Confession is a difficult thing. We talk to our kids about the importance of confessing our faults and failures, yet how often do we conceal that which brings us shame?
In the Scripture, Jesus calls for confessions of our shortcomings, and in his own aptly named book, St. Augustine summarizes multiple iterations of familiar ones for us by way of his own life and writing.
I’m thankful that God’s grace and mercy are waiting for us when we confess, and because of this assurance, I have a particular confession I need to make. It is this:
I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t blame you. How could I? As someone who teaches “truth, goodness, and beauty” and leads your kids in singing hymns like “This Is My Father’s World,” how is it possible to live with myself?
The question is valid, and the honest answer is that it’s been difficult. I’ve rationalized (“I’m too busy”); I’ve made excuses (“There are too many people”); I’ve lived in fear (“I don’t want to end up on the news having died one of any number of unnatural deaths in Yellowstone”). I’m not trying to justify myself here, but I suppose that I am, and I’m sorry for that. Forgive me.
So, with Fall Break upon us later this week, I’m going through Yellowstone on Saturday. I’m shelving my self-important sense that someone might need me and letting go of my introvert inhibitions that paralyze my park intentions. Instead, I’m going to enjoy as much of God’s handiwork as I can with my family, as well as take plenty of pictures (but only from a safe and reasonable distance from wildlife and other natural phenomena).
These are my Fall Break plans, and I want you to know about them so you can hold me accountable. My wife and daughters (God bless them) are cautiously hopeful and looking forward to helping me take this big step. I confess I’m nervous, but it will be alright.
Who knows? Perhaps my step of faith might inspire you and your family to take one of your own?
Enjoy Fall Break.
As we bid adieu to June and welcome July and the 243rd anniversary of American Independence, an anecdote comes to mind.
Perhaps you’ve heard of what Ben Franklin, upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, was asked as to what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s pithy response captures plenty in its brevity, for while the formation of a democratic republic required the consent of the people then, it requires (present tense) the continued participation of its citizenry to keep it together now.
Last summer, I read the first volume of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 collection of observations from the Frenchman’s visit to America. In it, he wrote:
“In my opinion, all the reasons which tend to maintain a democratic republic in the United States fall into three categories. The first is the peculiar and accidental position in which Providence has placed the Americans; the second comes from their laws; the third derives from their usages and customs.” (p. 323)
Indeed, as a nation, our republic has been granted much by God, not the least of which was the vision of those classically-educated Founders who rightly saw the need for good laws to govern it. It is from this foundation that we should seek independence in our usages and customs – not from what we don’t want to do, but for all our Creator does want us to do.
This freedom – this true independence – is a goal of classical Christian education, not only for our students, but also for our republic. May God so help us keep it, here and now.
Happy Independence Day!
With over a hundred million sets of eyes making up its viewership, one could argue that the Super Bowl wins the Lombardi Trophy as the sports event champion of commercialization. But is there more to the spectacle than meets the eyes?
I recalled Smith’s observations last night while watching the second half of the Super Bowl. In the cathedral of Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the devoted disciples practiced their faith, with all the sights and rites, smells and bells of a worldwide religion.
There were signs, symbols, and sacraments that all had their place in this praise of the pigskin. Historical narratives – incorporating heroes of the past and the miracles they performed – were told and retold in an oral tradition of talent’s tale.
The pre-game and halftime shows set the stage for the eventual procession of the Lombardi Trophy through rows of parishioners to the altar, as carried by its priests, Vince Wilfork, Emmitt Smith (note the sacramental gloves), and Joe Namath.
After a brief presentation from Roger Goodell, Nuncio of the NFL, the evening finally culminated in the communion of the saints (minus the Saints), with the Brady one himself taking his place as the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) as prophesied:
The GOAT charged furiously at the ram and struck him, breaking off both his horns. Now the ram was helpless, and the GOAT knocked him down and trampled him. No one could rescue the ram from the GOAT’s power.” (Daniel 8:7, NLT)
Okay, okay, so the Scripture reference to Brady is definitely tongue-in-cheek, but it’s not hard to see the elements of worship in the rest, is it? Some critics might suggest a “reading into” of these elements that just happen to make up the biggest game of the year, but two questions we should ask are: 1) Why do these elements happen to make up the biggest game of the year? and 2) What does that mean?
Teaching and training students to ask and answer questions like these are at the heart of what we are trying to do at Petra. Even as we consider the NFL and those who worship at its altar on Sundays, we want to help students go deeper in understanding their own loves as well, learning to rightly evaluate and order them as St. Augustine exhorts us to do:
…living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.” (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
But helping students do this requires thinking differently. As Smith wrote in You Are What You Love,
What if, instead of starting from the assumption that human beings are thinking things, we started from the conviction that human beings are first and foremost lovers? What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire?” (pg. 7)
The Super Bowl as just another football game?
Tell that to someone who loves it.
(The following homily was given at Petra Academy’s All Saints’ Feast.)
All Saints’ Day is a holy day that the Orthodox church traces back to church father John Chrysostom in the 4th century as a recognition of saints – many of whom were martyrs – celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Parthenon at Rome to Mary and the martyrs, initiated the practice in the Catholic church in 609 A.D. before Pope Gregory III officially established the holy day on November 1 in the mid-eighth century.
Historically, Catholic churches have thought of “saints” as those officially canonized or “made” saints by the church, but in the Orthodox church, as well as in many Protestant denominations today, All Saints’ Day is celebrated as a remembrance of departed Christians from any time and place – those whom Hebrews 12:1 calls a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding the Church universal. Thus, All Saints’ Day is a day on which we honor faithful believers who have died, but also those by whom we are sitting even now.
I wonder, though, if we really believe this – that we are sitting next to saints? I know that I struggle with the idea, not so much because I know all of you but because I know me. I’m much more likely to think of myself as a sinner saved by grace than a saint who sins.
How do you think about yourself? As someone who usually messes up but miraculously gets it right every now and then? Or as someone who is loved and cherished even (and especially) when he messes up? Does it matter? I think it does.
Let me tell you a Little Mr. Dunham story.
When Little Mr. Dunham was in 7th grade, he played basketball on a really good school team. Little Mr. Dunham wasn’t the best player on the team, but he was a perfectionist and often got down on himself pretty easily if he didn’t play up to his standards. One night, after a particularly bad game, Little Mr. Dunham came home, threw his duffel bag in the corner of his room, sat down at his desk, and carved into the wood a question: “Why does Little Mr. Dunham play basketball?” And then, in the throes of true teenage angst, he carved the answer: “No apparent reason.”
Little Mr. Dunham’s coach noticed his tendency to get down on himself and made the comment to Little Mr. Dunham’s parents that he was going to die at the age of 14 from beating himself up over his perfectionistic ways. Little Mr. Dunham’s parents told him this, which made him feel even worse…until his parents told him what the coach had also said: “But he’s the smartest player I’ve ever coached.”
This was what Little Mr. Dunham needed. He knew he would never be the fastest player or the best rebounder or the top scorer, so he tried to play up to what the coach had said about him being the smartest player. Someone else loved him enough to believe in him, and that made all the difference for Little Mr. Dunham and his team for the next six years. He no longer thought of himself as a bad player who only rarely and miraculously got things right; instead, he learned (and it was a process) to think of himself as a smart player who, yes, sometimes missed the mark, but was loved and trusted by his coach and his teammates anyway.
It’s true that you and I are sinners – ones who miss the mark of God’s commanded perfection. It’s also true that, if we trust in the work Jesus has done for us on the cross, we are sinners saved by grace – by a love we never deserved, but were given anyway. It is only by this undeserved love any of us can call ourselves Christians.
But God thinks of those who are Christians much more as saints who sin instead of merely sinners saved by grace. There are plenty of passages from the Psalms (among other books) that tell us this (see Psalm 16:3; 30:4; 31:23; 34:9; 37:28; 85:8; 97:10; 116:15; 132:9; 132:16; 145:10; 148:14).
It feels good and means a lot to hear God call us his saints, but I wish we were better at thinking of each other in this way. Sometimes we don’t treat each other like saints at all. We talk poorly about one another; we do mean things to one another; we think of ourselves as being better than one another.
You know where we most often see this happen at school? On the playground, in the garment rooms, in the hallways, in the gymnasium, in the bathrooms in the parking lot – places where we think no adult is watching or listening closely, but God always is.
C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and so many other great books you’ll read at Petra, writes in his book, The Weight of Glory, about how he, too, wished we could see each other more as God sees us because of Jesus. Listen to what he wrote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
We are called to see our fellow Christians the way God sees us – not just as sinners saved by grace (though we are), but also as saints who sin (because we do).
What would it look like if we thought of and spoke to and played with one another in ways that saw the good in one another rather than only the not-so-good? What if we believed – really believed – that when others sin against us and hurt our feelings, we should forgive them because they are saints who sometimes sin rather than dirty, rotten sinners saved by grace and a real pain in the neck? What if we ourselves experienced this kind of forgiveness when we hurt others but were treated as saints who sometimes sinned rather than sinners saved by grace?
As we celebrate All Saints’ Day and think about those who have gone before us, let’s remember to honor those saints we see everyday – at Petra and elsewhere. Let’s believe the best in one another, stand shoulder to shoulder with one another, and talk to and not about one another. And while we can all heartily affirm that, indeed, we are sinners saved by grace, let us also pray for courage for one another to live not just as ordinary people or mere mortals, but as saints – yes, who sin – but as saints nevertheless because of Jesus, who died on the cross to make us so.
This truth (and our unity as saints surrounding them) is what we celebrate today, just as those before us celebrated as well.
(The following is Mr. Dunham’s Resurrection Feast message; the pictures are from the Feast itself.)
It’s been a while since I’ve told you a Little Mr. Dunham story. Let me tell you one of my favorites.
Back when Little Mr. Dunham was a boy of about 5 – quite a bit shorter, quite a bit skinnier, still wearing a suit and tie – he got it into his head that he was not loved by his parents. Now this had something to do with the fact that Little Mr. Dunham kept getting into trouble (particularly with his father, who was trying to help him obey), but Little Mr. Dunham was sure that the problem was his parents’ – not his – and he was tired of feeling so unloved.
One day, Little Mr. Dunham declared to his parents that he was planning to run away, but he wasn’t going to just do it any old way; he was going to leave in style. He found a red handkerchief and laid it flat on the floor. Then he grabbed some snacks out of the pantry (Little Mr. Dunham loved snacks!) and carefully placed them in the handkerchief before tying the handkerchief to the end of a stick. He then picked up the stick, put it over his shoulder, announced to his mother that he was leaving, and walked out the door.
Now you might remember that Little Mr. Dunham grew up on a farm, so there were a lot of places he could have gone that day. You also might remember that Little Mr. Dunham was only five and trips take a while when you have short legs, so what seemed like hours walking was really only five minutes down the gravel road. But that’s what Little Mr. Dunham did: he walked to the end of the driveway and down the gravel road until he saw a smelly, dirty, empty hog shed in the middle of a field (his father was a hog farmer) and walked over to it. He took the stick from his shoulder, unpacked his handkerchief, pulled out some snacks, and then waited…and waited…and waited…for at least 20 minutes.
All of a sudden, he looked up. There was his mother, who had walked down the road after him and was now standing in the door of the hog shed.
“Are you ready to come home?” she asked. With his lip trembling, Little Mr. Dunham nodded his head, dropped his snack, and started to cry. “I’m sorry I ran away, Mom, and I’m sorry that I didn’t believe you loved me,” he said, jumping into her arms. Then he said, “And I’m really glad you came after me.” His mother hugged him, and together they gathered up the handkerchief and stick and walked back up the gravel road toward home.
Sometimes we run away to see who will come after us. Now I’m not telling you to run away to find out, so don’t, but think about it: if you ran away and ended up in a smelly, dirty hog shed with nothing more than a handkerchief of snacks to eat, who would eventually come after you? For sure, you would have a parent come after you; I’m almost certain your teachers would, too; and probably at least one or two (if not more) friends would show up asking if you were ready to come home. That’s because they love you and care for you and want the very best for you.
Believe it or not, coming home from the hog shed is what we celebrate at Easter. In the Bible, Jesus tells three parables about finding three lost things: a sheep, a coin, and a son. Let me just read you the first one:
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.'”
Now the truth is, there are no righteous persons; we all need to repent – that is, turn from – our sin – that selfishness inside of us that makes us think only about us. But what happens a lot of times in life is we get lost – like a sheep that wanders off – because all we think about is ourselves. We think we know best, our feelings get hurt and we get mad at the world, and we want what we want and don’t care what it takes to get it. So we run away – maybe not physically all the time, but emotionally, as we tell ourselves that no one loves or cares about us, which makes us mad or sad or both. So, we feel sorry for ourselves, and like Little Mr. Dunham, we decide to run away – but we’re secretly always wondering and hoping that someone is going to come after us and bring us home.
Well, I have good news. Jesus loves us and came after us to bring us home. But not only did he come after us, he died in our place to satisfy God’s anger at our disobedience. But not only did he die in our place, God resurrected him – he brought him back to life! – so that we, too, can have hope that we can live forever with God.
This is what we celebrate with our Resurrection Feast: God made a way for you and me to be with him forever, and Jesus has walked that way and come after us. All we have to do is say that we’re sorry for disobeying, come out of the nasty hog shed of our sin, jump in his arms, and trust that he will walk us all the way home. This is what Little Mr. Dunham did when he was a boy, and this is what Big Mr. Dunham still tries to do in response to God’s love each day. And this is what we pray for you – that you will know you are loved, and that when you tell yourself you are not and try to run away, you wouldn’t get too far before you look up from the smelly, dirty hog shed of your sin and see Jesus there ready to forgive you and walk you home.
Since today is MLK Day, it seems good – particularly in a state and town almost 90% Caucasian – to pause to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s.
While a federal holiday, MLK Day does not seem all that big a deal here in Montana. True, Montana State University is canceling classes and their Diversity Awareness Office is sponsoring a reception and art display in King’s honor, but even Bozeman Public Schools are in class today with this calendar caveat: “With the approval of this calendar, the Board of Trustees, in commemoration of Martin Luther King Day (January 16, 2017), is directing that all teachers (K-5) and all social studies teachers (6-12) take action in the classroom to recognize and celebrate the principles for which Martin Luther King stood.”
As in previous years, Petra Academy is also in session today. Petra has never taken MLK Day off, and there’s rationale for that decision: a majority of parents (at least those not employed by the government) have to work anyway, and – for better or for worse – most students are probably not going to participate (with or without parents) in MLK receptions or services on their own when there are ski slopes and sledding hills in the vicinity. Thus, we have landed where Bozeman Public Schools has in leaving MLK Day to teachers to include as it makes sense within their curriculum and day. (Thankfully, because of presentations like the one 7th grade Humanities teacher Libby Kueneke gave to our entire Secondary at Lyceum last week, I think we do as good a job as anyone.)
But is it enough?I shared a few thoughts here last July lamenting the past summer’s spree of shootings and the continued racial tension in our country, but those were just words, just as anything we teach would be. And yet, because we still believe in words and the power they can hold, I find myself here again writing six months later, asking us to engage with our children today in discussing Dr. King and his work. God used this particular man (and others) to bring about needed change in our country, and our kids – especially our Montana kids – need to know and understand more about the awful and angry discrimination then and there in the South, so they can apply solutions to situations like the one happening in Whitefish here and now in the North.
One of my favorite Scriptural emphases to teach is the Christian foundation for racial reconciliation as lived out by the early Church in the book of Acts. One cannot read about the cross-cultural linguistic understanding given by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 or the Apostles ensuring the care of both the Hellenist and Hebrew widows in Acts 6 or Peter and John witnessing the coming of the Spirit to the Gentiles in Samaria in Acts 8 or Peter’s vision and interaction with Cornelius and the Caesarian Gentiles in Acts 10 (to name just a few) without recognizing God’s heart for unity among his people. Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28-29 sum up how we in the Church are to view one another: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
As an heir according to the promise, Dr. King knew and built upon this Christian foundation of reconciliation; in fact, he would have had no message without it (it’s definitely there in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but for an even more pronounced biblical dependence, listen to “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and try to imagine it having the same impact without its Scriptural references).
The point is this: it’s good to honor Dr. King with this day in January, and the best way we can do so is by honoring the Gospel he appealed to as the foundation of any freedom, equality, and unity we could have. Start with yourself and your kids, then reach out, befriend, and care for those who look different from you and see what God does.
Poverty, and the disgraceful workhouses, were societal ills about which Dickens cared strongly. It was a problem that had affected him personally, and quite powerfully. When he was about 11 years old, his father became deeply indebted; though the family was lower middle class and shouldn’t have needed to worry about money, Dickens ended up suffering for his father’s incapability to spend within the family’s means. When his father was incarcerated in debtors’ prison, Dickens had to leave his school, move to a new location near his father’s prison, pawn his books, and go to work in a blacking factory: a place that produced shoe black. He earned 5-6 shillings a week. It was difficult, distasteful, and enormously embarrassing work for Dickens. In fact, he later said that his time in the blacking factory, working to pay off his father’s debts, left him psychologically damaged. Not long after this, the entire family moved into the debtor’s prison with his father. From that time onward, the plight of the poor and needy was ever on Dickens’ mind.
And so it was in the 1840s that Charles Dickens found himself nonplussed with the quality of help given to the British poor and needy. He toyed with writing a pamphlet for distribution, urging the better off to take notice of the needs around them and to give to those in poverty and destitution; to fight the demons of Ignorance and Want (personified later in A Christmas Carol). Yet he wasn’t entirely sold on the concept of pamphlet distribution. Then he visited Manchester, a northern region of England that had experienced massive population growth due to booming cotton industry. In the early 1700s about 10,000 people lived in Manchester. By 1850, 400,000 lived there, with most of the growth occurring from 1800 onward as population numbers doubled every few decades. The jobs paid well, if you could get one and keep one. And it wasn’t uncommon for many children to labor just as strenuously as adults. Dickens’s heart was moved by the state of common welfare in Manchester; it was there he found his inspiration to write not a pamphlet, but a novel expressing the same moral calling.
A Christmas Carol at its fundamental level is a call to all people (but for Dickens, specifically British people) to help those in need, and in this it represents a significant humanitarian addition to Christmas. Today we associate Christmas season with requests for funding from non-profits, or with Santa bell-ringers outside of stores, collecting money for the Salvation Army. But Christmas wasn’t always linked with humanitarian aid, with the call to help those less fortunate than ourselves. We can thank Dickens for that in part. Early in the story, Scrooge’s nephew Fred reprimands his uncle for refusing good things that don’t turn a profit, reminding him that the good might not always be profitable, in the sense that Scrooge cares about anyway, and yet the good is still good. Perhaps we can’t always put a price tag on “good”—and perhaps doing good might actually cost us something. But the message Dickens hopes we see is that not doing good costs us even more; and that the good act of giving, looking out for our neighbors, gleans us much more than a profit margin. This is a message that cuts against the grain of our American culture that wants us to give, but only if we end up giving the best gift and people know we one-upped them—our American culture that wants us to spend all of our money of expensive, trendy presents so that charity work gets the left-overs—our American culture that bedazzles us with sales and must-haves and whispers of “they’ll love this so you must buy it.” What’s profitable, and what is good?
Scrooge begins a miser, an old man who’s built his fortune partly by refusing to share it with anyone. But he doesn’t end that way. Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a story of redemption and rescue; grace comes, from the outside, to work an inner change. Light and life and hope and charity intervene, but not without a good dose of painful honesty and difficult self-reflection. In order to be rescued, Scrooge must face his past, look honestly at his present, and ponder the future of a life unchanged. It’s a call Dickens makes to each of us.
Dickens’ contemporaries heard this call: in 1844 charitable giving spiked in Britain; in 1874 Robert Louis Stevenson declared he would give generously after reading the book; after reading A Christmas Carol, Thomas Carlyle invited guests over for not one, but two Christmas dinners; an American factory owner in 1867 closed his factory for Christmas and sent a turkey to the home of every employee, and in the early 1900s the Queen of Norway sent gifts to the crippled children in London, signed “with Tiny Tim’s love.”
So as we enjoy A Christmas Carol, we should consider what the takeaway is for us. Does Dickens have anything to say about American consumerism and the needs of the impoverished? What kind of futures are we building for ourselves in the way we spend Christmas? The needs are many. May we meet at least a few.
If you’re like me, you might take A Christmas Carol as a fixture of Christmas—one that is so familiar that likely it doesn’t gain much deep consideration. The tale of a miserly old man whose evening is startlingly interrupted by four ghosts who intervene to rescue him from his curmudgeonly and parsimonious ways is straightforward enough, the message fairly unobscured; after all, Dickens wasn’t interested in wrapping up the moral of the story in layers of symbolism.
But sometimes what is familiar is the least examined. Take the title, for example—A Christmas Carol. Some versions of Dickens’ story include singing, but not all Christmas Carols include, well, carols. Dickens didn’t even publish it intending it to be sung; he published it as a book. So why did he entitle it A Christmas Carol? Well, in actuality he entitled the book something other than just the innocuous A Christmas Carol: really, the novella is entitled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
Now, Charles Dickens knew how to turn a penny; he had made himself a fair amount of money as a writer and had a good business sense. So certainly his title has something to do with marketability. Who, perusing the books for sale amid other wares, wouldn’t have his eye caught by a Ghost Story of Christmas? Or, for that matter, a Christmas Carol in prose? In 1843, the year Dickens published Christmas Carol, Christmas carols were well-entrenched in English Christmas celebrations. Classics such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” had been around since the 1700s. “Silent Night” had just been penned in 1818, and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” was practically hot off the presses, being written in 1833 (although the lyrics are said to date back to the 1400s). So clearly Dickens was relying on a catchy title to capture the attention of book buyers. (His strategy, and his enduring story, worked: the book has never been out of print since its first printing in 1843.)
And, interestingly enough, because the work was entitled A Christmas Carol, he didn’t pen it in chapters, but instead, mirroring choral music structure, he divided his book into staves (the plural of staff, the system of lines and spaces onto which we write notes). It’s as if he wants us to think of the story being sung to us, or even as if we are all carolers, singing the ghost story to each other, participating in it, investing ourselves in its message. Now what’s interesting about many of the Christmas carols Dickens knew (and that we still sing today) is that they often take deep truth and express it in layered verses; each verse takes us deeper into the truths about God, or our condition, or the circumstances surrounding and significance of Christ’s birth. Perhaps this is what Charles Dickens had in mind when he decided to title his novella in a way that echoed familiar carols.
If that’s the case, then why did he choose this means? Why write a book, a story, that echoes Christmas carols in structure, depth, and even title? What was he after? Primarily, Dickens hoped to motivate readers to do more to help the poor in Britain—this is why men come around to Scrooge’s shop, collecting money for the poor (and are soundly rebuffed by Scrooge’s “Bah, Humbug!” and query about workhouses and prisons), why there are beggars on the streets, why Tiny Tim’s life is in jeopardy as his family struggles to make ends meet with paltry wages. But in order to fully appreciate these elements of the story and Dickens’ objective, we need to understand a little about Dickens’ context.
The Industrial Revolution had been underway in England since the late 18th century, so at least one if not two generations of British families had seen their situations change drastically because of the many innovations—some for the better, but many for the worst. As labor became mechanized, laborers became scarcer. And as industry moved away from the countryside and into the cities, people flocked to the cities. But there they found often hardship, lack of employment, crowded living conditions, and sometimes even destitution. Add to that a few bad harvests and mass unemployment following the end of the wars with Napoleon (defeated finally in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo), and England was facing an enormous crisis.
Old ways of helping the poor were simply unsustainable. By 1834 British Parliament passed the New Poor Law, which legislated a new way to deal with the poor: rather than merely offering them assistance as they needed it, the British system would now require impoverished people to earn help, in the workhouses. The poor and destitute had to seek help by applying to the workhouses, a place to live as well as work. Though the law was intended to keep able-bodied workers at their jobs and homes, as you might imagine, many critics of this law saw it merely as a way to penalize the poor rather than help them.
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!
It really is sad that Christmas comes only once a year. This holiday reminds us of many things we need to remember every day of the year. First and foremost, Christmas reminds us of the mystery of the Incarnation, an event that theologians and poets have struggled to describe.
The Incarnation is God becoming man, the Son of God taking on flesh to dwell among us. It is the Eternal Word becoming a wordless infant; the Infinite, Limitless, Unbounded Creator became an baby in a feed trough. It is the All-Powerful Creator who set the stars spinning through space, became powerless to control the movement of his own arms.
Incarnation is a mystery in the ancient sense of the word: it is something we cannot fully understand, yet it shines bright light on the world. It teaches us how to look not just at Jesus, but also at each other and at all material things in this world. And this lesson is important because it can also keep us from making two grave mistakes–two Incarnational errors.
Loving the Spiritual Too Much
Because Christmas celebrates the Incarnation–a central event in God’s salvation of the world–it can be easy to overemphasize the theological and spiritual meaning of Christmas and ignore all the food, decorations, and gifts that are part of a traditional Christmas celebration. Though this seems very devout, it misses the meaning of the Incarnation.
When God became a man, he emphasized the goodness of the human body. When the Incarnated Second Person of the Trinity walked in the dust, washed with water, ate bread and meat, he underscored the goodness of material things, of the “stuff” that fills the world. So, to celebrate the Incarnation in any authentic sense requires the use of stuff to do so–otherwise we aren’t really honoring the Incarnation of Christ.
It is likely that few of my readers lean toward this mistake of overemphasizing the spiritual. But all of us commit a similar mistake when we ignore the goodness of the ordinary things that fill our lives. When we take common things for granted–things like bread and water, our families, our homes–we cannot be grateful for them. We only give thanks for that which we recognize as good.
The thing to remember is how
tentative all of this really is.
You could wake up dead.
Or the woman you love
could decide you’re ugly.
Maybe she’ll finally give up
trying to ignore the way
you floss your teeth as you
watch television. All I’m saying
is that there are no sure things here.
I mean, you’ll probably wake up alive,
and she’ll probably keep putting off
any actual decision about your looks.
Could be she’ll be glad your teeth
are so clean. The morning might be
full of all the love and kindness
you need. Just don’t go thinking
you deserve any of it.
This poem emphasizes a truth that has been voiced by many Christians of the past: everything we have is a gift; all that he have we have been given by another. The poem also draws our attention to blessings we easily take for granted: being alive and not dead, having people love us in spite of our looks (and bad hygiene), even dental floss.
What do we have that we have not received? Nothing. All is gift. Let us give thanks for everything, and especially for things that are ordinary–for they are just like us.
Loving the Material Too Much
At Christmas we give gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus as a gift from God the Father to all mankind. But it is so easy for us to lose sight of this and become crass materialists, reducing Christmas to a time when we get lots of stuff. We often evaluate the success of Christmas by how much new stuff we get, and what percentage of that stuff is what we actually want.
When we do this, we overemphasize the material and ignore the spiritual. As a result, we dishonor the Incarnation of Christ. In his poem “Journey of the Magi”, T.S. Eliot writes about what the experience of the wise men may have been years after they traveled to see the Christ child. At the end of the poem, the wise man wonders,
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Notice the effect Jesus’ birth had on this wiseman? He is no longer content merely with the things of the world, though he has wealth, power, wisdom, and fame. He longs for something more, something that cannot be found in this world. He longs for Jesus.
Being Incarnational All Year Long
To truly honor Christ’s Incarnation at Christmas–and the rest of the year–we must keep the spiritual and the material in harmonic union, emphasizing neither at the expense of the other. And we do so in this way: first, we give thanks to God for the most ordinary blessings we can find–for the dirt in our driveway, the snow on the sidewalk, the high-pitched whine that in our more charitable moments we recognize as our sister’s voice. We need to give thanks for all of this, confessing our blindness and our ingratitude.
Then we try everyday to pay close attention to the things around us. We take a moment to smell the yeast in our dinner rolls. We pause in our piranha-like frenzy of getting things done to notice the gift we have in our children’s faces. We take time to give our siblings our full attention, looking for a way to incarnate our love to them.
We need to see the goodness in everything around us, especially the ordinary things that are so abundant. This is the material aspect of the Incarnation. But we also give thanks for all these things around us because they are gifts that point us to the One who gave them to us. This is the spiritual aspect of the Incarnation. By giving thanks both for the goodness of the world and for the giftedness of the world, we truly honor Christ’s Incarnation at Christmas time.
To conclude, I offer this incarnational toast from Robert Farrar Capon. May God be pleased to make it true of us this year:
May your table be graced with lovely women and good men. May you drink well enough to drown the envy of youth in the satisfactions of maturity. May your men wear their weight with pride, secure in the knowledge that they have at last become considerable. May they rejoice that they will never again be taken for callow, black-haired boys.
And your women? Ah! Women are like cheese strudels. When first baked, they are crisp and fresh on the outside, but the filling is unsettled and indigestible; in age, the crust may not be so lovely, but the filling comes at last into its own. May you relish them indeed.
May we all sit long enough for reserve to give way to ribaldry and for gallantry to grow upon us. May there be singing at our table before the night is done, and old, broad jokes to fling at the stars and tell them we are men.