The Future in a Snap

ECS is a classical Christian school which means, among other things, that we are concerned about the classics. In our curriculum we read and reference some of the all-time greatest works as not just relevant for today’s snobs, but as part of how we got to where we are today as a society.

I’m trying to build up my knowledge and appreciation of these rich resources, and also pass that culture onto my kids. One of the iconic pieces in the canon of Western Civilization that I recently shared with my kids is Back to the Future, the 80’s movie starring Michael J. Fox. Since I am speaking to adults here tonight, I’d like to think that many of you are familiar with this pop-culture staple from 1985 (even those few of you here who are parents but who weren’t born then). We’ve since passed the date that Doc Brown set the DeLorean to reach, October 21, 2015, and, disappointingly, we still don’t have the hoverboards teased in Back to the Future II (when Doc and Marty actually got to 2015).

I’m not going to exegete the movie, but there is a clear image that I’d like to borrow, though I’m going to spin it in the reverse direction. (Also, for those who might be wondering, I don’t actually think that Back to the Future is one of the classics of Western Civilization on par with stories such as The Illiad and Beowulf. Those are in a different category of great, and they are in our curriculum, while the McFly family saga is not.)

In the first movie Marty inadvertently escaped from the Libyan terrorists back to 1955 when he met all the key characters, but when those characters were their thirty-years-younger versions. In particular, he met his dad and mom, and he met the family nemesis, Biff. Doc Brown was also there, and that’s good because Doc understood the momentous responsibility of not changing anything in the past in order to avoid disastrous consequences in the future.

It turns out, messing with the past is the big plot problem that Marty has to overcome, and he has a sort of measuring stick to help him, and us as viewers, know how he’s doing. Marty had a picture of himself with his older brother and sister from 1985. As the sequence of original 1955 events get knocked out of order, the siblings start to fade out of the 1985 picture, and even Marty himself comes close to evaporating out of existence. He finally gets his mom and dad to fall in love and the family is back on track to become a family. When George and Lorraine kiss, just a kiss, at their high school dance, then Marty secures his own future for when he gets back to it.

Time travel is fun to think about, and reading good classics lets us travel back, and forward (think 1984 and Brave New World) in our imaginations. If God really wanted us to, I’m sure there would be a way to do it that wouldn’t be sinful. But my point isn’t to get us to invest in making a machine.

My point, though, is very much about where to invest, and when. What if we discovered a picture from 2050 (thirty years in the future, rounding up), a picture in which we could see our kids, our grandkids, our great-grandkids, or actually, let’s modernize it and say we found a Snapchat Snap/message or an Instagram story (or maybe a FuTube—FutureTube—video?) about our future people, about Evangel Classical School, about the great city of Marysville and the Marysvillian suburbs, what would you hope to see in the picture?

I am going to be 76 in 2050, so there’s some possibility I’ll even be around. In 1985 I was eleven, and from that perspective, 2015 seemed as far away in time as the moon seemed from the earth in distance. But we made it (even with watching Back to the Future II and III). And if Jesus doesn’t return, many of us here tonight will make it to 2050. I don’t know everything I’d like to see, because I’d like to think that our kids are going to carry and advance Christ-honoring culture; so hopefully they will make it better in ways that my imagination is too weak for.

Yet I can name some of my hopes, hopes that I want to share with you, not as in I just want to inform you, but to get us to hold them together.

I don’t really care if I could see where we’ll be having classes in 2050. That vision would be nicer for later this year (ha!), but in 30 years who knows what the new facility needs and opportunities will be. Having an education outpost, on property strategically located for community influence and that includes structures well-equipped for training our students, is and will be a real, material, and constant need. I just don’t feel the need to see what it looks like right now. And I don’t really care what sort of fancy playground we have, or if after three more decades every one can finally remember the difference between dress uniform and event uniform.

What I would love to see/hear/watch in that snippet from 2050 are current students (our kids) who have their own students (our grandkids/great-grandkids) about to graduate and who are wearing these sorts of characteristics:

  • They will be unyielding in their stand for God because they know that they God’s image-bearers. They will know that their lives have meaning and purpose, and that they are not “cosmic chattel” (Ben Shapiro, The Right Side of History).
  • They will spend their lives as weapons, obeying their Master, Jesus Christ, and they will give themselves like a farmer gives seed to the ground, eagerly and faithfully and trusting God to grow great fruit from their sacrifices.
  • They will be the kind of generation who love making things, with their hands and with their words.
  • They will be young men and women who haven’t stopped learning. Their interests will continue to expand according to all the things Christ is interested in, and they will be wiser than any AI algorithm and see the world more clearly than any AR filter.
  • They will hardly be able to speak without expressing thanks, partly because their lives will be overflowing with God’s blessings, and partly because they will default to seeing good rather than grumbling.
  • And they will be laughing long and loud. It won’t be a laughing from too much leisure and silliness, but from so many stories of last minute deliverances and battle scars, along with good wine and good friends and their great Lord.

If that’s the sort of future we hope to see, if that is the kind of people we desire to see in that picture, then those are the kind of people we who are here tonight need to seek to be, or repent from not being. For a blessed future, what can you do?

The French author André Gide wrote,

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

Maybe tonight requires a key kiss—I’m talking to you younger married folks now—that brings a new class of 2038 raggants into the world. (This could be a new school motto: We get more students the old fashioned way, we breed them. Ask the Headmaster with further questions here.) Maybe it is a kiss that doesn’t lead to a new soul but that shows your current raggant(s) that you love your wife and that you love your life with her and them altogether. Maybe you need to lighten up from all the fake news foofaraw, and laugh a little, like the Lord in Psalm 2 when He sees His enemies making plans to revolt. Yes, it’s bad out there, but it’s not actually as bad as Back to the Future II showed 2015 to be, or as Orwell predicted 1984 would be. And more importantly, fight with laughter. Laughter is war! Hahaha!

The woman in Proverbs 31 “laughs at the time to come” (verse 25). Why? Because she fears the LORD and works her butt off in the present for her people so that when they get to the future they will have seen what it’s like to laugh.

In a fiction book I was reading recently, a character named Grandpa Podo, when caught by the Stranders, gave encouragement to Janner not by an exhortation but by his laugh:

“His laugh was like the sound of trees bending in the wind, the bubbling of a river where the mill wheel spins.” (North! or Be Eaten, Location: 1,951)

Others maybe need to drink a glass of wine as from the Lord to gladden their heart, or maybe need to say no to wine if it’s only a mask for lack of gladness. Eat some sugar, have another piece of bread and butter both sides. God is good! Others need to give money, because dollars are also given by God to be used for building.

Because you are here you are one of the persons being used by God in some way to bring Him glory 30 years from now, possibly 130 years from now. The investment is not linear; it’s not simple addition. Tonight is more than the number of seats filled or donations collected. 30 years from now will be a mash-up, a remix, not just of our actions, but our interactions, as image-bearers, as families, as churches, and connected to ECS.

As usual, it’s not a whether or not you will shape the future, but what shape you’re giving to it. You are always doing something to the picture; there is no opt-out, you can’t delete your account, you can’t really even slow it down.

We don’t have a Marty—like-measurement, but we have something more sure: God’s promise that when we abound in laughing for, and abound in giving to, and abound in the work of the Lord, He says it is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.” (D. Elton Trueblood, The Life We Prize, p 58)

Let’s sow not just for future shade, but for future fruit.


The notes above were from our school’s recent Fundraising Feast.

“Bless Me, what do they teach them at these schools?”

Or, (Students + The Trivium) × Teachers

The following notes are for a talk I gave at our school’s Information Night.

Our school board recently finished reading through and discussing the Chronicles of Narnia together. I’m also part of another group of adults, many of whom are parents of current school students, working through the Chronicles as secondary reading for something we call Omnibus Tenebras. Then we have our annual Fiction Festival coming in March and the theme is going to be all things Narnian and Lewisian. So I reentered Aslan’s orbit seven months ago and have been spinning since.

Reading through the series again I noticed a question asked by Professor Kirke near the start of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which he asks in a similar form two more times in The Lion) and which he asks again near the end of The Last Battle. Sort of aloof, as he is, and exasperated, he wonders out loud, “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” The first time he was lamenting Peter and Susan’s lack of logic. The last time, when his beard was golden, he was wondering why they hadn’t read Plato. Well, in our school, we teach Logic, and Plato. And we teach the Chronicles of Narnia!

One of Lewis’ literary contemporaries and friends was Dorothy Sayers. You may have heard her name before associated with classical education due to a paper she read at Oxford in 1947, that she then published as a journal article, titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Along with Lewis, she was concerned about what was and what wasn’t being taught to students. If Sayers or Lewis or both of them could see what’s happening in our government education system some seventy years later, I can’t imagine what narrative tirade might have been unleashed (though That Hideous Strength would cover a lot). Although Edmond didn’t want to recognize that the White Witch was no good, at least he could recognize that the White Witch was a girl. The fight between good and evil didn’t get all the way down to gender pronouns. “Bless ze, what do they teach at these schools?”

Not ze best teacher

It was Sayers who reintroduced the Trivium, the three ways of education, which are 1) Grammar, 2) Logic (or Dialectic), and 3) Rhetoric. These are the first three of the seven liberal arts, liberal in reference to men who are free, and she in particular had the insight to connect each method of learning to each phase of a student’s development.

The youngest students are like parrots. Play them a catchy song and they will sing it until parents quickly pass from the stage of thinking it’s cute to the stage of being amazed at what their student is capable of memorizing and into the stage of being annoyed that their student doesn’t get tired of it. There is a grammar to every subject, facts that are ripe for harvest in very field of study. Nouns and verbs are language grammar, addition and subtraction are math grammar, colors are for art and notes are for music grammar, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 is history grammar.

As students mature toward junior high they hit a stage that is harder to call cute, and it’s also hard to call mature. They’re in the process of figuring out where all the things go. They are building mental shelves to sort and categorize all the grammar they’ve collected. They start start asking more questions and seeing more connections. They also start their arguing engines, and, as Sayers acknowledged their extremely high “nuisance value,” why not at least show them how to argue logically?

The third stage is not just gravy on the cake or icing on the meat. There is really cake and meat; icing on cotton balls offers no nutrition, and gravy on cardboard might trick you for a moment, but there’s no satisfaction. So truth cake and good meat are necessary underneath and then rhetoric tops them off. Rhetoric skills enable a young man or woman in mid to late high school to take substance and polish it. The polish might come via poem or prose, painting or presentation, but it’s taking what’s already valuable and making it shine.

ECS teaches all the subjects, be it Bible/theology, Music, Math, Science, English, Logic, Latin, Literature, Writing, Rhetoric, and History with the Trivium methods in mind, and we do it in Jesus’ name because He holds all the ends together.

I’ve been struck in recent months by what makes the Trivium so fruitful. I’ve been reading about and trying to share a vision of the Trivium since before we had a school, since my wife informed me that my participation in homeschooling our 2nd grader at the time was not optional. I’ve believed that students plus the Trivium adds up to great things for over a decade now. But it is multiplied by teachers.

If you want to know why you should register your kids for ECS before you leave the building tonight, what you really need to do is get to know the teachers. They are the multiplying function. We’re not making them present their resumes as part of the program, but that wouldn’t do any of them justice anyway.

Jesus said: every disciple, that is, every learner, every student, will be just like his teacher.

When my wife and I were trying to homeschool, we realized that we wanted our daughter and her younger siblings to be more than us. This wasn’t a cop out, as if we could merely sit back and trust our kids’ enculturation to others. It meant we had even more to do, which included trying to convince some other parents to join us in this crazy hard, crazy great, crazy blessed work.

The Trivium is not better than I thought; the Trivium is fantastic. But when the Trivium methods are practiced by those who care, the outcomes are way better than I thought. This is a mathematical operation, a factor function. Take a number, add another number, get a higher total. But take a number and put a multiplier between it and another number, and watch out.

ECS is more than the sum of its parts. I was reminded of it again while reading the following in a book titled, Anitfragile:

Collaboration has explosive upside, what is mathematically called a superadditive function, i.e., one plus one equals more than two, and one plus one plus one equals much, much more than three….since you cannot forecast collaborations and cannot direct them, you cannot see where the world is going. All you can do is create an environment that facilitates these collaborations, and lay the foundation for prosperity.

John Milton Gregory wrote in The Seven Laws of a Teacher that the ideal teacher is “an incarnate assemblage of impossible excellencies.” We have an excellent assemblage for collaboration.

We have teachers who have lived in tents while remodeling their houses, who muck horse stalls before sunrise, who knit hats and dolls and sew scaled down ECS uniforms for American Girl Dolls, who scrounge through the woods for sticks to make bows and read multi-volume bower bibles about how to do it. Our teachers exercise, slow cook and crock pot, read for pleasure, write for pleasure, and most importantly, they worship faithfully on the Lord’s Day. They invest in more than the students in their classes, and that’s why they have something for their students. They aren’t finished, but they are learning to learn, and that’s exactly what we want for our students.

Christian and classical education has some great ideas behind it and before it, but the ideas themselves could not make ECS great. The Trivium plus students multiple by teachers make it great in ways that couldn’t be scripted.

Our school mission starts by saying that “We commend the works of the Lord to another generation….” And I am commending the works of the Lord to you now. At ECS we are looking at and learning the grammar of His works, and the logic of how His works fit together, and how to adorn His works at image bearers through rhetoric. And I am also blessed to say, ECS is is itself a work of the Lord, and our teachers are a multiplying factor in making Marysville great again. #mmga

We want to bless you, both by what we teach at this school, and by those who teach at it.

Me First: The Deaths We Should Die for Our Students

More than a month ago I got to address a group of teachers at the first ACCS Regional Schools Training Day held at Providence Classical Christian School. Here are the notes for my talk.


TL;DR or Abstract: The gospel is good news that Jesus died so that we might live. As Christians the gospel is not only something we must believe and proclaim, it is also something we must embody. Like Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, teachers have many and various opportunities to bring life to their students (and the students’ families) by dying. Such dying to bring life sets the course of the classroom and also shows the students how to live like Christ.

Introduction

Wow! What a privilege it is to be here, to be a part of this first evar ACCS Regional Teacher In-Service Day, to have the opportunity to address you all and hopefully to give you some gospel encouragement for your labor in the Lord this morning. I love classical and Christian education. I love the ACCS, I love PCCS (where our oldest two kids got to attend for a year), and I love our toddler school. I am thankful to God for all that He is obviously and abundantly doing among us.

As for why I get to talk, well, my headmaster volunteered me, and none of the other headmasters/principles knew better. I definitely have a curriculum vitae to talk to teachers about teachering, and that resume is full ofincompetencies rather than masteries. I suppose if all the books could be written of the ways I could be a better teacher, all the school libraries in the world could not contain them.

But I do care. I care as an image-bearer of the God who mandated that we take dominion of all this stuff He’s created for and given to us. I care as a Christian because Jesus is Lord over every thumb’s width in the world that man can grab. I care as a parent of four students, as a pastor of parents, as a board member at our school, and as a teacher. I do not think I’m particularly gifted for the classroom, yet in some ways maybe that makes me a great person to talk about it because I have to make premeditated decisions.

The first decision requires me to determine: what do I want to accomplish? There are a number of excellent ways to answer to that question, but I’ve been answering it the last few years in an outlandish way. I want to turn Marysville into a destination.1 Have you been to Marysville? I bet we have more auto parts stores than your city, at least per capita, and certainly more on the main drag. We do have a spectacular whale fountain in front of our casino and an outlet mall that draws international customers, though those are technically not Marysville, but they are at the Marysville exits. There are also three Walmarts we can count as ours, so it’s a start. But I would love to be a part of making our city a place that Christians love to live, work, and grow.

That starts with working to make my home a destination that my kids want to be in, and then by extension to make my classroom a destination that my students want to be in. I want them wanting to be there. There are a lot of ways to accomplish this, but rather than dimming the lights and unfolding blankets and burning some sweet smelling candles with plenty of therapy puppies to pet, I want my classroom to be filled with the aroma of my many deaths.

That might sound like an odd ambition, but it is a gospel objective, just applied in the context of a school.

Death Is at Work

You may or may not remember a pseudo-evangelical movement that was popularish a decade ago called the Emergent Church. It was easy to tell who was part of the movement because they hated being stereotyped. They also were really keen on relationships and life, so lots of the churches scrapped the name “church” (too constricting) for something like “community” (more authentic). Many threw out their pulpits and pews and sat in couches drinking coffee and had conversations. Okay. But one of their core propositions, ironic since they were suspicious of propositions, was that Christians needed to incarnate the gospel.

That way of talking made me nervous for a couple reasons. Jesus is the incarnate Word, God in flesh, yes. But God taking on flesh is not something for us to repeat. We are already fleshy/fleshly, and more critically, we’re not God. The incarnation of Jesus is totally other than our experience. Incarnating the gospel also seemed wrong because the gospel is a message for us to preach, not a model for us to practice. I argued emphatically, definitively, that we should not use this language.

And I was wrong, because this is how the apostle Paul spoke about his ministry in a couple places, including Colossians 1:24 and 2 Corinthians 4:7-12.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

The “jars of clay” are “our bodies,” “our mortal flesh,” so the treasure of the gospel is contained not just in our brains or mouths. And what’s happening in the flesh? “Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” can’t mean that we’re being martyred, like a sledgehammer to a ceramic pot, once and done. The ones who are “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,” they are also the ”we who live,” and it’s happening “always.” You can’t do it “always” if the dying here is body-buried-death. Somehow “death is at work” and, based on the first part of the paragraph, dying is related to being brought to our breaking points in the four “but nots.”

And what is the result of the exercise of dying? Two related things: 1) The life of Jesus is manifested and 2) life works in those for whom we’re dying. This is the gospel: death brings life. We announce the gospel, for sure. We are Christian schools. We’ve got to, and we get to, point our students to Christ as the only name under heaven by which we can be saved. But those of us who proclaim Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 4:5) are also practicing servants of the Lord (same verse), and we show God’s surpassing power as we are “being given over to death for Jesus’ sake.” This is incarnating the gospel, it is embodying the good news that death brings life.

This isn’t referring to a teacher taking a bullet for a student. That could be done as a final act of love, but it is a one-time death. The dying, the being given over to death, the always carrying the death of Jesus, refers, ironically, to a way of living that brings life to others. So here’s a stipulative definition of dying: giving up something considered vital, often causing pain, for the joy of another.

Death by a Thousand Papers to Grade

What does dying look like then? How does the abstract get concrete? This is the glory of it, I don’t even know all the ways. But here are some dying assumptions and some scenarios.

My Dying Teacher Assumptions

Three of these should be good enough to give you the idea.

First, I assume that students will not remember the homework assignment and that parents will not read the assignment either. Homework, assigning how much and the grading thereof, is its own thing, which I’ll bring up again under the scenarios. This also matters whether you have parrot, pert, or poetic students; the older they are, the more they should be responsible and the younger they are the more their parents will need to pay attention. But unless the assignment itself is to see if they can follow your Rube Goldberg assignment, then die to your expectation that all you need to do is say it once and you’re done. If you always respond to your headmaster’s first email requesting your response, then you can have a scratch-n-sniff sticker on your inbox in the teachers’ lounge, but you might be the only one.

Second, and related to the first, I assume that parents have other things to do than what I am now requiring of them, especially when it comes to grammar students. Some of your schools meet five days a week, some, like our school, have a day or more when teachers give work that should be done during “school at home.” But the assumption works for plain old “homework” too. We only get so many minutes a day in class, and there are a lot of Indispensable Lessons, but it’s not always apparent that teachers realize other things happen after school, or that parents are not sitting at home clicking the refresh button in their browser to check for new homework.

Yes, we are serving parents, and parents should know what is happening with their students. Yes, parents are ultimately responsible to God for their student’s education. Yes, sometimes you need for the student to do some extra work outside of class. But how many classes do they have, and how many teachers had extra work for outside of class that same day, and how much help is that student going to need for that assignment?

Third, I assume that, even if parents read the assignment, and even if parents sacrifice their other work for sake of helping their student, they still probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Ha! So I use complete sentences, albeit as short as possible. I also RTUA = refuse to use abbreviations. It could be the third quarter, and you’re using the same abbreviation you’ve used for the Saxon Time Fact Sheets all year long without a problem, but for some reason mom is out of town and dad needs to help and the fourth grader doesn’t know what “TFS” means. If you’re using an online homework application, put your Keystroke Saving Program to death. Maybe you’ll get RSI (repetitive stress injury), but it will be life to your people. If you’re a printer of assignments to paper, pluck up, there are plenty of trees.

My Dying Teacher Scenarios

It’s Monday morning, or Thursday evening, or whenever, and you get a text message from a parent asking if there’s Latin homework because there is nothing in Renweb, Sycamore, etc. You realize that you were interrupted right when you were going to post it, and you forgot, but you had told the students in class what you wanted them to do. Do you:

  • A) Do nothing because you gave a verbal assignment?
  • B) Quickly post the assignment and expect that all the families will look at it and complete it?
  • C) Post it and notify the parents via a special group email or text?
  • D) Take the curricular bullet and have the students complete the assignment the next day in class?

Of course there are other variables, including whatever agreements and expectations there are between the school and parents about how and when homework is to be communicated. But if your immediate reaction is, “They should have remembered the assignment.” Then if it’s so easy, why didn’t you remember to put it online?

There are other options than panic. Email or text the families and say that due to your error, the assignment will be graded for extra credit for those who remembered to do it, or it will be finished in class and won’t be graded. Die to your pride, and sometimes it’s okay to die to your plan.

Here’s another scenario. You only have so many classroom minutes, and you really want to talk about Augustine, and you really need to give a memory verse quiz and a test. Do you:

  • A) Scrap waxing eloquent about Augustine and just do the boring quiz and test?
  • B) Punt the tests to the parents to administer at home so you can talk about Augustine?
  • C) Something else?

You are the teacher! Teach! Augustine is educational, even if you (wrongly) call him Augustine. The bishop of Hippo is probably applicable somehow to your curriculum. So ask yourself some questions. Is sending the test home instead of other homework better? Or is sending the test home something you’ve never done in that class and would likely cause confusion? Could you hold off talking about Augustine until next week, and plan to tweak the lesson plans to include it? Or could you move the test to next week instead?

There are other common scenarios too. Do you have a fussy student? Die (to your impatience) for him. Do you have fussy parents? Die (to your irritation) for them. Are you overwhelmed, not sure how to do the next day? Die.

You have so many ways to die to give life:

  • Give everyone all the points, or make that assignment extra credit.
  • Use someone who takes a perfect quiz as a grade for all (like justification).
  • Scrap the assignment all together, or assign just the odd problems, or only one page instead of the two, etc.

Teachers are especially tempted to pass the pressure off to others when:

  • When they are unprepared.
  • When they are upset with someone else, their spouse, their own kid, another student from another class.
  • When they made a mistake.
  • When they failed to communicate (as expected).
  • When they mismanage and run out of time (in class).

What do you tolerate in you that you wouldn’t tolerate in a student?

Conclusion

Dying to bring life is simple, not simplistic. There are qualifications, sure. I’m not arguing for a Montessori pedagogy, or that teachers never hold their students responsible. But we ought to be holding them to the standard when it is more, or at least equally, costly for us.

The gospel affects more than our content, it affects our methods. The gods of men demand sacrifices from men, and the system is rigged. The God of men sacrificed Himself, in Christ, for men, and the salvation is by grace. In most cases you are bigger, stronger, and smarter than your students. That means you could bully them, but it also means that you are equipped to sacrifice for them in powerful ways, not that you are equipped to lord it over them. That is the way of the Gentiles. When it comes to dying, it should be me first. That is some lesson.

Death isn’t just okay, it is the way of authority and glory. If sacrifice is glory, which it was for Jesus, then we reflect glory in the timely sacrificing of our lesson plans, our homework plans, etc.

As Julius Campbell told Gerry Bertier in “Remember the Titans”:

Campbell: You been doing your job?
Bertier: I’ve been doing my job.
Campbell: Then why don’t you tell your white buddies to block for Rev better? Because they have not blocked for him worth a plug nickel, and you know it! Nobody plays. Yourself included. I’m supposed to wear myself out for the team? What team? Nah, nah what I’m gonna do is look out for myself and I’ma get mine.
Bertier: See man, that’s the worst attitude I ever heard.
Campbell: Attitude reflects leadership, captain.

  1. I really hoped for a particular audience response at this point, and I totally got it. A lady in the front row let out a snort loud enough for the whole room to hear. I couldn’t have scripted it better.

Ante Lux, Tenebras

Auditing Omnibus for the last six years has done more to shape my worldview than almost all of the formal education I’ve received. If I could only choose between having gone through seminary or Omnibus, that would be a tough call. For realZ. What I’m saying is, Omnibus–the readings and discussions–is really good stuff.

For the first six years of the school a small group of adults audited Omnibus I through VI. Jonathan (who taught the class) provided the reading assignments, and then we auditors would join the class every Thursday morning during the school year. The reading was often tough to complete, but always beneficial, and the discussions were invaluable. It has been crucial for continuing to shape my world-and-life view. Jonathan would say the same thing, as would all the other auditors, along with the students who have taken it (though most of them haven’t known anything different).

In order to make this doable for more people, we decided to offer a three year-long, two evenings a month, class for adults. Jonathan, Leila (the other Omnibus instructor at the school), and I selected the best of Omnibus I and IV (Ancient history), then II and V (Medieval history), and then III and VI (Modern history).

And we start tonight!

Year one is called Omnibus Tenebras (Latin for “darkness”). As I mentioned above, it’s history from creation until the coming of Christ, and it’s full of reading about men who long for a savior but had only selfish and petty and pars-potent (partially powerful) gods to try to appease. We’ll be working through the Gilgamesh epic, the Hammurabi code, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the history of Herodotus, Virgil’s Aneid, and a few more. We’ll also read through all the Chronicles of Narnia, you know, for fun.

Next year will be Omnibus Lux (Latin for “light”), because God came in the flesh and the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection spread and overturned so many kingdoms of men, Caesars included. The third year, the modern period, will be Omnibus Modius, the Latin word for “basket” (in Matthew 5:15), since the apparent project of many men since the Reformation has been to cover up the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.

At the moment we’ve got over forty adults on the roster, and it’s going to be another fabulous ride.

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.

Unfinished Stories

Here is a story I wrote for the final assembly. It references a bunch of books our students read this year, so your appreciation may vary.


In the year of our Sayers 71, a small group of children and adults prepared to enter something they called Summer Break. To initiate this sense of freedom they performed a variety of very old rituals. They exchanged ashen colored vestments for royal colored ones, they sang and chanted verse, they ate meat grilled over fire, and many of them sought to hold back tears of exhausted gleefulness. The festivities lasted throughout the afternoon until all the students and teachers said goodbye to one another and loaded up their heavy bags one more time for home.

Only a handful of people returned over the next week to do different sorts of work. Many things were moved around, sorted, counted, and put away. Eventually even those activities came to an end, and the campus became uncommonly quiet.

But if anyone had walked through the now desolate building ten days later, and if they had ears tuned to hear, they would have heard murmurs of discontent, disappointment, and disturbance. The noises came from multiple rooms, usually smaller rooms called Closets in our world, or rooms the size of a closet. Sounds could be heard coming out of beige boxes, off of burdened shelves, and even from stacks that looked like tapered chimneys on the floor. If you had listened closely, you would have heard voices coming from books.

An ominous word had begun to spread among the characters in the books left behind: school was done for the year. Students, and therefore the Readers, were not expected back. This caused no little worry, not because the characters feared to be forgotten, but instead because they feared their stories would be unfinished.

Each assignment came directly from the Ministry of Fiction under the command of the Curriculum Controller for Division 17 in the SnoHoPaNoWe Region. These deployments were a crucial piece of the plan to equip a new army, though they called themselves Students rather than soldiers, which was part of the Ministries’ strategy of inconspicuous conquest. Each character had arrived from the Terra of Truth, the Ordnance Depot of CP, or even the Amazon Arsenal. Each had been recruited to do a specific job. But some of their jobs were only partially done.

Though in most situations it was not the fault of the character, too many of them were left only partway through the plot. The Reader had just left, left the book, and left the story hanging. If you have heard of the land of misfit toys, these were the characters of unfinished books.

A meeting was called of the Committee for the Finishing of Books for Character Squared, or “CFBC2” as the patches abbreviated. Characters were elected to represent the various grades, though not all could make the journey to the far corner of the Desk of the Unruly Headmaster. Some of the characters required extra travel time because when they asked for directions from the local gnomes, the gnomes were drunk on the joy of so much silence without so many laughing students around that good directions were hard to gather.

Presiding over the meeting was Henry York Maccabee. While not the oldest or most mature of Committee Members, it was he, as a seventh son, who was most fit for helping a school seeking to begin its seventh year. Mr. Maccabee had great personal interest in the proceedings because he himself was caught in a dark valley of the shadow of the unfinished, less than a third into the third book of his work. It was only the previous day that his father had left for Endor, his uncle had been taken captive, and his raggant locked in a closet. It was not a good time to stop reading his story. There were rumors that his book would be completed, and so his case was not quite as desperate as some others. Nevertheless his precocious cousin pestered him for a quicker resolution, and young Mr. Maccabee called the assembly to order.

The first to speak was Morris the Moose, who was very angry. Though some students at K-Level had finished the story, others had not, and so he was arguing with Cow again and hearing her complain that she was not in fact a moose even though she had four legs, a tail, and things on her head. Morris yelled above the crowd, since yelling was a thing he did, “It’s maddening to be stuck here. I’m tired of making moosetakes, and just want to see myself in the stream again. But what if the stream dries up in the summer sun before I can see my reflection?“

Representing Level Half (those under the “1/2” symbol) were Uncle Nick and Uncle Pete, along with Mr. Gump and his seven hump Wump. Granny and Grandpa Amos stayed in their walls to watch Baby Betsy, and the Red Fish and Blue Fish were trying to figure out along with One Fish and Two Fish if a Yink really does like to wink and drink ink that is pink. The Littles and the Seuss families were phonetically and poetically up in personified arms about not getting to their ends.

On behalf of TertiaQuarto, the brave squirrelmaiden Triss had traveled by herself. Though she had already tried many things, including a party with treats and costumes, she still could not get readers to send she and her friends to Riftgard to free the slaves of the ferret king, King Agarnu (who was a second cousin to Gary Gnu). Triss had not yet figured out the riddle and needed to find a good sword. “Why won’t they finish the story?” She cried. “We can defeat the Ratguards and the King if someone would just turn the pages!”

A guy named Guy spoke next. “We have traveled 451 miles, as the pages turn, to represent the High Grammerers of Eejitsland. They have been so busy that they have left a fire burning that must be put out or great libraries of the world will be destroyed.” His traveling companion, a Mr. Underhill, explained that some fires can be very beneficial, even necessary, but that humanity is doomed if they destroy the wrong items.

The next to present were those speaking on behalf of the Logicians and the Rhetoricians. More of these characters came to make a case for themselves because they knew how important their work was, and they even argued among themselves whose story was most important as they rode together on a six-story bus. One was named Pilgrim, and despite his name, he did not desire an endless journey but rather sought the end of his journey. There were two Toms, both headed south on rivers for different reasons and neither with all their plot lines tied to the shore. There was a Mr. Gatsby, who’s story was short, and meaningless, but regardless, he wanted to get to his party. There was also a Mr. Ahab and a Miss Emma, who hadn’t met each other prior to the trip but shared a fate of still not finding what they were looking for. “Perhaps that has happened to you, too,” they said.

With the cast assembled on the Headmaster’s desk Henry called for proposals on how to encourage the readers to finish more of these books. This was an urgent mission for two reasons. If the books remained unread, some characters would be in plot purgatory. Mr. Ahab would be getting more mad, but no nearer to his catch. Henry himself would never know how his family was or what witchery Nimiane would commit.

Mr. Underhill proposed the use of a very old game. He said, “My uncle had a saying. ‘I haven’t read half as many books as well as I should like; and I like less than half of the books as well as they deserve.’ In order to promote more page turning he developed a game named after himself called Bilbo. He later changed it to ‘Bingo’ because he liked the ring of it better. Let the readers cross out various symbols in rows and columns and earn prizes for completing books.”

Triss urged that a proclamation from the U.H. be sent directly to all the concerned parties over invisible wires buried under ground. Most of the characters were not familiar with such technology, but were happy to see an example program from the U.H. Pilgrim similarly advised that a sort of allegory be narrated about the dangers for all involved of not finishing stories as well as the rewards of reading to the ends.

Mr. Gatsby recommended that a spectacular car crash could take out an electrical transformer leaving entire neighborhoods without power for long stretches. Kids without access to telescreens and digital games might be desperate enough to read. A small Seuss said, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere. Send them to the lake, reading on the shore is great. Any sort of trip, packing a book will be hip.”

The characters were now refreshed with hope, both that their stories might be finished soon and that the stories of their readers’ lives would be back on track. As they said their farewells and headed back to their closet or cubby or classroom, they said to one another, “This may be the best summer of our Sayers yet.”

Blessed New World

Here is the charge I gave to our graduates at yesterday’s commencement.


Good evening to our candidates for graduation, to their parents and families, to the Board and teachers at ECS, along with loved friends, supporters, and guests. How great is this?!

It is funny to think that when both Gabby and Kara were starting school in Kindergarten, ECS was still seven years away from becoming a school. The school was birthed when both of you entered your junior high years. Kara was one of the original twelve guinea raggants (if we can call them that), starting as a 7th grader, and Gabby during her freshman year. In some ways, both of you are more mature than the school.

It has been fun watching everyone grow up together, both of you as young women, along with your teachers, and even the book choices and curriculum offerings for secondary. Whether you know it or not, you have given us the great benefit of needing to figure more things out for you. Thank you for your patience, your work, and your endurance.

Last summer, after the school finished her fifth year, the Board decided on a mission statement.

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.

This is a big deal, both in what it says and in what it does not say, and I’ll return to some of the ideas in a moment.

The year before that, when we came to commence our first graduating class, we decided that in order to graduate from ECS, a raggant must not only pass a certain number of classes but must also portray a certain set of character traits. These virtues are non-negotiable because they are, in many ways, eternally more important than your grades. In fact, grades are not mentioned in the mission statement at all, and we really mean that. Your grades in Algebra and Music and Omnibus and other classes do reflect parts of your character, so we’ve not done away with them, but our target for your education is too big for only five letters of the alphabet, plus or minus.

So we are interested in developing character, in doing our part to educate:

  1. Stout image-bearers
  2. Generous disciples of Christ
  3. Copious producers
  4. Prodigious learners
  5. Thankful stewards
  6. Jovial warriors

In other words, we are educating you toward Christian adulting. We—alongside your parents—hope and pray and work that you would be steady and giving makers who are grateful and laughing through it all so flagrantly as to make Grendel’s Mom mad. This is a large-hearted person ready for no end of callings, and I would like add a little bit more about what I hope your post-ECS raggant life looks like.

If I could be sure to have one prayer answered for you both, I pray that you would never be happy again. That could be taken the wrong way and so requires explanation, of course. In other words, I pray that you would both know two serious blessings that go together: that of being 1) discontent and 2) demanding.

It would be the worst for you to leave here and think that you are finished. I don’t believe that to be the case for either of you two, but this is a Charge after all. You are finished with this stage of learning, and now is not the time to retreat from learning.

Don’t be satisfied with what you’ve learned. And because of what you’ve learned, you also should have better taste for what you’re being served. How can you possibly be content with anything false? Many fake news prophets have gone out into the world; test them. Be discontent with lies, including the deceitfulness of excuse-making. Be discontent with laziness, with tyranny, with ignorance, and I mean this about your own failures first. These are things that do not belong in a Christ-honoring culture. Do not carry any water for the sin of self-justification. Do not shut your eyes, or even wink, while rationalizations for your selfishness or bitterness are at work.

Demand, then, truth, diligence, liberty, and more learning, especially your own.

You have tasted something better. You can’t go back. You musn’t go back.

Peter wrote something similar to his readers about their tastes: “if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” It is the good taste that makes one crave more of the truth. “Long for the pure spiritual milk that by it you may grow up into salvation,” into maturity. And though in context, the first set of sins must be put away first, it works in reverse as well. “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” You won’t have an room for these. They won’t fit. You will have a better appetite. His Word and ways will be like honey to your tongue.

Your education so far has only been a launching pad, a kick in the plaid skirt. Now you need to go learn more. It’s time to go off the rails, not off the road of of righteousness, but off the rails of expecting others to lay the course ahead of you. You know some of what you know, and there is a lot more that you’ll find out you don’t know, and you’ve been given a taste and many tools for getting more.

You are headed into a world that wants you to think it is brave, but it more like a sickly chicken running from its shadow. You are headed into a world that will try to buy you with cheap pleasures. It will try to distract you from your image-bearing purpose, and will try to keep you from rocking the boat. This is what you must resist. This is why you’ve been prepared to be free.

A liberal arts education is for those who love liberty. Liberty is not easy, as you’ve read hundreds of pages about wars to gain or protect independence. You will not always feel happy. Wounds earned in battle can’t be healed lightly; a pedicure won’t fix trench foot. But you will be a better generation if you do not get content with easy conveniences and comforts.

Since Aristotle, men in the west have believed that liberal arts education was for those with leisure. Training for a job was training for slaves. That is not completely Kuyperian, since we believe that every lawful labor in the Lord is not in vain. But these questions still test the success of your schooling; what will you do when you have a day off? How will you spend your free time? When your bills are paid, what will you purchase (or go into debt for)? Will your understanding of fun and pleasure be like the world’s, or will you demand true truth and beautiful beauty? This is the point of your education: how you will spend your time after class?

Because Christ Jesus died and rose again, because of the evangel, this is a blessed new world. His sacrifice for sin frees us from slavery to lies and blindness and into truth and sight. You know. You see. “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4). But “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (verse 6). You know the glory. How could you be happy with underhanded and ugly alternatives? Refuse refuse.

Since God has called you to believe in Christ He has also called you to obey Christ and grow up into the fulness of Christ. This means you are called to bless others. You are called to give yourselves rather than get for yourselves. You are called to lay down your life for His sake; it’s in the sacrifice of losing your life, Jesus says, that you will find your life. The world is going to offer you a thousand other ways. But He is the way, the truth, and the life.

To be clear, this discontented and demanding spirit must not be driven by fussiness, which is selfishness, which is pride. It will only be a blessing if it is driven by faith, which is God-centered, which brings humility. And God blesses the humble.

So may you never be happy again unless that happiness, that blessedness, is from God and through Him and to Him.

Congratulations to both of you, Gabby and Kara. We give thanks to God for His work in you. It is now your charge to commend the works of the Lord to another generation so that they will carry and advance Christ-honor culture. Don’t be content with less.

Uncomfortable Blessings

Photo thanks to Leila Bowers
When I give a talk I prefer to build up to a Big Reveal. This time I will tell it to you up front, then go back and explain what I mean and why it’s important and what you should do about it. Here goes: Since the start of ECS I believe that no one has learned more than me. I have reasons for this claim and, if it’s true, I also believe that no one has been more blessed than me either. Of course, I’m happy to share, the blessings and a bit of the story.

On a spring afternoon seven years ago my wife wanted to talk. She had just finished a marathon math lesson with our oldest daughter, who was in third grade at the time and whom we were homeschooling. Math was a sore spot in those days; things just weren’t adding up, if you know what I mean. But math was merely part of the problem, and there was no answer key. Both Mo and I were coming to realize how big an education we wanted for our kids and we were detecting a mismatch between that vision and our capacity to give it. I had attended public school, Mo had been homeschooled, and I was excited for her to homeschool our kids. I thought I was a pretty impressive husband for how supportive I was of her work.

But that discussion on that afternoon was less like realizing that we needed to upsize to a mini-van and more like realizing that we needed to get a 747, and that we were going to have to build one with instructions ordered from the back pages of a Popular Mechanics magazine. While we talked about a few options, she finally said, “Look, Sean, you are going to need to be exhausted educating our kids, so you better figure out the best way to do it.” That is a haunting, prophetic exhortation, and I wouldn’t be giving this talk without it.

One of the options we discussed was trying to convince some other crazy families to start a classical Christian school. But since all she and I had done at that point was read about those elusive creatures called classical schools, we decided it might be good to get some experience at one of them to see the theory running around in plaid skirts. We enrolled our kids at Providence Classical Christian School, located in Lynnwood at the time, a 40 minute drive one way without traffic. Maggie entered in 4th grade, Cal started Kindergarten, and we knew within a week that we found the good wine, like the kind Jesus made.

Around the same time we bought a three-ring binder from the Association of Classical and Christian Schools on how to start a school. Ha! Jonathan was excited about the possibility, as were a few other people that were at least willing to indulge the dream. We started reading, a lot. We talked, a lot, about truth and goodness and what is beauty and why bother. We wrote a vision document and statement of beliefs, chose a name, a mascot, and a motto. It took us another five years to get the mission chiseled into one sentence. It’s easy to blather and hard to summarize for that elusive elevator chat. It’s even harder to get off that elevator and do something.

While we loved homeschooling, and we loved PCCS, we wanted more people to have access to this worldview-ing in the Marysville area. One option we discussed, and I’m not joking, was to buy a bus and commute en masse to Lynnwood every morning and afternoon. Instead, we started with twelve students, K-10th, in a farmhouse basement in the fall of 2012.

Initially, I thought I was going to be exhausted telling students all the things I knew. I mean, I was an involved parent, pastor, board member, teacher of Latin, and reader of school-starter notebooks. Turns out, I was exhausted trying to figure out all the things I didn’t know. I had to learn what sort of scissors exercises help penmanship in the pre-polly stage and why cursive handwriting is better than printing. I needed a better answer for Why Latin? than that “it’s classical,” and hard. How old should someone be to start Kindergarten? Why are school desks actually a thing? What do you do when you don’t have lockers or desks or your own space to leave things so that 8 year-olds are carrying 30 pound backpacks around? What sorts of character do we want our graduates to have?

Sheesh. That doesn’t include trying to read and learn from the books and history that I didn’t pay attention to when I was a student. I’m part of a group of auditors that will finish the 6th and final year of Omnibus in a few weeks. We’ve done Hammurabi, Homer, Herodotus, Hitler, Hobbes, Hemingway, and Huxley, and that’s just one letter of the alphabet. I had a master’s degree with almost no mastery of economics and politics. Or fiction. We had to start a fiction festival just so I could do my penance to generations of librarians and literature teachers.

How do you know when it’s too much lazy complaining about homework, or that it’s actually too much homework? What is the maximum student load for a class? What if you have five more students than that number, but you don’t have that money to pay another teacher?

How do you encourage teachers who are exhausted and trying to figure out the best way to love and teach their students, but also enable them to have a life for serving their own spouse and kids?

These are all great questions. Weighty questions. Pressing questions. Exhausting questions. And, would we really want it any other way? This is our place, and it is the place where God grows us.

If you listen to professional educators, and especially education lobbyists, they’ll rant on repeat that the system needs more money. Let’s raise a levy. Get more government grants. But, many schools have gotten more money and not gotten more smart. Maybe some day God will give us such an overfunded budget that we don’t know what to do with it, but money never made a mental muscle. No check ever created hunger to learn. Gifts may be sweet, but they don’t increase strength.

The feast we’re enjoying is festive because of vision of something great and many sacrificial labors to deal with the difficulties of getting to that vision. It’s true of this barn, of this meal, and of our school. Those for whom it is the tastiest are those who have given themselves to the voluntary work of being uncomfortable.

We’ve hired full-time and part-time men and women who will and do give their lives for their students, not because they know it all, but because they hate that they don’t. They’re not education experts, they’re education desperates.

This is not a bug, it’s a feature. While we are giving our kids an education that we didn’t get, we are giving them an example of being exhausted toward something that’s worth it. This isn’t because these are the only people we could find, it’s because it’s the kind of people we want to graduate.

The best work doesn’t need to get stuck in the founders generation, the ones who walk from cup of coffee to cup of coffee. The goal isn’t getting established, with enough faculty and facility and funds. The goal is not getting settled, and having a faculty and facility and funds that get us into new uncomfortable positions. The fundraising feast is not about meeting our current needs. It’s to make it so that we have more needs and bigger needs.

The very first assembly message I gave was about how wise people change their mind, regularly. Either you know it all at the beginning, or you stay in your bunker, or you have to learn.

Little did I know how little I knew, or how costly and painful it would be to learn. I’ve learned more than anyone because I had more than anyone to learn. But thanks be to God who delivers us from sin and ignorance, who gives us freedom in Christ to learn about, and love, all that Christ claims as His. Thank God for kids who love it. Maggie told me this is one of her favorite nights of the year; I wouldn’t have imagined. Thank God for teachers who keep growing, for a school community that keeps singing more loudly and harmoniously.

Many of you feast on similar blessing already (even if mine is bigger!). Others of you could join. It is costly. It takes time, repentance, even money. But as Paul told the Philippians, he didn’t want their financial gift for himself, but “the fruit that increases to your credit.” To train a generation of those who will give (produce, create) rather than take (consume), we must show them what it looks like to have skin in the game, which means we’ve got to roll up our sleeves.

So thanks for enjoying some of the labored for fruit with us. Consider giving, not so that we can be more comfortable and get out of work, but rather so that we can get more people to enjoy the work of learning, and all its blessings.


These are the notes from my talk at last Friday’s Fundraising Feast.

Better Than Unbreakable

I recently read a brilliant illustration. Imagine you wanted to send a priceless wine glass to a friend through the mail. You would find a reinforced box and wrap the glass with thick layers of soft padding. You would double-tape the box and, before sending it, you’d write in all-caps with a fat red Sharpie on multiple sides, “FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE.” The glass is valuable but easily breakable.

What is the opposite of that? As the author of the book observes, and I admit that it was what first came into my mind, most people think the opposite of the wine glass is something such as a hard cover book. Wrap it in a tough box or wrap it with tissue paper, it probably won’t matter. Will the post office be careful with the package? Also, it doesn’t matter. A book can survive a lot and isn’t likely to be busted.

Between the two, which type of student would we want most? Our sixth year Omnibus (a History/Lit/Theology combo) class finished Moby Dick a few weeks ago. I audit the class but am behind in my reading, so I more recently came across this exhortation from Ishmael about halfway through the story; it’s about the benefits of being like a whale.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own. (Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: or, The Whale (pp. 334-335). Penguin Publishing Group)

I like that: an internal temperature of one’s own no matter the season. But, this is not actually the opposite of the wine glass. The book is sturdy, (and, as Melville argues, a whale is self-controlled), and that is good, but sturdy is not the opposite of fragile. The opposite of easily breakable would be some substance or some product that not only survives, it gets better being knocked around. Imagine writing on the outside of the box: “MISHANDLE LIKE NOBODY’S BUSINESS!” By the time the package arrived, having been thrown against walls and dropped on the floor and kicked out of the truck, the contents have gained value, not lost it. This is more than robust, this is antifragile (which is the name of the book I’m reading).

The principle applies to many domains: economies, governments, science, health, as well as education and individual persons/students. A number of things benefit from some stress, from some tension, from some difficulty. This affects what kind of persons we want to be. It affects what kind of persons we want our students to become.

Our society is doing a great job at making fragile persons, including Generation Snowflake that needs puppy petting therapy rooms in order to recover from hearing a new idea, especially one that challenges long-held but shallow-rooted assumptions. Written on the side of our schools: “Fragile: Don’t touch.”

It doesn’t need to be that way.

My wife regularly says, though she doesn’t claim to have come up with it, that we ought to be preparing our kids for the road and not preparing the road for our kids. Parents want their kids to do well, to succeed, to pass them. But this doesn’t happen by making everything smooth and easy. Our kids will succeed not when we’ve put enough padding around them that they “survive.” Besides, we can actually do better than making them sturdy. What if we trained them in such a way that when the world throws crazy things at them they thrive?

This is our mission at ECS. The school board finalized our mission statement last summer.

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.

This is a battle. It requires wisdom to really see a culture, it requires strength to carry a culture, it requires wisdom and strength and courage and hope to advance a culture.

The world is certainly offering her alternative to a Christ-honoring culture. The chaos and the volatility that come with denying the Lordship of Christ is bad, but, for the right kind of person, such chaos is the perfect opportunity. The culture of unbelief is hostile, but it is also self-defeating. It can’t stand on its own; it has to borrow any truth it depends on. Our students are being equipped not merely to withstand the attack, but to take advantage of every weakness in the system and tip it over.

Such training requires a variety of things, including the “tools of classical education.” This is an old pedagogy, with a Dorothy Sayers twist that emphasizes certain parts of training with certain ages of development. There are three categories of these tools considered under the heading of the Trivium (one of the things that goes into the Classical school difference): Grammar, Dialectic/Logic, and Rhetoric.

Antifragile students know their facts. They know that there are only three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. They live in a world of “he”s and “she”s and “it”s. What an advantage to distinguish male and female and not only when choosing a restroom or hooking up a sound system. They know that two plus two equals four, all the time, because God made it that way. Our youngest students sing about the Bible and about the catechism and about the parts of speech because they love to sing and because they don’t have any doubt about God’s good gifts in creation. This is the Grammar stage.

Antifragile students test their arguments as well as the advertising propaganda shot at them. They know that syllogisms can be valid, but not sound, yet we’re looking for both. They live in a world of good, better, and best, and are learning to distinguish which is which according to created categories and according to the standard of God’s Word. This is the Logic stage.

Antifragile students express their ideas. They’ve assembled truth and assessed what is good and they prepare to adorn their persuasions. They are polishing their prose, poetry, and presentations. “Rhetoric is the class that’s trying to turn [students] into a leader” (Rebekah Merkle, Classical Me, Classical Thee). This is the Rhetoric stage.

We train students in the grammar stage to be curious, to love to collect and chant (HIC HAEC HOC!). We train students in the logic stage to be (a good sort of) contrarian, to love to correct and question. And we train students in the rhetoric stage to be creative, to love producing and shaping not just consuming and being shaped.

All of these things together work toward making courageous, Christ-loving, Christ-honoring students. We need young men and women who can choose well and advance at crosswords we as parents and teachers can’t currently see. We’re working to equip students who get stronger by figuring things out, with a deadline, with others depending on them.

I love C.S. Lewis’ quote about how favorable conditions never come. “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.” We want students who want unfavorable conditions anyway. It’s not inconsequential that it was Bard (a synonym for poet) the Bowman who shot down the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, and it’s not just coincidence that the only time Smaug’s weak spot showed is when he was flying and attacking.

At ECS we are laboring, with laughter, to produce a certain kind of antifragile person who is “impossible to sneak up on” (Merkle), who is part of a community of those who not only are not easily broken, but who relish the opportunities to build in a broken world.


The above were notes from my talk at our school’s most recent Information Night.

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.