had gotten him saved and going to church. So he explained the whole situation to him and expected his boss to do the Christian thing. His boss refused and ordered him out of his sight. His faith was shattered – in God, in Christians, and in everything he had come believe in. I could hear the sting of that betrayal in his voice as he shared his story.

The thing is – I couldn’t disagree with him or his sentiments. Just being a Christian doesn’t make a person a shining example of morality or a selfless charitable soul. When I think of all the verses of Scripture, I think Jesus’ warning that it would be better for someone to be drowned with a millstone around their neck than to cause someone to stumble in their faith applies here most of all; Christians need to be aware that the more they profess the name of Christ the higher the standard they are to be held up to at all times. I do not doubt that one day that man might be asked why he didn’t help the poor man and he will have to explain himself to that higher authority he professes to believe in. I wish I knew what to tell the betrayed man; but I couldn’t invalidate his experience by telling him that he was mistaken. He wasn’t. A representative of Jesus Christ who acted in Jesus’ name refused to give when he was asked, refused to help the ill, refused to help the poor, and destroyed the faith of a brother in the process. Where I live, I see such folks all the time; praise  God this, thanks be to God for that … and whenever they fail, they take others down with them. I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant of us as believers; he often asked for people to live quiet, humble lives whose actions backed up our words; filled with good deeds. He would have wanted us to be true to each other even when the cost is great.

Save a Life

Just the other day, I was handed a dollar bill with this message stamped in red on it: “Don’t vaccinate! Save a life!” People certainly do write the strangest things on money these days, don’t they?

One of the books I had read as a kid was The Velveteen Rabbit. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get so sick my parents would have to remove all my clothes, toys, books – everything I own and burn them. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

Then I remember accounts of old men and women whose childhood was plaged by a very real and dangerous threat – Polio. It left in it’s wake death and paralysis. One of our former president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had contracted it and it left him paralyzed; not that he ever let him stop him from achieving great success or let on in the public consciousness. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

History also records of the Spanish Flu, a deadly epidemic that killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS killed in twenty-four years and more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

Scarlet Fever, Polio, and a great many other diseases have been known to mankind for thousands of years; history tells us that they’re very good at wrecking and destroying the human body and our natural immunity isn’t nearly strong enough on it’s own to win. We live in a world that has found a way to fight back and prevent epidemics before they even begin; but it’s an all-or-nothing solution. Anyone who doesn’t get a vaccine undoes the efforts of those who take them. That’s why diseases that were thought to be gone had a resurgence in recent years. The point is – not having vaccines didn’t save lives; it just made it that much easier for lives to be lost – and greater numbers of them to be affected by the after-effects of surviving a terrible disease.

I’m told that when an apartment in New York City is fumigated, the cockroaches simply up and relocate themselves to another apartment in the same building that isn’t being fumigated. The only way to eradicate the creatures from the whole building is to see to it that there’s nowhere else for them to go; and similarly, that there’s no one else for these diseases to find safe harbor inside. I don’t know who stamped that message on the dollar bill; but saving lives starts with taking vaccinations; if anyone doubts that, there are a great many third world countries where there’s little to no access to vaccines that are the front lines where all kinds of diseases still takes a heavy toll every single day.

Oikos

Elements of an Ancient Greek House (Oikos)

In general, the Romans borrowed and improved upon Greek concepts, so it should come as no surprise that there are similarities between both the Roman Domus and the Greek Oikos. In Greek use, the word “Oikos” could be referring to the house, the family, and/or the family’s property; so they are sometimes confused.

Entrance – outside of the entrance of the house, there was usually a sculpture called a herm. It was a representation of Hermes – while famous for being the god of messengers, he also was a god of good luck and fertility. It leads into the Courtyard.

Courtyard – most rooms lead into the Courtyard. It would often contain an altar dedicated to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, the home, and the state. Altars to Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes were also quite popular. There was usually a well in the Courtyard. When the weather was nice, women would sometimes do their spinning and weaving in the Courtyard.

Store Room – the equivalent of pantry; there were large jars called amphorae and pithoi in which the goods were stored.

Work Room – this room was dedicated to the production of crafts and goods that the household would sell; slaves did most of the work.

Andron – these rooms were almost exclusively set aside for the use of the men of the family, not unlike our man cave. It would be the most elaborately furnished room in the house.t Men entertained their male guests, friends and business partners alike. Drinking parties called symposia were held here. The only women who were permitted to enter were slaves who were serving the men or specially hired female entertainers.

Gynaikon – these rooms were almost exclusively set aside for the use of the women of the family, here they would spin and weave, entertain their friends and female relatives, as well as look after their children. If a visiting male friend were to force his way into this area of the house, it would be a grave insult that would incur a stiff punishment because it was dishonorable. The Andron and Gynaikon were located as far apart as possible.

Slave’s Rooms – sparsely decorated and with little furniture, these were conveniently located. The rooms of male slaves were near the men’s quarters and the rooms of female slaves were near the women’s quarters.

Kitchen – the kitchens had a central hearth; everyday cooking was done in basic pots. The finest cooking ware and dishes were used when serving special guests.

Bathroom – water was collected from the well and then heated over the fire for typical bathroom usage. They also had clay pots for more typical bathroom usage.

Bedrooms – they were more elaborately furnished than the slave’s rooms; the beds were similar to the couches in the Andron, they also had wooden chests used to store clothing and other personal items.

Cultural Expectations in a Greek House

1.) Gender segregation was a reality of every-day life; there were certain rooms in the house that certain people couldn’t enter because of their gender. In general, women were stashed away in the private rooms that were deepest in the house and furthest away from the more public spaces of the house.

2.) A man was the kyrios (lord, master, “head”) of his household. He was responsible for the well-being of his wife, children, and any unmarried female relatives. It was his duty to arrange marriages for his female relatives, provide for their dowries, and represent them in court as the family lawyer. He was the master of the household slaves. He would also conduct business on behalf of the whole family. Another one of his duties was to be the priest of the family and give offerings on the household altars to the deities.

3.) Women could conduct business within certain limits and hold a limited amount of property. Women rarely left the house (they had to get their husband’s permission first), but were always accompanied by their male slaves when they did. Girls were rarely formally educated, rather they remained at home and learned domestic skills. They were never invited to dinners held by the kyrios; rather they held their own women-only dinners instead.

4.) Region to region, there was some variation, for example, in Sparta the men lived in the barracks, leaving the women at home. When the men went off to war, the women were left to run things, so they had more freedoms than was typical for other regions.

5.) Boys were raised in the Gynaikon until they were about six or seven years old, then they began to receive formal education. When children were considered fully grown, they offered their toys on altars to the gods and goddesses as a thanks offering for having lived long enough to grow up.

(There’s more to be said on cultural elements, and I’ll add them over time as I learn them.)

Domus

Elements of an Ancient Roman House (Domus)

While is is true that Roman houses varied according to type and status, there were important cultural considerations in a typical upper-class Roman house. There were areas that were technically “public”, and areas that were very much “private.” The essence of a Roman house was designed based on social order. While some rooms were common to most houses, there were less important rooms that were included / excluded according to the master’s taste.

Entrance Hall (Vestibulum) – a combination between a porch and a waiting room which blocks the rest of the house from view, it reduces heat loss and is a good spot to leave one’s outer wear. It also represents an element of security for the rest of the house. It is a part of the Ostium and it leads to the atrium.

Tabernae (Shop Fronts) – These were shop fronts that lined the street, they were let out to tenants.

Ostium (Janua / Fores) – refers to the entrance of the house, it sometimes held a small room (cella) for the porter / janitor / ostiarius as well as the dog that guarded the house.

Atrium – the most important part of the house; it is the open, central court from which the other enclosed rooms lead off. There was usually a drain pool in the middle of the room that would will up a cistern below it (an impluvium that caught rainwater that fell through the compluvium – a hole in the roof). Guests and dependents (clients) were usually met here; for this reason it was usually the most lavishly furnished room in the house. It provided both light and ventiliation. It also contained the little chapel to the ancestral spirits (lararium), the household safe (arca) and sometimes a bust of the master of the house.The atrium was the public part of the house.

Fauces – hallways.

Tablinum – between the Atrium and the Peristyle/Peristylium was the office where the dominus (master of the house) would receive his clients for the morning salutatio. Roughly in the center of the house, it served as a command station as the head of the social authority as the paterfamilias (father of the family.) It contained the family records and archives.

Peristylium – an open courtyard within the house, it was similar to the Atrium but was larger and contained a piscina (pool). It might contain flowers, shrubs, flowers, benches, sculptures, and even fish ponds. There were usually columns supporting the porches. The Peristyle was the private portion of the house and was off-limits to business guests.

Triclinium – the Roman dining room. It featured a low square table with three couches on the sides (klinai). A slave known as a tricliniarcha was responsible for overseeing slaves of inferior ranks to keep the room clean, keep it in order, and attend to the guests dining needs. This room was off of the Peristyle.

Alae – Open rooms on each side of the atrium, ancestral death masks (imagines) were among the things displayed here.

Cubiculum – Bedrooms. A mosaic on the floor often indicated where the bed should be placed. There were separate rooms used for daytime and others for nighttime. These were off of the Atrium.

Balineum – a bathing chamber which contains the bath.

Bibliotheca – a personal library, it eventually became fashionable for even unlearned men to have large libraries just so they seemed to be more intelligent.

Coenacula – the rooms in the upper story of a multi-level house.

Solaria – A terrace on the top of the house where Romans would bask in the sunlight. Some of them featured artificial gardens with fruit trees and fish ponds.

Pinacotheca – An art gallery that was also used to display statues.

Culina – Kitchen. Slaves prepared food for their masters and guests in this dark and smoke-filled room (it didn’t have a chimney.) It was off of the Peristyle.

Posticum – The back door used for discrete exits, as well as the servants entrance.

Exedra – Normally a public feature, a place to gather for debates, it’s a semi-circular area in a room for the purpose of holding a conversation, it was usually outdoors in the Peristyle.

Cultural Expectations in a Roman House

1.) It was considered improper to enter a house without giving notice to anyone already inside. Spartans would shout, Athenians and other nations would use the knocker, others would rap the door with the knuckles or with a stick.

2.) Every morning the Salutatio was expected: clients would wait even before daybreak in the vestibule until the doors of the atrium were opened. He remained there until the patron appeared and the nomenclator announced the name of the dependent who brought his morning greeting. The callers were divided into various groups, according to their rank and intimacy; even men of good position were not exempt on account of status, but could be found among the callers. Some clients would be invited to accompany the patron wherever he might be going that day. Others would receive their dole (a wicker basket with a portion of food in lieu of being invited to attend the meal with their patron.) Then they would hurry off to another house to be similarly rewarded.

3.) Guests dining in the triclinium leaned on their left elbows, leaving their right arms free. Usually three, sometimes four guests shared the same couch. The head of man would be near the best of the man who lay behind him, so he would be said to lie on the bosom of the other. Because of this, each person was considered as below (status-wise) him to whose breast his own head approached. So when facing the triclinium and standing on the empty side, the head of the table and the seat of honor would be the one nearest you on your right hand side (as there’s no one to lean on); whereas the places of least honor would be the one nearest you on your left hand side (as there is someone to lean on). While Greek and Jewish cultures also adapted to the use of tricliniums, their configurations of honorable seats also differed.

4.) Houses were built on the social order, rules about being the head the household (dominus / paterfamilias / oikodespotes) were by design and Roman Tradition as well as part of Roman Law. With it came certain expectations and roles for various members of the family. The head of the household was the priest of the family cult and therefore lead the spiritual lives of the family, he was the C.E.O. of the family business and therefore controlled all business aspects, he was the lawyer of the family and represented them in all legal matters, he was the political representative of the family and therefore spoke on their behalf concerning politics, he was the master of the family and controlled all the slaves, he was the patriarch of the family and made decisions over his extended relatives, and he was the patron who had clients who depended upon him as their benefactor.

(There’s more to be said on cultural elements, and I’ll add them over time as I learn them.)

Filtration

I know, I just said that Christianity has a lot of spiritual pollution doing more harm than good. But the truth is, completely pure ideology can be just as harmful and sometimes worse. I grew up in a denomination that anchored itself to Biblical Inerrancy. I watched it used the Inerrancy card to police it’s own and kick out anyone who didn’t measure up. Once the liberals and moderates were out, all that was left was for the conservatives to size up one another and call out those among them who were too liberal or not conservative enough to be one of them. It’s not enough to be a believer, it’s about being one who believes exactly the right things in exactly the right way to be an insider who belongs in the group. It is a lot like passing through a series of increasingly narrowing gates, ones that are humanly impossible to enter in – you become stuck, unable to go further in, but also isolated from all the others who couldn’t quite measure up to your level that you spent so much time seeing yourself as ideologically superior to them.

When applied to Christianity, it means judging those who don’t believe exactly as you do are outside of the fellowship and outside of the faith, they are impurities who mar your perfection, they are the dross meant to be put to a trial by fire and removed as the cast-off and inferiors that they are. It tends to create an excess of pride. And since we know that pride goes before a fall – any group dedicated to pure ideology is destined to fail before it even begins; but odds are they’ll still give it a good old fashioned try anyway.

What we need is to find a way to accept one another even though our ideology isn’t identical. A way to teach each other without tearing down those who reach different conclusions and without invalidating their beliefs. We need to find a way to achieve unity and still honor all kinds of diversity. That will take no small amount of humility. Perhaps there’s this church down the road that has the right idea; it’s both a baptist and a Methodist church. The two congregations couldn’t afford to maintain separate spaces, so they agreed to share one building and pool their resources together. We still haven’t quite figured out how they make it work, if the Baptists get to have the early morning service and the Methodists get the late morning service, for if both churches are one congregation and they alternate on Sundays which type the service will be, Methodist this Sunday and Baptist the next. Somehow, they found a way to make it work, instead of being either Baptist or Methodist, they are both Baptist and Methodist; more than that, they’re both Christians. Instead of falling victim to the temptation to separate into many smaller and smaller groups, they view themselves as a part of just one larger, all-encompassing group that has room for everyone, everywhere.

I know, the Bible says not to add to it, but also says not to take away from either – perhaps these elements were built into it and simply ignored. Looking at what Paul had to say, he didn’t seem to think that everyone had to agree with each other about everything, he allowed people to come to different conclusions about smaller matters and didn’t see it as a threat to their faith. The question becomes who gets to decide what a smaller matter is? That’s the other problem with the Inerrancy group, every dotted I and crossed T becomes a central matter and every disagreement becomes heresy. That’s not the kind of Christianity that we were meant to have.

Thinking back to Corinth, how Jesus, Peter, Apollos, and Paul were four teachers that the church divided itself according to it’s preferences, perhaps we miss that all of them were supposed to be teaches and all of them were supposed to bring different perspectives into the church. That of the founder, the founder’s closest follower, the founder’s chosen instrument to reach certain people, and one who picked up the mantle after others had laid down the foundation. Paul talked about that – one starts a work, the next builds on it. One plants a seed, the next waters it. We’re not all foundation builders, we’re not all seed-planters. Instead of sticking to a foundation (and never building), keeping on planting seeds (but never watering), we were meant to have divergent teachers that helped us continue to build and to grow and to mature – to challenge us to adapt to new ways of thinking.

Just as the air we breathe isn’t pure oxygen and the water we drink isn’t completely pure either – as it travels in the water cycle, it picks up certain impurities. In this region, water often filters itself through the natural limestone, which adds calcium while removing iron. Christianity’s filtration system has been off kilter for quite some time, often letting in more harmful elements and blocking helpful ones, leaving a bad taste in it’s wake. We don’t know how to answer the questions about what makes for a good teaching or a bad teaching anymore. We find ourselves listening to the people we shouldn’t and ignoring the people we should listen to. It’s no wonder our environment has become so toxic.

Do We Wish to Continue?

I’m not sure that I really want to go back to church. What is there for me there? I know – you read those words and think: “That’s a millennial for you, all worried about me, me, me, I, I, I … why when I was their age, it wasn’t all about me!”

Perhaps you fit with your church so much like a hand in a glove that you no longer think of yourself and how much you belong and what it’s like to feel united as one, like-minded, and as having a common purpose; but were your situation like that of a mismatched glove, too small and tight or too large and loose – you just might feel differently. Were you to find yourself in a church whose ministries are geared to people whose life stations are the opposite of your own and you were the odd man (or one) out you might wonder if you belong there at all.

I really wanted to be optimistic about finding the right church this year, but knowing that religious institutions are among the most slowly moving organizations of all and least likely to accept any degree of change, the reality is this year will be almost exactly like the last one – the biggest difference is that every bulletin will no longer be dated 2016, but 2017.

That degree of consistency might be comforting to anyone opposed to change. Change is always scary, after all. You can’t control it and you never know what might result. The same cannot be said if you don’t change – you have thorough control and always know what results before you do something because it’s the same the last time you did it and will be the same the next time you do it.

The fact that so many things haven’t changed is what bothers me. Too many churches still don’t see me for who I am, but for what I’m not – not yet married, not yet a parent, not yet mature, not yet selfless, not yet etc. I know, you’re thinking that not all churches are like that – it’s just not possible. If you hold to the idea that anything’s possible, then it most certainly is possible to find yourself in a region where pretty much all the churches that are within driving distance are like that to some degree – some worse than others.

I most certainly do not want to go back to that church – the ones that haven’t changed, that still play favorites, the ones that slam doors shut and lock the wrong people out. Knowing the glacially slow pace that churches tend to adopt and finally accept change, it makes me wonder if there will be a day in my lifetime when I can once again go to church and find somewhere I belong.

Perhaps we just don’t see that changes need to be made. As it turns out, one reason why some people are prone to skipping out on chores is because they don’t see that they are are a problem that needs to be done – they have to get noticeably worse before action is taken. What did it take for our society to take pollution seriously? The Cuyahoga River catching fire! Actually, the river caught fire several times, the first one wasn’t enough to spark lasting change, neither was the second, third, fourth … and so on – it was the last fire that enough damage had been done that people decided to take action and make lasting change for the better. Think about it – there wasn’t a problem with the pollution five minutes before that last fire even with all the previous fires on record.

Thing is – there is a lot of spiritual pollution in Christianity, our pure spring water has become mixed with a lot of toxic teachings, derogatory language, disastrous theology, and no shortage of scandals that for some reason or another should have been the last nail in the coffin – but for some unknown reason wasn’t. It seems that we’re not on that brink of disaster where we ask ourselves: “What have we been doing? We have got to stop!” The one where we repent, make a one hundred eighty degree turn and make lasting changes. We haven’t had that last fire yet. That’s what scares me – because it would have to be pretty bad in order to get us to change our ways and I don’t want people to get hurt.

The thing is – it would hurt even more to not change, but the church can’t see it either. Not changing doesn’t solve existing problems. Not changing got us to where we are now, looking around wondering where everyone went. Not changing is not what we’re here for or meant to do. Some degree of change is necessary – vital to continue living. Change then, is a tricky balance, unavoidable and indispensable if we are to continue, then we must change. So I can only conclude that the question is: “Do we wish to continue?”