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. 

Classical education is not a set of curriculum or 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 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)

Canterbury Tales: Stories for the Pilgrim Way

Medieval folks always did love a good pilgrimage. Grueling journeys had a way of proving the mettle of heroes, and far-flung reliquaries held forth a treasury of grace to any long-suffering commoner willing to tread the pilgrim way.

The road to Jerusalem provided Richard I the way to earning his moniker Cœur de Lion–the Lionheart. And who can forget Henry IV’s treacherous journey through the Alpine winter to kneel before Pope Gregory VII in the snow? Moreover, medieval literature is filled with heroes like Roland, Sir Gawain, and Danté whose virtues were tested along a treacherous quest.

Pilgrimage is the unifying motif of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales–a curated collection of 14th century virtue parables, bawdy pub yarns, and good-natured lampoons. The story goes that thirty pilgrims set off together from London on a journey to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Along the way, the party agrees to pass the time in a storytelling contest. Tales filled with farcical antics, fart jokes, saucy bits, and an occasional moral ensue, laced together with rhyming couplets and ample British humor.

A virtuous knight kicks off the contest as the party leaves London. “The Knight’s Tale” recounts two cousins Arcita and Palamon who turn from dear friends to bitter rivals when they both fall in love with the same lady. Sweet Emily lives completely oblivious to the brotherly strife her beauty has caused. In her defense, the two knights had never actually met Emily–they merely saw her from the window of a prison turret where the two were serving life sentences. After the knights both manage to escape, Emily stumbles upon them in the woods fighting to the death for her hand, and she prays rather that the gods would let her die a virgin. Alas.

The two cousins discover the foolishness of their rivalry too late, and only as Arcita bleeds out on the battlefield does he exchange forgiveness with his beloved Palamon for the jealousy that turned their swords against one another.

As the story concludes, Chaucer hangs a bit of wisdom over the wistful scene:

“This world is but a thoroughfare of woe / And we are pilgrims passing to and fro.”

The line is apt for “The Knight’s Tale,” for Canterbury Tales as a whole, and for us as mankind plodding through our fallen world.

The Scriptures themselves are a tale of pilgrims on a journey. They begin with Adam and Eve driven by their own vice into the wilderness of toil and strife. The Bible is the story of mankind’s quest to return to the presence of God and the Tree of Life–and how God himself had to come down as the virtuous Son of Man to gather us pilgrims up and lead the way back to the Father.

And yet, this world is but a thoroughfare of woe. We travel along a highway strew with sin, injustice, death, hate, violence, jealousy, misery, thorns, and thistles. We know that the path we now trod leads to eternal life, but in the meantime, what is to be done for us pilgrims passing to and fro? How are we to lighten our loads? How are we to brighten our path? What are we to do while we wait for our journey’s end?

Tell tales.

This is the point of Canterbury Tales. As pilgrims passing to and fro, we turn this thoroughfare of woe called “life” into a path of mirth and laughter through storytelling. And the Scriptures only further confirm Chaucer’s instinct. The heroes and villains embossed on its pages, the virtues and vices praised and decried in its verses, the crimson yarn spun through salvation history are not dry facts to be enumerated, categorized, and enshrined. They are stories to be told–tales to be sung, lived, and breathed. They are the Bread of Life for hungry pilgrims.

We are pilgrims in our homes, our churches, our workplaces, our towns. We are all traveling a dusty thoroughfare of woe. How are you enlivening the weary, bringing joy to the torn, and overcoming wickedness with laughter? We triumph through stories. We have victory through our Great Hero Christ.

At the dinner table, let us revel in tales. At the holidays, let us relive the old familiar stories. At church, let us delight in God our Scrivener. He has provided us stories for the pilgrim way. More than that–Praise God! He has become our fellow Pilgrim.