A Few Words for the Worst Part of the School Year

Greetings from Week 19 AKA the mathematical middle of the academic calendar AKA the worst part of the school year. We are equidistant from the beginning and end, stuck in a no-man’s land with Christmas break behind us and a vast wasteland of “learning” ahead.

We are short on motivation.

The weather is cold.

The nights are long.

Rations are low.

Well, maybe not quite the rations part, but it does feel a bit bleak this time of year.

In my Medieval Lit class, I intentionally schedule Danté’s Purgatorio during this stretch of the year because that’s what it feels like: Purgatory. 

The second part of Dante’s trilogy falls right in the middle: The start is far in the past and the finish is in the clouds. If you do the calculations, Mt. Purgatory is over 3,000 miles high. I bet to some of our students, this second semester looms just as large.

It’s easy to start something; it’s rewarding to reach the finish. But it’s hard to persevere in the middle.

However, it’s during the mundane plodding up Mt. Purgatory that Dante and Virgil grow in their appreciation for one another. The middle allows us to fall into a rhythm where we forget about trying to start well, forget about trying to finish well…forget that we are on a journey at all long enough to look at one another. It gives us time to talk, to trust, to know and be known.

The next long stretch is where true friendships are forged, where real growth happens, where we get to stop worrying about the beginning and the end and start to treasure each other as fellow travelers on the path back to God.

Purgatory is not something to avoid. It is the necessary road between the start and finish. May God himself join you and your happy band along the ascent through the rest of the school year.

All’s well and quick march!


(photo credit)

About Those New Year’s Resolutions…

Why do we look forward to a new year? What is it about an arbitrary moment in our 365-day rotation around the sun that makes us want to shoot off fireworks and confetti in Times Square?

A few years ago, I asked our church this very question, and this was the response: “I think we like the hope of something new. It’s a clean slate.

We are serial beginners.

Look across social media, and you will find all kinds of people with exciting new beginnings. Some of us are vowing to read 3,000 new books this year. Others of us are starting a new diet that consists of only foods that are purple. A new year means new gym memberships and new ballet bar/rock-climbing/tire throwing/tai chi hybrid classes.

We are a society that celebrates and longs for hope, new starts, second chances. It’s no accident. Whether we can articulate it or not, in the depths of our hearts fallen men and women long for new creation (Romans 8:22-23).

We are serial beginners for a reason. It’s splashy to start something new. It’s exciting to announce to the world our big intentions. New beginnings garner praise and pats on the back.

Starting is easy. Anyone can start literally anything. I can start a marathon tomorrow. But there’s really nothing spectacular or extraordinary in starting a race. The real glory is making it to the finish.

Better is the end.

As the new year approached, I couldn’t shake this verse from my mind:

“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.” (Ecclesiastes 7:8)

In wiping our slates clean on New Year’s Eve to chalk up all of our exciting new beginnings, how many of us took any time to look back at all of the things we failed to finish last year? What is the point of beginning a new year with another shimmering list of big ideas and grand schemes if it will only be added to the pile of unfinished projects at the end of this year?

Certainly as Christians, our lives should be filled with all kinds of new creation realities (2 Cor. 5:17). However, so many of us are too quick to erase our failures without a second thought. What is it about us that sees no problem with being a great starter but an abysmal finisher?

Adam and Eve had the most fantastic beginning in the history of humanity. Still, a good beginning is worthless if there is no follow through.

Maybe this year needs to be your year of finishing well.

Maybe you need to dust off those projects and endeavors of last year or the year before and do the unsexy thing: finish them. Or perhaps you just need to re-engage in the mundane daily tasks that will be a part of your life for the foreseeable future. Your home, your church, your community would be a better place if it was filled with more people who were less concerned with the beginning of a thing than with reaching its end.

Pride is puffed up with good intentions. Patience faithfully plods toward the finish line step after step long after the sound of the applauding crowds has faded behind.

We worship a God whose beginnings are very good–but whose finishes are even better.

When we get to the end of time, we will marvel with the master of the feast: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now!” (John 2:10). 

Run with endurance.

As you begin this January, may you not only enjoy new beginnings, but may we all “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2-3). We want to be a people whose lives proclaim the power of God to bring about perseverance.

Let us pray and press on in the mundane middle of the race–when no one cares and no one sees, where the starting line has vanished and the finish line is nowhere in sight. Acknowledging failure but continuing forward, let us trust that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). 

(photo credit)


Growing Old

“I wish I had the boy,” the old man said aloud.

The old man wasn’t in the habit of speaking aloud before the boy left him. Now alone at sea, Santiago of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea mutters wistfully as his skiff is towed by a monstrous fish.

As the hours while away, this becomes the sunburnt sailor’s refrain:

Then he said aloud, “I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this.”

The boy’s parents forced him to abandon his master after an unlucky string of weeks without a catch. With no boy to help him, the old man’s worn hands cling desperately to a rope drawn across his tired frame:

“I wish the boy was here,” he said aloud and settled himself against the rounded planks of the bow and felt the strength of the great fish through the line he held across his shoulders.

The Old Man and the Sea is simple tale. An old man goes out to sea, catches a fish, and struggles to bring it back to shore. In one sense, the title tells it all.

The old man is an American hero in the fullest sense–brimming with optimism and the conviction that grit and determination can overcome any obstacle. Time may have taken his youth, but he will not be defeated: “I may not be as strong as I think…but I know many tricks and I have resolution.”

The old man tells himself that the fish is the one in mortal danger: “It is he that has the hook in his mouth…This will kill him, the old man thought. He can’t do this forever.” Alone, worn, and hundreds of miles from shore, the lonely fisherman fails to recognize the irony of his plight.

Aloud he said, “I wish I had the boy…I wish the boy were here and that I had some salt,” he said aloud.

Finally, the great fisherman has met his match in the great fish: Time.

The boy eventually leaves each of us behind. And every old man eventually finds himself outmatched, realizing too late: I am the old man. I wish I had the boy.

Where does youth disappear to? We are young and independent and reckless and invincible and then it seems suddenly we are old and frail and alone and fearful. The Psalmist writes,

“The years of our life are seventy,

or even by reason of strength eighty;

yet their span is but toil and trouble;

they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

-Psalm 90:10

Time is undefeated.

The tragedy of Santiago’s struggle is how blindsided he is. He fails to recognize that the fish he’s hooked is only helping him pull his own life thread taut before Atropos’s scissors. His fate is sealed in the very moment he expects his greatest triumph.

Optimism cannot defeat death. There is no hardworking oneself out of the grave. No determined denial will stop the rolling waves of time.

The Old Man and The Sea is not a cautionary tale; it is an inevitability. We can settle ourselves against the rounded planks of its bow and press hard against the rough salty truth of its pages, but I wonder whether we will recognize the irony when we hear a voice that sounds so much like our own taunting: “It is he that has the hook in his mouth!”

No old man has yet won his battle against the sea. And as we ward off fear, our hearts keep falling to the same worn refrain–I wish I had the boy.

The prophet Isaiah tells of a time not long from now when the bloom of youth shall return. In that day, the One untouched by time will come. He who walks on the sea, the Eternal who lives in unblemished youth will come in response to the fearful heart-cry of the Old Man. On that day all struggle will end, man and beast will dwell in peace, “and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

I wish the boy was here.

(photo credit)

A Few Principles for Effective Teaching

Successful teaching is not a plateau we reach but a lifelong climb across an ever-evolving landscape.

Students graduate, culture shifts, knowledge expands, personal experiences bring new joys and sorrows. Along our winding pilgrimage, various factors will constantly shift—both within and without—but certain elements must remain constant if we and our students are going to flourish in our endeavors.

Particularly, teachers must enter the classroom with a grounded sense of vocational calling, clear goals, and effective governing metaphors.

Personal Calling.

Personal calling is essential to teaching. This is not to say, like Samuel, we must hear the Lord calling out our name and summoning us to the blackboard in the watches of the night. Rather, teaching is a calling to share our very selves with students. We bring all of our experiences, knowledge, wisdom, love, virtue, and godliness to bear in our instruction. 

Teachers must cling to this truth: The reason I find myself in this classroom with these students with this curriculum on this day is because I have been created for this. God has placed these students here with me for their good, for my good, and for his glory. This deep sense of personal calling will help us navigate failures, avoid pride in success, and see our classroom as a part of a greater Kingdom.

Clear Goals.

It is this rootedness that helps an effective teacher establish clear goals. There are an infinite number of activities that can take place in school; whether those things are actually teaching cannot be determined without well-defined objectives. Teachers must survey the course material they have been tasked with covering, understand where they are meeting students in their educational journey, and prioritize the many good things that could take place under their tutelage.

A classroom with well-ordered goods will orient students toward becoming more like and treasuring most the All-Good One. 

Governing Metaphors.

Thirdly, effective governing metaphors help to ignite the imagination of both teachers and students. Employed well, metaphors can act like parables to help students understand what learning is like and provide concrete language to help teachers determine practical ways to strive toward goals.

At various times, Jesus himself characterized his relationship with his disciples using metaphorical language like leader and followers, vine and branches, master and servants, shepherd and sheep. Robyn Burlew has argued for master and apprentice as a governing metaphor in the classroom. Surely, teachers ought to be craftsmen in our own right—practitioners of the very methods, ideas, and subjects we aim to teach.

No one analogy will be a perfect fit for all circumstances, but overarching metaphors bring necessary coherence, clarity, and creativity to our endeavors. 

Fellow Pilgrims.

Part of the joy of teaching is realizing that like our students we, too, are pilgrims. God is sanctifying us according to his calling and equipping us for each leg of our journey. In one sense, we share the same teleological goals with our students—we just happen to be further down the path. As we appeal to various metaphors to inspire one another, our partnership in the faith builds fellowship and humility.

Even as we teach today, we must remember there was a time when we needed to be taught.

In our teaching we must remain teachable. As we get closer to the mountain’s peak, effective teachers will grow more and more comfortable in their calling, certain of their goals, and natural in their chosen metaphorical relationships, but they will ultimately grow more and more content with the journey’s end: “It is enough for the student to become like his Teacher” (Matthew 10:25).

(photo credit)

What Is Christian Classical Education?

With classical schools popping up across the nation, it might be helpful to step back and ask a few foundational questions:

  • Are “Christian” and “classical” basically synonymous?
  • Is “classical” a methodology? a curriculum? a philosophy? All of the above?
  • Does classical mean anything more than “memorization heavy education”?

Recently I spent some time trying to answer two questions: What is a Christian education? What is a classical education? I do think these are distinct, although more and more I’m seeing a conflation of the two. However, there are many forms of Christian education that are not classical, and there are plenty of classical schools that are not Christian.

In my estimation, a Christian classical education seeks to answer four basic questions: Whose am I? Why am I? How am I? and What am I?

What is Christian education?

A Christian education teaches students to answer the first foundational question: Whose am I? Many philosophies of education ignore this question or answer it incorrectly leading to methods and morals that ultimately bring about the despair and destruction of the student. A Christian education approaches learning through the foundational truth that governs the universe: We belong to God.

Whose am I?

Whose am I? is a question of ownership. Students must understand that as creatures they belong to the one who made them–body and soul. They are not their own. They are God’s.

As creatures, we are made to glorify, obey, and submit to the will of our Creator. He alone understands us intimately and knows what we were made for. Just as a vacuum manufacturer knows a vacuum’s purpose and best understands the way a vacuum ought to be used, so does the Maker know our purpose and best understand how his world and his creatures are to work together in perfect harmony.

As students submit themselves to the Creator, they discover this true sense of purpose. Our modern American society is currently engaged in a passionate attempt to paper over the nihilism that proceeds from an atheistic worldview. Men and women are ascribing meaning to their purposeless lives through identities defined by sexuality, race, nationality, class, career, and power.

However, students who know whose they are know they are not the result of a meaningless chaotic collision of celestial matter. The God who made them made them for a purpose. This becomes the engine of learning, growth, and maturity. This provides the fuel for endurance through difficulties and struggles because students know that all these sufferings too have the purpose of forming them into the likeness of Christ.

Students who know their Maker know they are meant to reflect his glory. Confident that the universe was made to declare the glory of God as a macrocosm and man to be the image of God in microcosm, they can explore the Creator’s design knowing that as they better understand the universe, they will better understand their God.

Moreover, educators and students participate with God by the power of the Spirit in his grand project–the putting on of the “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). As students grow in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, we trust that the Father himself is accomplishing his good purpose to see his children “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28).

Whose am I? It’s the most foundational question a school can confront students with. Ultimately, it is a question that students can only correctly answer by the indwelling of the Spirit. And so, it is with great humility and dependence on the mercy and grace of God our Savior that educators endeavor to press deep into the hearts of students that “the earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1) and “we are God’s children” (1 John 3:2).

What is classical education?

Schools can have many purposes. A public school makes free education accessible to all. A vocational school equips students with particular skills for various trades. A seminary provides theological training.

But what is the purpose of a classical school?

In two words, a classical education aims to form people. A classical school forms students by helping them answer–in order–three foundational questions: Why am I? How am I? and What am I?

Why am I?

Why am I? is a question of telos. A classical education begins with the end–the virtuous man. As Christian classical educators, we know that the perfectly righteous (iusti) human being is Christ Jesus. He alone radiates the virtues of the Godhead perfectly. And yet, Peter tells us that God has taken possession of us so that we “may proclaim the excellencies (virtutes) of Him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

A classical education aims to form men and women who proclaim the virtues of God.

Classical educators know why students exist: to live justly, walking in humble prudence harmonized through temperance and strengthened by courage. Moreover, a distinctly Christian classical education fosters the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, for apart from these we cannot please God.

In a classical setting, students must continually be reminded of their ultimate purpose: We exist to glorify God and enjoy him forever. A classical education builds its methods to guide students toward this teleological goal.

How am I?

A classical methodology addresses the question How am I? How are students to become who they will be? Much like a monk’s habit, a classical education provides the necessary external clothing that forms day-by-day the internal habits of the soul. Maturity does not happen spontaneously but through daily, repetitive, intentional choices.

In The Republic, Plato’s Socrates teaches that the how of forming people is two-fold: music and gymnastic. Music is education that forms the soul; gymnastic the body. Together, these work as hands to tune the strings of a man until they reach perfect harmonization.

Classes and curriculum that form the mind only, only educate half the student. Attention must be paid to externals–a child’s uniform, environment, food, campus, and physical activities. Traditionally, the hows of classical education have been summed up as the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). A classical education will focus on primary sources. What is secondary will constantly be in flux. What is primary will never change.

What am I?

Many educational institutions make the mistake of seeking first to help students answer this question: What am I? This is to begin with the secondary and completely ignore the primary. However, students trained for certain vocations or to do specific kinds of work–but lacking habit-formed virtue–will be of little use except to bring destruction and ruin upon the world and themselves.

In contrast, classical education forms men and women suited for all sorts of good work in a wide range of settings. With disciplined minds and bodies, classical students are prepared to glorify God with their full humanity. Though many classical Greeks like Plato and Aristotle believed man’s chief activity begins and ends in the contemplation of the Good, classical Christians believe man is also blessed and commissioned by God to do good.

As people, what we are varies throughout the course of life–I am a mother, I am a business owner, I am a retiree, I am a wife, etc. Classically trained students will be ready to honor and glorify God as the answer to the question What am I? shifts and changes according to the twists and turns of Providence’s path. 

Christian classical education is not merely a set of curriculum nor primarily devotion to a cultural tradition. It is a philosophy of teaching that seeks to shape the whole person. As educators, we must know why, how, and for what students are being formed. What is more, students must come to know their own why, how, and what. If a Christian classical education is successful, students will reach graduation balanced enough that they no longer need the training wheels. They will be able to ride straight ahead unassisted, because they have taken full ownership of becoming who they will be.

(photo credit)

The Wicked Lack Courage

Famous books often have famous opening sentences. Pride and Prejudice‘s iconic, ironic first line comes to mind. Even those who haven’t cracked the cover of Melville’s Moby-Dick know its three word intro: “Call me Ishmael.” Well-crafted first sentences manage to set the tone, pique the reader’s interest, and introduce major themes. They serve as a sort of doorway.

The first verse of the Psalter is one of those iconic thresholds:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…”

Psalm 1:1

The emphasis in Psalm 1 is on the blessed man. But we cannot miss the introduction of a contrasting character whose menacing shadow looms as an ever-present animus: the wicked. In fact, “the wicked” appear 82 times by name in the 150 psalms–and countless other times by implication.

Psalm 1 casts the wicked as the anti-blessed. After describing the fruitful prosperity of the blessed, the Psalmist makes a blunt turn: “The wicked are not so” (1:3). They are everything the blessed are not; they lack everything the blessed have.

Some characterizations of the wicked are predictable. They are violent, destructive, and foolish. They lack the truth, love, and compassion. However, as the Psalms develop the main protagonist one curious thing becomes plain: The wicked lack courage.

Cowardly Tactics.

Lack of courage?

Of all things, why would the Psalmist highlight cowardice as a primary quality of the wicked?

Consider first their tactics. Psalm 12:8 tells us, “On every side the wicked prowl.” Like a ferocious lion “the wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him” (Psalm 37:12). The wicked seek to intimidate. And what is the purpose of intimidation? The baring of teeth and the brandishing of weapons is all meant to win the battle without a fight.

They ambush the blameless, “shooting at him suddenly and without fear” (Psalm 34:4). They hide. They lay in wait. They plot in secret. They seek to ensnare (Psalm 119:95, 110; Psalm 64:2). They make plans to trip up the feet of others (Psalm 140:4). “The wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart” (Psalm 11:2).

The courageous enter the battlefield and face their enemies in the light of day. But cowards hide. Cowards act in the dark. Cowards ambush. Cowards set traps. Cowards shoot from a distance.

The wicked seek places of safety and power because they lack the courage to commit their evil deeds without protection. They hide in the shadowed halls of litigation, they take aim from behind financial shields, they shoot from unassailable seats of power. They act in the dark, in secret, through back-channels because they lack the fortitude to act in the light, in plain sight, in the public square. In one particularly incisive moment, the Psalmist opines, “The wicked borrows but does not pay back” (Psalm 37:21). Lacking the courage to commit outright theft, the wicked devises round-about ways of stealing.

As our eyes adjust to the lurking figure, his tactics reveal the truth even before he comes into focus: he lacks courage.

Cowardly Words.

When the wicked open their mouths in the Psalms, we find a forked tongue. Their duplicitous words betray a particular lack of courage.

The wicked employ flattery: “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak” (Psalm 12:2). They hide behind a shiny veneer of words. They “whet their tongues like swords” (Psalm 64:3). The wicked lack the courage to say what they mean and mean what they say.

They are not men of their word. To the contrary: Words are only useful to the wicked as tools for manipulating others. Words are traps and landmines laid for enemies. They are means for garnering misplaced favor. They are attempts to bring about the downfall or disgrace of others without having to lift a finger.

They “speak peace with their neighbor while evil is in their hearts” (Psalm 28:3). And why? Because the wicked man fears facing his neighbor in a fair fight. So he uses his words to put his friend on the back foot, to hoodwink and rob him when he feels most secure.

The utterances of the wicked only further reveal his spinelessness. He is fickle and false. He makes promises to gain trust–with full intention of breaking them at the opportune moment. He flatters in public; he spreads malicious gossip in private. Woe to the man who trusts the wicked! His words are as flimsy as his courage.

Cowardly Men.

Cowardly tactics and cowardly words, yes, but here’s the clincher: their target.

When the wicked appear in the songs and prayers of the Psalmist, who are they seeking to rob? Who are they laying in wait for? Whose blood are they plotting to spill?

The weak.

The orphaned.

The needy.

As the wicked come into clear focus, we find their white knuckles clutching the defenseless (Psalm 82:2-4). We behold them flexing with one boot on the necks of the poor (Psalm 10:2). We watch horrified as the wicked enter the ring and deliver knock-out blows to the elderly, the fatherless, and the destitute.

Are these men courageous? Are they men at all?

Foundationally, courage is well-ordered fear. It is not ferocity. It is not the ability to achieve victory through duplicity and lies. And it is certainly not the power to strong-arm the powerless. Courage is proper fear. The Psalmist tells us this is precisely what the wicked lack: “There is no fear of God before his eyes” (Psalm 36:1).

The wicked do not realize that an Almighty God sees them in the dark. They do not believe that a Deliverer hears their false words. They do not know that a Savior with his own double-edged sword comes to afflict those who have afflicted the poor.

Inasmuch as this deep, abiding fear of God is lacking, this is also true: The wicked lack courage.

(photo: Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, Chartres Cathedral)