(The following post is the first part of three adapted from a message presented by Academic Dean Sam Koenen at our new Thursday morning Lyceum. Read Part 2 and Part 3.)
Why study humanities? As the name implies, we study the humanities in order to become human. Think about what this means. Since we are studying to become human, that must mean we are not human yet, or at least not fully.
So what does it mean to be human? Certainly we are all human biologically, and fully so in this meaning of the word. None of us are semi-species, half-human and half-something-else (though some may act like it at times). From a Christian worldview, we must define “human” by looking at Jesus Christ, the only perfect human. To be human means to be like Christ.
This helps us understand the purpose of the humanities then: we study them in order to become more like Christ, and therefore more human. And we all know that we need to grow in this way. But if we are to grow in Christ, why do we study so many books written by humans, many of them profoundly flawed, many of them not even Christian, some of them wildly antagonistic toward Christianity?
This is an excellent question, and its answer has two parts. First of all, because all truth comes from God even when uttered by pagan tongues. All beauty, even if painted by rebellious hands, has its beginning and its end in God, the Supremely Beautiful One. And all goodness has its measure in the goodness of God.
The second reason such books can help us become more like Christ is because of the doctrine of common grace. God graciously gives good gifts even to those in rebellion against him. To many non-Christians, God has revealed truth, given artistic gifts, and even the ability to love, sacrifice, and live virtuously. By studying the best that humans have thought, said, and done through the ages, we begin to participate in a Great Conversation of what it means to be human. We recognize both our common humanity with these authors and humbly acknowledge that though they may not have full access to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, yet in many ways they are far more human than we have yet become.
Finally, we don’t just read these books on their own. We also study them from a Christian framework, learning to see the world through the lens of Scripture, trying to see through the eyes and heart of Christ. And as we read these books, they begin to change us. They make us restless, awakening in us deep desires that we can’t quite name. The best way I can explain this effect books have on us is by telling a story…which I will do in my next post.
It’s quiet around here today, this first Monday after the completion of the 2015-16 school year. After working at home this morning, I came in for a few hours to dig out my desk from the past few weeks and get my head around summer.
Our summer office hours (10 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday) start tomorrow, and while that’s just when the building will be open and available to anyone who needs us, there’s plenty of work that won’t fit within those specific hours and I want to be ready.
After all, we have a playground to build, a curriculum to update, and our second five-year accreditation from the Association of Classical and Christian Schools to begin working to secure! We have new students to recruit, interview, test, and enroll, a few staff positions for which to interview and hire, and a slew of building touch ups and clean ups to make!
But before we can do any of that, there’s plenty to do to wrap up this past year. We have a yearbook to finish (due back to us in mid-to-late July; we’ll keep you posted), we have final grades to post (look for those online later this week), and we still have to raise the remainder of our year-end fundraising goal by June 30 (as of today, we’re almost halfway there)!
And then, there’s email. There’s always email.
Of course, our Petra families have your own lists for summer, most of which I’ll bet are a little more glamorous. Some are planning trips (if you aren’t on them already), many of you have lists of projects already made (if not begun), and several of you appear to have gotten a jump on some thank you note writing (I know, because we’ve received ones that contained the following quotes):
“Both of our kids’ teachers demonstrated the love of God in their teaching as they train train our kids to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind. Thank you!”
“We appreciate all of your hard work and efforts day in and day out. We also appreciate the attention our child receives. This sets Petra apart. Thank you.”
“Thanks for partnering with me as a single parent.”
“Thank you for all you have given and taught our grandchildren.”
“Thank you for sharing the love of Christ with our daughter. You have touched our family in many ways and we are grateful.”
Kind words, all of them, and just a few of the reasons I pause today (or try to) and thank God for this past school year – Petra’s 20th – being so filled with truth, goodness, and beauty. Perhaps the following note from a dad (sent immediately following our closing ceremony at the end of Field Day and picnic lunch on Friday) sums up the sentiment best:
“We greatly appreciate the efforts of you all at Petra. All the glory to God!”
Indeed, all the glory to God.
And now to that desk…
(In case you missed them on Facebook, below are some fun shots from Friday’s Field Day.)
This is the second of two posts by Petra K4 teacher, Joan Kempf, on how our mission applies to the youngest of our Petra Academy students. In her first post, Mrs. Kempf covered the first two phrases of our mission statement – “Recognizing our need for God’s grace, Petra Academy strives to awaken love and wonder in our students…” In this post, she walks through the remainder, focusing on our Trivium education and its ultimate two-fold goal at the K4 level.
Petra talks a lot about something called the Trivium, an ancient pedagogy used to educate students explained as, “…teaching them to observe with humility, think with reason, and articulate with charity.” What does that look like for a four-year-old?
One of the major prerequisites for observing with humility is teaching students to think beyond themselves and their needs. One of the many ways we do this is by incorporating biblical history into monthly themes as appropriate to the school calendar. By teaching K4 students why and how these Christian holidays and celebrations occur draws upon our need for having God first in our lives. These are great opportunities to get the real meaning of Christmas and the Incarnation rather than just a present, as well as experiencing the true power of Easter and the resurrection of Christ instead of just bunnies and candy.
Mathematics is a great opportunity to help students learn to think with reason, for God has created children to be natural mathematicians. Some of the materials the K4 classroom utilizes are puzzles, patterns and shapes, blocks, sensory items, buttons, and a variety of colorful objects for sorting, counting and patterning. Daily counting of the calendar and using math concepts (big, little, empty, full, long, short, same, different) as a part of daily language help to set a strong math foundation. Students also learn to identify numbers, demonstrate 1-1 correspondence to 10, demonstrate number comprehension to 10, count to 20, recognize 6-8 shapes, and become familiar with the clock face. They participate in number songs/chants daily and enjoy working on mazes and visual puzzles, allowing young children to experience math concepts as they experiment with spatial awareness, measurement, and problem solving. All of this teaches the basic truth that there is order to God’s universe.
In terms of articulating with charity, the K4 classroom is dedicated to providing students with the necessary skills to communicate their ideas/needs/desires and demonstrate foundational skills for reading. The main core of the curriculum focuses on introducing a letter a week. During the introduction of a new letter, the students are asked to identify (“show me the letter ‘A'”) and then name that letter (“what letter is this?”). Students also learn the sound(s) that each letter makes and eventually they are able to think of words that contain the letter sound.
Reading stories aloud is very important in the development of reading skills in young children. Students in the classroom are exposed to a variety of books on many different topics. Through this process, students learn that letters create words, words are read from left to right, words rhyme and repeat, and stories contain a beginning, middle and end. Students also make predictions about what will happen next in the story and are asked details about the story they have heard to gain an understanding of their language and comprehension skills.
To reinforce concepts in all areas of development, songs, chants, and finger plays are used in the classroom on a daily basis. Reinforcing pre-reading lessons with songs/chants helps bring familiarity into the learning process and assists students with the ability to recall information more readily. When students learn these basics, they are ready to build on them going forward.
The last part of Petra’s mission communicates a two-fold end, “for the flourishing of humanity and the renown of Jesus the Christ.” Are these ends realistic for a K4 classroom?
Absolutely! We desire to teach students to listen and obey because it glorifies God. We encourage students to do their “best” work instead of their “fastest” work. We aspire to see students understand the value of their efforts and the pleasure it brings to God, others, and themselves when choosing to do their best. Understanding the school routine and developing good work habits are important, not only to create a good student but to foster good citizenship with others with whom they share space. Gentleness and love are extended to each student in hopes that each child will develop a love for learning and for those with whom they are learning. Some of the work habits we guide, foster, and direct are:
-Listening to stories and songs without leaving the group or interrupting
-Staying focused on a task during a lesson
-Trying to solve a problem before asking for help
-Following a 2-3 step direction from the teacher
-Completing an activity by themselves
-Taking turns when talking during a group time
-Raising their hands when they have something they would like to say
-Participating in show and tell by presenting their item, listening to others, and asking a question
Being obedient to Jesus Christ and understanding God’s grace is an important concept in the K4 classroom. Treating others kindly in school allows us to focus on following the example of our Savior. Teaching the attributes of kindness and grace is a daily, hands-on occurrence. In addition to following the loving kindness of Christ, students memorize Bible verses, hear stories from the Bible, pray, participate in fine art activities to learn more about beauty, and sing praises to God. If all this doesn’t contribute to the renown of Jesus the Christ, I’m not sure what does!
Interested in how our mission applies to the youngest of our Petra Academy students? We asked K4 teacher, Joan Kempf, for her thoughts on the matter. A graduate with her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in education from the University of North Dakota, Joan has taught and consulted in early childhood education classes (including teaching children with learning disabilities) for twelve years. This is her second year at Petra.
Petra’s mission begins with the phrase, “Recognizing our need for God’s grace…” What does that look like with four-year-olds?
Since we all fall short of the glory of God, we recognize the need for God’s saving grace not only for salvation, but for everything else as well, including our social and emotional skills. Seeking to honor God through our behavior and teaching love for Jesus is our primary goal when teaching social skills to students. Many K4 students are attending school or any organized social interaction for the first time and need to learn how to play, work, and move within a group setting. It is important that students feel safe and comfortable at school so that these skills can be guided and directed throughout the day. As teachers, we seek to demonstrate grace and humility through our daily guidance and interactions with students. Some of the skills we help students achieve are:
-Separating easily from a parent
-Independence in toileting/washing
-Playing with others in a “kind” way (sharing and taking turns)
-Develop empathy for others by noticing when a classmate is frustrated or sad
-Respecting other people and their personal material
-Interacting positivity with peers (uses words vs. grabbing/pushing/hitting/kicking )
-Sit on the floor with peers without touching them with their hands or feet
-Begin to use “please” and “thank you” when talking to others
The next part of our mission states that, “Petra Academy strives to awaken love and wonder in our students…” What does that look like in the K4 classroom?
The innate curiosity of young learners lends itself to provide opportunities for self-directed exploration and teacher-directed activities in the K4 classroom. Many activities during our free choice time are designed to engage students in cause and effect opportunities. Students will build with gears, tubes, blocks, Legos, and other manipulative materials. We also utilize a wide array of sensory materials (shaving cream, salt, water, sand) and incorporate playing with cars and trucks, using tweezers and magnifying glasses, and utilization of containers with different volumes to increase their awareness and understanding of science-based terms and applications.
In addition, students learn about the seasons and explore items related to the season, talk about the changes in weather and how weather effects us and the world around us. Teaching the days of creation offers the opportunity to participate in activities about heaven, earth, sea, animals, dark, light plants and trees. Students learn about various animals, reptiles, bugs, volcanoes, wind, and other science themes through literature and activities throughout the school year.
Students also participate in various fine art activities that include the utilization of a wide array of art mediums, music and movement. Students create projects that relate to weekly and monthly educational/biblical concepts being taught through:
-Painting with brushes, forks, string, marbles, etc.
-Drawing with markers, colors, white erase boards/markers
-Expressing themselves through dramatic play centers
-Singing songs and doing movement activities
-Preparing and performing recitation songs/chants
-Observing Grammar student’s recitation (K-6th grade)
Finally, preparing students to write is an important part of our K4 curriculum; in fact, most activities in all curricular areas lend themselves to developing fine motor strength and dexterity. Isolating the muscles in the hand and wrist are accomplished through activities like putting together puzzles, lacing, play dough, manipulating tweezers, peg boards, linking chains and blocks, cutting, coloring, tracing designs and letters, and sensory play.
Some of the skills developed are:
-Pencil grasp-training to use a pincer or tripod grasp (holding the writing/coloring object with the thumb and the pointer finger while resting it on the middle finger)
-Crossing the midline of the body while writing/coloring (ability to move from left to right side of body while using one hand)
-Increasing hand and finger strength
-Hand eye coordination (processing information to accomplish the tasks)
-Hand dominance (consistently using the same hand to accomplish tasks)
-Ability to copy and print letters and numbers
Can truth ever lead us to despair? In the second volume of his Lord of the Rings trilogy,The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, we encounter two critical characters: the king of Rohan, Théoden, and Gríma Wormtongue, his adviser. Rohan is a small but important kingdom opposed to the Dark Lord Sauron, yet relatively insignificant (or so it seems) in its ability to actually pose a viable threat to Sauron’s looming power as he attempts to enslave all of Middle Earth.
When we first meet Théoden, four of the book’s heroes (Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli) have arrived at his hall to appeal to the king for help. Here we discover that the king is an old man; we know already of the peril facing all of free Middle Earth as Sauron’s defeat rests on a small hope, a “fool’s hope,” as the good wizard Gandalf later puts it. Yet despite Rohan’s resistance against Sauron, Théoden’s reaction to the warriors and wizard is unexpectedly sour. Readers soon learn the reason: his adviser, Gríma Wormtongue, has poisoned the king’s mind against hope, wisdom, valor, and goodness. Tolkien uses Theoden’s despair to offer a profound lesson about the nature of truth.
Tolkien wants us to see that Wormtongue’s poison has come not in the guise of lies, as we might expect, but rather in the form of truth. Is it true that Théoden is old? Yes. Is it true that little hope of victory remains in the battle against Sauron? Yes. Is it true that Rohan is beset by growing darkness on all sides? Yes. And Wormtongue fills Théoden’s mind with these truths.
But, importantly, that is not all of the truth. Instead it is a one-sided truth, a truth shorn of goodness and of hope. And this is what Tolkien wants us to recognize: that truth can at times be bitter, but it does not stop short of sweetness.
Truth edifies, it builds up—it does not tear down or destroy. It might wound, but it offers healing as well. Yet in Gríma Wormtongue’s mouth, truth can only debilitate, crush, demolish. This deceptive handling of truth ultimately results in Théoden’s withdrawal from his kingly position and duties, his retreat from evil, and even his own inner lethargy. Though Tolkien does not use the term, Théoden in this episode illustrates depression. And importantly, it is truth—in some form—that has led him there.
However, Tolkien does not abandon the king, nor readers, in this predicament. Truth is not allowed to suffer forever in the hands of evil intent. Gandalf enters Théoden’s hall, and representing Light and Wisdom, awakens Théoden from his depressed withdrawal. And significantly he uses truth to do so—but this time it is truth in its full form, truth as it is meant to be: pointing forward to hope, goodness, and beauty. Gandalf is honest as he encourages Théoden, but that honesty opens the way to hope: “The enemy is strong beyond our reckoning, yet we have a hope at which he has not guessed.”
Readers are not told all that Gandalf relates to Théoden in their private conversation, but we do see the change that comes over Théoden: “but ever as he spoke the light shone brighter in Théoden’s eye, and at the last he rose from his seat to his full height.” Truth in Gandalf’s mouth has the power to give life, not take it; to recall to strength, not wither it. In this episode, Tolkien teaches us that truth will not lead us to despair—but, truth shorn of hope, an impostor truth, can lead us there.
What does this mean for us? There is a spiritual truth here, for God also uses truth to give life rather than abandon us to partial, crushing truths. Is it true that our hearts are wicked? Yes. Is it true that every day we fail, we envy, we lie, we fall to pride? Yes. And yet that is not all that is true, for thankfully it is also true that though are hearts are wicked, God promises to change them; though we sin against our neighbor and our God, He promises grace upon grace.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians captures this double-edged truth: we were dead in our sins, enslaved to wrath and sinful desires, but God made us alive in Christ—not because we cleaned our hearts first or swept our sins away, but because of his rich mercy and great love. God’s truth certainly contains bitterness, for who loves being told he is a rebel deserving of death? Yet God’s truth does not stop there, but instead adds the sweetness of love and redemption. The Truth points us to goodness and beauty.
So why the Sour Patch Kids? We can thank my 8th grade humanities class for this analogy. If you have ever enjoyed a Sour Patch kid, you know that it is both sour and sweet. And in that, this candy captures the essence of truth: it might cut to our very hearts (sour), but it will restore to life as well (sweet). Truth shorn of goodness and hope will lead us to despair, but real Truth will lead us to life and joy.
A History of Tom Jones, a Foundling is Henry Fielding’s classic novel from 1748 chronicling the misadventures of the title character as he doggedly pursues the affections of his true love, Sophia, despite differing social classes, the machinations of her father to keep them apart, and the interference of other women who take a liking to Tom’s good looks and gallant charm.
The novel itself is long and has a multitude of colorful characters who are all a part of Tom’s story. Additionally, there are quite a few situations, character motivations, and actions that make the story rather ribald and a touch indecent for both the readers of Fielding’s day and ours. Why would a classical Christian school like Petra perform such an off-color story, and how in the world could it be “family-friendly”?
As a director, I am always trying to think of new ways to challenge my students’ abilities and give them new experiences onstage that they will remember for a lifetime. As a student of theatre myself, I am always looking to learn new skills and become more versatile as an actor and as a director. Thus, I had my sights set on this particular adaptation of this classic novel. It was only after I began researching the original story, that I learned of some of its content.
Indeed, Tom Jones is a bawdy book, but our adaptation is not a bawdy script. Rather, it remains true to the charm of the source material by retaining many of the memorable characters, but omits the bawdier content that would make it unsuitable for a younger audience. At its base is a story about a young man who is more often the victim of his circumstances than the master. Everything seems to go wrong for him at the most inopportune times and in the most incomprehensible ways, but he tries valiantly to press forward and see the light at the end of the tunnel when the opportunity arises. Redemptively, he is rewarded for it.
I always seek stories that offer some sort of redemption for the characters. Our adaptation features a large cast of developed characters, providing an excellent story to tell by both our veteran performers as well as our younger students newly introduced to the stage. The story is fast-paced and cohesive, focusing on the love that Tom and Sophia share and the various obstacles that are placed in their path, and there is even a climactic sword fight toward the end, which is always fun.
Here at Petra, we desire for our students to be immersed in literature that has withstood the test of time, and we challenge them to look beyond the words on the page to see the philosophy, worldview, and author’s intent behind what they read. Stories that last beyond the particular time period in which they were written are often well-told stories about the foibles and frailties of being human, something to which we can all relate. As a director, my goal is to help my students take the same lessons that they learn in Humanities and apply them to and through a script to find the essential human-ness in the characters they portray and to teach them to see characters as real people rather than just names with lines attached.
We recognize that parents entrust their children (young and older) to us “in loco parentis” – that is, “in the place of parents” (but not “in place of parents”). With this in mind (and in all we do), we tremble at and strive to be faithful to this responsibility. Our desire is not to put a story on our stage that would cause anyone to stumble, nor give them reason to question the morals and integrity of our staff and students; rather, our hope is that our students learn to look beyond the words on the page and see a story about a human being who is flawed, broken, and in need of redemption from his sinful attitudes and actions. We want students to look within themselves and see their need for the Savior, as well as look past themselves to see a world of broken, hurting people who need the person and work of Christ.
As a drama director, the tools that I have at my disposal to accomplish this goal are stories about flawed human beings and a stage on which to portray those stories in an engaging and educational way. I chose Tom Jones as a way to help our students grow, change, and mature as young people, and I hope that as you (and your family) come and enjoy one of our performances, you will find your own heart and mind touched because of it.
Thursday, February 25, 7 p.m.
Friday, February 26, 7 p.m.
Saturday, February 27, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.
Tickets are $10 for general admission and $20 for reserved seating and are available online or at the front desk. Building doors open an hour before each show, with Performance Hall doors opening a half-hour before.
Come early and bid on items in our silent auction!
Earlier this week, our secondary students gathered in a congregation of Christmas sweater ugliness, having a good laugh at their horrid vulgarity. The kind of ugliness displayed is what philosophers call “kitsch,” which the dictionary defines as “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.”
We found humor in our sweaters because we knew how hideous they were. Perhaps we even thought, how could anyone actually think that these were gift-worthy?
This is good, because at Petra, we are concerned about students’ tastes. We want them to know the difference between kitsch and truth, beauty, and goodness. But it is now, during this holiday time of the year – a time of strong emotion and feeling – that we need to be careful not to succumb to a kind of kitsch that blinds us from the incomprehensible truth, beauty, and goodness of Christmas. For there are versions of Christmas and of Jesus that are as dire in their kitsch as the sweaters we wore that Tuesday morning.
The British philosopher, Roger Scruton, in an essay on kitsch, defines it as “the attempt to have your emotions on the cheap.” In reading this, I thought of the Christmas carol “Away in the Manger,” a saccharine song of suffocating sentimentality if there ever was one. Yet it is one of the most popular Christmas carols that people sing each Christmas season with fervor and joy. Allow me to quote the lyrics:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is what I call docetic kitsch, as it wants to elicit our emotions on the cheap by giving us a sentimental, almost inhuman, baby Jesus (recall that Docetism denied the full humanity of Jesus).
How do we know that no crying he made? Maybe like many babies, Jesus was colicky and cried all the time! Maybe, despite the title, “Silent Night” – a significantly better Christmas carol that still flirts with the temptation of kitsch – it was not a silent night. Maybe Jesus was not tender and mild. Maybe, just as the shepherds arrived, Jesus pooped his diapers for the third time or puked up his dinner for the fourth time, to the frustration of an exhausted Mary and Joseph whose eyes were bloodshot from weariness.
The picture painted here is an almost angelic baby who would never fuss, puke or poop his pants, in other words, not very messy, not very gross, not very baby-like. It is as if “Away in Manger” wants to get us to say, “Ah, look at the baby Jesus, so precious, so cute,” but again, how do we know he was cute? The Bible seems to suggest that Jesus was nothing to look at as an adult, and perhaps as a baby, this was the case as well.
At another point in his essay on kitsch, Roger Scruton writes, “The world of kitsch is a world of make-believe, of permanent childhood, in which every day is Christmas. In such a world, death does not really happen.” Songs like “Away in a Manger” give us a kitsch version of Christmas because, more dangerously, they fail to mention why, and in what context, Jesus was born. There is no death in “Away in a Manger.” There is no sense in this carol that Jesus was an infant born to die a brutal death on a Cross. There is no indication that Jesus was born into a world permeated by death, unless you interpret the line about Jesus taking us to heaven to live with him there, but that, too, is just a sentimental Gnosticism passed off as accurate Christian theology.
Nor is there any indication of The Massacre of the Innocents as a result of Jesus being born, where, to quote “The Coventry Carol,” Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
Like it or not, the actual birth of Jesus is ensconced and wrapped up in death. This infant, no matter how tender or mild, how cute or plain, with or without poopy pants and puked stained clothes, is our Savior – a Savior born to be slaughtered so that we may be born again. He is a baby born to die, that death might be defeated. We cannot (accurately) talk of Jesus without death. We cannot celebrate Christmas without acknowledging the haunting reality that he was born to die.
Now do not get me wrong. I am not saying that Christmas is a time of doom and gloom. It is indeed a time of great celebration. But we live in between what theologians call the already and the not yet, which means we can sing “Joy to the World” with all the joy and gladness we can muster, because we know that this infant, through his death, brings new birth. But our songs will – yea, they must be – tinged with a portion of sadness, because of what the world is still like. The work of the infant is not fully accomplished; death still reigns in this world. Therefore, our songs must have a portion of longing, a longing because of the harsh reality of death.
“Come, Lord Jesus,” is the cry of Advent. This Advent season, we celebrate what happened 2,000 years ago. But we look toward for the full realization of that birth in a future we long to be in now.
It could be argued that music is the greatest of God’s languages – as simple or as complex as needed to convey meaning and emotion. Whether the lone voice of a mother singing comfort over her newborn baby or the Monteverdi Choir thundering praise in the “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah, music – particularly vocal music – is a most intimate, most powerful expression of our humanity.
But just as our humanity does not develop overnight, neither does its musicality. As an athlete should begin when young, so, too, should a chorister. Children are naturally musical, but sadly, we too often neglect their development in becoming more so, or are too impatient with their progress as they go.
Which brings us to last night. If you were with us for our first-ever concert at Petra, you probably did not experience the absolute tenderness of a mother singing to her child, nor did you likely feel the overwhelming passion of the Monteverdi Choir interpreting Handel. But you did hear sounds of daughters whose voices may one day serenade their own children. And you did hear sons whose voices may one day soar in singing praise to God.
Under the very capable direction of Mrs. Heidi Hornung (with apt accompaniment by so many talented faculty, students, and friends), our choristers earned our appreciation for their efforts, and they deserve our hope and help to continue growing into the musical men and women God would have them become.
I was proud of our Schola Cantorum – our “school of singers” – and thank you for your support of Petra’s fine arts. More to come, to be sure.
When we develop the habit of looking for ordinary beauty, three significant things happen to our souls.
The Effects of Ordinary Beauty
First, we become increasingly more aware of the things around us. When we develop the habit of looking for ordinary beauty, we focus on things outside ourselves. We begin to notice things we usually take for granted. This develops in us a habit of being aware of and caring for things that others usually overlook—whether inanimate objects or unnoticed people.
Secondly, the pursuit of ordinary beauty increases our gratitude toward God. The more we see the rich grace of scrambled eggs, softs sheets, and clean floors, the more we see the lovingkindness of the God who gave us these things. Ordinary things sing praise to God—and if we are willing to listen, they teach us how to sing in gratitude as well.
In a poem about ordinary beauty, Anne Sexton writes how she so often overlooks the abundance of good things that fill her life each morning. She concludes with conviction,
All this is God,
Right here in my pea-green house
And I mean,
Though often forget,
To give thanks,
To faint down by the kitchen table
In a prayer of rejoicing
As the holy birds at the kitchen window
Peck into their marriage of seeds” (“Welcome Morning”, ll. 17-26)
Sexton’s sudden awareness of the ordinary beauty around her gives her the desire to praise God, to join the “holy birds” in thanksgiving.
Finally, the more we pursue ordinary beauty, the more our love for others grows. As our gratitude toward God increases and our vision of ordinary beauty expands, so grows our desire to share the beauty we see with others. We replicate the beauty we are grateful for by finding ways to give it to other people. We set the table with care and precision. We share the toothsome crumb of homemade bread by taking a loaf to our neighbors. We take half a minute to pray with and comfort someone in pain.
We strive to pass on the sacramental goodness of the ordinary to others because we love them. We love them because we have come to love the ordinary. And we love the ordinary because it has taught us so much about God’s love for us.
But the blessings of ordinary beauty don’t stop here. The disciplined habit of looking for ordinary beauty not only teaches us how to love God better, but also how to love our neighbor and our world better. Giving more time and attention to the things around us forces our ego to move from the center of our world to the periphery.
True to the central irony of the gospel, by learning to see the beauty in other things, we ourselves grow more beautiful. Perhaps it is only by abandoning our quest for personal beauty that we can one day realize that we have indeed grown truly beautiful.
Our culture is obsessed with beauty, yet knows very little about it. We spend countless hours and dollars to acquire and maintain physical beauty. And while beauty of face and body is a true form of beauty, it is also one of the most difficult to cultivate and certainly the least fulfilling.
There are far more beneficial forms of beauty worth pursuing: one of the most rewarding is the beauty of the ordinary.
The Extraordinary Glory of Ordinary Beauty
Ordinary beauty refers to the glory to be found in everyday things. We can see this glory in three particular aspects of ordinary things.
First, they are glorious simply because they exist. Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor of aesthetics, argues that “Beauty always takes place in the particular, and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down” (On Beauty and Being Just, 18). Ordinary things are beautiful, first of all, because they are particular things. They simply are. And furthermore, they have been given to you.
The Apostle Paul once wrote, “What do you have that you did not receive?” And the answer is: Nothing. Everything has been given. All is gift, but this is especially true of ordinary things.
Think about all the ordinary things in your life: buttered toast, lilac bushes, goldfinches, warm showers, hot coffee, notes from friends. Where do these things come from? Ultimately, from God. Why do these things come to you? Because God is your Father, and He loves you. Marvel in that reality.
Ordinary things are glorious also because they are so abundant. This is the marvelous grace of the ordinary: that God gives us so much of it. Every day begins with a sunrise and ends with sunset, and in between is filled with hundreds of ordinary things—God’s good gifts of love to us. The problem is that we don’t see them very well.
Writing about our all-too-common blindness to the glory of the ordinary, G.K. Chesterton argues that God can delight in repetition and monotony because He has the eternal ability to see the beauty of the ordinary. He writes,
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we.” (Orthodoxy, 66).
We often ignore the ordinary precisely because it is so commonplace. But Chesterton argues that the very abundance of ordinary things makes them quite extraordinary. The grace and glory of the ordinary is the fact that God gives us so much goodness in each ordinary thing—and then gives us so many ordinary things so often. We grow tired of the ordinary not because it is not beautiful, but because we are sinners and our delight and gratitude grow weak so quickly.
The third way that ordinary things are glorious—and therefore beautiful—is by their testimony to God’s constant (and therefore ordinary) faithfulness. Ordinary things are sacramental proof of God’s constant fatherly favor. The cracked crust and soft crumb of a warm slice of bread is proof of the loaf’s goodness. But when we have cultivated the ability to see the loaf as a gift, the loaf becomes more than a simple loaf. It becomes sacramental: it is itself and it points us to see the goodness of God Himself.
Just as the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are simply bread and wine (and beautiful in their simplicity), they are also the body and blood of Christ (whether by symbol or by substance). They are themselves, but they are also more than themselves. The eyes of faith can look at ordinary bread and wine and see Christ. The same eyes can look at buttered toast and see a loving Father.
This vision of Christ in ordinary things is waiting for us in hundreds of things throughout each day, each morning. We can see God in our scrambled eggs and smoked bacon, in the juice and squeeze of fresh fruit, in the rumble and toss of a spring storm.
Ordinary things sing God’s praise constantly—we just lack the ears to hear what they say. And the only way we can hear them is if we first start trying to see the beauty of ordinary things.