As a classical school, music is important to us – a “muse” whose presence and inspiration we trace throughout history as both source and soundtrack for so much of humanity’s existence.
Likewise, as a Christian school seeking to train students to worship God, we resonate with Martin Luther’s claim that, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world for such a purpose.
All year, our Secondary staff and students have been considering classical music and its variety, ideas, melodies, and study through four different Lyceum messages (1, 2, 3, 4) written and presented by Humanities teacher Ginny Owens.
As part of this study, choir director Heidi Hornung selected and led our Secondary Choir in rehearsals of a chorale (a musical composition consisting of or resembling a harmonized version of a simple, stately hymn tune) written by Johann Sebastian Bach. Here’s how it turned out (from last week’s Spring Schola Cantorum performance):
In addition to the night’s musical offerings (clips of which you can watch at our Petra Academy Vimeo channel), we displayed art created by students in our Secondary Houses in consideration of Christ’s death and resurrection. The pieces were beautiful and thoughtful reflections to help prepare us for Good Friday and Easter later this week.
Turns out that art, as with all created gifts, is for God’s sake, not its own – which means it’s for the sake and blessing of others, too. That means that Christian artists, students and adults, should offer God (and their neighbor) the best works of art possible. Skill, craftsmanship, beauty, clarity, balance, and other timeless elements are to be studied and practiced to produce an almost endless variety of quality artistic works…It’s all about imitating Him, our Father, as beloved children.”
Giving of ourselves on behalf of others – this is what we at Petra seek to do through music and art, because this is what God has done for us through Jesus. Reminding us of this Gospel truth in audio and visual forms is the highest calling that music and art – musicians and artists – can fulfill.
One of the joys of summer (apart from the school year ending, of course) is the opportunity to walk back through the past nine months and thank God for His blessings, for they are many.
Academically, we saw students at every level work hard, embracing the curricular challenges presented within each new grade and seeking to understand what our teachers so passionately attempted to present and inculcate. Our new Upper School Lyceum presentations from faculty contributed to the weekly intellectual stimulation, as did the many Grammar School field trips and educational festivals highlighting different aspects of our world. We witnessed the manifestation of fruit from our academic endeavors at each Recitation (Grammar and Upper School), by the expression of creative projects hanging on the walls, in the conversations and discussions engaged in in the classrooms (and, I’m told, at dinner tables everywhere), and through our Upper School Thesis presentations – all culminating in our Senior Commencement at the end of the year, in which we graduated 10 students we loved very much.
Artistically, we witnessed the deeper establishment of our music program with our new 4th-6th grade Orchestra joining our dynamic 4th-8th grade Choir for two wonderful Schola Cantorum concerts. We studied many and varied forms of visual art, and learned some of the history of each along the way. We dedicated a full two days to our Upper School Shakespeare Festival, extending our love for the Bard down into our Grammar school in partnership with Montana Shakespeare in the Parks and their Montana Shakes! week-long program in which over 40 of our 3rd-6th graders participated. Our Upper School students participated in our first-ever Film Festival and studied three stunning films from Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue project. And, we took a big step in our Drama program, producing a custom version of the theatrical favorite, Meet Me in St. Louis, complete with rousing song and dance numbers performed in front of record attendance numbers – our first foray into the wonderful world of the onstage musical.
Athletically, it was a banner year of spirit and accomplishment: we saw continued improvement at all four levels of our volleyball program, turned in our best JV basketball record to date of 10-3, and won our third state championship in five years in Ultimate Frisbee. Most importantly, we saw the beginnings of an actual fan base – of students K-12 (and their families) attending and cheering on our Griffin teams because they were our own. Our new line of Griffin Gear helped unify our look, and Spirit Days and our new Contio Spiritus pep rallies each month gave expression to our newly-cultivated school spirit.
Of course, if we’re talking spirit, there were our traditional feasts for Reformation/All Saints’ Day, Advent, and Easter, as well as yet another beautiful morning for Field Day, all of which added to the fun. We installed the first elements of our new Grammar playground (with more still to come), our 3rd-6th graders took history on parade, our 7th-12th graders learned about etiquette (and looked great doing so) at Protocol, and we loved hosting our elders for Grandparents’ Day. Finally, our Upper School house system competed – athletically, dramatically, academically, and musically – throughout the year, and we were all reminded of – maybe even surprised by! – the unity fostered by the houses when we retired them for summer at our year-end closing awards ceremony, where we celebrated each other’s accomplishments and cried a tear or two at a powerful slide show summarizing 2016-17.
Administratively, we celebrated our freedom to educate students the way we do during School Choice Week, welcomed dozens of school leaders from other parts of Montana interested in what we were doing, and secured another five-year accreditation from our accrediting body of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools. We improved systems (most significantly being online registration), welcomed new Board members, and attempted to lead humbly and with care for each and every student and family. We sought to own our shortcomings and failures, asked forgiveness and took responsibility for what we could or needed to, and worked to view issues as opportunities to get better. Most importantly, we sought God’s Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and remain ever-grateful for what we discern to be His gracious response to us.
Thanks be to God…for 2016-17, and for everything.
Just three more days until the curtain opens on Petra’s production of Meet Me in St. Louis and the critics* are loving it! One reviewer wrote:
Meet Me in St. Louis is filled with some of the best actors. These actors take you right into the Smiths’ living room in 1904…The cast has been so great from the first day to the day of performance. This play is filled with great dancers and singers…
Indeed, she (more or less) hit the nail on the head: the cast has been hard at work for the past two months crafting a brilliant performance that highlights more than just the superb acting talents of our students, but their dance and singing abilities as well.
Another reviewer was impressed by the ambitiousness of the production and the amount of work that the student actors put into a performance. I was especially happy to read what this particular reviewer attributed to being part of the students’ success:
Meet Me in St. Louis is a great opportunity for the secondary kids to learn what goes into performing. Performing in a play is a lot [of work], but these students have great attitudes and perseverance.
This year’s production includes more than just student actors, though; the set construction, costuming, stage management, and running lights and sound has been and is handled largely by students. We even have student choreography and piano accompaniment provided by our kids.
Yet another reviewer was surprised to hear how many seats were still open and wrote:
Meet Me in St. Louis is a musical [treat] that expresses laughter, sorrow, and romance. With all the hard work the students have put in – from just beginning to memorize their lines, to putting on an amazing performance – this is a play that the whole family will enjoy…If you and your family are looking for a fun and exciting night at Petra Academy, I highly encourage this play…
So what are you waiting for? Get your tickets today to come see Meet Me in St. Louis! Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7 p.m., with an additional Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.
(*Critical reviews supplied by fifth graders Anya Bentz and Auna Flohr, and third grader Ava Flohr, all of whom have seen the majority of the rehearsal process from the first weeks and still want to come watch the show. Thanks, ladies!)
Perhaps you read the news last month of the demise of the Pioneer Cabin Tree, the great Sequoia “tunnel tree” in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, 90 miles east of Sacramento. When I read the story, I found myself wondering why the tree’s collapse seemed so surprising to so many: take a tree and cut out two-thirds of its trunk, and what does one expect will happen when high rains and floodwaters come?
We shouldn’t miss the metaphor as it relates to education. Up until the end of the 19th century, the “trunk” of an American student’s tutelage was the teaching of humility and character, logic and reason, writing and rhetoric – all with a particular moral end in mind. This was the education of our first Presidents and many of those who laid and built upon the early foundations of our nation.
Today, however, our school systems have reduced learning to a pragmatic pursuit of a job. Progressives like John Dewey and others essentially cut out the heart of true education – of “paideia,” the raising and enculturation of a moral and ethical civilization – opting instead for a gutted tourist stop along the way to employment.
Aristotle criticizes the education of the Spartans precisely because their education was directed only toward ‘necessary and useful things,’ with little regard for what is ‘noble.’ In this light, it is notable that although historians grant the Spartans the respect they are due for their martial discipline, the same historians also note that the Spartans left no philosophical, literary, or political legacy, unlike their Athenian rivals.
Here we have a paradox: In making utility the chief goal of education, we sacrifice much of its usefulness. A merely utilitarian education is largely ineffectual precisely because it does not seek to make a student good, or at least to teach him what is good, or even to provide him with those principles that guide good behavior – all of which qualities are essential aspects of true utility. (p. 80)
What’s a solution? Edmondson references Plato:
Plato explains that the central thrust of education must be to cultivate intellectual and moral virtue because ‘virtue…would be a certain health, beauty, and good condition of the soul’; without an education directed to the soul, the student will be left with ‘vice’ which is a ‘sickness, ugliness and weakness’ of the soul. (p. 82)
When was the last time “the central thrust of education to cultivate intellectual and moral virtue” was the discussion at the local, state, or national levels concerning our country’s education departments? When was the last time truth, goodness, and beauty (instead of just how our student(s) did on the latest test) was the topic at our own kitchen tables?
Later this week, re-enrollment opens exclusively for current Petra families. Obviously, we would love for 100% of our student body to re-enroll for next year. What will be your family’s parameters for deciding whether to return in 2017-18? Here are four I sometimes hear from parents, along with a few thoughts for rumination:
1) Grades. One consideration may be whether a student is making A’s (straight or otherwise), but let’s avoid setting up that idol – in our kids’ hearts or in our own – as a goal for their education. So many student issues (now and later) stem from a preoccupation with grades, and I find that nine times out of ten, when a student is so preoccupied, it is because her parents are as well. Grades can be a motivator, sure, as well as a means to evaluate some degree of mastery, yes, but (to paraphrase Mark 8:36), “…what does it profit a student to gain straight A’s and forfeit his soul?” After all, in the words of author Walker Percy, “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.”
2) Workload. Another consideration is workload. As a parent, none of us enjoys seeing our kids struggle, but nothing teaches students perseverance and work ethic more than having to get over a high bar (and Petra’s is one of the highest at every grade). If there is an epidemic in 21st-century parenting, it is giving into the temptation and tendency to intervene rather than coach, to teach to avoid struggle rather than lean into and work through it. And yet, those who trust the process and persevere (even and at times with tears) eventually join the ranks of those who take great satisfaction in having worked hard to accomplish something great. To graduate from Petra is not easy, but I have yet to meet an alumnus who regrets having done the work to do so.
3) Impact on family life. A third re-enrollment consideration is the impact on family life, for as I tell interested parents on our Tours on Thursdays, if we’re not being impacted at home, something’s wrong. Classical Christian education is not something to be compartmentalized and left at school over the weekend. It comes home with our students on a daily basis in the form of questions and answers about what is true, good, and beautiful; it makes observations about our lifestyles and calls into question our liturgies. Because so few of us were raised with classical Christian education as children ourselves, it pushes us as parents to humbly learn alongside our students all the things we were never taught, reinforcing or retarding a love of learning in our students, depending on our attitudes.
4) Cost. A final consideration is financial: can we afford to send our student(s) to Petra? Petra is not cheap (though I’m also told by parents with private education experience elsewhere that Petra is a “steal,” particularly in a place like Bozeman), and while we in Montana have a choice of where to send our kids to school, we certainly do not have financial incentive to choose apart from the “free” government school system we all support with our tax dollars (I wrote about this at some length here). Sometimes it’s hard not to just give in and give up our kids to a school that we’re already paying for, telling ourselves we’ll deal with whatever comes up morally, emotionally, or spiritually with our student(s), all the while hoping for the best academically.
But perhaps a better question is this: can we afford not to send our student(s) to Petra? Where else in Bozeman are elementary, middle school, and high school students intentionally and unapologetically taught virtue and character by learning the basics of language (ancient and modern), reading the greatest books of literature, searching the lessons and ideas of history and philosophy, engaging in the mysteries of the sciences and mathematics, training in logical thinking and rhetorical expression, and participating in athletics and the making of art (dramatic, visual, or musical) – and all with and from a classical Christian worldview modeled and delivered by a caring faculty and staff?
When re-enrollment opens later this week, I hope you’ll give thought to these four considerations. Make no mistake: we want your family excited about the benefits of classical Christian education and back at Petra next year. We also want you to rest assured that, after 21 years, we know who we are and want to be as a school, and this identity – this trunk of our tree – is one we have no intention of hollowing out. Our mission:
We invite you to join us as part of it again next year.
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.
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.
by Craig Dunham, Headmaster
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” Colossians 3:16
We sing a lot at Petra, and not just in choir or only at the elementary level. While there is plenty of music going on in our K4-6th grade classrooms each day (not to mention in our 1st-3rd grade violin program, or on Friday mornings as part of our elementary Great Assembly), our 7th-12th grade students gather for ten minutes of daily morning prayer and song, so named “matins” for the medieval tradition of corporate prayer and singing, scripture reading and response, and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and various ancient creeds.
In addition to the morning music, we usually also offer a musical blessing together before lunch in the form of the “Doxology” or “Gloria Patri.” And, since music is one of the “four ways” of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) of classical Christian education, at some point in the months or years to come, I hope we can work in some “evensong” to end each day as well. (We also have plans for more formally-developed choirs and orchestras, but that’s another post.)
As a classical Christian school, we want our students singing ancient songs and participating in traditional liturgies that have been important to Christians for millennia. Sadly, few churches even reference many of these anymore (let alone use them), so ours is not only an attempt at morning prayer but musical preservation. In addition to several traditional hymns to date, we’ve included service music like “Venite,” which is a musical chant of Psalm 95; “Kyrie Eleison,” which the students have learned to sing in a beautiful three-part round; and (currently) “Dona Nobis Pacem,” with three different parts sung in harmony. There is no accompaniment and no sheet music; students learn by ear and attempt to blend their voices with those of others as we focus together at the start of our day.
Earlier this week, we gathered all of our Petra students into the gymnasium to take an all-school picture. Everyone did a nice job assembling themselves (which is no small task for 198 K4-12th grade students), but after the picture was taken, it seemed a great opportunity since we were all together to have everyone sing “Kyrie.” Perhaps the best way to explain the result is to quote one of Mrs. Snyder’s first graders, who excitedly told her on the way back to class that “everybody’s singing sounded like beautiful opera!”
While I’m unaware of this first grade student’s actual experience with opera, indeed (and with a little help from the live acoustics of our gymnasium), the students’ singing was beautiful. But even better than that one moment has been that all this week I’ve heard first graders, fifth graders, and freshmen (among others), whistling while they work and humming in the hallways these ancient songs of the faith.
What started out as joyful noise is metamorphosing into joyful music. As students learn these and other songs, we trust this venerable music will stay with and sustain them in good times and bad, just as it has done for so many saints before.
“Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” Ps. 95:1
Translations: “Venite” (“Come.”); “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord, have mercy.”); “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant us peace.”)
“Be” – we exist because God created us for a specific purpose His own glory
“Still” – a state of contentment and rest, not fretting or looking for an alternative
“My” – that which we are responsible for and can manage, remembering that we cannot change the actions or motives of anyone else
“Soul” – the inner being that is constantly offering counsel that we listen to more than any other advisor
Kenneth Osbeck relays in his book 101 Hymn Stories that the familiar hymn, “Be Still, My Soul” originated in the seventeenth century in Germany during a movement known as the Pietistic Revival. Leading this time of revival in Berlin, Philip Jacob Spencer encouraged singing, which led to a great revival of hymnody in the country.
One of the most prominent hymn writers of the time was Katharine von Schlegel. Born in Germany in 1697 at the tail end of the Reformation Movement, it is no surprise she was a member of the Lutheran church. As the Pietistic Revival itself was characterized, the lyrics which flowed from the heart of von Schlegel were also characterized by “genuine piety, depth of feeling, rich Christian experience, and faithfulness in Scriptural expression.” This is clearly portrayed in the lyrics of “Be Still, My Soul.”
I am so thankful for the translation work of Jane Borthwick over one hundred years ago, as she made the outpouring of von Schlegal’s heart accessible to my own. Heading into a new school year with a new headmaster, new families, new fears, old hurts, a larger building, and numerous other unknowns, I’ve been meditating on the lyrics of this beloved hymn.
Anticipating changes with a still soul has always been a challenge for me. I fight the temptation to take up the worry, anxiety, and even exhausting enthusiasm that relentlessly knocks at the door of my heart.
Last year I had the opportunity to incorporate two new foundational curriculum changes (math and history) in my classroom. During this process, I often battled thoughts that ranged from, “I can’t make this or that work!” to “I am physically and mentally exhausted. Where will the strength and enthusiasm come to teach today?” The comforting phrase, “. . . leave to thy God to order and provide” became a constant reminder to press on, ask for help and guidance, focus on the next right response, and grow in my faith.
This coming year ushers in our new headmaster. The extensive search and interview process that the board and administration conducted last year was definitely full of unknowns and lofty expectations. As a staff member, I began to wonder if our school would continue to function as it had or if radical change was going to be implemented. What would that mean for me as a teacher and my children as students? What about the Petra community? Would the new headmaster understand what it is like to lose a leader who loved us so well? Would he or she embrace that, even though we know it is time to move forward, there is still a feeling of loss associated with the past?
As worry and fear would begin to build in my heart, the Lord would bring to mind the beginning of the second verse of this old hymn: “Be still, my soul, thy God doth undertake to guide the future as He has the past.” Then, when the staff first met Craig Dunham, I found myself in awe at how the Lord had perfectly prepared this particular individual to lead our school with purpose, humility, and wisdom. Here was a man who, in spite of his own fears and hurts, clearly continued to love – the Lord, his family, other people, and the work God has given him to do. When he accepted the position, there was great relief and anticipation about what this coming year will bring.
As we prepare for this coming school year, I’m still doing some individual heart searching with the following questions: Is my soul still and at peace, or am I fretting and unsettled? Do I regularly remember that the Lord is on my side or do I think I am fighting these battles alone? Am I leaving to my God to order and provide or am I insisting on my own way? Is my confidence in myself or in Almighty God?
Other questions: Am I running to Jesus to soothe the hurt in my heart or do I forget that He longs to comfort and assure me? Am I remembering that the suffering I may be experiencing right now is temporary and that as a believer in Jesus Christ I have a unique future hope? Do I know with confidence that God is who He says He is and His existence is not dependent on my belief or actions?
In the lyrics of each stanza of “Be Still, My Soul,” the author acknowledges that life is filled with things unknown, disappointment, grief, sorrow, change, and pain. Yet for the believer in Jesus Christ, all of this is eclipsed by the hope and confidence that we have in future glory. And still, we have a present task here and now, for each day brings choices and decisions to make. Some may seem significant – purchasing a home or caring for an aging parent; others may seem less so – stopping to pick up a forgotten item at the grocery store or helping with homework Regardless, each one is an opportunity to trust in an all-powerful, all-knowing, faithful, loving God to bring resolution rather than relying on ourselves to try to do so alone.
As we approach the beginning of another school year, we will encounter multiple opportunities each day to choose to be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). In our stillness, we can meditate on God’s faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23), rejoice in His blessing (Philippians 4:4-8), remember who we serve and the indescribable gifts He has already given (James 1:17; John 3:16), and anticipate the future with hope and confidence (I Timothy 4:10; Philippians 1:6). We are children of God – blessed, chosen, sealed, adopted, forgiven, and loved (Ephesians 1; Romans 8).
These truths, kept in the forefront of our minds and on the turf of our hearts, will sustain. In the midst of new procedures, old habits, malfunctioning technology, and inspiring lectures, these ancient words remain, and we can continue to draw new strength from them.