Something I’ve been preaching to my own heart in recent weeks has been a simple little mantra, namely this:
Mind the good.
In any given moment of our lives, whether in class or around the dinner table, there are a thousand blessings, if we would but see them. This takes eyes of faith, because we believe that being responsible means dealing with the problems before us. But thankfulness cleans off of our smudgy glasses to be able to see those problems more clearly. It lends perspective, and we all need that.
Imagine a mom and dad and their four kids are at the dinner table, and the kids are bickering. True, it’s bad that they’re bickering. Maybe even really bad. But…
It’s good that the kids are all there, and none are sick or in the hospital.
It’s good that the family has managed to prioritize mealtimes together for sake of connection.
It’s good that the table has food on it.
It’s good that they have a place to eat that food.
It’s good that moments like these are (probably) outnumbered by sweeter moments of harmony that cultivate family loyalty and create happy memories.
In sneaky ways, these times are stabilizing and anchoring for the family.
What, of these good things, do they deserve? (Hint: it rhymes with “sun.”)
Being mindful of the good things in this vignette does not make the bickering automatically disappear. And yet it does lend a degree of helpful clarity when it comes time to address that bickering.
If you’re at ECS, you have a family. Families are good, and families have family problems. Your kids are in a classroom full of other sinners and also full of good blessings.
May God grant us eyes of faith to see the good in the midst of the bad.
The following are notes from the Convocation address by Mr. Higgins
The word perspective derives from two Latin words, the preposition per meaning “through” and the verb speciō meaning “I look.” We might think of a person with perspective like a bird, high enough to see a broader landscape, or as one using a telescope, far enough away to see how things relate. But at its root, someone with perspective is someone who is able to look through. Someone who can look through is someone who can see clearly as if having found a window in the wall.
From a calendar perspective, we are only on the first day of an entire school year, and so we have a long way to go. From an institutional perspective, we are on the first day of year ten, and so we have come a long way. From even another perspective, not just looking at time, we can see through the fog and know that what we have here is something special.
Follow me here. Perspective enables us to see that what we have is special, and I’d say that what’s really special is that we have perspective. My evidence for that is all the laughter. Bona fide laughter requires perspective.
Both our mission statement and our motto talk about laughter. Here’s our mission:
We commend the works of the Lord to another generation with the tools of classical education, weaponized laughter, and sacrificial labors so that they will carry and advance Christ-honoring culture.
Our motto is: Risus est bellum, or Laughter is war.
We talk about laughter, and in the nine finished years of ECS, there has been nothing more difficult, and nothing more important, than laughter. This kind of laughing is not mostly due to a specific personality type, though it’s certainly true that laughing comes easier to some than the melancholy. I feel as if I have a good view of what this laughter looks like, like a drowning man looks up at the water’s surface with desperate attention and desire to reach it. Laughter is that important.
Of course not all laughter is the same. Solomon had some unflattering things to say about chuckling fatheads.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; (Ecclesiastes 7:6)
Thorns in fire heat up fast, but don’t last. They burn out before providing any real benefit. The laughter of fools is as useless as it is noisy.
If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet. (Proverbs 29:9)
Fools laugh because they can’t see the bigger picture and because they don’t want to look at the immediate problems. A fool’s cackle is mere defense mechanism, making a racket against the reasonable.
Weaponized laughter, the kind we’re after at ECS, is laughter from faith for faith. It is able to see through the current troubles to what God is accomplishing in them. We have some historical examples surrounding us in a great cloud of witnesses.
“When sometimes I sit alone, and have a settled assurance of the state of my soul, and know that God is my God, I can laugh at all troubles, and nothing can daunt me.”
Latimer was the same English Reformer burned at the stake in 1555 with Nicholas Ridley, when Latimer is reported to have said:
“Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”
That is the kind of thing you can only say with perspective. A man with the perspective of faith in God can “laugh at all troubles” even to the point of greatest sacrifice.
John Bunyan, who lived less than a hundred years after Latimer, also in England, was the sort of man who had perspective enough to laugh, and his counsel for those being persecuted:
“Has thou escaped? Laugh. Art thou taken? Laugh. I mean, be pleased which soever things shall go, for that the scales are still in God’s hands.”
Godly laughter is God-trusting laughter.
It’s why David wrote, “The righteous shall see and fear, and laugh” (Psalm 52:5). Not only did David have perspective, while on the run from King Saul and from Doeg the Edomite, he was laughing at the man who didn’t have perspective. Doeg seemed to have the upper hand, and he had the King favor, but he wouldn’t make God his refuge. The righteous see right through that.
We will be tempted not to laugh for a number of reasons, especially because of our work. This is true of students, new and old, true of parents, and true for teachers, a thing I know by personal testimony. Temptations come because:
The work is unknown, and we don’t know what we’re doing. There’s a certain level of discomfort, and fearfulness is an easier default than trying while laughing.
The work is unenjoyable, and we don’t like what we’ve been assigned. It’s easier to do the job with more whining than laughing.
The work doesn’t have enough time (from our perspective) to get finished. It’s easier to be flustered than to be laughing.
The work (we got finished) isn’t perfect. It’s easier to to be proudly irritated than to humbly laugh.
The work is tiring. It’s easier to belly ache rather than belly laugh.
The work is unappreciated, at least not praised as immediately as we’d like. It’s easier to fuss than to laugh.
Are you doing your work from faith and for faith? Are you doing your work “heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23)? Then trust the Creator of time with the use and fruit of the time He gives you. The woman who fears the Lord has such an approach.
Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. (Proverbs 31:25)
There is a potent sort of laughing, and it’s the sign of a virtuous man.
You’ve got to be able to not get sucked in by the complainers, to keep your cool when everyone is freaking out about the assignment, to be patient even when the deadline is looming. Laugh in faith because your life is bigger than your grade, and then laugh in thanks when you got a better grade than you probably deserved.
“If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.”
Choose this day which character you will be, Distracted, Fearful, Grumpy, or Dopey. How about instead we aim to be those who are laughing in wartime?
I also said the following on the first day of ECS, 3290 days ago:
“We don’t want our kids to want someone else to do it. We don’t want them to wait for all things safe and predictable and comfortable, for the “perfect” conditions. We don’t want them to work in reliance on their giftedness but rather because they believe God. We want them to walk by faith, ready to deal with the challenges of the battle even if they don’t have all the resources. We want them to be starters and singers. We want them to be just like us, only better. We want them to have first days like this, only bigger.”
As we present ourselves as living sacrifices to Him, and as He blesses the fruit of our hands and homework, we will sing with the psalmist:
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. (Psalm 126:2-3)
May the Lord give us His perspective on 2021-22 and fill our mouths with laughter.
I read the following story for our school’s end of year assembly. Good stories are supposed to stand on their own, but it might be helpful to read this 2021 Summer Challenge from Mrs. Bowers first.
The seeds walked out of the co-op after their last day of class. It had been a good school year, unprecedented even. But as good as school can be, the arrival of summer break, even for seeds, is always worth celebrating.
Oakly, Elmer, Bruce, Lerry, Tom, Iris, Rosie, Lily, Heather, and Willow were standing around in the parking lot after the barbecue and got to talking about a comment that their teacher had made in their final Almanac Class. He said that whoever wanted to have a fruitful summer should try to get buried as soon as possible.
Mr. Croft had said it matter of factly, like it was obvious, like it was what they were made to do. It’s not that they hadn’t ever heard a message like this before, but for whatever reason, hearing it this time caused more curiosity, and concern.
Most of the friends weren’t interested in getting so down to earth, nor did they believe that they were being told the truth. Milling around on the surface is way less scary than the dark and soggy soil. School was the time for work and summer was the season for play.
Oakly was the only seed with the faith to see that being buried might produce better things. So while everyone else made plans to binge on sun-fun, he committed to some things he didn’t really want to do.
Oakly woke up a little early every morning and did some seed yoga. You may be wondering what “seed yoga” is, and I understand. Probably the most frequent and foundational movement for seeds is called the downward-facing-dolphin. Like a dolphin flaps her flippers to push water backward, a seed must learn to angle his nose down and push the dirt upward.
After seed yoga he did cardio workouts on a furrowing machine. Some seeds grow just fine scattered in no particular pattern, others do better entrenched together. The furrowing machine let seeds get stronger at getting their groove on.
Oakly also picked up some extra chores at a neighbor’s field. His first project was to push the pebbles from the main part of the field to the perimeter. It was hard work, because rocks are hard, and because some of the rocks were larger than him and all of them were heavier. When he was done clearing a section of all the small stones he could find, he would practice digging hole-slots. Some seeds just aren’t strong enough to drill down into the dirt on their own, so other seeds can scoop out a little cozy niche where weaker seeds can jump in and get their start.
All these workouts and work still didn’t take up all his time so he thought he’d try his hand at growing some fruit. He had heard about a mysterious fruit called a seedless watermelon. As you might imagine, this was a difficult challenge because it still takes a seed to grow a seedless watermelon, but you have to know somebody. Oakly didn’t, he was just a little seed himself.
Maybe the most surprising choice Oakly made was checking out a few books at the local Farmer’s Library. The first books that Oakly chose were not the kind he would usually read. One of the books was about GTP, Getting Things Planted. Another book was about how to find the right field, and had an appendix on whether more sunlight or more shade would give certain seeds a better ROB, Return on Burial.
Then he found some really novel tales. He initially thought that a book called The Lord of the Rings would be about tree-rings, and was a little disappointed until he met Treebeard and the Ents whom Oakly realized were the real heroes of the battle. And he found all sorts of stories about Dryads, stories as old as the Odyssey, as new as Percy Jackson, and cried little seed-tears when he read about what Tirian and Jewel found happening to these living trees in The Last Battle.
In a far corner of the library he found a book about a holiday entirely devoted to tree drip. Not drip like tree sap, but drip like tree swag. And also, the holiday isn’t really about trees, but it includes trees, and how every December pines get decorated with bling, wrapped with necklaces of lights and garland.
Most interesting to Oakly was an ancient book that included a large family tree. He learned that distant cousins many generations ago had provided wood for a family for a boat that spared them and animals of all kinds during a great flood. He read about other relatives who were chosen by the wisest of Eastern kings to become beams and planks in a great temple. And then he came to the chapter where his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather once became a crossbar that held the Master Gardener for a few hours one Friday.
This Master Gardener was also the Maker of seeds, and had once predicted not that He would climb a tree He had created, but that He would bear it and then be born by it. What was fascinating to Oakly is that this Gardener likened His work to that of a seed. He became like a seed, was crucified, died, and was buried.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
He said this would be His glory, and that just as a seed which is buried brings forth much fruit, so would His death bring much life.
Most seeds want to bear fruit but they don’t want to be buried first. Even for seeds, it takes a kind of faith to see what happens. But the first seed under the ground doesn’t get bloody, he gets blessing.
On a hot June afternoon, years and years later, some human students were eating their hot dogs sitting under Oakly’s branches, enjoying his shade, giving thanks for how Oakly spent himself many summers ago.
When I entered college as a Freshman, I had never run more than ten consecutive feet.
But I was over 5’9.
So it only followed that I should try out for the University of Washington rowing team, a small, jolly group of folk without any sort of pressure as one of the premiere crew programs in the world.
Needless to say, I learned many things those first few months at the UW. Besides how to navigate the collegiate world of academics, the social dynamics of living one block off Frat Row, and the basics of Italian, I also learned just how far the human body can be pushed past the feeling of certain death. I completed a two-hour row followed by a two-mile run, followed the next day by a 6am weight-lifting session with the Football Team, crowned with the pressing and urgent need to navigate stairs with legs that no longer operated correctly.
The sad ending to this story is, I hated rowing. And I was not a collegiate athlete. And the terrifying soon-to-be-head coach Eleanor knew this instinctively, and cut me after two months of try-outs from the last Novice boat even though they needed me to fill it.
Fast-forward a few years, and we get to the point of the story. My challenge for this summer is mainly to the students, but perhaps it will encourage the parents, as well.
Do something this summer that you don’t want to do.
Don’t necessarily do hard things. Don’t conquer your fear of heights by sky-diving. Don’t move to the Congo. Don’t get on the Youth City Council of your city and change the world.
I mean, sure, if you want to, go right ahead. But it’s easy to go so big you don’t even try. Narrow in on your normal life. Squint. Go after something that you have avoided because it makes you uncomfortable or intimidates you or seems below you.
Having the twins last year, in combination with reading a book called How To Manage Your House Without Losing Your Mind, revealed to me that I allow my desires to control my actions far too often. Because with pregnancy, rarely do your desires dictate what your body does. You want this baby out NOW? Tough. You want to really savor and enjoy a burger? Suddenly, you can’t stomach the thought of fries. Or beef. You want to sleep…?
I am beginning to learn that pretty much all of self-discipline (or to sound fancy, mortification) is doing what I don’t want to do. Or not doing what I want to do. Not just epic level temptation-fleeing, but daily macro work; it’s putting to death my flesh in tiny decisions: No, I will not eat that cookie. Yes, I will get on that erg machine.
Did I mention that twist in the story? I need an efficient exercise that does not require impact on a variety of joints that have begun to fail in the wake of twin-incubating.
So a rowing machine now sits in our basement. And God chuckles at me.
I invite students and parents alike to join me on their own rowing machine, and I have a few suggestions:
Read your Bible. Every day. If there is a part you haven’t read, start there (even if there are eyeballs and churning wheels of fire). Or start at the beginning. Or I invite you to join myself and a number of others on the Same Page Summer Reading Plan.
Read a type of book you wouldn’t typically choose. We are creating a Reading Bingo for our children this summer which will require them to read something outside of each’s comfort zone. What about you? Do you love fiction but hate nonfiction? Do your children love epic adventure and dislike fables? I spend time trolling various reading blogs, and the following typically have great suggestions (but I always double-check Amazon reviews): Reshelving Alexandria, Redeemed Reader, and Read-Aloud-Revival. If I get my act together, I may just throw together an ECS Staff Summer Reading Standard.
Pick a chore. Any chore. The one you don’t like at all. Do it faithfully, every time it needs it, without being asked (student) or without avoiding it (parent). Student, I dare you to pick two or three or four and not tell your parents – just bless their socks off. Unload the dishwasher. Immediately sort the laundry from the dryer. Sweep the kitchen. Even…clean the drain in your shower.
Get physical. Again, pick something you don’t like. Become frenemies with a kettlebell. Do a Couch-to-5k (the summer is almost the perfect amount of time). Maybe you need to do more movement outside: weed, plant vegetables, tackle that corner of your yard that everyone has just stopped seeing.
Get creative. Is there something you have really wanted to try but it intimidates you? Feels like too much work? Get after it. Summer is an ideal time. Find tutorials and plop yourself in someone’s house (after kindly asking) who knows how to do this thing. Figure out artisanal sourdough bread: look that little starter square in its squishy face and tell it you aren’t scared. Attempt to crochet a washcloth. Build a trebuchet. Go snipe hunting. Parents, introduce one or two new recipes into your meal rotation.
Fail. You actually may need to rest joyfully when you don’t want to. You may need to pass-off things you love to others. You may need to do what is the hardest for me: planned failing. Perhaps there are so many spinning plates, you should joyfully, humbly, set some aside and pray that God will provide others to take them up.
I don’t know what it will be for you, but I sense in my bones that as a Christian community we are being called to increasing discomfort. Our actions, words, and affections are going to grow from awkward to anachronistic to abominable to the society around us. May this challenge be part of the warm-up for the stretch of rocky race ahead.
Good evening to our school board, faculty, families, friends, raggants young and old, and especially to our candidate for graduation. I know the work required to get to this point, and it is an honor to push this celebration toward its crescendo.
Our fifth graduating class turns out to be our smallest. There is a song that says one is the loneliest number, but one senior allows for a more singular charge, even as others listen along.
ECS is a not a music school, but music is certainly both an instrument and expression of our learning. Bonnie is a musical young lady. Music isn’t the only thing we teach, and music isn’t the only thing Bonnie makes, but there has been a harmonious relationship between she and the school.
It would be irresponsible to say that ECS caused Bonnie’s love of music, and certainly we didn’t create her appetite and aptitude for singing or her abilities with instruments. As she said during her capstone presentation, her family is a musical family, dad and mom and also older siblings. They have been taking songs and packing instruments with them all over the world, sort of the traveling Netherlander von Trapps. On our school’s trip to the UK in 2018, one of her sisters pulled out packets of worship song lyrics from previous youth retreats; apparently carrying such papers was an international priority. The Bour sisters’ mantra might be: “Let’s sing!” How many Raggants Got Talent entries has Bonnie been in singing or strumming (or sashaying)? It won’t shock you that she took quite seriously the job of ukulele arrangement for “Let It Go.” Musica eius erat, est, et erit (Her music was, is, and will be).
ECS also has a history with music, and Lord willing, we will repeat that chorus many times. One school story from before there was a school seems appropriate to remember tonight. On Friday evening, October 14th, 2011, we had our very first Committee meeting. A Committee was formed before a Board, because a Board decides what the school will do, a Committee decides if there should even be a school. Mr. Sarr, Mr. Weinberg, Mr. Martin, Mr. Light, Mr. Bowers, Mrs. Higgins and myself got together, and after we prayed, the first thing we did was watch a TED Talk on YouTube, just like they did at Plato’s Academy.
It was a talk about how everyone can, and should, come to enjoy classical music, given by the conductor/composer, Benjamin Zander. I rewatched those twenty minutes again a few days ago, and it resonated just as loudly. He played a few pieces on the piano, he pointed out some connections between notes (“the job of the C is to make B sad” and the B wants to “get home to E” in Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Opus Number 28: No. 4 in E Minor), and also commented on how leaders see great opportunities and do not doubt that they can encourage and empower others to get where they’re dreaming.
If I remember correctly, we hadn’t started singing any Psalms yet as a church. We certainly hadn’t had a Matins because we didn’t have any students, so no Cantus, no choir, no Bible songs, no school-endorsed egg shakers. What we did have that night was a drum beat of conviction that we could come to love a lot more things, that it would be good for us, that we could grow, and that a bunch of others would also get a taste and be drawn into the gravity of the project.
This is about music, sure, and music is a metaphor for a bunch of things that make up the tones and rhythms of our school culture. And this, as it turns out, shouldn’t be too surprising, because there is a sort of music that plays in the universe.
You may hear it referred to as the “music of the spheres,” or the “harmony of the spheres.” These spheres are not the various spheres of life, as Kuyperians regularly refer to them, but the heavenly, celestial orbits. Not only poets, but scientists watched and measured and calculated the movements of the planets, and they noticed and celebrated the ratios and harmonies.
Joahannes Kepler was a German mathematician and astronomer, born 25 years after Martin Luther died, who worked before the word gravity was applied to stellar phenomenon, who labored to describe the motions and laws of the planets, and he spoke about it as music. One of his books is called Harmonices Mundi, or Harmonies of the World, in which he presented his case that the speed of the planets at two various points in their ellipse around the sun have a proportion equal to a musical interval. This heavenly choir had a tenor (Mars), two bass (Saturn and Jupiter), a soprano (Mercury), and two altos (Venus and Earth). Though earlier philosophers like Pythagorus and astronomers such as Ptolemy considered songs of the cosmos, Kepler commended them as God’s works.
It is no mistake that Lewis has Aslan sing Narnia into creation in The Magician’s Nephew, or that Tolkien has Eru teach the Ainur to sing reality into existence in The Silmarillion. Whether or not Yahweh sang in Genesis 1, God asked Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7). Certainly our future is one of singing, and we will join the angels singing the Lord’s praises for creation and redemption.
Music is not mere “filler,” not just background noise, though those are fine uses. There are many different lawful and beautiful types of music, occasions where certain styles are fitting and good. Music was not only one of the seven liberal arts, in many ways music is the rhetoric of math, perhaps even the crown of classical education. The Quadrivium are arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. If arithmetic is numbers, geometry is numbers in shape, astronomy is numbers in movement, and music is numbers in time. Music is the adorning of time.
One of your responsibilities, Bonnie, is to carry and advance Christ-honoring culture by beautifying time, and by blessing others as you help them develop and ears to hear. This includes all of your interests, not just your instruments.
You are well known for taking a long time to do your homework, breaking homework surveys in the process. You are also well known not just for taking a long time to eat your food, but for taking a long time to decide if you even like what you’re eating or not. It was a frequent conversation on the UK trip: Do you like it? Do you like it now? Do you think you’ll ever know if you liked it?
This is a funny quirk, and perhaps your non-committal relationship to food will go with you for a long time. But, I want to charge you not to settle for this with your calling to make mellifluous music.
You have a desire to please others, and this is generally a good desire. But you also need to learn what really pleases you, and in doing so, make it and play it and perform it and it will be a delight to others. Benjamin Zander called it “one-buttock playing,” where the music pushes you over. Keep learning, and then honor your teachers by multiplying their investment.
Mellifluous is an adjective that applies to a voice or words meaning sweet or musical; pleasant to hear (New Oxford American Dictionary). It comes from the Latin mellifluus a combination of mel ‘honey’ + fluere ‘to flow’. So, put some honey on a minute. Make mellifluous minutes.
Do this with every thumb’s-plunk on the piano, every thumb’s-pluck on the ukulele, every thumb’s-strum on the guitar, every thumb’s-swipe to the next sheet of a song you’ve written.
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night,to the music of the lute and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
(Psalm 92:1–4 ESV)
In submission to the Lord of math and ratios and decibels, with thanks for majors and minors, white keys and black keys, uks and kazoos and synthetic cat gut violin strings, with a Steinway and with a Stradivarius, honor Him as a steward who beautifies time. Let’s sing!
I recently read the following assessment (made in the fall of 1970): “When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mystifying as the obvious” (Irving Kristol). We are surrounded by those who not only lack the will to see reality, they willfully won’t, and so we are basically living in an Alfred Hitchcock mystery, and no one knows when this twilight zone will end. (And yes, I understand that Hitchcock did not write The Twilight Zone, but that’s how mixed up things are these days.)
What an island of normal ECS has been this past school year. What a refuge our campus has been for those with the will to see things as they really are, who are otherwise confronted at every doorway by masked faces and unmasked fearfulness and/or fatigue. King David taught Israel to sing, “Where shall I go from Your Spirit?” (Psalm 139:7), and we may be tempted to scream, Where shall I flee from Dr. Fauci’s press releases?
Where can you go to buy groceries without needing to mentally prep yourself for possible run-ins with door police and scolding from fellow shoppers? Perhaps some of you are still faced with distancing and masking requirements when you go to worship on the Lord’s Day. The panicked, angry, self-righteous virtue signaling on social media cycles virtually on repeat, and the only thing worse than scrolling through it on a screen is walking through it in person.
And here our little school has been, by God’s grace, without a single a Zoom class this past year. We’re meeting, we’re singing, every day, multiple times throughout the day, inside, and not just in our hearts. We share the same basketballs playing bump at recess. We sit next to each other in class without plexiglass in between. Our problems are things such as getting homework finished and finding the playground equipment left out overnight. We’ve had some boy-girl drama, we’ve had water left running in some bathroom sinks. What we’ve had are problems that are normal.
Other problems are growing, such as having a hundred more students enrolled for next fall than we started with renting at Reclamation (around 60 students in 2015 and already over 170 for 2021). The other significant problem, one which is a blessing for a school like ours, is that it’s increasingly frustrating to enjoy a place where so so much is so great and then realizing you can’t stay at school 24 hours a day.
That said, calling ECS an “island” of normal isn’t really right; the metaphor isn’t sufficient. We’re not trying to get away or hide away.
I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about a Christian or conservative “bubble.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard “bubble” used in a positive sense, always as a pejorative. It suggests that people are afraid, and even more that they are trying to bunker down, to barricade themselves as an escape. It’s as if they can’t handle the heat, as if they don’t even want to deal with the fact that the outside exists.
We are not hiding in a bubble, but rather building a shelter. C.R. Wiley (our guest speaker at the recent Fiction Festival) wrote (before 2020) about living in a world that’s falling apart, that “people build institutions for shelter” (Man of the House, Loc. 1346). Building a shelter is different from being sheltered. A shelter is for sake of protection from the elements, being sheltered is to avoid any engagement at all.
It is almost laughably easy to find reasons to build a shelter reactively. We are a local school, and in our State, even though a couple hundred-thousand petitioners made it so that a mandatory sex-education bill our legislators invented made it onto the ballot, enough of our neighbors voted their approval anyway. Just last week our Governor signed a bill to make Critical Race Theory teaching mandatory in government schools ([source]), a set of ideas based on externals and sure to increase suspicion and discrimination.
I mean, there is not really a reason to be surprised at this because government schools gave up appeal to God and even to transcendence (and therefore dignity and morality) decades ago. The tale of evolution is being played out, even if scientists don’t argue for it any more. Men are, wait, I mean humans are, I mean, what are we allowed to call ourselves? Whatever. We are “progressing” and there is no objective standard that we are progressing to. It’s like if a jigsaw puzzle factory exploded, all the pieces were mixed up, and all the box covers destroyed. What are we even trying to make?
Some of you have heard of (or even reading) the book Live Not by Lies. The book recounts testimonies of many Russians who lived through the totalitarian rule of Communism. We are staring down the barrel of a soft totalitarianism, wherein we are not being beaten (yet) but we are being bought.
Tyranny is oppressive rule. Totalitarianism is worse. Totalitarianism pushes someone else’s ideas and priorities into our space to displace our loves and traditions and values and institutions. They want us to live as if their illusions are obvious. It is part of our job to know the truth and to oppose the falsehood and propaganda. This isn’t about turning everything into political debate, but we are acknowledging that every thumb’s-width is claimed by Jesus. What bonds us together is not that we are victims, it is not that our contempt is more virtuous, but that we love God and His world and our image-bearing responsibilities to commend His works to another generation.
“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” —G.K. Chesterton
We need to preserve memory, including historical memory (unlike the Ministry of Truth and its “memory hole” in 1984) of what has actually happened. We preserve and pass on cultural memory, remembering all the good that God has given us through the stories of people who built what we’re standing on. We need to see the obvious, and we need the imaginative capacity to fight back. We need to know how to endure pain, and to know which pleasures are false. There is false comfort, false peace. There is also true feasting, in true shelter and with true thanks.
God doesn’t promise to build any school like He promises to build His church. God doesn’t give promises to schools like He gives to fathers and mothers raising their children in Christian homes. But as a school puts feet onto the mission of our churches to make disciples, and as a school multiplies the efforts of parents to raise their children in the ways of the Lord, it is an institution that protects and promotes and pushes forward.
If ECS has been a little island of normal, it’s like a war-island. So, teasing that out a bit, we are much more like an aircraft carrier (though we started out kayak size). We are like a little city of our own, a small community distinguished from others, living together and working together and fighting for the same things.
An aircraft carrier is a shelter and a refuge and a training ground and a carrier of weapons and a weapon itself. It makes a statement. It’s more than a monastery to preserve what is important and obvious. ECS is an advance of Christ-honoring culture.
And this is our ship. This is our shelter, for the education of our children and our great-grandchildren. This is our culture, for the part of your life in which learning about all the thumb’s-widths in the universe happens. This is our normal because Jesus is our Lord.
We are not trying to shelter-in-place, but we’d love to put our shelter in a place. We are looking for a metaphorical port for our metaphorical shelter-warship. We are creating valuable shelter where it didn’t previously exist, and now we need more space (and more workers). Our mission is not yet accomplished, so we will continue to commend the works of the Lord to another generation and trust Him for the next stage of our advance. As a modern day poet wrote, we are “Like a small boat, on the ocean, sending big waves into motion….”
I like football. It’s fun to watch and to play. On the offensive side of things, the people who have opportunity to touch the football play what are called “skill positions.” These include the quarterback, running backs, and receivers. The defense works to disrupt the plans of the offense and prevent them from going down the field and scoring.
For sake of the current illustration, I want to focus on the receivers. They are at the mercy of the quarterback to pass them the ball, or they are reduced to blockers or decoys. But if the quarterback does throw them the ball, their job is to actually catch the ball and then run furiously for the end zone, eluding the defense as best they can along the way.
If feasting were a football game, we’d be those receivers…and receivers play offense. Their job of receiving a football is part of an offensive attack on the defense in the other uniforms. Our receiving blessings is an assault on the wicked ideologies and spiritual forces that surround us. We don’t generate the blessings any more than a football player throws a pass to himself. And the real magic happens once we catch it and run.
Every year, in anticipation of our Fundraising Feast, I am glad to work through the mental exercise of coming up with new reasons why feasting is so important to our culture here at Evangel Classical School. This year is no different.
This year, there are two particular reasons that come to the surface.
We are still here.
We don’t know where we’ll be tomorrow.
If you’re a Christian long enough, you’ll run into an interesting phenomenon, namely this: God sometimes removes the means that you need to do His will. Why would He do this? I believe it’s to foster dependence.
You’ve seen it before. A generous man goes bankrupt. A loving mother loses her child. A doting grandfather loses his mobility and energy. A Christian school outgrows its space to operate. When God closes the door, where does the faithful Christian turn? Like wide receivers, we turn to Him with open hands, because in all likelihood, a new blessing is on its way.
Although we have not been evicted by Reclamation Church, and although we are committed to getting creative and to keeping our doors open next year at Reclamation Church, the sort of growth we’ve been experiencing is not sustainable in our current location. The fact that we are open even now is only attributable to the grace of God. All over the country schools have been operated online this year, but God has allowed us to continue our work of enculturation in person. I’m not sure why He has allowed this, but I’m sure grateful.
God provides; we receive. It is an act of faith to celebrate the provision of God before His provision is visible. I want that sort of faith. And so I will not be waiting until we have all the answers to give Him thanks.
This means we do not need to wait for circumstances to get good for us to praise God. We trust Him, and operate in the faith that He is good, and He wills good for His people, whether or not we understand it. And if you think about it for a moment, that’s some kind of statement.
Beyond all this, feasting is fun. It’s sweet and rich to gather with God’s people and receive His good gifts (like friends, song, food, wine, steak and chocolate) as an act of assault on the powers of darkness and the thankless spirit of the age.
Really. What are they going to do when we eat each bite of steak and drink each sip of wine and enjoy the mirth of our table mates like all is gift? What are they going to do when God sits in the heavens and delights in His people’s grateful enjoyment His gifts to us? Even the kids get in on the action when they cheerfully bring delicious morsels to the table as God’s vehicles of blessing.
God has blessed us in tremendous ways this year at ECS, and we receive those blessings with gratefulness. I look forward to doing so with you at our Feast on May 14.
Before most of our third graders were born, a small group of naive and ambitious parents and some their friends decided to start Evangel Classical School as a training ground for culture shapers. We wanted to forge worshipers with sharp skills, a robust worldview, a big work capacity, and a playful smirk. I say we were naive not because we were wrong or idealistic, but because we had only a vague idea what we were really getting into, how very valuable that enculturation would soon prove to be, let alone (at least for my part) how much fun we were about to have.
A veritable lifetime later (for those third graders, anyway), our status as a training ground is becoming more concrete and necessary.
More Than the Shell
Communicating the data related to math formulas and how suspension bridges work and writing an essay and reading a novel are all fine. Really. But all this data has a point, a telos to which it is directed and to where it is going. In order for education to occur, the telos must be included in the lesson. Modern education is all shell, no nut. To teach the what without the why or the how misses the point. Yet that’s the best our modern educational offerings are doing!
It gets worse. Increasingly even the what is being reimagined. Our culture has no authoritative, true, and clear answer for some pretty simple questions: What happened in 1619? What is a boy? What is truth? How much more ill-prepared are we to answer the follow-up questions: Why was the American Revolution fought? What is a boy for? Why does truth matter?
We’re training our students to be able to answer these simple questions, which makes Raggants surprisingly exceptional.
More Than Academicians
People who can answer these questions will stand out in our culture like the captain of the ship with his funny hat, special coat, and words worth listening to. They will have an idea of what’s just beyond the cultural horizon because they will have examined historical trends. They’ll know that once you’ve navigated A, B, and C, that D is likely around the corner.
Our students will have been trained to reason with the tools of Latin grammar and Logic. They will have read Paul’s letters and Lincoln’s letters, Marx’s Manifesto, Hitler’s struggle, and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail for themselves. They will have sung fighty and jubilant psalms and recited the Apostle’s Creed hundreds of times, reminding themselves and the cosmos that the Maker of Heaven and Earth is doing all of this on purpose.
Every day our students play a cultural role at our school (and in your homes!). In this cultural greenhouse that we call Evangel Classical School, students are being formed and shaped by the conversations they have, the songs they sing, the relationships they cultivate, the books they read, the math problems they work out, the sentences they diagram, the teachers they imitate, the games they play, and more. The curriculum is like the chisel in the hand of the woodworker.
Our prayer is that – equipped with all this – they’ll be prepared to be citizens who shape the worldview of others for Christ’s sake, and we ought not be surprised when others look to them to lead.
More Than a School
So we’re more than a school. Ours is a project that is far more about shaping certain sorts of people than it is about their report cards or transcripts or strictly academic metrics. We are trying to train our students how to think, not what to think. We are trying to train them how to be certain sorts of people, not how to get good grades (to get into a good college, to get a good job, to make lots of money, etc.).
I’ll say it again. Grades are not themselves the point, though they are handy as we try to gauge and assess the academic aspect of our arrow-shaping. We’re training free men, not hirelings; we’re not merely training in the skill of getting good grades, but rather being certain sorts of persons, thinkers, worshipers.
And this is why you are so important in this process; if we were just a school, then parents would do well to get out of the way and let the professionals do their jobs. But we are trying to help you shape your people, and you have to be worshipers yourselves, faithful to your churches and your people, and working hard to shape your children in obedience to God. Only then can we operate properly as an extension of your church and your home as we help you in this ambitious but grace-saturated undertaking.
It is hard to believe that this is our tenth Information Night for ECS. I’ve been to all of them, I’ve said some words at all of them, and I can say with certainty that the tenth looks nothing like the first. That night we didn’t have any students, no cute Kindergarteners in sweater-vests, no fun fish sound-offs from Second Graders. We had some ideas, but they were as concrete as a Plato’s view on the afterlife, which is to say, not very substantial.
A lot has happened in a decade, and I have a better idea of what we’re doing, and what we’re trying to do. I also have a better idea of the limits of a “talk” about classical Christian education and what we want that to look like at ECS. But all that leads me to the point I want to share tonight: I am more unhappy than ever. And what’s more, if you choose to send your students to ECS, we will do everything we can so that they, and you, experience the same thing.
This kind of unhappy begs for a bit of context, some explanation, and I’ve got two sources in my mind for what I mean.
The first source is Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World. Have you read it? Orwell took a different route with his 1984 (published 1949), let alone Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (1945) (and Lewis is the best of the three). Huxley imagines the World State where science and data and reproductive technology and entertainment have enabled the government to eliminate all the inconveniences and pains of life. Big Brother isn’t so much a threat to make you disappear as in 1894, but rather to medicate you so that your worries disappear. It’s like a Johnson & Johnson baby-shampoo regime: no more tears tyranny.
Near the end of the book there are two chapters (chapters 16 and 17) of 151-proof ideology presented in a Socratic-ish dialogue in the office of the head of the World State, known as the “Controller,” a man named Mustapha Mond, and another man named John, simply called the “Savage,” who is one of the few natural-born men in the story. The Controller calmly reasons that the Old and New Testaments are unnecessary, as is Shakespeare, that salvation comes in a pill called soma, that the government can provide every comfort necessary. Then the Savage replies:
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.” “In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
The more you know, the more you’ve tasted, less you can be manipulated or conditioned, and the more unhappy you set yourself up to be.
My second source is from the Old Testament, by a man who called himself a Preacher, or perhaps he could be better called a pundit, or a sage.
“In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18)
The sage was Solomon, gifted by God with great human wisdom, wisdom which he applied to learn even more. His proverbial conclusion is that wisdom is a grief-giver, wisdom harasses the mind with a clearer picture of what’s wrong. The second line is about sorrow; it is a coordinate action, the more gold you put in the bag the heavier it is to carry.
So I am unhappy like the savage, and I get the lesson of the sage. In our day it is harder to tell them apart.
ECS is a project that claims the right, even more, we claim the responsibility, to be unhappy.
Some of us are unhappy that we didn’t get an education like this. How much different or better might we have done?
We are unhappy with how our government sees us as so easily pacified, satisfied with stimulus checks and streaming video. Perhaps you remember the scene in “The Matrix” when the traitor, Cypher, says he’d rather enjoy the imaginary steak his mind convinces him is real than to be real, and be unhappy: “Ignorance is bliss.” Dorothy Sayers warned in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” that we would need better education to ward off all the propaganda. She could not have imagined “15 days to flatten the curve.” The Ministry of Truth has been working double-plus shifts.
We are unhappy that the State celebrates their legislative attempts to turn 220lb boys with pony tails into star women’s soccer players. We are unhappy that we can’t have civil debates about anything, that we can’t ask and expect answers about mandates that violate our constitution. We are unhappy that no one seems to remember the past, let alone learn from it. We could have learned about religious liberty, we could have learned about how fear often spoils freedom. We could have learned that communism has been tried, and found everyone wanting.
Our mission at ECS is as follows:
We commend the works of the Lord to another generation with the tools of classical education, weaponized laughter, and sacrificial labors so that they will carry and advance Christ-honoring culture.
Because we take that seriously, we are unhappy that we have so much ground that needs to be recovered, and now defended, with still so much more ground that needs to be covered.
We use the tools of classical education to help us. Though “classical” can have a number of forms, it certainly includes recognizing that we are not the first humans on the planet to know anything. We receive (and rejoice in) the truths about subjects and verbs, about sorts of fish, about suffrage and Jesus’ suffering for our salvation. In the Trivium, the “three ways,” these truths are part of the grammar, and there is grammar for every subject. Things happened leading up to and in 1776 that have objective reality, and we’re not trying to rewrite it. 2 + 2 = the same thing, every time, and that’s not because of systemic racism; God said, and it was four.
In the Trivium there is also an emphasis on logic or dialectic, where ideas are debated, rules of argumentation are learned, and fallacies exposed. It’s more than just heat, more than just feeling, and more than just throwing bricks through storefront windows in the name of justice. Dialectic is a method for teaching subjects, and is itself a subject especially suited for those junior-high students who are probably already contrarian; why not make it constructive, or at least less annoying?
The Trivium is capped with rhetoric, where the truths have been gathered and sorted and then adorned. Whether in writing or in speeches or in some other form of expression, truth is shown with great allure. Grammar is like learning the names of notes on the staff, logic is like discerning the difference when it’s sharp or flat, and rhetoric is like making it sing.
At ECS, we’re happily addressing our unhappiness. We have teachers who love the Lord, who love their students, who love the Word and all the things that God has made.
So in this respect our school is not a “safe” space, it’s not trouble-free. We have God, and poetry, and inconvenience, and tears, and good, and sin. And the evangel. This is a project for brave new unhappiness, or from the other side of the coin, a brave new happiness, as we remember that laughter is war, and Jesus is Lord of it all.
The above is roughly what I said at our school’s annual Information Night last evening.
Evidently, God thinks the U.H. needs regular reminders about the gospel. I’m pretty sure I agree with Him, which is one reason why I’m grateful for disciplinary office visits from students.
It’s strange, I know, but it’s true. These visits are rarely enjoyable (although sometimes, I admit, they’re hilarious!), but I do not dread them, and I generally find my follow-up conversation with parents to be marked by gratitude and like-mindedness. But I think these office visits benefit me perhaps more than they benefit the students. Why is this? In these conversations, I get to rehearse the gospel. I get to speak truth to the a student on the other side of the office, as well as to my own heart.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones was described as having preached the gospel for four decades in the same place. As a young man, I thought that was strange. Why would an evangelistic message be necessary every week for decades? What would you say once the hearer actually got saved?
Now years later I realize that a study of the gospel offers profound insight into the nature of God and that it cements principles by which the faithful Christian must live.
Take a student who willfully sinned against his teacher in some outrageous fashion, say, blurting out repeatedly in his gleeful enthusiasm for Latin declensions without deigning to raise his hand. Scandalous, right? If he does this enough, he winds up talking it over with me. In my office, we’ll talk about the obvious stuff, like self-control, and what it’d be like if everyone blurted out all the time, and how enjoyable that would not be. But what else?
We also talk about the nature of sin, and how it destroys fellowship. That blurting out cannot now be undone, but it can be forgiven. And back in the classroom is a flawed and forgiven teacher who is eager to restore to fellowship and to class a flawed and repentant student. So the ticket back to class (for the student who is ready to do so) is an apology, replete with the profoundly-Christian request for forgiveness from the teacher (or any human object of the sin). And every time (no, really), the teacher is glad to welcome back the student to class.
Is that not a fantastic picture of what God does with us? The teachers and I will tell the students as much. Just as sin hinders fellowship with God, so it hinders fellowship amongst humans. That can only really be fixed with forgiveness, which must be sought and given. God does it with us; we should do it with one another.
I’ll often tell the students that this is how the Christian life works, and that they’d better get used to it, because they’ll be sinning against people (and they’ll be sinned against!) for the rest of their lives…though hopefully with decreasing frequency as they become more complete in Christ.
When you’re the sinner, pray for the Spirit’s conviction of sin; confess your sin before you’re confronted, own it, repent, and ask for forgiveness.
When you’re sinned against, remember how patient God is with you; love fellowship; be ready to forgive and restore your brother to full fellowship when he repents.
And enjoy the sweet fellowship and the picture of what God does for us.