Learning from the Past

I’m fortunate enough to have a German friend. He spent some time here in the states and got a really good chance to get to know what our culture is like. He did spot one area of concern: patriotism.

He explained to me that modern Germans don’t shy away from their history. They saw the role that patriotism played in Hitler’s rise to power. They pledged to teach their history without hiding the truth. You won’t see many people wave the national flag or sing the national song or saying the pledge of allegiance. The same can’t really be said about us and our relationship with our culture’s history – in particular that of the Civil War.

What I know about the Civil War is this. The northern states wanted to abolish slavery. The southern states – not so much. They seceded into the newly-formed Confederation. The northern states kept the name “Union”. The two fought a terrible, bloody war. The Union won. Abraham Lincoln was president. The fact that I know enough about the Civil War to cover seven short sentences tell you how much I’d forgotten over the years because the odds are it wasn’t just that simple and there was more going on.

As far as family history goes, very little about our involvement in the Civil War has been passed down. In one household, the war split two brothers – one fought for the Union and the other for the Confederacy. In another, the husband tried to stay out of it, but he was captured by Confederates and imprisoned. Eventually he was exchanged and managed to return home. Where he convinced all of his relatives who were also neutral to sign up for the Union. In those times he was away from home, his wife had to hold down the fort, sending her kids into the woods to hide so that when the Confederates visited none of them would be taken away. Somewhere, there’s a statue out there with the name of one of my relatives who fought in the Civil War.

Something that’s noticeable about the South, is that it’s spirit is still as rebellious as ever, even though southerners don’t believe in slavery, they don’t like being told how to live. Movies like Sweet Home Alabama show the pride Southerners have in their homeland.

Just the other day I made a joke at my expense as I’m not a local: “You can’t trust us Yankees.”

“Isn’t that the truth!” an elderly woman nearby said.

To be honest, after serving these people I have come to admire that they’re honest to a fault. They don’t sugar-coat what they think. They are hard-working people who know how to take it easy after working long hours farming the land. Living up North, you can get the impression that at least your predecessors were on the right side – but it shouldn’t be a source of pride or superiority over those originating in the South.

Looking around this county – there is a ton of Civil War history that I never really knew about aside from the historic markers you try to read as you fly by them on the road. Even then, there’s a number of historical reenactments that happen every year – though I’ve never seen one.

I suppose with effort people can erase history, eradicate memorials, and re-write text-books, but even without monuments, the history and the heritage of the south lives on in the people who live here. The trick is learn from it in much the same way as my German friend has come to terms with his.

I guess I thought that the Civil War was ancient history and it had no bearing on what’s going down right here and right now, but I’m only just now realizing that I couldn’t be more wrong.

Advertisements

Rest in Pieces: The Obituary of a Church

Stormcard

Not long after we moved down south, we stumbled across a church that made us moderately happy – for a time. The sermons were decent and best of all, they had contemporary music. We had hoped that it was similar to the non-denominational church that had breathed life into us after a bad church experience up north.

It was a church in the middle of a vast field; but the church itself wasn’t particularly old. Inside, the sanctuary was large and open – it had rows of chairs that could be stacked against the wall to make room for fold-able tables for potlucks and other get-togethers. They also had all the typical offerings – men’s groups, women’s groups, youth groups. For a time, it was a nice church home and a good church family.

But behind the scenes, things were a little different. The men in charge were the pastor, the elder, and the deacon. The pastor liked making everyone happy, so more often than not he’d end up siding with the elder unless the deacon could persuade him otherwise. The deacon was the only one who’d offer an alternative opinion to the elder; but he was often away on business, so the elder could get just about anything he wanted done when the deacon wasn’t around to challenge his opinions.

the elder laid the groundwork, slowly he introduced his favorite teachings. Then when the pastor left, the elder carefully chose a replacement, a younger guy, freshly graduated from a seminary, whose theology more closely resembled his own to frame up the structure as they remodeled the spiritual life of the church. He chose well. The new pastor has been preaching on Biblical manhood and Biblical church membership via resources from groups like The Gospel Coalition and 9 Marks among others; something the old pastor never did.

All that change has come at a cost; the church I knew is no longer the same. The people are mostly the same, but the teaching is so different. I guess we left because we saw it coming; an environment with a “it’s my completely Biblical way or the highway” mentality. We knew that we would always be the project, the heretics in the bunch who just refuse to listen to God’s word as interpreted by God’s shepherds overseeing the stubborn and dumb sheep who just won’t listen. We knew that we didn’t really belong in that kind of a church.

Still, it’s sad to watch a church fall for another gospel, choosing legalism over the legacy that was handed down to them, becoming something else entirely. I know it’s probably advertised as being more biblically-minded, more true to the gospel message, more faithful and winsome to the sound biblical teaching of the gospel known as the doctrines of grace. It’s the same pain every Arminianian has felt when their southern baptist church choose to go whole hog into that new kind of Calvinism because the church that used to accept you and worship side-by-side with you now rejects everything you believe – and by extension – you and how your beliefs make you who you are. Now that the church is being spiritually remodeled; it’s out with the old and in with the new; the building itself will always look the same, but it’ll never feel like home again.

Living Another Life

The other night, I overheard an older man giving some advice to a young couple who were about to be married. Basically, it was to start having children right away because if they wait until they’re older, they won’t have as much energy or the ability to bounce back as quickly when they get older. Some of the other people around nodded, saying things like the fact that they had regretted waiting too long. But this is a different world from the way that things used to be, and so it doesn’t follow that their advice applies as the best advice. No two couples are the same and they shouldn’t be made to live one way as if it were a cure-all to prevent any ills or woes happening in the course of everyday life.

I was thinking about that – how it’s true that most people will prefer to have the best of both worlds, there are usually some instances where they wouldn’t want to give up some of the good things about the path that they travelled. The more experiences you’re willing to erase from your life, the more aspects of who you are you are willing to let go. Then you end up becoming somebody else with some other life altogether.

What makes each of us who we are is the sum of everything that we’ve gone through and everyone who has impacted our lives. So much of our identity comes from where we’re from, who are friends are, who we work with, who we call family, where we live, what things we like. And sure, we’ll always make mistakes or decisions that we might wish to do-over; but odds are we wouldn’t want to give up whole sectors of our lives.

I was thinking about how this worked in Its a Wonderful Life; we only got a glimpse of the terrible fate that befell Mary without having fallen in love with George. She would have had to further her education, get a job, establish her own friends, her own place in the community, set her own goals; who knows, perhaps if George never existed she might have fallen in love with somebody else and lived her life differently – no better and no worse, just not the same. Yep, that’s the worst thing that could have happened without George; but it’s not really so bad, is it?

For me and so many others, we’ve been told that good things come to those who wait. As patient and we’ve been, we know that there’s bound to be a whole lot of good things in store – in due time. Perhaps our lives would have been different had we lived them differently, but then we would be different people, too. You know what, I rather like the person that I am and I’m glad that I’m not somebody else. I might not have followed the beaten path, but I’ve enjoyed the scenic route’s charming view.

Quito

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.)

A Strange Thing Happened On the Way Home

It was just before midnight and after a busy shift at work. I was tired and more than ready to go home. After passing by the Christmas lights display in town, I realized that the car behind me was acting erratically. I continued to drive the speed limit, following the laws. The car behind me opted to illegally pass me on the bridge (without a passing zone). Just on the other side of the bridge, it slowed down in front of me, signaled to turn right, but didn’t. It pulled into the gas station up ahead on the left, so I was glad to turn right thinking that it wouldn’t be my problem. I then heard it’s tires squealing as it turned around – out of the gas station and onto the road I had just turned onto. It began flashing it’s lights furiously. Again, the car sped up, passed me illegally, slowed down to a stop, forcing me to slow down and drive around him as he was hanging out of his window yelling something. Up ahead, I turned left – he followed, and again, flashed his lights, he sped up, passed me illegally (there aren’t any passing zones on this particular street), slowed down to a stop, and forced me to go around slowly. I began to wonder: “Is this guy trying to cause a collision?” “Is he on something?” It wasn’t long before he did it again – once or twice more (same street, still no passing zones). Once he got wise to the fact that I’d just go around – he angled his car in such a way that nobody could go around in the other lane. By this time, I could feel how afraid I was – my pulse was racing and my breathing had quickened. A maniac in a car had followed me out into the middle of nowhere section of the countryside, miles and miles away from anyone, anywhere. I could see him getting out of his car and walking my way and all I could think was that this was like something out of a movie that didn’t have a happy ending. My passenger helped me keep my cool, “Throw on the brights.” He suggested, knowing that it would daze the guy. My passenger used the distraction to great effect, throwing open the door and surprising the crazy driver – confronting him. The crazy driver claimed that our tire was about to fall off. Something about him seemed off – it’s a thing that you know it when you see it, but you can’t really describe why; a gut instinct, perhaps. It wasn’t a believable story – after all, our car was driving normally, there wasn’t any wobble or any indication of tire trouble. Not only that, my passenger is a car guy and wouldn’t let an unsafe car on the road. Whenever there’s the slightest indication of trouble, he has me take one of the other vehicles and checks it out. The crazy driver gets back into his car and drives forward on down the road. When he’s out of sight, my passenger checks our tires and sees that they’re perfectly normal. A few minutes later, a SUV pulls up behind us – it’s a co-worker who lives in the same area I do. We told her what was up and let her know that we were just fine. My passenger opts to take over driving, I didn’t object – I had had enough for one night. So we headed down the road, and my co-worker followed along behind. Up ahead, the crazy guy was stopped on the road. He let us pass and we went up ahead. When we lost sight of my co-worker’s lights, we turned around and went back. She had parked a safe distance away from the crazy driver right where it turns off to another road. We parked alongside her and asked her what was going on. She said that he had flagged her down with some story about being broken down and he had asked her to help him push his car off to the side of the road. She declined and said that she would pull off the road up ahead and call the police to come and give him some help. Given his erratic behavior, we opted to stay with her. At some point, the crazy driver turned off his lights, he coaxed his supposedly broken-down car back to life and started to turn around. And that point, we agreed with my co-worker that it was the opportune moment to drive away in the other direction. The rest of the drive was understandably tense – but we finally made it home safe and sound. Perhaps the scariest thing about what happened are the unknowns: “Is this guy trying to be a good Samaritan or does he have a nefarious plan?” “Is he on meth or something that makes him a dangerous person?” “If we really did have a bad tire, how would have continually forcing me to avoid hitting him have helped the tire?” “Wouldn’t it have just made things worse?” “Did he think I was alone and therefore an easy target?” “Why the different story with my co-worker?” Perhaps we’ll never know all the reasons, but if anything, my story shows that making all the right decisions can make the biggest difference in whether or not everything has a moderately happy ending. So this holiday season, beware of really bad good Samaritans who supposedly break down after following you into the middle of nowhere and happen to pose a significant danger. Being safe is more important than putting yourself in danger to do what might seem like a good deed.