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.

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.)

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.

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.