On Becoming Men

The best conversations happen in my office.

For example, at the end of this past year, I had two boys sent to see me. There were some shenanigans in their classroom, and their teacher, a woman, thought it would be good for the boys to talk with a man about it.

It turned out the teacher was out of the room talking with another student. These two boys thought it an adventure to play a game where one boy does a wall-sit against the wall, and then another boy sits on his lap, and then another and another, and so on, until the weight of the subsequent boys causes the first boy to collapse (I guess this is a game kids play?)

Anyway, I asked the boys to tell me what happened, and they described it to me accurately and giggled the whole time. As I asked them what was wrong with what they did, I got some great answers (“We weren’t doing what we were supposed to be doing…,” “It was disrespectful to our class and teacher…,” and such,) but after ten minutes of going in circles, I wasn’t quite getting the depth of thought out of the boys that I was aiming for.

That’s when the Holy Spirit prompted me with a dash of inspiration.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Boys, who do you admire most in life? Who do you want to be like?”

Boy 1: “My dad. Totally my dad!”

Boy 2: “Agreed. My dad!”

(Pause and enjoy the beauty of those two answers for a moment….)

Me: “That’s great! I also admire your dads. Now, imagine for a moment your dads doing what you both just did. Imagine Dad 1 sitting on the lap of Dad 2, and a long line of other dads sitting on their laps until the whole group of dads collapses into a pile, giggling all the way….”

The look of horror on the faces of both boys was priceless.

Boy 1, squirming: “No, I don’t want to imagine that…..”

Boy 2, blushing: “Yea. That’s not a visual I like….”

Me: “Right! So ask yourself, why was it ok for you to do it, but you’re horrified to even imagine your dads doing it?”

Both boys, seeing things clearly now, answered in unison: “Because we’re boys, and they’re men.”

Me, for dramatic effect: “Because you’re boys, and they’re men….”

I had them right where I wanted them.

Me: “Now is the time, boys, to become men.”

Prolonged adolescence is a growing problem for the broader culture. Adulthood generally, and manhood specifically, is continually delayed longer and longer: the Affordable Care Act allows young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until they are 26, even if they are married; the average age of a man’s first marriage in 2010 fell to 28 years of age, delayed over 5 years in the 50 years from 1960, when it was 22.8 years old; and young men at an alarming rate are choosing to stay in Mom and Dad’s house and play video games instead of going to college or joining the workforce.

At The Ambrose School, we want our boys to become the men God created them to be. Our school mission statement says that we seek to form “Christian leaders” who will “[transform] the church, the community, and the world,” and this cannot be done from Mom and Dad’s basement virtually through Call of Duty. Growing into a man requires much: we as parents and educators need to expect more from our boys than they expect from themselves; we need to challenge our boys to do hard things; we must demand they take personal responsibility for their mistakes, and resist every urge to rush to their aid when trouble finds them; we must require that they apologize and ask for forgiveness when they’ve wronged someone; and we need to continually call them to a higher standard in their conduct, in their speech, in their dress, and in their personal relationships.

Occasionally, I get to do all of this in a single, really fun conversation in my office.

Walk in the Light

I recently read a great quote from Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who wrote, “”[I]t’s amazing to see the difference between schools that have been around a little while and figured out how important culture is at their school versus those who have just gotten started and think that all they have to do is get it right in terms of having the right curriculum in place and then everything will work. So much more of what happens is the sea of assumptions that kids are raised around about what the good, the true, and the beautiful are and what you want your appetites and your heart and your loves to start inclining towards.”

Every school has a culture, those mostly metaphysical characteristics that are shaped and defined by what students love. There are good cultures and bad ones, cultures of light and cultures of darkness. I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics that shape school culture, and I’m constantly looking for key markers that reveal the health of our own school culture. There are several things I keep a pretty close eye on, like student interest in our House program and community service, church attendance and involvement in our student body, and student adherence to our community standards, just to name a few.

LightThis year I saw something pretty awesome. It was mid-May on a Wednesday morning and our students were on their way out to play ultimate Frisbee for House Games. I was in the foyer, watching students go outside, when I saw one of the most encouraging indicators imaginable that our school culture is one of light: a small handful of our alumni, newly returned to the valley from their freshman year in college, came walking in the door. They were proudly wearing their House t-shirts and athletic shorts, all ready to play ultimate Frisbee for their beloved Houses. Our student body erupted in joy, and smiles and hugs filled the foyer.

One thing to note: this wasn’t a page taken out of Dazed and Confused – a twenty-something refusing to grow up – but these alumni are among our best and our brightest: valedictorians and national merit scholars, drawn back to our school by the community they loved and where they could find truth, goodness, beauty, and Christian fellowship.

I graduated 25 years ago, and I haven’t set foot in the hallways of my former high school in all that time. There simply wasn’t anything to draw me back. It speaks volumes about our culture that alumni are excited to come back and want to remain a part of our community.

1 John 1:5-7 reads in part, “… God is light and in Him is no darkness at all….  But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” A community of students walking together in the light. That’s about the best definition of a healthy school culture that I can think of. Crafting a culture of light, where our students and faculty walk daily in the light as Jesus is in the light, is something we strive to do at The Ambrose School. I’m encouraged that, by the grace of God, we’re having some success.

Our alumni seem to agree.

When a Teacher is Far More Than a Teacher

Summer is a magical season for students and educators: they largely get to unplug from what philosophers call “the workaday world,” and they often get to spend some time pursuing their own individual passions, things such as sports camps, book clubs, and college and independent study courses.

Teachers at The Ambrose School, however, are a bit different. There is an important aspect of the calling of a teacher at The Ambrose School that doesn’t recognize summer break: the calling to disciple students in a Christ-centered life. Even when classes are not in session, our teachers embrace this lofty calling.

For example, I received an email from a parent earlier this summer. I don’t get many parent emails in early July, so when I did, I must admit that I panicked just a little. Those few emails I do get in July are not typically positive.

The story in this email was so very different. This family has an adult daughter moving out of the house, and their younger daughter was excited to inherit her room. The younger daughter loves French style and all things Paris, and she was sad that she didn’t have any French décor for her soon-to-be new room. She mentioned this in passing to one of our teachers, who saw an opportunity to do something beautiful.

ParisEarlier this month – in the very heart of summer when so many educators are indulging their own interests – our teacher stopped by her student’s house to drop off a piece of original artwork for her wall. The teacher, who is a skilled artist, spent time during her own summer break to paint a beautiful oil painting of the Eiffel Tower. It was a free gift, given out of love and self-sacrifice, and not in the pursuit of tenure or the next tier on a pay scale. In fact, had the parent not emailed me to tell me, I never would have known!

Proverbs 22:6 reads, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The process of training entails so many things, but two of the more important are relationship and modeling. This particular story is a powerful example where the teacher excelled at both those things. Through the sacrifice of her time and attention, a deep relationship is being built with her student; undoubtedly, when the teacher needs to correct or impart wisdom to her student in the future, she’ll find a willing and attentive ear! By modeling caritas, the love of Christ that is selfless and kind, our teacher gave her student a clear image, and inspiration to go with it, of what it looks like to fulfill Jesus’s commandment “to love [others] as yourself.”

At a classical Christian school like ours, teachers are more than just teachers.

Such as These

Parenting is hard. I know this truth as well as anyone. I get daily lessons on how far I have to go to improve as a parent.

There are benefits to working where my kids are, but there are also challenges. Much like the cobbler’s wife goes longest without shoes, my own kids go longest without my attention at school. If you’ve spent any time at all on our campus, you’ve likely seen the Browne girls sitting by themselves in the hallway waiting for Dad to finish with a meeting.

Such was the case the week after classes ended this year. I was busy meeting with teachers one on one for year-end reviews, and my girls were on their own. My oldest had volleyball camp, and she was supposed to bring my youngest daughter, Sara, over with her to meet me. I had a meeting ending at the same time, so I told my sweet little Sara to wait for me in the gym with the volleyball campers.

Of course, my meetings ran late: 5 minutes turned into 10, and 10 minutes turned into 30, and 30 minutes turned into 60 (such is the life of a school administrator!) When the meetings finally ended, I rushed out of my office to track down poor Sara, who had to wait for me in the gym by herself for over an hour. I was sickened at the thought.

Only I entered the gym to find Sara was not lonely and by herself. The teens who were running the camp – one an alumni who just finished up her freshman year of college, and the other a senior and co-captain of the volleyball team – had seen Sara by herself, and had acted: they had included her in their camp with girls much older than her, and were giving her odd jobs to help the campers run through their drills. Sara, having been included by the “cool teen girls,” was grinning ear to ear when I found her.

Mark 10:14-15 reads in part, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.’” One of my favorite things about being part of a K-12 school community are the many positive interactions I see daily between our teens and Grammar School kids. Teenagers who lay down their lives in little ways to serve the little children in our school change lives. In 20 years, I doubt Sara will remember the 7 kings of Rome, but I have no doubt she will remember the day those two teenage girls went out of their way to include her so she didn’t feel alone.

Kingdom work was done that day, and I, fallible father that I am, was largely the recipient. Soli Deo Gloria

Love Covers All

Imagine the horror of losing your personal journal, full of your most intimate and vulnerable thoughts.

Now imagine being a sixteen-year old girl, and doing that same thing.

Imagine also losing it while at school, leaving it in a classroom frequented almost solely by junior high boys.

And finally, imagine doing all the above in a relatively small school where everyone knows everyone else.

Can you think of anything more horrifying for a teenage girl? It is the plot of pretty much every teenage angst movie ever made (anyone seen Mean Girls or Touched by Grace?) You can imagine how it might play out: girl shows up at school, forgets her journal in a classroom, it is found by boys who quickly pass it around school before posting excerpts, with names and all, on every social media website imaginable. Girl is mortified and, in a pool of tears, tells Mom and Dad there is no way she can ever show her face at school again.

JournalThis same scenario actually happened at our school this year: a high school girl accidentally left what equated to a personal journal in a classroom, where it was found by a junior high boy.

Only, the unexpected followed: the junior high boy who found the journal did not use it as an opportunity to selfishly look cool in the eyes of his friends, or to become the center of attention with his bit of insider information; horror did not ensue; no one was publicly shamed; and no mortified girls had cause to beg mom and dad to transfer schools. Instead, the junior high boy did an exceptionally beautiful thing: he discreetly asked his teacher out into the hallway, and quietly gave the journal to him to handle.

None of the boy’s classmates were aware of what had happened. No one was shamed, and no one’s innermost thoughts were made a public spectacle. The situation, ripe with scandal, was diffused and done.

1 Peter 4:8 reads, “And above all things have fervent love for one another, for ‘love will cover a multitude of sins.’” We all sin and fall short of God’s glory. How tragic it is when others expose our weaknesses to the world for their own gain; but how beautiful it is when brothers and sisters in Christ cover for one another in love! This is a key difference of a Christian community; as Jesus said, the world will know us by our love for one another. And it is a difference for which the world around us is desperate.

The world is watching. May they know us by our love for one another.

Serve One Another

In the Upper School, the month of May is intense: thesis defenses, final exams, Senior Baccalaureate, and graduation make for an exciting, though tension-filled, end of a year. As a natural introvert serving in a calling that requires me to live outside my comfort zone, the final days of a school year can get to me. On occasion I find myself tired, stressed, and in need of some encouragement.

I was in just such a state in the final week of school this year. I walked into my office at the end of a rough day and threw myself into an armchair. My eyes wandered to find a package on my desk, neatly wrapped in forest green tissue paper. A plain white card was attached, which only read, “From a grateful student.”

I get thoughtful gifts of appreciation on occasion; however, this particular package was more than I could have possibly imagined. It was light, so I opened it carefully. Peeling aside the wrapping paper, I found a beautiful piece of student art. The impressionist painting showed a path leading under the eaves of a great forest. A lone traveler stood far within, a mysterious shadow in the distance, inviting the observer to follow.

TGWAs a self-styled outdoorsman, at first I didn’t think any more of the subject of the painting; I just thought a student knew of my love for landscapes and painted something nice for me. It wasn’t until I turned the painting over that I realized what I was looking at. On the frame of the canvas was written the title “The Golden Wood.”

The painting from a student representing a subject so near and dear to me affected me deeply. The heavy weight of the end-of-the-year rush withered away, and I was immediately encouraged and hopeful that God was at work in my life, sustaining me through a difficult week. That the artist was thoughtful enough to give the gift anonymously, and thereby “not let [his] left hand know what [his] right hand was doing” – was evidence to me that the gift was given truly and out of love, for my encouragement, and not for any gain of the artist. What a beautiful thing!

Galatians 5:13-14 reads in part, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While I don’t know any specifics around the painting – who the artist is, if the subject was truly inspired by this blog, or under what circumstances it came to be – I am fairly certain the thoughtful nature of the gift was not compelled by Mosaic Law, nor the mandate of any teachers or parents. It was instead the product of a teenage student, called to liberty, and using that liberty to serve others in love.

Mission accomplished.

Iron Sharpens Iron

All was silent. It was late May, the day after classes ended, and 234 teenagers put their summers on hold long enough to cram in to a stuffy gym for Epilogos, our final exordium of the school year. To a student, they hung on my every word.

“The Ambrose of Milan Award for Academic Year 2016-2017 is given to….”

Giving The Ambrose of Milan Award is wrought with difficulty. As a classical Christian school, our primary purpose in education, the thing we value above all others, is the cultivation of virtue. Students can study quadratics and stoichiometry anywhere; only in Christian community can they be forged in to the men and women God has created them to be.

Recognizing and celebrating virtue can also be difficult. Virtue is rarely quantifiable. It doesn’t fit neatly in to a rubric, a grading scale, or a lesson plan. It is most often unseen: it happens at dinner tables, in car rides, on athletic fields, and in the dark and secret recesses of Instagram and SnapChat code.

The Ambrose of Milan Award is our attempt as a school to recognize and celebrate virtue in the lives of our students. The process for doing so is rigorous. We dedicate an entire faculty meeting to it, nominating students from each class, reviewing their careers at our school, telling story after story of moments where students clearly showed the virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude, faith, hope, and especially love. In particular, we look for instances where students showed a desire to love God and man, a legendary kindness, an unwavering courage and honor in trials, and a Christ-like attitude of humility and service to others.

You can imagine nominating students for this award might be difficult, and often it is.

On occasion, however, it is not. Thus was the case this year.Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 3.41.41 PM

“The Ambrose of Milan Award for Academic Year 2016-2017 is given to….”

Noah Squared.”

Proverbs 27:17 reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so a person sharpens his friend.” The two Noahs – “Noah Squared,” as they have been known at our school over the last six years – have been an amazing image of this biblical truth for all our school to see. They have faithfully encouraged each other in classrooms, in Mock Trial courtrooms, on the playing fields of House games, on cross country courses, and everything in between. They have prayed for each other, formed accountability groups with other boys in their class, and have debated theology, literature, and philosophy at every turn. Through their close Christian brotherhood, they have made one another other better than they would have been on their own.

That is a beautiful thing we can all celebrate.

Be Still and Know

MonConIt was one of the those surreal moments where you aren’t sure that what you are seeing is actually happening: 48 junior high students were seated in total silence, faithfully copying and illuminating their favorite Bible passages, candles the only light in the room, with hymns playing in the background.

For 90 minutes. On a Friday night.

The moment I’m describing occurred during our annual Monastic Conventiculum, or “MonCon,” as it has become known. During this beautiful evening, our 8th graders, who study medieval humanities, meet at school to experience a night in the life of a medieval monk. When many kids their age were in a dark room playing video games, or at The Village watching suspect movies, this group of students was singing hymns together in chapel, breaking bread together in the refectory, playing together in the quad, and illuminating the Word of God in the scriptorium.

In Psalm 46, God instructs us to “Be still, and know that I am God.” If we know God in stillness, what can we derive from the inverse? Neil Postman famously cautioned that 21st century Americans were in danger of “amusing ourselves to death.” If we know God in stillness, is it possible we forget Him in amusement?

MonCon is a deep and rich experience that goes far beyond just pretending to be a monk for a night. By willingly sacrificing their cell phones, their game consoles, their Netflix accounts, and the many other entertainments that consume so much of their time and attention, our students learn the power of being still: still to sit in a quiet library for an hour and a half, contemplating a God Who loves them infinitely; still to work painstakingly on copying the Word of God; still to listen to music that soothes the soul instead of inflames it.

I’m not sure cultivating the habit of being still has ever been more necessary.

On Wisdom and Foolishness: A Graduate’s View

His voice rang out clearly: “Mom and Dad, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!?”

Our valedictorian stood at the pulpit during the graduation ceremony, and expounded on his question: in a world that sees standardized test scores, premier college admissions, prestigious career pursuits – and subsequent six-digit salaries – as markers of success, why in the world would parents send their sons and daughters to a small, classical Christian school like ours?

As our valedictorian so eloquently said, in the modern age of radical pragmatism, parents who make such a choice – and pay a sizeable tuition to do it – appear insane. To be successful in this world, in schools shouldn’t parents be looking for signature sports programs, robust class offerings, AP classes galore, an army of college admissions advisors, and more?

The valedictorian paused and repeated the opening clause of his last statement: to be successful in this world….

Therein lies the rub. As Christians, we need to be thoughtful about what success truly looks like. Should we accept what this age considers success: high standardized test scores, college admissions, premier professions, and prodigious salaries? Or, as disciples of Christ, is success something different for us, something higher, something beyond the understanding of the world around us?

As a graduating senior, this particular student fully grasped what it meant to be classically educated in the Christian tradition when visiting Rwanda two years prior. It was Pastor Patrick’s persistent and singular pursuit for his students, many of who live on the very edge of starvation, that really captivated his imagination and brought him to a deeper understanding of the true markers of success for the Christian student: to become good and virtuous servants of the Living Christ.

Success to the modern pragmatist lies in what a student does and how that brings him material gain; success to the Christian family lies in who a student becomes and how that enables them to serve Christ and His kingdom.

Our valedictorian’s final caution still resonates in my mind: because The Ambrose School has grown to meet and exceed many of the pragmatist’s markers – high standardized test scores, impressive college admissions and scholarship lists, etc. – we must be vigilant to remember the difference: our primary purpose as a school lies in who our students are and not in what they do. Let us never lose sight of the difference.

1 Corinthians 3:18-19 reads: “If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.” Few things Christian families do appear more foolish to this world than to pay for an education when their sons and daughters can go to the government schools for free. Just as the world does not comprehend the wisdom of God, neither does it comprehend the Christian parent’s responsibility to raise up virtuous sons and daughters who love God and love their neighbor.

If the world thinks you insane, that’s likely a good thing.

A God Who Works in the Shadows

Every year the teachers and I have the weighty responsibility of selecting student leaders for our House program. Every year we have somewhere around three applicants for every one position. Students and staff alike take the process very seriously. Through the process we typically make great decisions, selecting the best students for the job; on occasion, we don’t.

A sophomore student applied for leadership: he was bright, charismatic, highly motivated, deeply involved in the House program, a natural leader from a family of natural leaders. Due to a variety of reasons, he wasn’t selected for House leadership; it was one of those occasions where we didn’t make the right decision. The student was terribly discouraged. His disappointment drove him to a dark place, but his response was noteworthy: though he is of a generation that glorifies and embraces victim status, that feels entitled to trophies just for showing up, and demands safe spaces and trigger warnings, this student chose to respond in a better way. He became even more supportive and involved in the House program.

A year later, as a soon-to-be senior, he applied for House leadership again. During the interview, I asked him how he walked through his disappointment from the previous year. His answer was both inspiring and humbling. He said: “I was really disappointed, and honestly mad, so I went outside and played ultimate Frisbee for two hours. And then I made up my mind that I was going to be the best House member I could be. I was going to act like a House leader even if I didn’t have the title. Participate in everything, even take a leadership role whenever I could. I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself and be selfish, but I instead wanted to support my friends.”

And he did just that. The second time around, we not only made him a House leader, but a House president. He rewarded our decision by becoming one of our very best.

Psalm 23:4 reads: “[T]hough I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me.” Disappointments come to us all in one form or another, and they can drive us to dark and shadowy places in life. Those moments often define us: will we spiral further in despair and turn from God, or will we embrace the disappointment as a chance to grow closer to the God Who can sustain us in such times? When we do the latter, God is faithful to work in those shadows and shape us in to the people He wants us to be.

And those people tend to make the very best House presidents.