Earthen Vessels

On occasion a parent will approach me with the notion that our school is only for the exceptionally gifted. They are concerned that the only way for students to succeed at our school is with a Newtonian intellect or a Faustian bargain. Neither is true.

One of the most inspirational students I’ve met in my seven years at Ambrose is Ana. If you haven’t met Ana, you need to: Ana is from rural Mexico, and she transferred into our school mid-year of her sophomore year. She learned of The Ambrose School through her aunt and uncle, and her cousins who attend school here. In her hometown in Mexico, Ana’s secondary education was limited to vocational training, and her family wanted more for her.

When Ana transferred to Ambrose, her English was really good for someone working in their second language, but it wasn’t at the level of a native English speaker. In her own words, “Thucydides was the first book I read here. It was really tough!” What Ana didn’t know at the time is that Thucydides is a really tough read for a native English speaker – how tough he must be for someone reading him in a second language!

Yet Ana is flourishing in every way. Through hard work and a never-quit attitude – by her own report Ana studies 2 to 3 hours each night – Ana has a gpa far north of 3.0. Her English fluency has grown by leaps and bounds.

While I know Ana has worked incredibly hard to engage with Aristotle in her second language, that hasn’t stopped her from maintaining balance in her life. Ana is a very talented and dedicated tennis player, investing about 12 hours a week in practice and tournaments. She also plays on The Ambrose School varsity basketball team this season, and her enthusiasm and determination on the court have earned her the loving nickname “El Tornado” from her teammates.

Despite all this, Ana’s academics and balance are not the things I find most remarkable about her. What I find most amazing is how Ana has embraced our community. The nature of a K-12 school like ours can sometimes make it difficult for students to integrate; many of our students have known each other for 10 years or more by the time they graduate. Add to that the mid-year transfer and the obvious language barrier, and Ana had every excuse to remain on the fringe.

I was worried.image1

I’ve never been more wrong.

Ana immediately invested herself in the community, attending House every chance she could, going to sporting events and group study sessions, and making friends quickly with her characteristic joy and easy smile.

Our community also invested in Ana. Her homeroom teacher made sure a welcome basket was ready for her on Ana’s first day of school. Students wrote her letters and emails before she even made it to the States. There were movie invites, letters of encouragement, and friendly smiles. Lots of smiles.  Ask her, and she’ll tell you: “My favorite thing at Ambrose is the community. I love how the House program brings us all together. If you walk down the hallways, everyone knows your name and says ‘hi’ to you. I love that!”

Ana is now a pillar in our student body, so much so that I can’t imagine our school community without her.

Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 4:7, wrote this: “[W]e have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” Paul was writing of his own circumstances and how the life of Christ was made manifest in his own trials, but the same principle applies to us. So often we fall into the trap of honoring the wrong things: when we get that promotion at work, we honor our own hard work instead of honoring God; similarly, when our students have success in the classroom, volleyball courts, or in their friend groups, we honor the gifts instead of the Gift-giver.

The excellence of all we do is from God and not from us. It took a teenage girl from Mexico coming to our school mid-year to study Thucydides and Chemistry in her second language to remind me of that fact. For that, I am immensely grateful.

Born for Adversity

Two freshmen boys approached me in the hallways.

They said, “Hey Mr. Browne, can we talk to you?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“We’ve noticed that Bobby has been to your office a few times this week,” they said. “Is there anything we can do to help him?”

This from the hearts and minds of two fourteen year olds.

Our school is still small enough that it is nearly impossible to repeatedly make bad decisions that result in multiple office visits without the rest of the student body realizing it. But by my lights, that’s actually a good thing.

Sanctification is a process that we are all in the midst of: some of us might further along, but we’re all far from the finished product that God has planned for us. This is certainly true for me, but also for teenagers, even those at The Ambrose School. The world puts incredible pressure on our teens to think and do wrongly, but we serve a God who has overcome the world, and as such through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives our students can also overcome the world.

IMG_1087One of the ways this happens is through Christian community. None of us are an island, and through the constant process of iron sharpening iron – one brother or sister in Christ encouraging, exhorting, and providing accountability for another – we grow in maturity, character, and our love for Jesus and His Church. I get to see this process in the lives our students almost daily.

Proverbs 17:17 reads, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Adversity comes to us all in one form or another, occasionally through things outside of our control, but often from circumstances of our own making. It is our hope that The Ambrose School will be first and foremost a Christian community where students are surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ that are there to support each other in the face of such adversity.

The poet John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” This is especially true for us as Christians classically educated. May we all be surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ on whom we can rely in times of adversity.

 

 

Love Thy Neighbor

I’ve become captivated by cross country meets. It seems to me that the entire sport is built around one’s ability to suffer well: “run three miles as fast as you can.”

The essence of the sport is to push your body to the very edge of utter physical exhaustion. Our varsity cross country coach (whom I know fairly well) has a favored saying: “if you get to the finish line and you aren’t bleeding, crying, or vomiting, then you had something left in the tank.”

I have my own saying, “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who openly admit running is miserable, and liars.” (I jest. Mostly.)

As such, the drama involved in a cross country race is compelling. Runners approach the end of a race and they are in the very throes of physical anguish. This makes crowd participation even more important than for most sports. Cheering for and supporting all runners up to the very finish line is essential.

However, cross country is like most sports: there is a wide chasm between the elite runners and those who finish last. As you might expect, there is always a huge crowd gathered at the finish line for the elite runners who are competing for 1st place finishes; when the last runners come through, which can be 10 to 15 minutes later, it is typically only coaches and parents who linger to cheer them on to the finish.

Sometimes they’re not even around.

At the district meet this past week, the varsity girls race was nearing the end. All but 2 runners had finished. The boys varsity race was ready to start, and virtually all the spectators had migrated over to the starting line. Mr. Velasco was headed that direction when he noticed the last two runners from a competing school struggling towards the finish line: none of their teammates, coaches, or even their parents appeared to be there to support their final struggle towards the finish line.

That’s when Mr. Velasco heard it:22519508_10154727157167331_5064391673815005944_n

“Come on! You can do it!”

“You’re almost there! Finish strong!”

“Good job! All the way home!”

Cheers. Love. Support.

A group of ten Archer runners – all Jr. High kids – had remained at the finish line to cheer the final two runners on to the end. Mr. Velasco may have been the only adult to witness it, but I promise you the two runners noticed.

22492017_10154727157202331_5846043773300361182_nMatthew 22:36-40 contains God’s two greatest commandments to us as Christians; the second of those states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This cuts against the grain of everything our hedonistic culture tells us to do: “be yourself,” “do what feels right to you,” “have it your way,” etc. This is a hopelessly selfish and narcissistic philosophy, but it provides a powerful opportunity to us to be the lights of the world. When the world sees us first loving God and, out of that, loving them, they will notice.

Especially when that love comes at the very edge of misery, like at the end of a three-mile run.

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.