Proclaimers of the Divine Word

We have the liturgical practice of beginning our weekly Upper School faculty meeting with something praiseworthy: for example, last year teachers shared examples of virtue and godly character they saw in the lives of their students, and this year teachers are sharing something for which they are grateful.

During this time, teachers have mentioned all kinds of things for which they are grateful: to be part of a community of learners, to have students who love what is good, and to be in a school where they can freely point their students towards the all-satisfying love of Jesus, to name a few.

One of my favorite moments of gratitude came earlier this semester, when one of our female teachers shared that students had written notes in the bathroom stalls. Having been in my share of bathroom stalls, I know the notes written there aren’t typically the sort that inspire the gratitude of teachers. Or administrators.IMG_1621

With more than a little trepidation, I asked for more information.

A group of students, of their own accord and on their own time, had taken it upon themselves to post Bible verses, written in their best cursive script and decorated beautifully, all around the Upper School hallways, including in the bathroom stalls. The students picked encouraging verses about overcoming trials, finding hope in every situation, and relying on God’s strength and not their own. When I asked one of the students who led the initiative, she said, “We wanted to do it to build unity in the entire school by encouraging one another.  We really tried to focus on students outside of our own friend group and classes.” When I asked why they chose Bible verses instead of other inspirational quotes, both girls looked at me like I had lost my mind and answered emphatically, “It’s the Word of God!”

IMG_1620In his seminal work on Christian community, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “[T]he Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged…. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.” Our school is a Christian community, and as such we want to constantly speak God’s Word to each other. In an era in which teenage depression and suicide are spiraling out of control, it is increasingly important that the habit is cultivated in our teens of proclaiming to their friends God as revealed in His Word as the ultimate source of all Truth and hope.

As Bonhoeffer said, the proclamation of God’s Word is a powerful source of hope and encouragement. May Ambrose be a school where His Word is proclaimed in all places and at all times.

Even in the bathroom stalls.

Great Conversations

It is a conversation I feel like I’ve had a thousand times: a junior high boy is sent to my office for doing something inappropriate in class, and I get to help them figure out where they went wrong.  Our conversation typically goes like this:

Me: “Why did Mr. Tucker send you to see me?”

Jr. High Boy: “I sprayed Sam with my water bottle.”

Me: “You did? Why would you do that? Was it Waterfight Wednesday in Mr. Tucker’s class?”

Jr. High Boy: “No. I guess I wasn’t thinking….”

Me: “That may be the case, but let’s look deeper: how’d the rest of your class react when you sprayed Sam with your water bottle?”

Jr. High Boy (usually grinning): “They laughed. They thought it was pretty funny….”

Me (trying to pretend I’ve come upon some new wonderful insight… remember I’ve had this conversation a thousand times): “Ah…. They laughed. They thought it was pretty funny….”

Jr. High Boy (sheepishly silent): “….”

Me: “Do you suppose THAT might be why you sprayed Sam with your water bottle?  To make your buddies laugh? To make them think you were pretty funny?”

(I like to mix in air quotes here on laugh and pretty funny, just to emphasize my point. It works wonders.)

Jr. High Boy: “Yea. Now that I think about it, I guess I did.”

Me: “What’s wrong with that?”

Jr. High Boy: “It’s selfish. I’m taking the class’s attention from Mr. Tucker and focusing on myself.”

At this profound discovery, I usually take over and explain that people who find themselves in trouble invariably do so because of this same problem: without exception, people are innately selfish. Our natural inclination is to do what we want to do. It is why the Apostle Paul used such strong language as “dying to self daily” and “crucify[ing] the flesh.”  I walk the students through the confession/repentance/forgiveness/restoration process and send them back to class to see Mr. Tucker.

This is where the conversation usually ends. But not always.

I had a 7thgrade boy in my office a few weeks back and had this very same talk with him. The next day I was in the Providence Room, sitting at a bistro table after school, when the student came walking in.

Jr. High Boy: “Mr. Browne, can I talk to you for a minute.”

Before waiting for an answer, he took up his place on the stool across from me.

Me: “Sure.  Have a seat.” I directed him towards the stool he was already sitting in.

Jr. High Boy: “I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said yesterday about selfishness being the cause of all sin. I think you’re right, but I mentioned it to some of my friends, and we got into a really good discussion about it.  A few of them thought that pride was the root of evil, and they made some really good points.”

(Pause and imagine that for a moment: a group of 13 year-old boys – not mindlessly huddled around screens playing Fortnite until their eyes bleed – but instead enjoying one another’s fellowship in deep discussion over a meaningful topic; this – more than dry textbooks, menial worksheets, or Scantron bubble forms – is education.)

Great ConversationsThe 7thgrade boy and I then spent half an hour in deep conversation kicking the ideas around and talking about Bible verses and orthodox doctrines that would make sense of their discussion. He thanked me for my time and went away.

Proverbs 10: 11 and 13 read in part: “The mouth of the righteous is a well of life…” and “Wisdom is found on the lips of him who has understanding….” Both of these verses speak to something that exists at the core of our school in particular and classical Christian education in general:  deep and meaningful conversation.  It is so often by engaging ideas with others and talking through them that God leads us to truth. A group of junior high boys in the corner of a classroom discussing the root cause of sin isn’t a rare occurrence at our school. Our teachers will tell you that the highest and best moments they have in teaching involve conversations like this with our students.

Grab a friend or two and let your mouth be “a well of life” to them, and vice versa; alternatively, you could hang out in the Providence Room and wait for a group of students to wander in and join them in their great conversation. You will thank me later.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.