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.

An Imperishable Crown

Amazing things happen in unexpected places. Just such a thing happened at a Jr. High cross country race earlier this year. The course was laid out through a heavily wooded area, and the path was not clearly marked. Nearing the end of the race, one of our junior high boys was in second place, right on the heels of a runner from Parma. Unexpectedly, the Parma athlete took a wrong turn, and our runner had the perfect opportunity to take over first place.

Only he didn’t. The Archer runner stopped, yelled directions to the Parma runner, and waited for him to come back to the right course and get back in first place.

Stopping wasn’t premeditated. Our runner didn’t do it because his parents were watching or compelling him. He didn’t agonize over a complex moral dilemma for weeks. He just did it because it was the right thing to do, despite a dominant culture that praises winning at all costs.

Our runner was never able to overtake the other boy, finishing in second place. It wasn’t until the Parma runner asked one of our coaches to thank our student that anyone was even aware of what had taken place.

I Corinthians 9:24-27 reads in part: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.…. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” I can’t remember who won any other race all season, but I will eternally remember who finished second at that race. That’s an imperishable crown. At The Ambrose School we talk often about rightly ordered affections – loving the right things to the right degree – and this is a particularly poignant example of a student doing just that. Our runner loves winning, to be sure; but there are higher things he loves even more. To God be all the glory.

Against Such There is No Law

It was an administrator’s worst nightmare: 234 teenagers packed in to a gym with no direction whatsoever. I’m not sure there was even another adult in the room. It was Exordium morning, and it was long past time to start the program by singing the hymn of the month. Yet, nothing was happening. The choir was on the stage, looking at me with questioning faces. I made eye contact with a student, and he mouthed, “Piano?” Our beloved pianist was nowhere to be found.

I panicked, and did just about the worst thing a leader could do at that moment: I ran out of the gym. I intended to find the pianist and get her to the gym right quick, but it took me several painful minutes to track her down. Once I found her, I fully expected to return to the gym to find junior high boys having chicken fights in the back, an aerial battle of paper airplanes flying to and fro, and a number of other horrors too terrible to mention.

Instead I entered the gym to the dulcet sounds of 234 teenagers singing All Creatures of Our God and King acapella. No adult led them in it. No one even instructed them to do it. 234 teenagers just did it on their own. It was completely organic: the choir took the lead, and all the other students joined in. I suspect most students were not even aware of what had happened. They just did what they knew to do.

Galatians 5:22-23 reads: “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” That morning was a clear example of a group of teenage students exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit, namely faithfulness, self-control, goodness, etc. – not because they were compelled to, but because those virtues have been cultivated in them by the Holy Spirit alive and at work in their lives.

The cultivation of virtue works, and against such there is no law.