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.

Be Content

It was just about the most beautiful fall morning imaginable: leaves were golden all along the river, the dawn was crisp and clear, and an electric anticipation energized our cross country team.

The State Meet had arrived.

Our entire girls team was there, an underdog to bring home a trophy for the first time ever. While I was excited for them, most of my attention was on Blaine, our lone boy runner.

We were all aware of Blaine’s story. A senior, Blaine had prepared for this moment for years. He was well-positioned to challenge for the individual state championship, having a season best time in the top 3 in the state. He had worked tirelessly, pushing himself in practice and meets, all to get to this day.

IMG_2071 3.JPGThere was also a powerful undercurrent of emotion that lay just under the surface for Blaine: Blaine’s mom Karmen, a talented athlete herself who ran cross country in college and competed in the Boston Marathon, had passed away years before when Blaine was only 9. Running is an important connection to his mom, and this made the day of the State Meet even more important to Blaine.

You never would have guessed looking at Blaine as he stood at the starting line, composed and confident. The gun sounded, and the runners were off.

Blaine was fast out of the gate. A cluster of runners quickly separated themselves from the rest of the pack, and Blaine was right in the heart of them.

They made the first loop, and Blaine was right where he wanted to be: drafting behind a few other runners, well within striking distance of 1st for his final kick.IMG_0983.JPG

I hurried over to the last turn, anxious to see Blaine run down the other athletes in the last stretch. I waited anxiously, more excited than I’ve been in years.

And then life threw Blaine a curve.

Runner after runner passed me, and Blaine was nowhere to be seen.

Blaine had fallen down amidst the jostling of runners, and  was outside the top 20. By the time Blaine got to the final turn, raw emotion and disappointment were evident on his face. My heart hurt for him, and I cheered him on before hurrying over to the finish line, hopeful I would get a chance to encourage him.

As He so often does, in that moment of personal trial, God showed me something beautiful.

When I found Blaine, he was sitting on a cooler as our athletic trainer helped him with his timing chip. Another runner had come over to talk to him, and I saw Blaine muster a smile and offer the kid a fistbump. Their conversation went something like this:

Other Runner: “Good race! Today you helped me achieve a life-long goal!”

Blaine: “Oh, congratulations. What was your goal?”

Other Runner: “To beat you!”

Blaine, a fierce competitor, smiled and made some small talk with the other runner before the kid finally wandered off. No one thinks the other runner was trying to be malicious or hurtful, but you can only imagine how Blaine must have felt in the moment.

I kept a close eye on Blaine as he got up and flitted about from group to group, hugging his parents, encouraging his teammates, and fellowshipping with other runners. Never once did he appear sullen or petulant. The graciousness and depth of character Blaine showed that day humbled me.

In Philippians 4, Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound…. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” As Christian educators and parents, we must not lose sight of this truth: our hope is that our students mature to the place where they can be content in whatever situation they find themselves; that they can, in fact, flourish in any trial through Christ Who is their strength. Our prayer is that they will be able to do just as Blaine did: look one of life’s many disappointments straight in the face, offer it a fistbump, and give God all the glory for it.

You see, more often than not, winning in life means infinitely more than just finishing first.

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.