Monday, November 14, 2016

When Things Fall Apart: Saint Augustine of Hippo and the Fall of Rome

Remains of the Cathedral of Hippo's mosaic floor
 There are some sermon illustrations I heard as a child that have stuck with me over the years.  One of those was about Saint Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, and his response as he received word in December 410 that the city of Rome had fallen. Admittedly, the thing that originally caught my attention was that there was a city called Hippo. The significance of the story was lost on my younger self, but this past weekend as I had the rare opportunity to visit Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria), I reflected on the fall of the Roman Empire and Augustine’s writings in the context of current events.   

Bishop Augustine sought words of wisdom to offer his deeply shaken congregation, some of them refugees from Rome. He responded to the question he knew they were all asking: How could our God allow this to happen? Could a Christian empire truly fall?  Augustine said to them 
“God does not raise up citadels of stone and marble for us; outside of this world he raises up citadels of the Holy Spirit for us, citadels of love which could never collapse, which will for ever stand in glory when this world has been reduced to ashes. … Rome has collapsed and your hearts are outraged by this.  Rome was built by men like yourself.  Since when did you believe that men had the power to build things that are eternal?  Your souls, filled with the light of the Holy Spirit, will not perish.”

Note what Augustine did not say. He did not tell them that they shouldn’t weep for the suffering—that they had nothing to fear and that everything would be ok. He definitely didn’t say ‘Let’s just calm down and give these Barbarians a chance. They may be stealing from the poor, mocking the vulnerable and sexually assaulting women, but this new administration’s policies may prove to be beneficial to us (although clearly not to everyone). After all, the old regime wasn't perfect either.’  No, what he did say was, in fact, the opposite.  

Augustine said that the City of God and the City of [Hu]man were two separate things. As American University’s chaplain Rev. Mark Shaefer explains in a recent post,
“the City of the World…loves its own power. The rulers of this city, and the people they rule, are dominated by the lust for domination. They seek power to be in control. Those who are oppressed seek power to oppress those who have oppressed them. They strive for success, security, and an orderly life. Babylon and Rome were examples of the City of the World.”  
 The City of God, in contrast,
“has God as the object of its love. The citizens of the City of God live with lives of charity and service toward all. They live with hope as pilgrims in the world.”
Thus, the good news was that Rome’s collapse did not mean that the City of God had also been conquered.  The bad news was that they were right to fear that Hippo would soon fall too.      

Father David Myers writes that ‘twenty years later, the same Augustine lay dying on the floor of this same Cathedral in which the people of Hippo were seeking refuge from the Vandal horsemen who were laying siege to the city, having swept through Spain and across the sea to Africa.  Soon Hippo would be no more.  The Cathedral would be destroyed, but the reality behind the Alpha and the Omega inscribed on the floor of the Cathedral where he lay dying is eternal.’

the Cathedral of Hippo's batistery
So, this weekend I found myself standing on that very same floor—photographing the remains of the intricate mosaic tile floor that appeared in patches between the weeds and pondering the fate of those who had been immersed in the waters of the baptistery my daughter leaned against. I learned through the guide (and cross checked through other sources) that the Vandals lifted the siege of Hippo shortly after Augustine’s death. They burned the city—destroying everything but the cathedral and library. 

I’m still searching for an answer to my question of when and how the cathedral finally fell, but the caretaker of the modern basilica up the hill built in Augustine’s memory told me that their congregation (the only Christian community he knew of in the city) consisted of seven Algerians and a group of university students from subSaharan Africa. 

What’s my point in sharing this?  I think it is this:  Cities and nations rise and fall. I am not going to tell you that Americans and the rest of the world are going to be ok because not all of us are. The cities of humans are full of oppression and injustice, and anyone who tells you that is this all God’s will is referring to a god I do not worship. But, we who seek citizenship in the City of Love are part of something that cannot be destroyed. Our challenge, then, is to hold in tension these truths: our world is not ok and Love will outlive us all.  

the ruins of the Cathedral of Hippo behind me

So, yes, I am paying attention. Yes, I am angry. Yes, I am worried--especially for my friends who are being directly threatened. Yes, I am weeping for those being terrorized. Yes, I’m committed to radical love and hospitality. Yes, I care even about those who are committing acts of violence. Yes, I’m taking deep breaths.Yes, I will stand up for justice even if it kills me. Yes, I am made of stardust. Yes, I am celebrating the helpers and the healers. Yes, I find comfort in knowing that I am part of a ancient narrative of resistance—that while my name may be forgotten, the values I embrace will live on. And, yes, when I look into the eyes of my daughter, her classmates and their teachers here in Algeria who come from many nations and religious traditions, I get a glimpse of the City of God, and in that moment, I am at peace.  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Safety Pins and Safe Places

the original Safe Place sign
When I was a kid in the early 1980s, I spotted an unusual sign on the window of a house on our street.  It said “Safe Place,” and it made an impression on me—the idea that a house could be publicly declared as a haven for young people in crisis. It comforted me knowing that house was there. Although my parents' house has acted as a safe haven for many over the years, we never had one of those signs; you had to go through a special training program to earn the Safe Place designation. 

I got to thinking about those old (since revamped) signs this weekend.  In the aftermath of Tuesday’s elections, a lot of white people feel a deep yearning to publicly say “I’m not a hater! You are safe around me!”  Safety pins started trending in my FB newsfeed, and then, as to be expected, some valid criticisms of the safety pin trend and criticisms of how white people reacted to the criticisms were written.  

So, here are my two cents at this moment in time. If your physical appearance usually works in your favor and you are suddenly uncomfortable because you fear that people may be looking at you and assuming the worst, sit with that discomfort for awhile. Let the discomfort be educational. Recognize that the people whom you most want to make feel at ease don't have the luxury of simply sticking a safety pin on their shirt and magically American society will stop suspecting them of being criminals/terrorists/backwards/lazy/usurpers/abominations/etc. They live with discomfort every day, and your safety pin alone isn't going to alleviate their fears that they and their loved ones are in more danger today than they were last week.  

If your motivation is to bring down the anxiety levels of those who feel unsafe and unvalued by letting them know you have their back, there are many ways to do that every day no matter what you wear.  You could nod and smile to strangers, offer your seat on a crowded bus, amplify disregarded comments in the staff meeting, raise your kids to know right from wrong and to have the courage to stand up to bullies, educate yourself and check your own micro-aggressions, etc.

If you want to wear a pin or badge as a silent expression of where you stand, that's totally cool with me. But, as a former scout and child of a retired Marine, I think such things should be earned and taken seriously when displayed. If not, it waters down and even perverts the meaning--just as cross necklaces have become seen more as fashion accessories than identification markers of someone who practices the disciplines of unconditional love, hospitality, and forgiveness. (Isn't sad that wearing a safety pin conveys better than a cross pin the message that a person cares about the lives of others?)  To earn the right to wear a safety pin, I suggest that in addition to immersing yourself in books and documentaries and seeking genuine dialog and friendships with those you wish to be an ally of, read Isobel Debrujah's recent blog post, So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin.   As for me, I'm still debating as to whether I've earned the right to adorn myself with pins, but it seems to me like a rather good life goal. 

Friday, September 02, 2016

Bidding on Life #foreignservice

It is bidding season again. The time when hubby and I look at a long list of job openings all over the world and decide which ones he should request to be assigned. 

When we first joined the FS, I found bidding exciting and liberating—like that scene from Doctor Dolittle where he blindly opens the atlas and goes wherever he happens to plop his pencil down—or countless scenes in Doctor Who where the Doctor mischievously proclaims to his companion that their adventures could take them anywhere in time and space. Super cool—especially for a Hoosier girl-next-door who dreamed big, binged on the Pippin soundtrack, and yearned to find her corner of the sky.     

Fast forward 7 surreal years.  Seven years of crazy adventures, close calls, new friends and numerous au revoirs. Oh, and countless hours sitting on Drexel couches. While my Facebook albums tend to show the moments that look glamorous, there’s a lot of sitting.  Also, a lot of packing and unpacking, a lot of starting over, a lot of time to gaze rather longingly at the lives of friends who have put down deep roots in their communities and are enjoying the fruits of that decision. I can’t help but ponder what would be possible if I picked a spot on planet Earth and stayed there for the long haul.    
A good chunk of my nomadic life involves sitting on sofas

And so, here I am making spreadsheets in attempt to systematically form opinions on cities I couldn’t locate on a map a few weeks ago. For reasons I struggle to articulate, this time around I’ve felt increased pressure to bid wisely, to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each place, to pray for discernment of where I'm being called to serve next, to consider whether we wouldn’t be happier returning to Washington DC where we could finally move into that charming cape cod house we bought that was merely missing Kris Kringle's cane in the corner. 

So what will the Denyers decide to do? Settle down or spin the wheel to experience an entirely different slice of life on Earth?   The answer will be revealed mid-October…. 

A certain house on a quiet street in Maryland often calls to me  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Life in Algiers: Driving Socially

Driving in Algiers requires collaboration between drivers
 It’s now been over 20 months since moving to Algiers, Algeria—-aprox 15 months since we got a car here. I could go on and on about how stressful it was learning to drive myself around: the narrow confusing one-way roads, dearth of useful signage, seemingly endless traffic jams, numerous ‘uses of the bumper,’ difficult parking, and the overall impression of anarchy on the roads.  

However, today I want to share what I love about driving in Algiers.  In fact, after a recent trip back to Washington DC, I've rather come to appreciate the Algerian approach.

Why, you ask?  Back in the USA, I would regularly drive from point A to point B (sometimes long road trips) without ever communicating with another driver beyond the standard use of turn signals and brake lights.  In Algiers, however, I can barely get out of my own garage without interacting with folks in my path!

Driving in Algiers requires negotiating with other drivers and pedestrians. When encountering a car coming the other direction, someone needs to squeeze over or even back up.  At an intersection or traffic circle, someone has to choose to yield. There aren’t any traffic lights (removed for security during the terrorism of the 1990s) and the traffic cops aren’t always around to help, so it is on you to nonverbally request a turn. You’d think this would be a recipe for road rage and chaos, but I’ve discovered that despite my first impressions, Algerian drivers are extremely kind (they prioritize keeping traffic flowing over issues of who-came-first, so that took me a bit of accepting).  Just as I figured out Zambian truckers’ blinker system to tell you when it’s safe to pass, I’ve discovered that Algerians stick their thumb out the window to politely request your patience while they stop traffic for a moment in order to parallel park or let someone in/out.

Why am I sharing this with you?  Because it has got me re-pondering a phrase/philosophy an American traveling companion taught me about some years back: “Stay in your lane.”  This life approach is about minding your own business and keeping your eyes on the prize that is at the end of the path you are on. It also has an underbelly suggestion of sticking with 'your own kind.’  

Stay in your lane may be an effective coping strategy when the lanes of life are clear, but what of when they aren’t?  What of when we have to pull over or back up to let others continue their path, knowing that if neither of us yields then we are all stuck?  

My friends/readers are smart people, so I'll just set these questions here and step away for further contemplation.  I might flesh it out one day for a sermon and/or other writing. 

a rooftop moment of serenity in Algiers

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Doctorate Update

Some books I've bought. Not all are "keepers."
“How’s the doctorate going?”

While I appreciate the question, the best short answer I can give is “It’s going.”   

The truth is that I’ve hit that notorious stage where I’ve learned so much about my topic of research that I can no longer wrap my mind around it. I’ve read and read and interviewed and interviewed and dug through decades of digital archives. I’ve had some of my theories destroyed by my findings. I’ve noticed some uncomfortable truths—-the kind of observations that are hard to write about publicly without getting persona non grata status in some clubs I really would like to stay in.  I’ve also realized that many of the key points I’ve been trying to make for years were already written about quite eloquently long before my birth.  It has been both a depressing and reassuring experience to find that others have trod these paths. If the world didn’t listen to them, what makes me think it would listen to me?  

So, I’m declaring myself on summer holiday.  I’ll give all the thoughts swirling in my head time to percolate.  When E’s school reopens in September, I’ll start pounding out chapters until I’ve written a big fat messy thesis on how the legacy of colonialism impacts missional initiatives between North Katangan and American United Methodists. I’m not sure how doing this will make the world a better place, but if I don’t at least document my observations, then this effort feels rather in vain. 

In triumphant news, Dad finally submitted his book manuscript (The Last Missionary) for final copy editing a few weeks back.  If timetables are kept you’ll have that page turner in your hands by late summer.