A Grateful Heart

I’ve worked with teens virtually my entire adult life, and I’ve come to recognize a small handful of situations that are ripe for disaster: a group of boys left unsupervised nearly anywhere, but especially in a gym with a ball; a group of girls at the Village with a credit card; and a mixed gender group asked to be a little vulnerable.

You can imagine my apprehension then when during a chapel service at the 4thannual Monastic Conventiculum, or “MonCon” as it is popularly known, the chaplain opened the service to students to express to God openly something they are thankful for.  The Rev. Dr. Davies Owens – or “Father Owens” as he is called on this one, special night – talked briefly on the importance of thanksgiving and gratitude in the Christian’s heart and asked students, one by one, to profess aloud the things they are thankful for.

I cringed. 52 sweaty 8thgraders, freshly returned from playing games out on the field, sat in the sun-soaked, makeshift “chapel” in the school foyer. It was Friday night: surely their minds were a million miles away on Fortnite battles and missed text messages and weekend plans. Would even one dare to put themself out there and vocalize a feeling of gratitude?

I waited.  “Father Owens” waited. Mrs. Francis, Mrs. Westom, and Mr. Moore waited. Silence reigned supreme.IMG_1390

And then someone took a step of faith:

“Lord, I am thankful for my teachers, who work so hard for me.”

(This is good, I thought. Maybe 3 or 4 other students will join in….)

A slight pause, and then another:

“God, I am grateful for my parents, who love me and sacrifice so much for me.”

Another. And another.

“Dear Lord, I am thankful for this class of friends, who love me and are always there to encourage me.”

“God, I am thankful for trials, that test me and help me to grow.”

“Dear Lord Jesus, I am grateful for Your work on the Cross that has delivered me from sin and death.”

“Lord, I am thankful for this school, where we get to learn about You and Your Word.”

5 minutes passed. 10 minutes passed. 15 minutes passed. On and on it went. For a full 20 minutes, 13 year-old students, one immediately after another, made public expressions of gratitude to God in a room full of their peers.

And then the kicker came. A student who recently lost someone very dear to him said: “Dear Lord, I am grateful for death. Even though I may not understand it, I know it is all part of Your perfect plan.”

Even Mr. Moore, stoic as he is, was more than a little misty-eyed.

MonCon 2018Psalm 107:1 reads: “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!  For His mercy endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy….” I hear a lot in the national discourse about young people suffering from narcissism and an entitlement mentality that has even made its way into the hard-working world of professional sports. There seems to be an epidemic of ungratefulness. I admit that I am horribly biased, but I don’t have the same sense of impending doom when I interact with our students. They seem different.

If you don’t believe me, join me next year at this time for MonCon. Where else in the valley will you find junior high kids joyfully sacrificing a Friday night away from text messages and Fortnite battles to sit in a quiet chapel service and express gratitude to God for things ranging from their friends and parents to trials and even death?

Soli Deo Gloria.

I Am With You

Mr. Hosier had carefully planned the lab. Emails had been going back and forth for weeks. Cameras and the news crew were scheduled to arrive. We were excited to showcase our Physics students and Mr. Hosier’s class on KBOI’s special segment “Leaders in Learning.”

(As an aside, whenever we engage the broader community in this way, we work really hard to put out best foot forward; for a random family sitting in Middleton, ID, the KBOI segment might be the first and only time they not only hear about our school, but actually get a window into one of our classrooms. What a huge opportunity!)

To that end, Mr. Hosier and I – weeks prior to the news crew actually arriving – had agreed to ask our juniors to wear their formal uniforms on the day of the filming even though it was a Thursday, typically a non-uniform day.  We expected a little grumbling, but it didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.

And then it became a much bigger deal.

Our varsity boys basketball team made the state tournament, and the administrative team declared the filming day to be Spirit Day: the one day of the whole year when the entire student body can wear jeans and logo t-shirts to school.

Except our Physics students. Who were expected to be in their formal uniforms: shirts, ties, blazers, kilts, and all.

I expected the pushback from students to be significant.  Despite that, Mr. Hosier and I decided to hold the line. We thought it was important to represent our school to the community audience as best we could.

Mr. Hosier made the announcement to his students and I braced for impact. I waited.Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 6.58.07 AM

And waited.

And waited.

The weeks leading up to the filming day were strangely quiet. The week of the event was similarly quiet. The day arrived, and the Physics students did too, looking like champs in their formal uniforms, despite the fact the entire rest of the K-12 student body was wearing jeans and t-shirts! Mr. Hosier and I heard nary a word: there was no petition, walk out, sit in, or anything similar. Our students quietly and respectfully did what we asked of them.

1 Samuel 14 tells the story of Jonathan and his armor-bearer. The two were scouting a Philistine garrison when Jonathan had what would seem an unwise idea: the two Israelites would show themselves to the garrison, and if the Philistines came out, just the two of them would attempt the impossible: they would fight the entire Philistine garrison. It is the armor-bearer’s response that has always captured my imagination:  “Do all that is in your heart. Go then; here I am with you….” The young man was ready to follow Jonathan into an almost certain death because he completely, whole-heartedly trusted his leadership.

The dominant culture talks a lot about leadership, especially as it pertains to activism; however, we as Christians by necessity must be different. We should be equally thoughtful when we talk about being led, submitting to those authorities who God has placed over us. How many leaders do we have in our own lives that we trust enough to tell, “Go and do all that is in your heart.  I am with you!”?

Our Physics class didn’t say it exactly that way, but if their respectful silence could speak, it surely would have said, “Go and do all that is in your heart, for we are with you!”

Life Together

As a school community, we love structure, habit, and routine. You as parents know better than anyone, when we stray from our routines it can be a burden on families.

For example, in the last few weeks we had an exciting stretch of success on our athletic courts: our girls and boys basketball teams both played in state tournaments in the valley. Events like these are great for building community.

Except for when the games occur during the school day.

Both our games did.

So, we cancelled a class here and there and moved a few things around so our students could attend the games and support our teams. This works great for some families, but not others; if you are working or on the other side of the valley, it can be impossible to get your student to a basketball game at 1:30 in the afternoon.

Such moments are ripe for the grace that is living in Christian community. I received an email after one of the tournament games from a mom, whose daughter is in Jr. High. The email read:

“[My daughter] really wanted to go to the basketball game taking place today.  We talked about it on Monday and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get away from work to take her.  On her own initiative, she reached out to [an older girl student] to see if she would take her…. The fact that [my daughter] felt secure enough to initiate reaching out to [the older student] intrigued me and made me happy; [that she] happily agreed to take her, thoroughly impressed me!  I’m continually amazed and thankful for the unique culture of Ambrose’s upper school – 7th through 12th graders living together in supportive community.  It’s wonderful!  Truly a very special place in which to grow.”Life Together 2

These students are not related. They don’t even have siblings that know one another. The world would see them as a Jr. High kid and a Sr. High kid, whose social spheres could reasonably be expected to be miles apart; however, at our school they are bound together by the close cords of Christian community. The life we have in Christ is more than enough to overcome anything that might separate them.

In his book on Christian community, Life Together, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of Christian community, “what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day…. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart.” He later called living in Christian community the “roses and lilies” of the Christian life; the adornments that make life rich and sweet.

As Bonhoeffer said – and this mom thankfully reminded me – a K-12 school where we live life together in Christian community “is an unspeakable gift of God.” That gift pours out blessings of many kinds: love and support in tough times; joy and celebration in moments of success; a gentle pick up when we stumble and fall.

And, of course, an occasional ride to a basketball game to cheer on the Archers.

New Creations

Our boys athletics programs have experienced a lot of success, and our girls programs are quickly catching up. That’s why it was widely celebrated in our community when the varsity girls basketball team secured a state tournament birth for the first time in school history.

But just under the surface there were developments that were even more worthy of celebration than a state tournament run. The night our girls won to secure a place in the tournament, our coaches received a text message from a mom of one of the New Creationsplayers, quoted below in part:

“Tonight was 100,000 times more amazing than any single minute… in 12 years [of athletics]… because like you told the girls they could play 110% free tonight because they had Christ and… they could sit on the bench 110% free because they had Christ. It wasn’t about a performance it was for Christ. My heart is so full.”

This mom’s heart was full because she watched her daughter experience in a tangible way this powerful reality: her identity was not tied up in how many points she scored, how many rebounds she had, how many minutes she logged. Win or lose, play or not play, succeed or fail, it didn’t matter; she was secure in Christ, and a peace and joy followed. Her mother’s heart was full.

The dominant and secular culture around us is constantly trying to dictate to our students their identity: athlete, fashionista, beautiful or not, success or failure, etc. One of our Goals of a Graduate is to cultivate in students virtue and mature character; central to mature Christian character is a profound understanding that our identity is secure in the person and unchanging love of Jesus.

In his second letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul wrote, “[Christ] died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again…. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” As Christians, those old things that once defined us – success or failure, popular or unpopular, loved or despised, rich or poor – have passed away. We have become new creations and as such the world can no longer impose its identity on us. We are Christ’s, and nothing can separate us from His love.

May our hearts be full!

To Live is Christ

“One thing I know: Jeffrey loves Jesus.”

It was a sad week in the Upper School at The Ambrose School as we said goodbye to one of our own. Jeffrey O’Brien, Graduating Class of 2017, went home to be with Lord.

“One thing I know: Jeffrey loves Jesus.”

Jeffrey is an O’Brien through and through. In an era where the nuclear family is crumbling all around us, Jeffrey is different. He loves his mom and dad and his two Jeffrey O'Brienbrothers, and everyone knows it. They were his most valuable earthly possessions.

“One thing I know: Jeffrey loves Jesus.”

Jeffrey has a megawatt smile. His smile alone can change the mood of any room. He has an infectious laugh, deep and baritone, try as Jeffrey might to muffle it. Jeffrey has great hair; it always looks like it was sculpted out of marble by the careful hands of Bernini. Jeffrey is a great athlete – lacrosse is his sport – and he loves his teammates and coaches.

“One thing I know: Jeffrey loves Jesus.” In the course of the last two days, I have had four different people close to Jeffrey state this same confidence in nearly identical terms. None doubted the veracity of Jeffrey’s faith or the security of his salvation. Jeffrey was attending Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, CA, studying to be a missionary with the hopes of taking the good news of the salvation to be found in Christ alone to the world. When parents ask questions about the spiritual health of our students and their love for God and their neighbor, I could do no better than to point them to Jeffrey.

Let us pause and remember for whom we grieve. It is not for Jeffrey. Jeffrey has entered into glory. We grieve for us – Jeffrey’s family, friends, and classmates – who will be without his megawatt smile and his infectious laugh for only a little while. Our separation from him is only temporary, for this is the great hope that we have in Jesus: we will see Jeffrey again.

In his Epistle to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul, facing the prospect of death himself, wrote, “[I]n nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:20-21.) Jesus was magnified in the way Jeffrey lived his life – his daily choices, his conversation, his conduct, his love for others – and now Jesus is being magnified in Jeffrey’s death as we all reflect on that one statement, said over and over again: ““One thing I know: Jeffrey loves Jesus.” As we process our own loss, let us continue to hold fast to the promises of God: as Jeffrey knew so well, we are redeemed through the saving work of Jesus, and nothing – “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing” – can separate us from His love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We love you, Jeffrey, and we WILL see you again.

In Everything Give Thanks

Working with teens daily can be a challenge. Anyone who has parented a teen for 5 minutes can tell you they have a tendency to be ungrateful. As hard as a parent might work, teens don’t always appreciate things, particularly those things most familiar to them: dinner on the table, rides back and forth to basketball practice, help with their homework, etc. Stop and consider, when was the last time your teen said anything like, “Mom, I really want to thank you for making me breakfast every morning,” or “Dad, thank you for doing such a good job carefully manicuring our yard.” It just doesn’t happen often. (It can be argued that this is common to the human condition, and I fully agree, but the problem can be more acute in teens.)

As such, it can be a rare thing for a teen to express a grateful heart. However, this makes it especially praiseworthy and edifying when a teen does express a gratitude. Imagine my joy then when I saw the following online review from one of our current students, thankfulquoted in full:

“I am currently attending Ambrose as a 10th grader and have been here since kindergarten. Ambrose has been a great environment for me and I really appreciate the school! I see in some of the comments that people have not been pleased at all with the school or with the students, teachers, parents and more, but no school is perfect. Being a Christian school does not automatically mean that all the teachers and students will be perfect. The grass may seem greener on the other side, but being a Christian we have to see our lives now as green and our eternal lives greener, Christianity is not a smooth road which we deserve to walk down, it’s a bumpy road which we have to travel down to get to deserve and appreciate what Jesus Christ has done. The school will have its flaws but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t great things to look for in the school, I know that I have been loved in this school and will always appreciate that. The school has not only helped me grow, but it has helped me to help others grow. Ambrose is great and so much more than just a school.”

At a time when many young people have their noses buried in cheap vampire romance novels or spend their days mindlessly staring at digital devices, this is a beautiful expression of gratitude from a 16 year old. Furthermore, in a culture in which many of her peers have difficulty stringing together two clauses to make a complex sentence, this is an articulate and thoughtful analysis from a student (who, incidentally, is spot on: our school community isn’t perfect and never will be, but we love our students and we love what we do!)

In 1 Thessalonians 5:15-18, Paul writes, “always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I don’t think it is a mistake that our ability to do what is good for others is associated with the habits of rejoicing, praying, and, especially, giving thanks. People are by nature egocentric, and by rejoicing in every trial, prayerfully redirecting our attention to God, and giving thanks in everything – even the most common of things – we can step outside of our own world and pursue what is good for others.

In this case, the good of others is a student letting the world know she’s grateful for her school and that she’s felt loved by her teachers… an analysis that is, again, spot on!

The Fruits of Classical Christian Education

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

The ivory-white words flashed across the dark screen. I sat and watched. The words seemed vaguely familiar, but I searched vainly through every recess of my mind to cite the source.

Absentmindedly, I read them aloud: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones….”

My daughter who sat next to me continued from memory “… So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious. If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it….”  She proceeded to recite from memory Antony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, flawlessly and in its entirety. I couldn’t even find the reference in my mind; she found the entire speech.

My daughter is thirteen. She’s in eighth grade.

great-books-2At a time when many teens bury their noses in Twilight novels and the mindless entertainment of digital devices, classically educated students are brought into contact with the highest and best minds that the world has produced. Engaging with those minds and the ideas they generated and refined, and the literature they produced, shapes and informs our students.

For example, the same daughter was recently reading a poem she wrote in her composition class. One of the lines read, “Green is the light that filters through the leaves.” That is a beautiful line of poetry, written by an eighth grader. She could produce such beauty in part because she’s been immersed in the great works of the classical Christian canon: the Psalms and Proverbs, the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, et al.

In Matthew 12, Jesus said, ““Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.” Though Jesus was addressing the evil hearts of Pharisees  the same principle applies in the world of education. One should be able to tell the quality and character of education a student is receiving based on the fruit it produces: bad education will produce bad fruit, while good education will produce good fruit.

Students possessing a love for the most powerful literature the world has produced, having the best lines from that literature at their fingertips, and being able to craft their own beautifully worded sentences are all fruits for which I am thankful.

(By way of an apology, I have tried really hard to avoid bragging about my own kids in this blog. Please forgive this indulgence of a really proud dad. I promise it won’t happen again …. for a while.)

Love One Another

The freshman year of college can be overwhelming. Often students find themselves away from home for the first time in a completely new environment: new city, new friends, a new schedule, new teachers, new living arrangements, new roommates, new everything.

The reality of this adjustment for students makes that first break at Thanksgiving an especially treasured time. Students return home to see their friends and families and get a few precious days of normalcy before returning to their college life.

This dynamic is what made the following text catch my eye. I got it at noon on the Wednesday of Thanksgiving Break.

“Hi Chris. We are on our way there. Expecting 15 girls.”

The text was from the mom of a few of our alumni. She was on her way with her own daughters, who are both in college, to the home of some current Ambrose students. The two college girls were sacrificing two and a half hours on their first day at home on break to invest in and encourage over a dozen of our current students by answering questions and sharing their own experiences.rotc

What is more, this instance isn’t the only example of alumni coming back to invest in our school community over break. We had two of our young men come back to answer ROTC questions, we had an alumni share her passion for YWAM and local refugees with our Upper School students this week, and we have an exordium scheduled with an alumni in February.

In John 13, verses 34 and 35, Jesus instructs us, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” In the Christian life, it is easy to lose sight of the primacy of loving one another. We can get busy doing so many things – some of them even good things! – that loving people gets lost in the wash. Also, loving people can be much harder than it sounds; loving others involves sacrifice, and giving up things that are important to us, like time with our family, money, etc.

That our alumni – especially those two college girls freshly home on their first break – love our school community enough to sacrifice precious hours while home to invest in it is a rare thing indeed.

The Greatest in the Kingdom

It was a typical Monday morning at The Ambrose School. Students had trickled in slowly, and a small handful were left in the hallways, grabbing their books and stuffing coats into their lockers.

The conversation of two girls, their lockers a few lockers apart, caught my attention.

Girl 1 (warmly): “Good morning, Abigail!”

Girl 2 (sleepily): “Good morning.”

Girl 1: “Have a great day!”

Girl 2: “You, too!”

You might be scratching your head at the above exchange and wondering why it was praiseworthy. Great question.

The conversation, simple in itself, was made beautiful by its context. The girl who initiated the brief exchange was a senior, a House leader and a star athlete, a leader in our school community in every way; the second girl was an eighth grader, a member of what in many other schools would be that lowly caste of junior high kids whose sole station in life seems at times to be the object of scorn from high school students.fullsizeoutput_66b

Not so in our hallways.

In Matthew 23, Jesus describes a view on leadership, saying, “[H]e who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” In this passage Jesus completely inverts the world’s view on leadership; He takes it and flips it on its head. The world presents a leader as the one who garners the most servants or followers; Jesus presents a leader as the one who pours out his life most fully in service to others. Examples of the world’s view on leadership are easy to find: the CEO who gets the covered parking spot nearest the door, every fraternity hazing ritual, every freshmen football player carrying a senior’s pads, etc.

The Christian view of leadership can by more difficult to find, especially amongst teens. I’m blessed to be in the place that I am, where I get to see such things on a daily basis.  The View from the Golden Wood is truly beautiful and encouraging.

When a Scale is Not Enough

Each November our students fill out what we call The Student Culture Survey. It is a simple 12 question survey, administered anonymously, that gives us a brief and fleeting view into the collective mind of our students. The survey asks students such questions as:

  • Do you feel like your teachers want you to do well?
  • Do you look forward to coming to school?
  • Are you proud of your school?

As you can imagine, responses to these questions vary widely. If you have a teen at home, you likely know that adolescence makes one a bit fickle: they are known to swing from loving to hating the same thing, often on the same day; the speed with which those $150 shoes that only yesterday were essential to life itself become anathema to a teen can make the head swim! This characteristic of the teen years is amplified by all the dynamics that surround a school.

Keeping all that in mind, we resolutely distribute the surveys and ask students to share their experiences with us. We drop the results into a spreadsheet with colorful charts and graphs and search for trends. We share the results with faculty and pray for classes as they go through our school. We celebrate where there is joy and we carefully consider where it might be absent. We share the results with other schools like ours across the nation and search for trends in our movement, youth culture, and the broader culture.

Student culture SurveyOn occasion, the survey reveals something truly praiseworthy. This year was no exception. Teachers had collected the surveys and had turned them into the office. Our registrar was compiling the results when she stumbled upon a survey from the 7th grade class, where a student took it upon himself to edit question #4, which reads: “It has been obvious to me that my teachers really want me to do well – in school and out of school.” The “1 to 9” scale wasn’t sufficient for this student to share how confident he was that his teachers really wanted him to do well; he needed to add a “10.”

Keep in mind this is an anonymous survey filled out by a 13 year old. The student wasn’t being a sycophant; he didn’t stand to gain anything. He just really feels secure in knowing his teachers care about him, and he wanted to share that with anyone who would listen. That is something to celebrate.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul urges us to, “recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” My experience after having worked with them for nearly 7 years is that our students do this better than most adults, myself included. Almost without exception, our students esteem very highly in love the leaders that God has placed over them.

Sometimes “esteem very highly” even requires going beyond the “1 to 9” scale.