TAMING THE TONGUE

TAMING THE TONGUE

When teaching through a particular subject, I find that everything suddenly relates to it. One co-worker alleges that I mentioned Dante in every conversation, while I was teaching through the Renaissance recently. I suppose there could be worse things to mention.

My current subject, rhetoric, though a respected member of the Trivium, is not always well-reputed among Christians nor scholars. The time after his conversion in which Augustine had to continue teaching rhetoric was merely a torment to him, since he felt that rhetoric only taught the students to lie beautifully. The Greek Gorgias suspected rhetoric as not quite above-board, in his dialogue with Socrates written down by Plato. Scripture warns against those whose words are smooth as butter, but whose heart and mind are poison. God save us from such, and keep us from being so.

However, smooth words are not the problem. Scripture praises the tongue of the wise, a word in due season, and gracious and well-seasoned speech. James condemns those who do not control the tongue. Consider how professional counselors make a good living just by speaking good words in due season. (Consider how many ministers do this without making a good living.) Gracious speech has amazing healing potential.

What about the influence of our own disciplined tongue upon our own life? My rhetoric teacher during college told the class to consider what James says about the tongue, as we prepared to begin the course. I was familiar with the idea that the heart influences the tongue; that is, if you say angry words, it’s because your heart is angry, and so forth—important beliefs. But, this instructor pointed out, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship, the steering portion; the “cause” portion, not the result portion. He calls it also the little flame that sets on fire all of nature. What effects do we see personally from controlling our words?

First off, our speech is a good indicator of the subtle issues of the heart. Usually, I’m aware when I’m in a blazing rage, or an ungrateful mope, or any other major heart-maladjustment, even before I actually blow up or burst into tears. But the more subtle issues can evade us. They become the very wallpaper of the mind, until the words we speak come back to us and make the heart clear. If my words sounded just a bit out of tune, jangling harshly, it’s because of some place where I need to grow in discernment or in kindness. If “gimme that” is just “the way I’ve always done it,” my heart has just made itself known. Is a sarcastic answer the first thing that comes to my lips? Or maybe all my sentences trail off and interrupt one another. It’s because I haven’t taken the time to organize my thoughts. Maybe my lips saying “Duh!” at that exact moment wasn’t wise (maybe it never is). Heart, take notice. Maybe you shouldn’t say it either. Our own words ring loudly in our ears at times. (The words I’m writing now ring loudly.)

But this is still in the realm of “words indicate the heart.” It’s also true that “words influence the heart.” Does not praising God when the heart is heavy actually lift the spirits? Learning to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir” is a great way actually to learn respect. They say that even a feigned smile makes a person feel happier. Apparently we are beings integrated enough that it’s unnatural for our bodies not to affect our souls.

Furthermore, we can’t really think something clearly until we have words to express it. Thus, if we discipline the tongue, we are reigning in the intellect as well, preventing it from being flabby and careless. Conversely, we can push our minds to go further when we have to set down a certain amount of words on a subject. Rhetoric was once the capstone of education, because clear expression means clear thought.

All these principles converge in the discipline of prayer. Just because I don’t feel like praising, doesn’t excuse me from it. And, thanks be to God, soon I do feel like it. Am I having a hard time saying the confession? The Litany? This indicates something about my heart (alas!). Furthermore, and here is the most mysterious and fascinating part, by praying the words of Scripture and of the saints before, my conception of the Heavenly Father is able to grow more than it could without these words. I didn’t have those thoughts before I had those words. Perhaps I really couldn’t.

And where do our words matter more than before the King of Heaven? Though silence seems to be the safest course, it is not an option for believers. We have to praise God, and by consistently praying the words of Scripture and of holy ones before us, we bring the best that we have before the Heavenly Father. In addition, these words shape our minds and hearts in the very saying of them. If we are willing, our heart will soon echo our mouth.

SETTING A CHILD UP FOR SUCCESS

SETTING A CHILD UP FOR SUCCESS

When a baby’s physical growth is stunted, it is considered a tragedy. The aim of parenting is not to prolong childhood, but to encourage maturity. Yet parents often make choices that stunt the growth of their children. We live with the accepted pattern of a twenty-seven year old “man-child” still living at home. The aim of parenting should be to promote the maturity and growing independence of a child. We need to celebrate adulthood, not immaturity and dependence. In this light, boarding schools are a significant educational option that parents need to consider.

Parents need to be champions of the kind of discipline and maturity evidenced among many of the young athletes at this year’s Olympic Games. They are not the products of coddling, but of wise choices and hard work. Gold-medal winning gymnast Gabby Douglas left her single mother to live with a family in another state to train. It was difficult at times, but the result is evident for all to see.

Ideally, boarding school pushes the child out of the family nest into a protected environment before the stakes are too high. It prepares the child for the often-squandered independence of the college years. A third of college freshmen drop out of college after a year, in part because they have not developed the self-discipline to live successfully on their own. They have been over-coddled. I am the fruit of boarding school beginning in the seventh grade, as are all my three children.

The real measure of a child’s character is witnessed outside the confines of the home. A child’s use of time, the friends he chooses, and the habits he forms are best seen outside the four walls of the family home. With the advent of omnipresent communication technology, parents are remaining in high hover mode long after the psychological umbilical cords should have been cut. When a child calls home from college to ask what she should have for lunch, one gets a sense of the extent of the problem. Such stories are legion.

Having a child leave home at an early age is not easy. It is fraught with anxiety for the parent and the child. But it is an important step in the process of maturity. In the past, a child at thirteen was expected to assume adult responsibilities. Children were regularly sent to Oxford and Cambridge at the age of fourteen and fifteen. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was approximately the same age at the time of Jesus’ conception. We have prolonged childhood and have culturally stunted maturity.  I sent my twelve-year-old son to work on a sheep farm in Tain, Scotland for a summer. He had to negotiate managing the international flight, customs at Heathrow, living with a new family, digging potatoes, and learning his way around sheep. He succeeded in all, though he learned to hate sheep.

Not all boarding schools are equally helpful. Parents need to choose a school with teachers, dorm parents, and friends who share their values. One needs to place one’s child in a context where boundaries are maintained and maturity expected. It is in such places where children can come fully into their own and develop the independence and maturity that will serve them well in their college years.

In this regard, St. Andrew’s Academy’s boarding program is ideal. Boarding children live with families or in a small boarding house, and attend a school with a close-knit community that makes spiritual formation and educational excellence a daily routine. Childhood is filled with potential difficulties, and even more so in today’s media saturated youth culture.

Sometimes parents feel that a boarding education is an abdication of their parenting responsibilities, when in fact it is a fulfillment of them.

Originally published in August, 2012 issue of The Standard, the newsletter of St. Andrew’s Academy.

KEYS

KEYS

This summer I moved from California to Texas, and before I left, I gave back most my keys to the people who needed them and had right to them: the house key to the remaining inhabitants; a garage key for the garage door; a garage door opener; a school key to the school office, a church key. So when I drove away into the light of an early June morning, I had only two needful keys on the ring: my car key and the key to my mom’s house, from which I was driving yet further away.

That light key ring, as I drove halfway across this wide country, seemed to mirror my life: minimal, portable, unanchored, pruned. I was less connected; there were literally fewer doors that would open to me. With my two keys, I could stay on the road, or I could turn around and go back home.

But I’ve gotten some new keys since: my new apartment door key, the weightier key to the gate for the apartment building, the fancy key to the door at work, the smaller key for internal doors at work, the very small mailbox key; and a remote control for the parking garage.

When I used to backpack in the mountains in high school, the leader of one trip commented how nice it was to leave our keys behind for a week or ten days. He said, “We wouldn’t have keys if it wasn’t for sin; keys are a result of the fall.” Keys a result of the fall? What a strange idea! But the more I thought about it, the more I figured it was true, since we wouldn’t need to lock people out, or lock people in, or lock things up, were it not for sin. We would all have free access everywhere, and not intrude upon or take away what wasn’t ours, nor fear others doing it to us.

Yet this result of the fall also points to blessings amid the brokenness, when looked at the right way. Even in our fallen world, we are still connected to communities. We have families. We dwell in homes. We have friendships. We have good work to do. And keys are a concrete symbol of all these blessings; maybe even, somehow, effecting what they symbolize.

So, for instance, one of my friends has a key to the gate of my apartment, because she’s trusted and welcome to come in freely. My next door neighbors have a key to my door, so when I’m gone they can water, or bring in the mail, or borrow a pizza cutter. I have a key to the school where I’ll be employed, because I will have work to do there. The key to my car reminds me, whenever the engine turns over, of shopping for it with my dad eleven years ago, makes me think of him now that he is gone, and beyond the need of keys. I am thankful that this car still works, and that I have health and freedom to come and go in it. Turning the key in the lock of my home tells me it’s a place of security, and I can rest there.

So although keys may exist because of a certain brokenness of our world—one which Adam and Eve wouldn’t have contended with before the fall—they also symbolize the blessings of community, friends, work, health, and home.

And though I regularly lose them, I’m really thankful for my keys!

STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS

“American farmers are the only farmers who can read Homer.“ – Thomas Jefferson

While Thomas Jefferson boasted of the education of the commoners of his day, that education he praised—a classical one—now makes no immediate sense to most parents and students. The study of Latin and Greek and what are called the “Great Books” is thought to be akin to taking cod liver oil; it might be beneficial, but one assumes that there must be a less distasteful alternative in modern America. Surely, the advent of computers and new research on cognition has provided alternative means of instruction surpassing the rote and drill used to learn a functionally dead language and read centuries-old books.

But this is a false conclusion. In spite of the advances of online ed-tech platforms, the best education remains one that is infused with the study of the great books of the past: the enduring legacy of the best of thought, art, music, and literature.

This is the stuff of which great minds are made, and it is also the stuff of which our children are starved.

There is a reason contemporary students rank at the bottom of international assessments: behind such advanced countries as Iceland in literacy, Slovakia in mathematics, and Ireland in science. The U.S. is ranked in the bottom third of all countries participating. It is past time that parents wake up to the fact that many children are wasting their time in school. They graduate uneducated and ill-prepared for life. There is a better way and it is to recover traditional education. This is the soaring benefit of classical schooling and a great books education.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

We cannot go forward without first going back. G.K. Chesterton notes, “All the men in history who have really done anything with the future have had their eyes fixed upon the past.” Baylor University church historian D.H. Williams writes that if the contemporary church wants to be faithful, “it cannot do so without recourse to and integration of the foundational tradition of the early church.” We will not be prepared for the future without first appropriating the riches of the past.

Only our contemporary hubris, what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” keeps us from depending on the rich tradition of the Christian church and its thinkers. We must humbly appropriate this tradition once more. It is the foundation of a Christian mind and the sources of Western Civilization.

Jerusalem and Athens

Many Christians wonder why one should pay attention to the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks are widely known for their acceptance of homosexuality and the Romans for infanticide. Ever since the church father Tertullian pondered in the second century, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Christians have wrestled with the relationship between Christianity and Antiquity.

One way to answer this is that the Greeks raised questions that are only answered in the gospel. “The One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you,” Paul told the Athenians. Peter Kreeft observed that the Hebrews provided the West with a highly developed understanding of morality just as the Greeks provided important insights into metaphysics. He writes, “The Jews gave us conscience; the Greeks, reason. The Jews gave us the laws of morality, of what ought to be; the Greeks gave us the laws of thought and of being, of what is.” It was in the Middle Ages that Hebraism in its Christian form and Hellenism in its Roman form met, creating the seedbed of the modern world. Western civilization itself is a fusion of Hebrew, Greek, and Christian intellectual traditions. This fusion stands as one of the greatest intellectual and cultural achievements in history

What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Everything. One brings the right questions; the other, the right answers. The postmodernist has neither questions nor answers.

Christians today need to recapture this earlier pre-modern mind in order to engage our current postmodern culture. An exposure to the classical mind serves as an antidote to the modern mind and thereby makes possible the growth of a truly biblical mind.

The late Charles Colson, who wrote widely on the importance of developing a Christian mind, was a vocal advocate of classical Christian education movement:

This is also why I so strongly support Christian classical education…. It combines, you see, the two historic goals of a liberal education: the cultivation of knowledge and the cultivation of character. It shows us the continuum in the intellectual history of the West that goes back to the Greco-Roman era and, therefore, enables us to better understand our own postmodern era. If we cut ourselves off from the past, we can’t understand the present. And it’s particularly critical…to understand the philosophical and cultural currents that have shaped our society.

One of the requirements, then, of developing a Christian mind is a re-engagement with the great works of the classical and patristic period. No meaningful engagement with our intellectual heritage can avoid the study of the classical tradition.

Originally published in December, 2012 issue of The Standard, the newsletter of St. Andrew’s Academy.

FROM BUCHENWALD TO BACH

FROM BUCHENWALD TO BACH

A REPORT FROM GERMANY WITH THE ST. ANDREW’S ACADEMY CHOIR

Yesterday, as of this writing, the St. Andrew’s travelers went to Buchenwald, the first major death camp of the Nazis to be liberated by American troops.  Sobering is the only word I have found thus far to describe it.  Even in 2015, 70 years after its liberation, without the barracks standing, it is a barren and harsh place.  The weather helped to make it more so, as we had grey skies, light rain, and a cold wind during our visit.

We entered through the same gates where so many thousands entered from 1939 to 1945.  After our visit, we exited those same gates.  The vast majority of those other thousands did not. We spent some hours walking on bloodied ground, and it was impossible not to remember and think about the inhuman suffering that took place within the barbed wire fences and sentries’ outposts.  The scenes that met the American GIs when they entered the camp were so shocking that the command thought no one was likely to believe it, and ordered photographers to Buchenwald as quickly as possible to document it. Within a couple of days, the shutters were clicking.

These were the photos the travelers saw on their visit. The exhibits that St. Andrew’s students looked at were blatant in their depictions, of things like corpses stacked like wood in the courtyard of the crematorium.  The photos of the prisoners who survived tell the story clearly, their bones protruding from their flesh.  But viewing the photos, walking through the camp, seeing the cells where prisoners were kept and tortured, many to death, and seeing in this place the Nazis’ culture of death…well, sobering is still the only word.

The ovens in which so many were burned are still in the crematorium—a building hard to miss with its giant chimney. Any who were scheduled for burning who had the temerity of not already being dead were herded into the basement of the crematorium where they were systematically strangled.  The Soviet prisoners were always treated especially harshly by the Nazis;  they were shot by the thousands in Buchenwald alone—always, apparently, in the back of the neck.

From this horror, barely more than a thirty minute drive away, we found ourselves at the childhood home of Johann Sebastian Bach in Eisenach.  The contrast could not have been greater: transitioning from one of the greatest horrors the world ever wrote down, to the creator of some of the most beautiful music in the world.

The Bach family was so musically gifted that well over 100 professional musicians came from their ranks within a few generations.  The term musician, for a time, was almost synonymous with the name Bach.  Bach’s genius is still considered by many never to have been equaled.  The Bach home now houses an exhibit on the man and his family, and, of course, his and their music.  Bach always considered himself to be an Eisenacher; home was always Eisenach, though he lived and composed and played in other cities for the remainder of his life.

Eisenach also happens to be the childhood home of Martin Luther.  In fact, Luther and Bach attended the same school, The Latin School, as it is still known.  Much work is being done currently on a house in Eisenach which Martin Luther lived in for a time, to get it ready for 2017, the 500 year anniversary of his nailing up the proposed 95 theses on Wittenberg’s church door.  A visit up to the grand Castle Wartburg on the very high hill on one end of town showed the students the room where Luther translated part of the New Testament into German.

The contrast of this day in Germany is startling, but is it just the Germans who can or do give us such extremes of evil and beauty—both Buchenwald and Bach—and within half an hour’s car drive?  I think not. The beauty of Bach is the beauty of creation and the grace of God in His creation, and that beauty is a gift to all of us.  Similarly, the horrors of Buchenwald are for all of us to own, not just the Germans. Man is capable of great evil, and of great goodness and beauty. 

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says it well:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956)

THE CHURCH OUR MOTHER

THE CHURCH OUR MOTHER

In his letter to the Galatians, in chapter four, St. Paul says that the “Jerusalem which is above is free; which is the mother of us all” (26). And, at the beginning of chapter five, he says, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free….” We are children of the free woman, says St. Paul, and therefore, we ought to stand in that liberty with which we have been made free by the atoning work of Christ. But do you see the connection?  The whole passage is devoted to the saving work of Christ through His chosen means—the Church. We can no more do without the Church than we can without Christ, for God has chosen to use the Church to bring the salvation of Christ to the world. John Wesley noted the connection between Church and believer: 

But the other covenant is derived from Jerusalem that is above, which is free—Like Sarah from all inward and outward bondage, and is the mother of us all—That is, all who believe in Christ, are free citizens of the New Jerusalem.

All who are Christ’s are the free citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, “the mother of us all.” So you see where the term mother for reference to the Church comes from–not from Wesley, of course, but from St. Paul!  It is not some Romish invention from the Middle Ages. Wesley continues:

Now we—Who believe, whether Jews or Gentiles, are children of the promise—Not born in a natural way, but by the supernatural power of God. And as such we are heirs of the promise made to believing Abraham.  (John Wesley’s Notes, Gal. 4, emphasis mine)

Wesley is referencing, of course, this passage where St. Paul says, “…we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.…We are not the children of the bond-woman, but of the free” (Gal. 4:28). We are children.  We are born.  St. Chrysostom takes note of the comparison between our birth and our mother and Sarah, who is referenced by St. Paul as the type of the barren woman who will rejoice because of God’s promise:

It is not merely that the Church was barren like Sarah, or became a mother of many children like her, but she bore them in the way Sarah did. As it was not nature but the promise of God which rendered Sarah a mother, …so also in our regeneration it is not nature, but the Words of God spoken by the Priest which in the Bath of water as in a sort of womb, form and regenerate him who is baptized.  (St John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians, Vol XIII, NPNF (1st), emphasis mine)

We are part and parcel our mother, the Church, if we are part and parcel of Christ at all.  Lest we still need some Protestant encouragement to rid us of the notion that a high view of the Church is only a Roman invention, let us turn to that great Reformed mind, John Calvin. On the passage in question, Mr. Calvin says this:

The Jerusalem which [St. Paul] calls above, or heavenly, is not contained in heaven; nor are we to seek for it out of this world; for the Church is spread over the whole world, and is a “stranger and pilgrim on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

Why then is it said to be from heaven? Because it originates in heavenly grace; for the sons of God are  “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man” (John 1:13), but by the power of the Holy Spirit. The heavenly Jerusalem, which derives its origin from heaven, and dwells above by faith, is the mother of believers.

Calvin then makes the same connection that St. Chrysostom makes regarding the new birth:

To the Church, under God, we owe it that we are born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible,” (1 Peter 1:23) and from her we obtain the milk and the food by which we are afterwards nourished. 

Not only are we born of an incorruptible seed by the power of God through His chosen means of the Church, but we are fed by our mother, the Church as we grow; moving, as St. Paul said we ought, from the milk of babes to the solid food of children and then adults. Calvin continues,

{Certainly], he who refuses to be a son of the Church in vain desires to have God as his Father; for it is only through the instrumentality of the Church that we are “born of God” (1 John 3:9), and brought up through the various stages of childhood and youth, till we arrive at manhood. This designation, “the mother of us all,” reflects the highest credit and the highest honor on the Church (Calvin, Commentary, Galatians, Volume XXI).

As we stand firmly in the liberty, the freedom which Christ has given us, we must understand ourselves to be standing firmly in the middle of and on the strong foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ.  For there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved other than that of Christ Jesus (Acts 4:12), and there is no other institution in the world that is called the “pillar and the ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) other than our mother, the Church.