The Light of the World

The Bob Firman Cross Contry meet is one of the largest high school sporting events in Idaho: 4,900 athletes representing hundreds of schools from nine different states plus Canada descend upon tiny Eagle Island State Park for a single day of running insanity.

Amidst such insanity, there are many moments for our students to shine the light of Christ to people they will not likely meet again. One such story came to me via text message from a friend whose wife works at one of our rival schools:

“At the Firman Meet – 493 middle schoolers – most chanting dumb things, singing songs, etc….”

I work with those lovable middle schoolers fairly often: “most chanting dumb things” sounds like an understatement. But it was the rest of my friend’s text message that was refreshingly rare.

“Then Ambrose chants: ‘God, Family, Team, Self! I have chills.”

There are two things about this story that I would like to draw to your attention. First, this is not something the Jr. High cross country team does in isolation: the idea that Christian rightly order what he or she loves so that the right thing is loved to the right degree is a regular part of our classroom conversation. The chant itself has its roots in a decade of Coach Hosier reinforcing rightly ordered affections to his varsity basketball boys: “The Big Five” as he called it, in order: God, Family, School, Team, and then Self.

The second thing I’d like to point out is my friend’s reaction to our runners’ prerace chant. It should surprise no one that he was emotionally moved by what is really a very simple thing. As the culture around us grows increasingly secular, the opportunity to be a light in a darkening world similarly grows. Something like a simple prerace cheer can become an inspirational moment.

Matthew 5:14-16 reads in part, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden….  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” At the center of the Christian life is the truth that the world around us will notice as we live our lives for Jesus. The Christ-centered life is in its essence counter-culture. As our students grow in virtue and mature character, they will necessarily be different than their peers; they will be lights in a dark world.

The light will shine in every place, even in the moments before a Jr. High cross country race: “God, family, team, self!”

Faithful in Little Things

It was arguably the most important day of our school year: the entire gym was converted into soup packing production lines, and our students and staff were on target to package 60,000 meals to be distributed to needy families in our community.

But before any of that could happen, we hoped to point the hearts and minds of our school community towards God Who makes it all possible. We planned to do that with our first morning hallway hymn sing of the year, but there were some hurdles to overcome: Mr. Warmouth, our beloved Grammar School Dean who is so skilled at leading the hymn sing recently had surgery and was sidelined; students were in jeans and t-shirts for the Feed the Need day and as such were more restless than usual; and it was our first hallway hymn sing of the year, so the community was out of the habit of doing it.

Since so much was riding on the hymn sing, we had planned to have our student group The Boethius Quartet accompany the hymn sing. The group has been sacrificing their own lunch hour to gather and practice the hymn, and as of Thursday night was ready to go; however, come Friday morning, one of our seniors and the de facto leader of the Quartet, woke up ill and wasn’t able to make it to school. Her mom frantically tried to email and text Mr. Bryant and I, but the busyness of the morning had us unreachable.

The hallway hymn sing and our related goal of redirecting our students’ affections towards Christ first thing on our big day all hung in the balance.

Enter the remainder of the Quartet: the three did not panic, but instead took the responsibility and the initiative to solve the problem. Without needing direction from any faculty member, they recruited another talented violinist to fill out their Quartet. I wasn’t even privy to what had happened until well after the fact when I gathered the quartet together to thank them and they weren’t the quartet I was expecting.

Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 8.06.28 AMThe hymn sing was the best I can remember in my seven years at the school, and the musical accompaniment was no small reason why.

In the Parable of the Unjust Steward found in Luke 16, Jesus says, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.” This is an important educational principle that resonates in almost everything we do at The Ambrose School: if we can train students to be faithful in little things – things like wearing their ties and sweaters on formal days or processing into exordiums quietly, then we know that when God places big things before them – things ranging from organizing music on that most important day to remaining dedicated to their spouses in difficult times – they will similarly be found faithful.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, men and women of virtue and mature character are not formed in an instant. It is a slow and steady process of training them to be faithful in little things.

Despising Youth

It was 7:15 a.m., and I, still half-asleep, had just walked into the building.

“Chris, you’re not going to believe what is happening in my room!”

Mr. Velasco was obviously excited. While he is famously given to hyperbole – everyone knows this! – “Papa V,” as he is affectionately called by the Upper School community, is not overly excitable. I wondered immediately what was afoot.

“There are 12 Upper School boys – juniors and seniors – singing hymns in my room!”

As I asked further, it turned out that a group of male upperclassmen have been meeting in Mr. Velasco’s room for weeks to do a Bible study and sing hymns together. They meet first thing in the morning, and the Bible study is entirely student organized and led. The Bible study and hymn sing are led and attended by the leaders of our school: juniors and seniors, House presidents, and star athletes.

Every school has an “alpha male,” a student who sets the tone and drives the culture for the rest of the school. That student can be a force for good or ill; he or she can point students towards the True, Good, and the Beautiful, or away from those things. God is raising up young leaders who will use their influence to build His kingdom instead of their own, and this student-led Bible study is a shining example of that.

In 1 Timothy 4, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy the following: “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity…. give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.” It can be easy for older generations to despise the youth of others, but how beautiful and inspiring it is when young people take seriously Paul’s exhortation to be an example to older generations!

These are the church’s future leaders, and the faculty and staff at The Ambrose School feel humbled and grateful to be a part of their molding and shaping.

Walk with the Wise

It was one of those things that is so easily overlooked. It was Friday at lunch time, and The Providence Room was abuzz with students: a group of boys at one table, a group of girls at another, two boys sitting on the couches, and a table of girls out on the patio. It all seemed so ordinary for a high school.

However, if one took the time to notice, the scene was far from ordinary. A second glance revealed a beauty absolutely foreign to most schools: not one, not two, not even three, but all six tables were filled with juniors and seniors having lunch with 7th graders.

mentorshipPause and reflect on that for a moment: juniors and seniors were having lunch with 7th graders.

These were not only House leaders, but also other junior and senior students, all sacrificing their lunch hour and valuable time with their own peer group to invest into the lives of younger students: to pray together, to do a Bible study, or to just talk about life.

As those of us who attended one can attest, typical high schools are deeply segregated. The athletes hang out with other athletes, the cool kids hang out apart from the nerds, and the upperclassmen don’t go anywhere near freshmen, let alone junior high kids. It is an oppressive caste system that is at its core self-serving, demoralizing, and breeds all that is bad about human nature.

As a Christian community, our school is inherently different. We endeavor to be a school community walking together in the light of Christ. We want our students to walk out the Great Commission: to go out into the world and make disciples. This starts in our classrooms, our hallways, and in The Providence Room.

Proverbs 13:20 reads, “He who walks with the wise will become wise.” The Christian life is at its very foundation relational. Virtue is caught rather than taught. We cultivate an affection in younger students for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by bringing them into relation with our older students, the wise leaders in our student body who are striving to live for Jesus.

One of our primary goals for all our students is that they become wise; in order to do that, they must walk with the wise.

The Praises of Men

In the middle of a meeting, my phone buzzed.

I have a semi-emergency. Please come to my room as soon as you can.

The text message was from our newest teacher, and it was one of those messages that, being so cryptic in nature, I wasn’t sure if I should be interested or terrified to discover why I was being so summoned. My initial inclination was towards terrified.

When the meeting ended, I hurried up to the classroom to see what was going on. The students had already changed classes, so I found the teacher in his room by himself. As I walked in, his grin told me it was ok to be more interested and less terrified. He proceeded to tell me a story about a foolish thing that one of our young men had done in his class. In the grand scheme of things, it was inappropriate but fairly harmless. It was near the end of the day, so I told the teacher I would pull the student out of class first thing tomorrow morning and talk with him about it.

I returned to my office just in time for the final bell to ring. I heard a knock at my office door and looked up to see, to my surprise, the student in question. I waved him in and greeted him as though I didn’t know anything about what had happened.

He said, “Mr. Browne, do you have a minute? I have something I need to confess to you. I did something really foolish in class today.”

I asked him a few questions, and he relayed the story to me exactly as his teacher had framed it. I praised him for coming to me on his own, and asked him why it was he did that foolish thing in class. His answer was profound.

proverbs-29-25“For the praises of men,” he said.

For the praises of men.

There is much to celebrate about this story – I mean, for the young man to come to me instead of making me seek him out is a beautiful thing – but it was his profound insight about his motivation that really stuck with me. Such depth of spiritual understanding is impressive for a teenage boy.

Proverbs 29:25 reads, “The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe.” Seeking the praises of men is another form of the fear of man; we seek their approval because we fear their disapproval. We want to be accepted, loved, a part of the cool crowd. That snare is tantamount to another form of slavery: we can quickly become slaves to other people’s opinions and expectations of us. Trusting in God, however, liberates us from such a snare. We are free to do what God calls us to do as we trust and find our identity in His great love for us, and not in the temporal, shallow, and transient views of men.

That a teenage boy is already figuring that out, when so many young people his age are clamoring for the praises of their peers, is a rare and beautiful thing.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Overcoming Evil with Good

The Upper School House Retreat is one of those times where I feel like I have to have all hands on deck to make sure things run smoothly: conventional wisdom says that with 200 teenagers at a camp in the mountains, someone is bound to misbehave. So the Upper School faculty does all the same things other camp staffers do: we have an assigned time for ‘lights out,’ we do bed checks, we sweep the grounds at night, etc.

Last week on the final night of retreat, Mr. Hosier and I were doing our obligatory 11:30 p.m. sweep of the camp. We were walking along a sidewalk when, no sooner had I made a joke about how we never find mischief on these walks, we saw a pair of shadowy figures go sprinting across the sidewalk in front of us, headed towards the chapel.

I thought to myself, “Finally, something really scandalous to merit these late night walks of ours!” Mr. Hosier, as is his wont, was right on top of it.

“Hey,” he yelled out. “Where are you two going?”

The shadowy figures stopped and saw us approaching. Mr. Hosier repeated, “Where do you guys think you’re going?”

The sound of a freshman girl replied, “I left my Bible out here last night and it got really wet. After dinner, I saw a few more Bibles out here, and I just remembered them. I didn’t want them to get ruined by the sprinklers, so we came out to pick them up.”

Sure enough, two freshman girls, with their arms loaded down with five Bibles each, appeared from out of the shadows. They had risked life and limb – or at least invoking Mr. Hosier’s wrath – to save an armful of Bibles that weren’t even theirs from the sprinklers. We thanked them for looking out for their friends and sent them on their way.

Romans 12:21 reads, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is a great example of a couple of teenage girls doing just that: not only were they not out and about doing something inappropriate – something evil – but they were instead out doing something honorable, and thereby overcoming evil with good.

So much for my scandal.

On Becoming Men

The best conversations happen in my office.

For example, at the end of this past year, I had two boys sent to see me. There were some shenanigans in their classroom, and their teacher, a woman, thought it would be good for the boys to talk with a man about it.

It turned out the teacher was out of the room talking with another student. These two boys thought it an adventure to play a game where one boy does a wall-sit against the wall, and then another boy sits on his lap, and then another and another, and so on, until the weight of the subsequent boys causes the first boy to collapse (I guess this is a game kids play?)

Anyway, I asked the boys to tell me what happened, and they described it to me accurately and giggled the whole time. As I asked them what was wrong with what they did, I got some great answers (“We weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing…,” “It was disrespectful to our class and teacher…,” and such,) but after ten minutes of going in circles, I wasn’t quite getting the depth of thought out of the boys that I was aiming for.

That’s when the Holy Spirit prompted me with a dash of inspiration.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Boys, who do you admire most in life? Who do you want to be like?”

Boy 1: “My dad. Totally my dad!”

Boy 2: “Agreed. My dad!”

(Pause and enjoy the beauty of those two answers for a moment….)

Me: “That’s great! I also admire your dads. Now, imagine for a moment your dads doing what you both just did. Imagine Dad 1 sitting on the lap of Dad 2, and a long line of other dads sitting on their laps until the whole group of dads collapses into a pile, giggling all the way….”

The look of horror on the faces of both boys was priceless.

Boy 1, squirming: “No, I don’t want to imagine that…..”

Boy 2, blushing: “Yea. That’s not a visual I like….”

Me: “Right! So ask yourself, why was it ok for you to do it, but you’re horrified to even imagine your dads doing it?”

Both boys, seeing things clearly now, answered in unison: “Because we’re boys, and they’re men.”

Me, for dramatic effect: “Because you’re boys, and they’re men….”

I had them right where I wanted them.

Me: “Now is the time, boys, to become men.”

Prolonged adolescence is a growing problem for the broader culture. Adulthood generally, and manhood specifically, is continually delayed longer and longer: the Affordable Care Act allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until they are 26, even if they are married; the average age of a man’s first marriage in 2010 fell to 28 years of age, delayed over 5 years in the 50 years from 1960, when it was 22.8 years old; and young men at an alarming rate are choosing to stay in Mom and Dad’s house and play video games instead of going to college or joining the workforce.

At The Ambrose School, we want our boys to become the men God created them to be. Our school mission statement says that we seek to form “Christian leaders” who will “[transform] the church, the community, and the world,” and this cannot be done from Mom and Dad’s basement virtually through Call of Duty. Growing into a man requires much: we as parents and educators need to expect more from our boys than they expect from themselves; we need to challenge our boys to do hard things; we must demand they take personal responsibility for their mistakes, and resist every urge to rush to their aid when trouble finds them; we must require that they apologize and ask for forgiveness when they’ve wronged someone; and we need to continually call them to a higher standard in their conduct, in their speech, in their dress, and in their personal relationships.

Occasionally, I get to do all of this in a single, really fun conversation in my office.

Walk in the Light

I recently read a great quote from Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who wrote, “”[I]t’s amazing to see the difference between schools that have been around a little while and figured out how important culture is at their school versus those who have just gotten started and think that all they have to do is get it right in terms of having the right curriculum in place and then everything will work. So much more of what happens is the sea of assumptions that kids are raised around about what the good, the true, and the beautiful are and what you want your appetites and your heart and your loves to start inclining towards.”

Every school has a culture, those mostly metaphysical characteristics that are shaped and defined by what students love. There are good cultures and bad ones, cultures of light and cultures of darkness. I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics that shape school culture, and I’m constantly looking for key markers that reveal the health of our own school culture. There are several things I keep a pretty close eye on, like student interest in our House program and community service, church attendance and involvement in our student body, and student adherence to our community standards, just to name a few.

LightThis year I saw something pretty awesome. It was mid-May on a Wednesday morning and our students were on their way out to play ultimate Frisbee for House Games. I was in the foyer, watching students go outside, when I saw one of the most encouraging indicators imaginable that our school culture is one of light: a small handful of our alumni, newly returned to the valley from their freshman year in college, came walking in the door. They were proudly wearing their House t-shirts and athletic shorts, all ready to play ultimate Frisbee for their beloved Houses. Our student body erupted in joy, and smiles and hugs filled the foyer.

One thing to note: this wasn’t a page taken out of Dazed and Confused – a twenty-something refusing to grow up – but these alumni are among our best and our brightest: valedictorians and national merit scholars, drawn back to our school by the community they loved and where they could find truth, goodness, beauty, and Christian fellowship.

I graduated 25 years ago, and I haven’t set foot in the hallways of my former high school in all that time. There simply wasn’t anything to draw me back. It speaks volumes about our culture that alumni are excited to come back and want to remain a part of our community.

1 John 1:5-7 reads in part, “… God is light and in Him is no darkness at all….  But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” A community of students walking together in the light. That’s about the best definition of a healthy school culture that I can think of. Crafting a culture of light, where our students and faculty walk daily in the light as Jesus is in the light, is something we strive to do at The Ambrose School. I’m encouraged that, by the grace of God, we’re having some success.

Our alumni seem to agree.

When a Teacher is Far More Than a Teacher

Summer is a magical season for students and educators: they largely get to unplug from what philosophers call “the workaday world,” and they often get to spend some time pursuing their own individual passions, things such as sports camps, book clubs, and college and independent study courses.

Teachers at The Ambrose School, however, are a bit different. There is an important aspect of the calling of a teacher at The Ambrose School that doesn’t recognize summer break: the calling to disciple students in a Christ-centered life. Even when classes are not in session, our teachers embrace this lofty calling.

For example, I received an email from a parent earlier this summer. I don’t get many parent emails in early July, so when I did, I must admit that I panicked just a little. Those few emails I do get in July are not typically positive.

The story in this email was so very different. This family has an adult daughter moving out of the house, and their younger daughter was excited to inherit her room. The younger daughter loves French style and all things Paris, and she was sad that she didn’t have any French décor for her soon-to-be new room. She mentioned this in passing to one of our teachers, who saw an opportunity to do something beautiful.

ParisEarlier this month – in the very heart of summer when so many educators are indulging their own interests – our teacher stopped by her student’s house to drop off a piece of original artwork for her wall. The teacher, who is a skilled artist, spent time during her own summer break to paint a beautiful oil painting of the Eiffel Tower. It was a free gift, given out of love and self-sacrifice, and not in the pursuit of tenure or the next tier on a pay scale. In fact, had the parent not emailed me to tell me, I never would have known!

Proverbs 22:6 reads, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The process of training entails so many things, but two of the more important are relationship and modeling. This particular story is a powerful example where the teacher excelled at both those things. Through the sacrifice of her time and attention, a deep relationship is being built with her student; undoubtedly, when the teacher needs to correct or impart wisdom to her student in the future, she’ll find a willing and attentive ear! By modeling caritas, the love of Christ that is selfless and kind, our teacher gave her student a clear image, and inspiration to go with it, of what it looks like to fulfill Jesus’s commandment “to love [others] as yourself.”

At a classical Christian school like ours, teachers are more than just teachers.

Such as These

Parenting is hard. I know this truth as well as anyone. I get daily lessons on how far I have to go to improve as a parent.

There are benefits to working where my kids are, but there are also challenges. Much like the cobbler’s wife goes longest without shoes, my own kids go longest without my attention at school. If you’ve spent any time at all on our campus, you’ve likely seen the Browne girls sitting by themselves in the hallway waiting for Dad to finish with a meeting.

Such was the case the week after classes ended this year. I was busy meeting with teachers one on one for year-end reviews, and my girls were on their own. My oldest had volleyball camp, and she was supposed to bring my youngest daughter, Sara, over with her to meet me. I had a meeting ending at the same time, so I told my sweet little Sara to wait for me in the gym with the volleyball campers.

Of course, my meetings ran late: 5 minutes turned into 10, and 10 minutes turned into 30, and 30 minutes turned into 60 (such is the life of a school administrator!) When the meetings finally ended, I rushed out of my office to track down poor Sara, who had to wait for me in the gym by herself for over an hour. I was sickened at the thought.

Only I entered the gym to find Sara was not lonely and by herself. The teens who were running the camp – one an alumni who just finished up her freshman year of college, and the other a senior and co-captain of the volleyball team – had seen Sara by herself, and had acted: they had included her in their camp with girls much older than her, and were giving her odd jobs to help the campers run through their drills. Sara, having been included by the “cool teen girls,” was grinning ear to ear when I found her.

Mark 10:14-15 reads in part, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.’” One of my favorite things about being part of a K-12 school community are the many positive interactions I see daily between our teens and Grammar School kids. Teenagers who lay down their lives in little ways to serve the little children in our school change lives. In 20 years, I doubt Sara will remember the 7 kings of Rome, but I have no doubt she will remember the day those two teenage girls went out of their way to include her so she didn’t feel alone.

Kingdom work was done that day, and I, fallible father that I am, was largely the recipient. Soli Deo Gloria