New Adventures in Letters

Or, Off to Sail in Aslan’s Country

These are my notes for our school’s convocation last week.


As the end of every school year draws closer, it often (for me it always) feels like a ship in a storm. The final weeks of the fourth quarter pound like wet, wild wind that threatens to break the ship apart unless it reaches the harbor of summer break. Such a violent storm hit the Dawn Treader once upon a time, destroying the mast and almost drowning the vessel. If you know the story, she did make it to land for repairs and rest.

Summer break is natural port for students and teachers. The break is a blessing and allows for a certain amount of renewal and refreshment. But just as ships are built to sail, so students are made to study. Here we are on the first day of another school year to launch our vessels off the dock toward new adventures in letters.

People used to speak about being “lettered.” To be a man of letters meant more (though not less) than knowing one’s alphabet. Phonograms are fantastic, but they are only the beginning. A man of letters was a man who was literate, a reader of letters and books, a learner of knowledge passed through pen and paper. The Respublica literaria enabled men to study across great distances, communicating through correspondence and becoming a community of curiosity and contemplation.

We launch into another voyage on a sea of letters. We launch as a special crew, and I want to call us together (hence, convocation) to remember our glorious calling.

Toward that end I would like to focus on three letters (of the alphabet sort), letters that identify us, letters you will use on a frequent basis, letters that abbreviate the name of our school. The letters are ECS. Let’s work from the end back to the beginning.

School

This sturdy noun anchors our name. The first two words describe what sort of school it is, but school has a meaning on its own.

Our word comes from the Latin scola referring to a group for learning or instruction. The teacher or teachers are the first learners, the guides for learning, and ideally provoking learning among their pupils. A school is only somewhat her facilities; our school is in its third building and, while we do associate school with a particular place, school has much more to do with the practice of the people.

School is not your family, though enduring camaraderie does develop. You may refer to your classmates as a kind of family, but teachers can only support your dad and mom. In fact, we do not want their job, though we work on their behalf.

School also isn’t your church, or your state government. Worship happens here, but it is not like that of an entire church body. Likewise we discuss politics, but we aren’t making or enforcing laws.

But a school has her own special accountability to God. Her sphere is to study and sharpen one another for the sake of using our God-given minds and exercising our dominion-taking mandate. These are your fellow scholars, and your uniform identifies you as part of this elite learning force.

Classical

Many schools exist; many of them started again today. Your family may drive by a dozen other schools on your way to ECS each morning. We do not claim to be better than all the other options in every way, but we are different, purposefully so, than most of our counterparts. We are a classical school.

“Classical” does not mean the same thing to everyone, even those who call their schooling classical. At ECS we think about the nature of classical schooling at a higher level than the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric), though those are tools we use. Maybe the mainsail of the classical ship is that we recognize, with thanks, that we are in a long river of those who have studied and spoken and loved the truth. We are not isolated, we are dependent. We are not better, we are blessed. We are not more capable, we are more accountable for the gifts we’ve inherited from generations before us.

We’ve come to receive definitions, not destroy them or deny them. We take the identity God appointed, and that many of our (dead) teachers knew better than our modern prophets who cry “Truth, truth,” when they have only lies and darkness.

The waters of history are also full of classical snobs (which we do not want you to be), when, in fact, there is no good reason for our pride. Abraham Kuyper observed that:

[T]o study any discipline at all takes such a huge effort that even if you make no higher demand than to be a half-decent participant, there is just no time left to feed the tiniest microbe of self-conceit. (Scholarship: Two Convocation Addresses on University Life)

We have too much to do to be snooty.

Evangel

This is the most decisive of the letters, and the one we would choose if we could only have one. Evangel is English via Latin from Greek. It means good news, another name for gospel, which is that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. This is of first importance.

Most schools in our day take a principled stand against religious exclusivity. They promote their version of tolerance by relegating faith as a private, personal matter. They want to multiply everything by zero, but this always equals zero. We, on the other hand, know that we cannot separate our beliefs about God, about mankind, and about the world. We know that our public work, our classroom work and our homework, whether in History or Science or Algebra or English, is the Lord’s work and He both demands and delights in our recognition of Him.

We study because we are forgiven in Christ, not to work for our forgiveness. We are free to learn, we do not learn in order to make us free. Saved students study, we do not say that students must study in order to be saved. This orients our attitude toward the labor of learning (all is gift) and toward our fellow learners (give with grace).

The center of the evangel is, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ. He reigns as the first one resurrected from the dead. He also reigns as the Maker and Sustainer of all things. There is not one thumb’s width in the entire sphere of human existence over which Christ does not cry, “Mine!” So go on and learn His ways and study His stuff and organize the chaos for His name.

I referred to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader earlier. It is my favorite of the Chronicles of Narnia. I especially enjoy Reepicheep’s euphoric rapture as he sails east into Aslan’s Country. We who trust the Lord and serve Him will go there someday ourselves, but isn’t it also the case that all of this is Aslan’s Country? “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). “All things are yours…whether the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

As the ship sets sail for our seventh year at ECS, may we all take up our stations with eagerness and a sense of belonging and stewardship and laughter. By God’s wisdom and sovereign will, He has elected you to this course of study. Remember: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8). Bon voyage and Godspeed.

Willing to Dig

Here are my notes from the ECS convocation a couple days ago.


Once upon a time in a land not so very far away, a small group of people lived where it rained almost every day. It rained so much that sometimes the people wondered if it would ever stop. It didn’t always rain at the same time or in the same amount, but it rained so frequently that everyone took water for granted. They always had more than enough.

They always had enough, that is, until one summer when it stopped raining. The people noticed the first day it didn’t rain, but it didn’t effect much of anything because they had such a plentiful supply of water. After the first week without rain everyone was talking about the change in the weather, but there still seemed to be no change in the supply, so there was no panic. But after a few months, people began to realize that things were not okay. The leaves on the trees turned brittle and the grass was brown. Birds sang less and kids stopped playing outside. The water levels had dropped below danger level, the levels were lower than anyone could remember. Thirst and fear rose.

One day a stranger came to town. He started talking with people and told them that he had lived there many years ago and, most importantly, that the town sat on a great reservoir of water. He could not say for certain how far down they needed to dig, but he guaranteed that with enough digging, all the water they needed would be found.

The old man left and many of the people began to discuss his idea. Some refused to believe it. Besides, they had always gotten all the water they needed from the rain; they would just wait for rain. Others thought that digging couldn’t hurt. Even if there was no water under the town nothing would be lost for trying, and they weren’t doing anything else. Yet others believed the old man’s word and set out to find pick axes and shovels and whatever they thought could break through the bony ground.

The work was difficult. It was hot, dirty, long, and progress was hard to measure. They didn’t know how far down the water was, let alone what obstacles they would face the further down they dug. Some quit after just a couple hours; they thought, “Let others dig.” Others worked for a few days, but grew tired and frustrated and lost faith that there was actually any water to be found. By the end of the next month no one was digging any more and no rain more had fallen. The townspeople were in serious trouble, and what they didn’t know was that they were also only inches away from hitting the reservoir. But no one was willing to dig.

I read a book at the beginning of the summer titled Deep Work. The author doesn’t write from an explicitly Christian worldview, but I think he does accurately address a trend among Americans and especially among young Americans, many of whom are students. He sees an increase in the number of young people who are uninterested in seeking out and/or unwilling to do hard work.

He looks at the problem in the workforce. More and more jobs are becoming automated, able to be done by technological, impersonal solutions. Why pay a person hour after hour when you can pay for a program/app once that doesn’t need lunch breaks or health insurance or have conflict with other employees?

But so many employees appear incapable of, or at least put off by, work that requires sustained concentration and effort. They prefer to be interrupted by bite-size pieces of information, like emails and social media updates and texts from friends. They prefer candy. They prefer to stay on the surface. They prefer the shallows. Good workers are hard to find. 
 So also are good students. Students prefer to read books that don’t demand too much time or thinking, they prefer to write papers that don’t require proof or logical presentation, they prefer to have teachers explain everything to them (and only explain the least amount necessary to pass the test) rather than investigate and learn for themselves.

Let’s use another water analogy, but this time swimming. Some swimmers splash, or flail, along the surface and deal with more resistance than those who push down deep. There are rules for how long a swimmer can stay under the water because it is an advantage. You have to take a deep breath, dive under, and drive. It takes a commitment to put your head into it. I will never be a skilled swimmer, or even a competent one, until I get comfortable putting my face in the water. Will you go deep, again and again, lap after lap, paper after paper, until you get comfortable and quick?

ECS exists not only because we believe there is life-giving water to be found through digging education, but also because we want to grow people who know how to and are willing to dig. So many good things require more than five minutes of half-hearted effort. We want you not just to know things, we want you to have the ability to learn more things than we know, along with the ability to produce things for others. But this requires work.

Successful image-bearers of God work to master complicated material. It may be different material for different people but it’s same kind of work at each level. If you are a first-grader, you aren’t using the same tools as a freshman, but you are still called to do the same thing: dig.

Martin Luther wrote a letter to a friend about his frustration as he preached through Ecclesiastes.

Solomon the preacher is giving me a hard time, as though he begrudged anyone lecturing on him. But he must yield. (quoted in The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 96).

Solomon would “yield” as Luther worked to understand. Just a few years earlier he had wrestled for days with the meaning of the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17 and wrote,

I beat importunately [persistently] upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. (ibid., 91)

By continuing to dig Luther was born again and shortly after launched a Reformation.

The beginning of a new school year is a good time to be reminded that education is costly. It takes dollars, yes, but it also takes energy dollars and focus dollars. As is true most of the time, you get what you pay for.

You grammar students have a great opportunity to get good at digging now, and by the time you hit Omnibus age you’ll think the work is no big deal and will seek out more. Or if you get into the habit of quitting because it’s not easy, it won’t be long before you consider that most everything isn’t easy. You are practicing what kind of person you will be and what kinds of things you can do.

Some of you older students have more freedom than the younger ones. For some of you, listening to music may help you focus, and for others of you, you say it helps you focus, but you’re focusing on the music and telling your teachers that you just don’t understand the textbook. Maybe you need to message a classmate to get a clarification on a group project, and maybe you waste an hour texting about a hundred other unrelated things. Deliberately wasting your attention when focus is within your ability to choose, is a way to hate the work and prolong the work and produce less competent work.

Raggants, dig deep. Work deeply. Don’t assume that you can’t. Want something more than the path of easy resistance.

Go for It

The following post is my convocation address for ECS from Tuesday afternoon.


Or, Changing the World from a Basement, Part Two1

Today begins our second year of Evangel Classical School. We meet in a new location, a location that, we can be thankful, still falls under Christ’s lordship, seeing that He claims every square inch everywhere as His. The site is different but our goal remains the same: to fight the serpent, to fight our sin, and to change the world as image-bearers of Christ. This giant goal may be too tall or too far away from us, but we continue where we left off last June. We start year number two in basement number two.

On this first day we convoke the Raggants. Convoke or convocation comes from two Latin words, con – “together” and vocare – “to call.” We call together each worshiping-warrior in order to ask God to bless our work. Each student, parent, teacher, and board member sees a relentless stack of work ahead and needs God’s strength. At this convocation we dedicate each book and lesson plan and white board and soccer ball to God’s glory. We pray that He would make our labor fruitful, maybe even fun. We don’t do it because of tradition; two years of first days does not a heritage make. We don’t do it as a formal sacrifice, as if wearing our dress uniforms forces grace out of God’s hand. We do it both to remember and to rejoice that no part of our school could exist apart from God. We say it and we really mean it.

Solomon grounds this educational undertaking on a key pedagogical insight (found in Proverbs 2:6).

For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

Note the three words: knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. These terms cover the wisdom books of the Old Testament just like wet grass soaks a boy’s shoes. Though they belong together and depend on each other, they can be distinguished. As a school we pursue all three, and now is a good time for us to consider why we need God for all of them.

Knowledge refers to the facts, to the data, the nuts and bolts, the ABCs. The knowledge of geography includes the names of cities and countries, locations of lakes and oceans and mountains, along with their latitude and longitude on a globe. The knowledge of science includes birds and bugs, vertebrates and volcanoes. The knowledge of music includes the lyrics, the notes, the tempo, the tune.

No byte of knowledge exists without God because He created all things. Two follows one when we count because God made the world and gave it order. Rivers flow into oceans, ocean water evaporates into clouds, and clouds carry showers of rain blessings back over us because it’s His business. He made the earth, put us on it, and gives us brains to collect what we see, hear, smell, and touch.

We stuff our student’s heads with knowledge, sometimes with knowledge that our younger students don’t fully understand. That’s okay because knowledge is true because God is true, and He understands. The knowledge of how to read, or knowledge gained from reading four thousand pages, or singing history timelines and Latin verb paradigms, won’t just evaporate some day because God is. All knowledge comes from God.

As students get older we work to develop understanding. It’s good to know things, then it’s good to figure out how those things fit together, or don’t, or explode when you try. Understanding is the ability to connect and distinguish. Understanding sorts things into piles of good and bad, right and unrighteous, beautiful and meaningless.

All understanding, like the knowledge it counts on, comes from God. The only way to know good is to know the standard of good. Many schools look to the government for that standard, or at least a Congressional Subcommittee. We know that God gives understanding because He is the ultimate judge, the eternal being with perfect taste, and He sets the scales out on the table for us to use.

Our older students must seek God as they seek to learn logic, as they begin to debate and argue and find the acceptable. Acceptable to whom? Acceptable why? Who says? All of this depends on God. From His mouth comes understanding.

This leads to the third term and the most mature stage: wisdom. Wisdom does more than rehearse details and win debates. Wisdom lives the right way. A wise man puts feet to the facts; he adds sweetness to his speech. A wise man refreshes others around him. He doesn’t only know about how the cardiovascular system functions, he also knows how to live loving God with all his heart.

Wisdom–a true grasp of the principles, priorities, and practice of life–is not conferred because you finish a book or a class or a year of school. Those may be part of the process, but “the LORD gives wisdom.” Wise men depend on God; only men who worship God are wise. So the “fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). ECS is not about graduating smart students who simply know more. We desire to know more to understand better to walk in wisdom. Each stage orbits around God. Without God there are no sentences, no science, no sense, and there is no reason for school.

These three make a trivium trifecta, and we wage supernatural war by them. The ancient serpent, Satan, would have us doubt God’s facts, abuse or at least be confused over what God says is good, and trash our opportunities to represent God’s glory.

So we begin this school year seeking His help and strength and favor. Education only happens by Him. And, Solomon says, it requires our work.

My son, if you receive my words
and treasure up my commandments with you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
yes, if you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
(Proverbs 2:1-6, ESV)

Receive, treasure, make attentive, incline your heart, call out, raise your voice, seek and search…then God will give it to you. You’ve got to go for it. If you don’t pursue God and go for wisdom then you will fall into foolishness. On this first day we gather to recognize our need for God and to ask His blessing. We also call you–students and parents and teachers–to give yourselves to the work.

Fear God, work hard, and He will make our year fruitful in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.


  1. Last year’s convocation address referred to our meeting space as “our Christ’s Lordship worship boot camp in a basement, as little as it may be.”