Bring Them Up

On a Mission from God

Or, Virgil’s Legendary Guide to the West

The following are my notes from the 2022 Raggant Fiction Festival. Audio and video are here.

The Rented Mule Epic

On almost any 21st Century list of epics, Virgil’s Aeneid is the rented mule. You need it to carry the burden of Western Civilization through a fairly gnarly section on the world timeline, but it’s not the epic you care about. You don’t treat it like a pet, you beat it, freely, like a rented mule.

Could we have been such chronological snobs to have a festival about monumental myths that have shaped western man and left out Virgil? Not unless we also wanted to leave out Dante, who consciously patterned his Divine Comedy after Virgil and, even more significantly, turned Virgil himself into a character to guide the pilgrim Dante through the Inferno and Purgatorio. We’d also have to ignore how culture itself went west from Athens to Rome, leaving unanswered the shift from Spartans to Caesars, skimming over the world into which the Logos took on flesh, and in which, to some extent, we still live. Like it or not, we are sons of Aeneas.

We could no more ignore Virgil’s myth than we could Thomas Jefferson while staring at Mt. Rushmore.

I will admit, I didn’t like it. When we decided on the epic theme for this Fiction Festival, the one thing I knew is that I did not want to talk about the Aeneid. Bleh; boring. I offered to buckle up with a number of other options, Dante or Milton or Beowulf or perhaps even Spenser. But Providence had other purposes, and I could do no other. If Aeneas is a reluctant hero, I was at least reluctant to start my journey with him (though I am not a hero). Knowing my calling, it was my duty to love this epic in front of you so that you might appreciate it more.

Duty Is a Four Letter Word

I said it was my duty to battle my previous boredom with this book. The zeitgeist, or common cultural and moral climate, of the 21st century is to dismiss duty. We don’t think about our duties, we deny that things are our duties. We like to think we are our own people, supposedly equal and equally allowed to do whatever we want. Modern man doesn’t have anyone else to answer to but himself; if there is a God, then He is irrelevant.

This is one of the reasons why the Aeneid doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Duty to family, and duty to the (appropriate) gods, is what drives the plot of the poem. Aeneas, at least initially, doesn’t want to leave Troy (even though it’s in flames), and then he doesn’t want to leave Dido (even though she is a hot mess), and doesn’t really even seem up to making the final kill. It’s only as Aeneas realizes and remembers and takes up his responsibilities that he can establish a civilization. He is on a mission from God (in his case, Jupiter, the “Almighty Father” and “chief power of the world,” along with the Fates).

If stories are profitable to get our loyalties tied up in the right places, and they are, and if stories are good for stimulating our affections for something bigger than ourselves, and they are, then hopefully it will become obvious why the Aeneid has shaped, and might become useful again for, Christians in the tossed and troubled days of Western Civilization.

Mythic Material

Have you read the poem? Do you know the story? Are you familiar with Virgil and his pre-Christ context?

Virgil, full name Publius Vergilius Maro, was born in 70 BC and lived until 19 BC in Italy. He was well known from two other collections of pastoral poems, the Ecologues (37 BC) and the Georgics (29 BC). He was more than a pop artist, but yet also that, like the Robertus Dylanus of his day.

Virgil lived in a politically volatile time. Caesar Augustus was taking Rome from a Republic to an Empire, and in doing so killed off some high-profile enemies. Whether or not Rome was looking for an identity, it at least was looking for some solidarity. Virgil’s story was a way to give the Romans an origin story that they could hold to, patriotically, and come to unity and peace (under Caesar’s rule).

The original #MAGA: Make Augustus Great Again. Rome had to be great, dang it. Show us why. Invent it if you need to.

Virgil worked on the Aeneid for over ten years, plodding along some days producing only two or three lines. He also wanted it burned. Legend has it that on his deathbed he pleaded with his friends to destroy it, but they didn’t, and Augustus ordered it to be published.

The poem is just under 10k lines. It is written in Latin, in dactylic hexameter, just as Homer’s epics, though Homer wrote in Greek. (For what it’s worth, a few months ago Mr. Callender and I were talking and he said that we really needed a Latin expert to talk about the Aeneid. Here I am talking about the Aeneid; I am not a Latin expert. But, I did make it through a few hours of an online course that works through the Aeneid in Latin, and…I really enjoyed it. Turns out, the original is a lot more fun and colorful. I re-read Fitzgerald in English, and, meh; it’s the recommended Omnibus version, and often recommended online. But, yeah, the Latin itself magna gloria est).

Arma virumque cano is the first line. It’s providential, and amusing, because when I (reluctantly) agreed to teach Maggie Latin when we were homeschooling, this is the second little phrase that Latin for Children Primer A has the students memorize. What I had no clue about then, is that even in these first words, Virgil is giving a shout out to Homer. The Arma, arms or weapons, look to the second six books of twelve in the Aeneid, but they also reflect the Iliad, Homer’s story of war. The virum is the man, yes, Aeneas, but also Odysseus in the Odyssey. The first six books of the Aeneid are similar sailing struggles. Even cano, I sing, connects with Homer’s song.

The main character is Aeneas. The story is called Aeneid, and not The because there is no definite article in Latin. That said, this is definitely definite; this is the Aeneid above all. Aeneas is in the Iliad, a super small role. Aeneas and Odysseus lived at the same time, and, it’s possible that they are stuck on Mediterranean seas around the same time. On the biblical timeline, this is probably just a bit before David becomes king in Israel.

Virgil writes almost a thousand years later, with the foreshadowing and prophecy making Rome’s power appear fated.

The poem sets up the hero, Aeneas, and the antagonist, which is mostly the goddess Juno (Jupiter’s wife), but it includes the Greeks and the Carthiginians and the inhabitants of Italy.

Aeneas not only admits that he is weak, he is also defeated. We find Aeneas as Troy is ransacked by the Greeks. Aeneas loses his city, his wife, and has to carry his father out of the burning wreckage to escape in ships (the subject of numerous works of art). They set sail, and Juno stirs up Aeolus to send winds against them to destroy the fleet, but Neptune doesn’t take kindly to others messing with his surf. Some ships are lost, others make port in Carthage, where Aeneas and Dido, the queen, fall in love and get married, of a sort, a relationship consummated but not covenanted.

Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, out of Troy

But the gods remind Aeneas that he has to keep going; Jupiter sends a messenger. Aeneas is called, by duty, to get to Italy and plant a people who would become Rome.

Dido is humiliated and enraged and kills herself, lighting herself on fire in a big pyre. (She’s found in Dante’s second level of hell in the Inferno).

Aeneas and his men make port at another stop, and here Aeneas is shown the door to the underworld where he goes, and sees not only Dido (awkward), but also his dad (Anchises), who reiterates that Aeneas must keep going to found a great people.

By the time Aeneas comes back from the realm of the dead at the end of Book VI, he is ready for his responsibility. His ships sail up the coast to the mouth of the Tiber River, he greets the current king, Latinus, who promises his daughter to Aeneas. That makes Turnus angry, a local prince, and the second half of the poem, Books VII-XII, are all about the various battle scenes. Finally, and abruptly, Aeneas faces Turnus in single-combat, and kills him.

Number One on the Romans Times

Though Virgil didn’t even want the thing published, the Aeneid became a bestseller almost immediately. How many people in Rome could read? How many scribes were making handwritten copies? Hard to say. Even Augustus probably didn’t read the whole thing. But it resonated with the Romans.

And why wouldn’t it? This was a story about their awesomeness. It gave them an origin story for their civilization that was Jupiter’s own desire, with the blessing of most of the gods, and the inevitability of the Fates. Remus and Romulus were descendants of Aeneas, and how could the Empire not be great? They had Virgil’s 20/20 hindsight and artistic flair to help them embrace their greatness.

Like Dido, Without Dying

When it comes to shaping Western man, the Aenied didn’t stop in first century Rome. Many men have loved Aeneas.

For fun, many medievals played Sortes Vergilianae, flipping open a Virgil book to a random page, blindly pointing at a sentence, and taking that as a prophecy (e.g., Hadrian, Charles I, others). This is also known as bibliomancy, “foretelling the future by interpreting a randomly chosen passage from a book, especially the Bible” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

Augustine couldn’t stop referencing it. In his Confessions he refers to reading Virgil again and again as a young student, and early after his conversion struggled with how it benefitted him compared to eternal things. Years later, he loved to point out how wrong Virgil was in The City of God, with some 44 interactions just with the Aeneid, probably because so many people were familiar with it. Even if Augustine loved to beat it like a rented mule, he still didn’t want to kill it.

Christians throughout the medieval period had a much more sympathetic, and appreciative take on the Aeneid. Maybe it was because they could take it as a good story more than a tool of the Caesar.

Dante certainly kept Virgil in the game. Dante gave Virgil as good a place as any pre-Christian could get. Though Virgil wasn’t welcome in Paradise because he didn’t believe in Christ, he went as far as he could with the light he had. Virgil is the poetic example and the philosophical expert. Virgil had already guided Aeneas through the underworld as an author, now Virgil could be used by an author to guide some more. Virgil was legendary.

Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin regularly quoted Virgil. Translating Latin passages on sight was a standard entrance requirement at many colleges. (source)

In C. S. Lewis’ list of books that affected him the most, G. K. Chesterton’s book The Everlasting Man was number two (after a book by George MacDonald). In The Everlasting Man Chesterton argues that Virgil’s world, as represented in the Aeneid, was the largest possible world into which the Christ would come. Chesterton wrote:

Virgil had the best news to tell as well as the best words to tell it in. His world might be sad; but it was the largest world one could live in before the coming of Christianity. (The Victorian Age in Literature (source))

the popularisation of the Trojan origin by Virgil has a vital relation to all those elements that have made men say that Virgil was almost a Christian. It is almost as if two great tools or toys of the same timber, the divine and the human, had been in the hands of Providence; and the only thing comparable to the Wooden Cross of Calvary was the Wooden Horse of Troy. (Everlasting Man, Location 2366)

It turns out, on Lewis’ top ten list, the Aeneid itself was number three. He loved it. He identified in various ways with the reluctancy of Aeneas, but knew that he had a duty to do. Lewis wrote a 180+ page introduction to Paradise Lost and included numerous reflections on the Aeneid. He even translated about a third of the poem himself, and we should wish that he had finished, because it is an attempt to get rhythm into the lines.

“Of arms and the exile I must sing, of yore / Guided by fate from Troy to the Lavinian shore.”

Vital Destiny

Lewis probably lived in one of the last generations that, as a group, sensed duty. Those who lived through, and especially those who fought during, the World Wars had more of a mind about their obligations. That said, Lewis even more was upset by the modern mindset, was consciously devoted to being an old Western man.

We have such little sense of duty, and this is mostly because we have such little sense of God.

Mrs. Bowers shared a great essay with the speakers creatively titled, “The Epic”, published in 1914. I learned a lot from reading it.

Lascelles Abercrombie (who was awarded a professorship at the University of Leeds instead of Tolkien in 1922) distinguishes between “Heroic” epic, what could also be called “Primary” or “Authentic” or even “Primitive” epic, compared to “Literary” or “Secondary” or even “Artificial” epic. Lewis, in his Preface to Paradise Lost spends multiple chapters on this distinction (Chapter 6 – “Virgil and the Subject of Secondary Epic”).

Homer, and Beowulf and the Song of Roland, for example, are Heroic, where “vehement private individuality freely and greatly assert(ed) itself.” It’s as if the men were too great not be sung; the greatness of the story demanded poetic expression. Milton, and certainly Virgil, are intentionally, self-consciously writing. They used poetic expression to make a story great.

But Abercrombie asserts that the “gods” were not really things that men believed in, they were more cultural and verbal leftovers. “Virgil is more decorous; but can we imagine Virgil praying, or anybody praying, to the gods of the Aeneid?” The “supernatural machinery” must ride the line between fanciful and functional, but there is no actual faith required.

I couldn’t disagree with that more. Aeneas did not leave Troy or leave Dido or fight Turnus except that he was convinced that that is what the gods wanted him to do. “I sail for Italy not of my own free will” (IV.499). He was on a mission from god. The Aeneid is not just the telling of events, but the telling of “vital destiny” (Abercrombie), and destiny is determined outside of ourselves.

Almost every reader who reads any background knows that Aeneas is known for his piety. There is no piety without a god/gods to be dutiful to. We don’t get epics without deity.

  • sic volvere Parcas “thus the Fates will roll out” history (line 22)
  • Aeneas first speech: “God will grant us an end”
  • Jupiter told Venus that her son will found imperium sine fine, “rule without end.”
  • “Aeneas came as one ordained, / Brought by palpable will of the unseen” (XI.318)
  • In the end, Vicit iter durum pietas, “piety has conquered the hard road”

Aeneas could barely hold himself together. He complains of his inabilities for the majority of the story. He was set up to suffer, and suffer big time. It was only divine assurance, prophecy, repeated, that sent him forward.

This is why it resonates not just with Romans, but with believers in the true God, maker of heaven and earth. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility (courage and endurance) may be difficult to understand together, but no God leaves us with “man’s sovereignty” and that is an anti-epic. Scientific formulas (without a God who created science) have not made men more courages than men who had least had supernatural categories such as the Fates.

Read negatively, our protagonist is a weak and whiny little boy who ends up becoming the worst possible version of himself as an authoritarian tyrant. Read positively, our protagonist is a broken man who against all odds becomes strong and overcomes great suffering to establish a greater society. Read atheistically, there is no hero and no story and no West because there is no God.


So Virgil’s legend is legendary, and it gives us a guide, limited as it is.

“It was Virgil who taught Christian Europe the shape of history, the cost of empire, the primacy of duty, the transience of fame, the inevitability of death, the pain of letting go, and the burden of adopting new strategies.” (Louis Markos, C. S. Lewis’s List, 49)

Virgil’s poem is heavy with the weight of history, prophecy, and glory. Men want to know where they’ve come from and what they should do. They want to know how to be great. And they cannot do this unless they know their mission from God.

Bring Them Up

What We Need to Work On

I heard George Grant give a workshop talk at the 2017 ACCS National Conference called “Tools for the Toolbox.” I could not find a link to it anywhere, BUT he reworked/focused his material and gave it as a plenary talk at the 2018 conference under the title “Lifelong Learning: Following in the Footsteps of Isaac Watts.”

Grant works through 10 principles in Watts’ book, On the Improvement of the Mind (which according to Grant is a follow-up to Watts’ Logic textbook, ha).

It’s a talk about learning as repentance, about remembering that we do not remember as we should, that we have not read or learned all we need to, and that we should identify areas where we’re ignorant/weak, then set goals and a schedule, and get to work growing and getting stronger.

Grant nails this flush between the 19:30 and 20:30 minute marks. He does not elaborate on it as much as I thought he did in the workshop talk, but, whatever. Rather than (only/primarily?) focus on maximizing our strengths, as most of the current productivity content counsels, it’s “healthy to take a broad estimate of everything we’re not, everything that we can’t, everything that we won’t.” That way we know what we need to work on.

This strategy is good for making progress as disciples, and it is also appropriate for the education/enculturation of every student. Teachers aren’t good teachers because they can see what a student is already good at, teachers are also trying to turn a student’s “can’t”s into “can”s. That teachers should be motivated examples of this, not just motivated enforcers of it, seems more than appropriate.

Related, here’s a great story (that my swim-loving wife shared with me) about a young man who keeps choosing to jump into the deep end to get better. “If I couldn’t handle not being good at something, then how could I consider myself a successful person?”

Bring Them Up

Make Disciples, Not Dependents

One temptation for teachers is that they expect to be treated as Teacher for all time. This isn’t to say that their students won’t move on to other classes, but that as teachers they expect to always be treated as the ones with the answers for their students.

Should a teacher know more than her students? I mean, duh, yes, but also not forever. This is one of the benefits of thinking in terms of discipling. I know that the word disciple includes the idea of learning, but built in to the idea of discipleship is that a disciple matures and makes more disciples. A student can gather up truth to understand and call the work done, a disciple understands that the work isn’t done until there’s another disciple, until there is reproduction of true understanding. When we realize that our goal is beyond us, then we come to worry less about our students needing us.

When a grammar teacher is working on helping her 10 year-old student learn math, she is also helping him learn submission. There is the lesson represented on the worksheet, and there are numerous lessons impossible to represent on a worksheet; he’s learning how to multiply and how to be a man under authority. But she should remember that she is teaching submission to one to whom she may need to later submit. Her student, for example, might grow up to be her pastor, who will hold her hand and sing hymns at her hospital bed. His ministry to her at that point won’t be because he needs answers from her.

Pastors who think of teaching as their ultimate telos have the same problem, and will find themselves the (informed) hindrance rather than help to the growth of their people. Make disciples, not dependents.

Bring Them Up

An Epic Festival

Registration closes March 18th for our upcoming Raggant Fiction Festival on Monumental Myths. A couple months ago I wrote that I’ll be Tackling Virgil, and other speakers will cover epics by Homer, Dante, and Milton.

My journey into and through fiction has been fun (not quite epic, though at the start it may have felt a little like visiting the underworld). I went so far as to say that I needed to repent from hating fiction, and there’s notes from that 2015 talk to prove it.

Anyway, check out the Festival page for more info and to purchase tickets.

Bring Them Up

On Wanting More

I appreciate this video, not just for how much thankfulness it communicates in two minutes, but for two more reasons. First, the reason to start things like schools/colleges and to do work for our kids is not mostly because we’re fearful but instead because we know that there is more. Jesus is Lord of the cosmos. He created it all, and He cares about it all. Those who are growing up in His image should also grow in their capacity to care about what Jesus cares about, and that means our non-government education efforts have more to do with what we’re running toward rather than what we’re running from. We’re not necessarily wanting to be safe, we want much more than a gun and drug free campus.

The second part I really appreciated was the testimony of starting with what you have and going from there. Call it iteration, call it persistent revision, call it growth. Don’t wait for perfect, don’t expect there won’t be problems, and also don’t panic while addressing the problems. Need to figure something out? Well, you know, try to figure it out. Isn’t that what we want our students loving to learn to do themselves? We are not handing down the final answers from on high, we are “straining forward to what lies ahead” by faith and showing the way by example of learning more ourselves.

Wilson says near the end:

“Twenty-seven years ago we took the plunge. We didn’t know then what we know now, but what we did know we decided to act on. And as you act on what you know, one of the usual results is that God in His grace gives more light. Faithfulness requires no less….” [The work is] “because we wanted something more for our children.”

Bring Them Up

The Souls of the School

I enjoy the opportunity to talk about things I love in different ways. It’s a good challenge to take up a known thing and try to see it from a different angle. This is our 11th ECS Information Night, and in all the fundamentals the information is still the same as it was at the first. 

I’m adding to my challenge tonight, though, because I want to remind us about two valuable things, though one is more valuable than the other and must be prioritized as such. It is easier to pit two things against each other (even if they really shouldn’t be). It’s easier to cheer for one side and hammer, or at least nitpick, the other than it is to hold a careful tension.

Mr. Sarr regularly reminds us, parents and teachers, that ECS is not a church (here’s one example). The best school day can’t replace corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. The longer the school operates, the more obvious are the school’s limits and the more obvious the benefits a family gets from their membership in a church body.

One can’t replace the other, though there is a resemblance between both church and school. Both are institutions, organizations founded for a common purpose. And even more than similarity, in key ways a school such as ECS supports a part of the church’s mission (and I don’t just mean TEC). A church glorifies God in worship and in making disciples—that is, learners, students—who love Christ and obey His commandments and care about what He cares about. Since Christ created all things, we teach our students to love algebra, volcanoes, poems, letters and languages, and more because Christ loves those things.

As institutions, a church and a school compare because what matters most is the soul, every soul, all souls. When we rightly say that the church is not a building but the people, we can also say that a school is more than a place, it is a living community of souls.

There is a fantastic book you probably don’t need to read if you meditate on the title, The Trellis and the Vine. This analogy frames our priority.

A gardener who spends his time researching trellis, always repositioning or repainting trellis, to the neglect of the vine is a bad gardener. He may be so bad that he becomes a carpenter or a painter after the vine shrivels up from lack of attention. The point of the trellis is to serve and support the living plant, to give it space and direction to grow and climb, and, depending on what kind of plant, to enable it to produce more fruit. The living thing is the point, the priority, the purpose of the gardener’s work.

This isn’t because trellis is bad. A tomato plant not staked will fall all over itself. It won’t get the sun or water as it needs, and so the fruit may be small and spoiled as soon as it sprouts. In a school there are stakes, the right books and age-appropriate desks and Ticonderoga #2s, as well as different rules and procedures intended to give the plant a place to bloom.

But it is easy for trellis maintenance to get more attention, and it’s easier to give attention to the trellis. Things that don’t squirm, fuss, or fail take less work, and the work still looks like there’s real progress. But the soul of a school are its souls. What makes ECS special are the souls of the Board, the Headmaster, the full-time team, the part-time teachers, the volunteer helpers, the parents, and the students. 

We are in an “exciting” time, in WA and at ECS. We are out of step with the State and we keep running out of space. We’ve been looking for a few years for a place we could really plant ourselves, a place where we could spread out the trellis, to have more rooms and more room to play than on pavement. At the same time, the most pressing concern is always the souls. 

Souls over Sycamore (though what an amazing app of common grace that allows communication about homework between teachers and parents directly), souls over standardized tests, souls over seating arrangements, souls over musical scales, souls over swing-sets and soccer balls. Grades may help to reveal what’s happening in a given class, yes, but most of the time our teachers spend at the end of a Quarter is concerned with identifying character. Maybe we could call them “Soul cards.”

One of my favorite gifs of all time is from an Old El Paso taco commercial. The family is struggling to decide whether to have hard shell or soft shell tacos for dinner. A young girl shrugs and says, “Why not both?” and then they lift her up onto their shoulders in celebration.

Going back to the previous metaphor, good trellis makes for healthy vines. It’s both, and we pray for both. Yet we always need to keep in mind that as we commend the works of the Lord to the next generation, it’s because that generation will live forever. They are, along with us, eternal souls. This reality provides us with reason to provide them with the best we can in the here and now, while also holding somewhat loosely the seen things because they are fading away (2 Corinthians 4:18).

So as you process all the information, as you think about the future of the school as well as your investment, remember that there is no profit for a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (Matthew 16:26).

Bring Them Up

Laughing in Wartime

Here are the notes from my Convocation address at ECS yesterday.

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.

The painting ‘De Lachende Rembrandt’ (‘The Laughing Rembrandt’) is displayed in the Rembrandt House museum in Amsterdam, on June 6 2008. It is a self portrait by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, presumably from 1628. (Photo credit OLAF KRAAK/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

—Hugh Latimer

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.

Little did I know how much I would come to appreciate an address given by C. S. Lewis (just a couple months in to WWII in 1939) which is called, “Learning in Wartime.” (Listen to the whole thing here.) I don’t know how many times I’ve shared this quote, though I know I quoted it the first day of ECS.

“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.

Bring Them Up

Summer Break for Seeds

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.

Bring Them Up

Mellifluous Minutes

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!

Bring Them Up

A Place for Our Shelter

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? At what level of news can you escape COVID stupidity, the covidity? Not internationally across our northern border where Canadian pastors are being arrested for holding worship services, not regionally coming from our state capital or our state’s largest city, not even locally from our county health district which continues to communicate favortism for those ignoring the obvious. (Now that I think about it, our city‘s Mayor, Council, and PD have shown much right-mindedness, and for that we can be very thankful.)

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….”