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.

Irrigating Deserts

“What!?!  I love you guys!!”

The seniors were clustered together in the shadow of the Basilica of Santa Croce, and the local guide in Florence, Italy, could not contain his enthusiasm for our students.  I was afraid he might hug me.

What would be so amazing that a total stranger in a city 5,000 miles away would profess his love so openly for our students?  Simply this: our students were the guide’s first group ever who not only knew who Dante was but had read The Divine Comedy, and our seniors were interested in learning more about Dante and seeing the site of his home.

IMG_0632As our guide in Florence this year made clear, literacy, intellectual curiosity, and a refined aesthetic are exceedingly rare qualities in modern teenagers. It was the kind of comment I have heard from guides countless times now.

For example, our tour director, the guy who spends two solid weeks with our group leading us around Europe — a brilliant Englishman who has been leading student tours for 25 years, is a dual citizen in France and England, and speaks 3 languages fluently — has given up doing student tours with the exception of two schools: a private, catholic school from Nebraska and The Ambrose School. He refuses to lead other student tours simply because he grew tired and exasperated from dealing with apathetic and ignorant teenagers who could not stand to have Michelangelo’s Pieta or Brunelleschi’s Duomo come between them and their Wi-Fi.

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We have had a London guide, accustomed to American students, apologize that our group might be bored to tears while touring through Westminister Abbey, only to be shocked when our students were excited to  see Wilberforce’s tomb and Poets Corner.

I have seen a Rome guide joke that he took it as a personal challenge to find stories or bits of information that our students did not already know, and then rejoice when at last he found something.

Our Paris guide found our students so warm and engaging that she jumped in and joined them as they sang a beautiful rendition of the Les Champs-Elysees while driving down the actual Champs-Elysees in the rain.

 

IMG_0564Our students affections are dramatically different than most teenagers, and it is never more apparent than when we are out on tour with people who have made a career out of working with young people. The local guides quickly recognize in our students something rare and refreshing: our students appreciate and feel inspired by good and beautiful things whenever they encounter them.

Drawing on his own experience as a teacher, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility, there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Lewis’s point is this: the challenge of the modern educator is not to tame wild and erratic interests or loves in students, or what he called “a weak excess of sensibility;” instead, the challenge is to awaken our students from “the slumber of cold vulgarity,” brought on by the world that numbs them with intoxicating effect from loving the Good, True, and Beautiful.

Lewis wrote those words almost 75 years ago. With the rise of the Digital Age and the destructive influence of social media and video games, and all the distractions that accompany them, the situation has not improved. But all is not lost. Much of what we do at The Ambrose School is done to awaken our students from “the slumber of cold vulgarity” that Lewis spoke of. There is an intellectual curiosity latent within Man as created in the Imago Dei, a love of learning, and an affection for things beautiful and praiseworthy that simply needs inspiration to awaken.  We hire life long-learners with a passion for the liberal arts to teach, we read great books and guide our students into deep discussions, our classrooms are full of beautiful art and music, exposed wood and wrought iron, and we take our seniors on a 12 day tour of Europe, all with the express goal of inspiring within students a love for the goodness and beauty in God’s creation.

The comments of local guides on our Senior Trip — strangers from far-distant lands who know a thing or two about teens in the 21stcentury — are evidence that irrigating deserts still yields a rich harvest.

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.

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.)

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.

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.