Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Quote to Dream About

I've again not been much of a blogger, as we come to the end of a frenetic first quarter. We have formed into a new High School community with new students from here and abroad. The Class of 2014 has had an impressive start and seem at home already. We have encountered difficulty and pain as well. Two of our faculty members have been hospitalized and have had extended absences from school. We also seem to have had more than our normal share of student injuries, with more crutches and boots than I can ever remember at one time in our halls. And recently, we experienced a great loss with the passing of Mr. Doug Willmann, the father of Josh Willmann '11. We continue to mourn this terrible loss.

It is at times like these when the vision of the prophets comes most clearly into focus. Better than any words I could write, I want to share a quote I stumbled upon from Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, the President of Calvin Seminary. (His book Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living is a central piece for how we think about theological integration.) In his work Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary on Sin, he writes:

The prophets knew how many ways human life can go wrong because they knew how many ways human life can go right. (You need the concept of a wall on a plumb to tell when one is off.). These prophets kept dreaming of a time when God would put things right again.

They dreamed of anew age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain. The foolish would be made wise and the wise, humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. Lambs could lie down with lions. All nature would be fruitful, benign, and filled with wonder upon wonder; all humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God and delight in God. Shouts of joy and recognition would well up from valleys and seas, from women in streets and from men on ships.

The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

We all await that day.

In Christ,


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Opening Convocation

Last Sunday evening was a wonderful time of community as we celebrated the beginning of another academic year. It was great to have so many of us together as we sang, worshipped, and prayed over our year. Following are my remarks from the "charge" that evening.

A Center that Holds

In the opening lines of William Yeat’s poem, The Second Coming, he sets a bleak picture of a world unmoored.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand.
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

I don’t know if the Second Coming is at hand, I really don’t know that I’m prepared or qualified to make those kinds of statements. I’ll leave that to the Left Behind books and movies. But what I do know is that much of his description fits our modern world. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; ceremony of innocent drowned, lack of conviction and passionate intensity misguided or for ill. I think it is fair to say that in many ways we live in a world without a center. Not to get too philosophical on a Sunday evening, but one of the hallmarks of a postmodern society is that because of the relativity of truth, there are NO unifying principles, no ultimate narratives or stories that can hold our understanding of reality together. It’s not just that the center cannot hold, but society says there isn’t a center to begin with.

Today’s Scripture passage (Colossians 1:15-20) on the other hand, presents us with a very different picture of reality. Paul, speaking of Christ, tells us that He is over all things, all things were created by Him and for Him, that He is before all things, and that all things in Him hold together. While that drum beat from Paul might seem a bit redundant, a little background on the church at Colossae clears things up a little.

A common heresy circulated in the early church called Gnosticism. Gnosticism believed that there was secret knowledge that was available to insiders that gave them understanding into reality. One key understanding was that the spiritual was good but all matter, the physical world was bad. While Jesus was part of a divine plan, he could not be both physical AND divine. So Gnostics understood Jesus and His humanity quite differently. Secondly, if the spiritual side of things is what ultimately mattered, Gnostics often took one of two views of the physical world. Either it was to be avoided at all costs because it was evil—which led to asceticism, or the physical didn’t matter at all, so it didn’t matter what you did. The physical was totally insignificant.

In light of this, let’s look at Paul’s language again. Jesus is the image of God, the Creator (of the physical world), the fullness of God dwells in him, He is in all, and everything holds together by Him. He is Supreme. And even His Death and blood reconcile all things to God, making peace—God’s shalom. If one reads the New Testament, there is a center, and it holds all things together, and restores all to God—both the physical and the spiritual.
So what does that have to do with us in 2010 when to my knowledge, our community doesn't have a whole lot of people in the Gnostic Club? Is there a word for us today?

At Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, we proudly proclaim that we are Christ-centered, which in light of Scripture, is how it should be for a Christian school. But even though we would most likely all agree with that declaration and have no problem with it being on our brochures and a prominent line on the back of the “CHCA Soaring” t-shirts, at what point does “Christ-centered” come into your thinking patterns? Is it only a nice spiritual mantra, or does it come in contact with the day to day experiences, the physical realities of your life? Loving Jesus in our hearts isn’t enough. It is about living with Jesus in the center that demonstrates God’s Kingdom at work in the world.

Let me give you an example: every day, some sort of problem comes across my desk. A solution is needed and often times it is needed quickly. If I could break down the thought processes, my #1 filter is what is easiest thing to do to make this go away. Next, when this decision happens, will more people be happy or unhappy? How much does it cost? What problems does it create down the line? Will Mr. Brunk be happy? How many phone calls and emails will I have to answer? Will Mr. Brunk be happy? Etc., etc., etc. Sometimes at the end of the day as I’m driving home, reflecting on all the stuff that’s happened, I’ll think back to my original problem, think about my final response, and only then ask myself, Was that a Christ-centered response? Do you see the problem? I don’t think any of us wants to go about not being Christ-centered. I’m not accusing any of us of being an anti-Christ. I’m simply suggesting that for most of us, most of the time, Christ is not the CENTER. To some degree, we are all guilty from the youngest to the oldest. Students: is your first measure of academic success good grades and then ask later, what does it mean to be a Christ-centered student? Do we look to win games first, and then ask, what does it look like to be a Christ-centered athlete? Does getting a part come first, and asking what it means to be Christ-centered on the stage come later? Do we have colleges to get into and scholarships to win and then wonder where Christ fits into our plans? We adults are part of the same dilemma. Do test scores and state standards come first? Do winning percentages drive most decisions? School rank, enrollment, financial stability, public perceptions—do they nudge Christ further down the list in our focus and decision making? Parents: does your child’s success, GPA, ever-growing resume, social standing, happiness, come first in your decision making? Everyone (now glaring at me) please hear this: NONE OF THE THINGS I’VE MENTIONED ARE BAD! That’s the problem—they are all good and have value. And every one of these things might be part of a Christ-centered approach. But we are not Gnostics separating the spiritual from the physical. If they become the Center or higher ranked than Christ in the life of our school, at best, we are not following our values, and at worst, we slip into the sin of idolatry. I challenge us all, let us make Christ our center. The first consideration. The highest rubric. The greatest filter. When the urge to make a compromising decision comes: to cheat on homework or a test, to participate in weekend activities that go against your convictions, to lie, gossip, cause social drama, how will you respond? Could considering Christ before other motivators such as grades, social standing, or fun change the way we act and treat each other? Let us take up this challenge. Seniors, lead our student body. Show us what Christ-centered living could look like.
Let me add one more challenge. If we truly believe that Christ is at the Center, holding all things together, in all and through all, a major function of a Christian education is to find Him there. As we study and learn this school year, as we stretch our minds in all areas, we are studying and learning about a world, which while broken, still has Christ in its very fiber. He is both the Creator and the glue, in all and through all. As we seek to grow in Christ, let us not see our studies as something separate from our own spiritual journeys. For the Christian, all study is like solving a divine mystery. Where might we glimpse the Almighty this year? In a chemical compound or a soaring aria? In a literary text or a grammatical construction? In a historical figure or a mythic archetype? In a mathematical formula or in a biblical passage? In another culture and language or in the person sitting in the desk next to us? In an opponent’s victory or a homeless child’s eyes? That is why the late Dr. Richard Chase, a former President of Wheaton College wrote, “This is God’s world…the scholar wants to understand it; the Christian scholar is compelled to understand it. It is an act of worship.” Students: keep that in your minds when studies become hard or topics complex. When you feel frustrated or tired, wanting to give up and take the easy path, remember: You are carrying out a spiritual task.

Our biblical passage ends with the notions of reconciliation and peace. Could you imagine how those things would feel in our school this year? How would our community be strengthened? How would we grow as people and followers of Christ? And think outside our community. What if schools we came in contact with, people you know outside of CHCA, those we encountered in our Winter Terms, and travels saw a picture of life with a center that holds? What might they think? What might they say? Ironically, they might echo Yeats and declare:

The Second Coming is at Hand!

A New Beginning

Today I mowed the lawn for the second time since returning from vacation the last week of July. I guess that says a lot for how dry our summer has been in Cincinnati. It also says a lot about what my yard looks like right now. If you like browns and tans, my lawn is the place for you. To be honest, I don't spend a lot of energy worrying about grass, which has this powerful ability to revive in the fall and spring. My time, energy, and water end up in my garden beds, primarily my vegetable beds. While those don't look spectacular either, they have been keeping me somewhat busy and fed. A few varieties of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, jalepenos and chili peppers, along with lots of Italian and cinnamon basil, parsley, oregeno, rosemary, and tarragon have kept our summer table interesting. Earlier in the spring we could barely keep up with the broccoli, lettuces, radishes, and a few heads of cabbage to boot. I'm hoping to pick another round of my eggplants soon as well as a late planting of green beans. There have been disasters too. If not for the catepillars, I'd have had a lot more cabbage and plenty of cauliflower. I've also made some bad decisions about location, crowding out my eggplant and shading my peppers because of over zealous tomato plants. Timing was my biggest error this year. I got a nice spring garden going but not early enough and I didn't clear it out for summer planting soon enough to get things established before I left on vacation. So too much of my beds remained fallow this year. But I think the reason I like gardening so much is no matter how badly I fail, no matter what experiments do not work, come March and April, or maybe even February if I start from seed, I have a whole new opportunity for success unimagined. Like the beginning of Genesis, where God makes order out of Chaos, tending to even a small plot of land awakenss in me something powerful, maybe even a facet of the Divine image shining through. In the garden, after every failure, hope of new life awaits in even the smallest seed.

I think that same awareness arises in me during the dog days of August. Because even though there is still the kid in me that wants summer vacation to go on forever, the academic side of me knows that with the opening of the school year, a new season has begun. A new school year brings a fresh slate, cleaner than any January 1. All the things I wish I did better, all the ways I'd like to grow, all the opportunities unexplored, all the relationships I'd love to develop, all the students I hope to invest in, all the programs envisioned for the future, sit before me as possibilities when another year begins. Teachers adjust classes from last year's successes and failures. Students who dug themselves holes can often begin again on top. Mistakes are in the past. Bad habits can be broken. New heights can be reached. We can begin new paths that lead to places unimagined.

It's an exciting time to be in a school.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Trail Magic

As my recent reading probably shows, I've been a bit intrigued by the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a 2,160 mile, fourteen state hiking trail along the Appalachian mountains through the eastern United States. I've read a couple of accounts of "thru hikers," brave, determined souls who typically begin in the early spring at Springer Mountain, Georgia and hike continuously to Mt. Katahdin, reaching the trail's terminus in Maine around September or October.

A few reasons for my fascination with the AT come to mind. First, I've always loved the outdoors. Getting away from the daily grind, forgetting cell phones and technology, leaving behind noise and pollution, and connecting to the slower, quieter rhythms of forests, lakes, and streams reminds me of the vacations of my childhood. Hiking through the woods, fishing on a quiet lake, watching eagles overhead, and hearing loons in the distance restore my soul. But to be honest, I've typically experienced that escape from civilization for a week or two. Spending six or seven months intricately in touch with the wilderness rain or shine (or snow!)would obviously change the intensity of the experience. What would happen if I extended that ten fold?

Second, thru-hiking the AT takes an amazing level of determination. Hikers who succeed typically average about a hundred miles a week. Sometimes along the way, they take breaks off the trail for a few days. But for the most part, no matter the weather, his/her mood, the terrain, aches and pains, boredom, the hiker goes on. The successful hiker pays attention to the pace, sets small goals, yet keeps Katahdin ever in mind. A small percentage of thru-hikers make it each year. Some hikers try again and again. Those who succeed claim the feat is as much mental as physical. I often wonder when I read such accounts if I could stay the course.

Finally, despite the individual nature of the thru-hike, a sense of community forms on the AT. Most hikers travel in groups. Also thru-hikers write in logs at shelters along the way so in a sense, each hiker gets to know those who go before. As people slow down and speed up, they eventually meet those whom they've been reading about. Hikers look out for each other. But the community of the AT goes beyond the trail itself. Along the way are hostels, restaurants, supply shops, post offices, and other businesses that look out for the thru-hikers. While some locals turn up their noses at the ragged, grimy, seldom-showered lot, others look to give a helping hand, whether a ride to a campground, a hot meal or a shower, a chance to call home. Sometimes when a hiker is down on his/her luck and feels like giving up, someone offers help or retreat at just the right time. Hikers refer to this as "trail magic"--the unexpected hospitality or generosity of someone along the way. Hikers tell of the way "trail magic" lifts their spirits, encouraging them onward in their journey.

This year my church is focusing on the Gospel of Luke, reading through it in this church calendar. And the theme of journey has been a recurrent one. The parallel between my church's theme and my recent reading has gotten me thinking. Day in and day out at school, I am surrounded by people on a long spiritual journey. The AT takes 6-8 months. A year into our Christian journey of faith, we have barely begun. When I think of my own journey, how willing am I to leave behind the "things that so easily ensnare us," to use Paul's language, what we used to talk about as "worldliness" (though that's become quite unpopular). What level of determination do I have to stay the course? How cognizant am I of the community journeying with me? Are there ways I could provide encouragement, strength, and the ability to rejuvinate to those around me, a kind of spiritual "trail magic"? The journey is long. Again, Paul encourages us to "press on toward the mark," "to keep our eyes on the prize." For me, that journey often becomes focused more clearly during the season of Lent, which begins this Wednesday. I encourage you to consider your journey this week and how to focus more clearly on what lies ahead.

I've decided to hike the AT. I'm really not at the right place in my life to consider dropping out of life for three quarters of a year to make the attempt. So I plan to begin hiking sections of the trail with my family. We will start small--maybe a few miles this summer in Virginia. When they are older, maybe we will hike for a few weeks, or one year, maybe for an entire summer. I will hike the entire AT, God willing. It's just going to take me a little longer.

Happy trails.

School Done Differently: Winter Term 2010

(This post is the lead article in the February 11, 2010 Campus Connection, written with Karen Smeltzer.)

When reflecting back on high school, what is remembered? Does one recall social events? Extracurricular activities? Moments and stories plucked out of time, floating about in one’s memory with no real mooring? Does one actually remember learning? Do any classes stick out? Or is it like trying to remember any specific meal from the past calendar year? Each one may have been important and nourishing but they all fade into an indistinguishable blur. Invariably when I speak with CHCA alumni about their greatest high school memories, they always come back to a Winter Term experience. For in Winter Term, students experience learning in non-traditional, experiential, authentic, and sometimes even exotic ways. If we possess a tool to inspire life-long learners, Winter Term is it.

Winter Term is a two-week period in January between semesters when the MSL High School enriches its curriculum with experiential learning. Students choose from a menu of courses which range from classes in our building to excursions around the globe. Through this intensive two week study, our students engage the world in new ways, carry out CHCA’s vision, mission, and core values, and have educational experiences that they will never forget, all while gaining .25 credits toward graduation. This past January our students experienced the world. And their minds and hearts grew as they engaged through study, service learning, performance, experience, and mission.

If one considers Winter Term 2010 by the numbers, we provided a wide range of opportunities to meet the needs of our students. Twenty-nine percent of our students stayed in town, participating in Serve Cincinnati Hospitals, Serve Cincinnati Schools, Serve Cincinnati Headstart, Serve Cincinnati Elderly, Just Desserts, Career Internships, and Health which also met a graduation requirement. Thirty-three percent were out of country, traveling to Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Virgin Islands, South Africa, and Turkey. Thirty-eight percent spent part of their Winter Term across the U.S. with trips to Harlan, KY, Chicago, Washington, DC, Charleston, SC, Orlando, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Twenty-six percent participated in service while thirty-eight percent did missions trips.

But more significant than the numbers are the stories and words of our students and teachers. We have heard of lives changed through prayer and relationships in an orphanage in Monterrey, Mexico. One student recounted the power of reading the Book of Acts while following the footsteps of Paul’s journey through Turkey. Budding young scientists readily talked about how biology comes alive when feeding elk in the shadow of the Tetons or snorkeling in the waters of the Caribbean. Another student who built a house for a homeless man in Jamaica said, “This trip will forever alter my future behavior, attitude and decisions.” A young woman shared in chapel about how she learned to appreciate the wisdom of the elderly as she recounted her time in a nursing home. In Costa Rica, a participant noted, “The joy on the faces of the children in spite of their extreme poverty was hard to believe.” And I keep reading emails from people touched by the performances of EJO and Encore in Cincinnati, Charleston, and Orlando.

The course Culinary Arts “went in search of the best way to travel from mindless eating to mindful eating, and found the answer in exciting cuisine.” Students on the Appalachia trip experienced an entirely different culture a few hours away from Cincinnati. A large group of our students recounted how they bonded with young people in schools around our city, with some even returning on their own during a day off of school in January. A senior who traveled to South Africa eloquently shared how humbled he was by a baby in an orphanage.

As I reflect on the things I’ve heard and read since returning to our normal schedule, I was particularly moved by the stories of our students worshipping and fellowshipping with Christian brothers and sisters in churches around the country and the world. Despite culture and language, regional differences and dialects, politics and worldviews, the Spirit of Christ has the power to unite. Love was given and received. We are all different because of it. Students have followed our call to engage God’s world in all its beauty and complexity. They have returned to the classroom changed, seeing new relevance and possessing a new urgency to equip themselves to meet the challenges of the world. When we think about what “learning, leading, and serving” look like lived out, Winter Term is a poignant exemplar.

(For more about Winter Term and why we do it, see my blog from April 22, 2009.)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dr. Hall's Blog

If you haven't seen Dr. Hall's new blog, he recently discussed the book Nurture Shock. I just finished the book and was actually reading it at his recommendation. I have been struck by a number of topics in it but probably none more strongly than the "sleep chapter" in its relevance for the lives of our students and for myself. I echo Dr. Hall that the book deserves reading. The following blog is actually a response to a thoughtful parent who questions the dilemma caused when students get too little sleep because of the amount of homework. It is a great question for which I do not have a simple answer. But below are some of my own thoughts and wrestling with the topic.

There are a number of factors that make our situation far from ideal. At this point, how to go about fixing them is a whole other problem. As I see it, here are some of the mitigating factors.

1. American schools have shorter school days and shorter school years than most of the industrialized world. There are a number of reasons for this. The problem is that we competing with those schools around the world now, not just across town!

2. One of the ways we seek to compete in this country is by trying to find ways to get our kids "further faster" which generally results in pushing students to the AP level courses. That way they are getting prerequisite college courses out of the way so that they can do more advanced work more quickly during the undergrad years. Those classes become the capstone courses in each discipline and many of the colleges are wanting to see them on transcripts. So with colleges getting more selective, the pressure to take more college level work at the high school level increases. Mind you, we are already dealing with less time and now we are trying to squeeze in parts of freshmen year of college!

3. The part that exacerbates the problem is that not only are our kids trying to do so much in a compacted academic schedule, we are living in a society that does not place academics as highly on a value scale as some other cultures. For many students and families, sports or the fine arts take a priority that are unheard of in school systems outside of America. So balancing time for athletic teams that practice six days a week and high level fine art productions change the entire dynamic of an American high school. Thinking about student sleep, not only should they be getting eight hours, teens also would benefit from sleeping later in the morning. But while a 9 am start might be much preferred for student learning (which I think studies have clearly shown), the logistical issues it raises for after school practices and contests/matches, not to mention buses and transportation, make it a non-starter for some districts. Maybe it's time for it to be placed on the table for further discussion.

4. Then at CHCA, we have another level of constraint, because while we are doing all these other things to compete, we feel strongly that a Christ-centered education demands some other things. So not only are we adding an hour of chapel per week, but three and a half credits of Christian Studies classes and then one hundred and twenty hours of service on top of that. Again, please hear me in this--I am not bemoaning these features. I think they are central and make us who we are as a school. But it does impact the way student schedules become even more limited for time. I end up thinking about this issue as not just a homework issue but much more broadly as a school culture issue. To what degree are we willing to be counter-cultural as a school when it comes to our children and their time? In a culture that values busy-ness and achievement, can we accept less activities and accomplishments? What things are we willing to sacrifice? I worry if the answer becomes our children's sleep and emotional/psychological/spiritual well being. The ancient, and sadly outdated, principle of Sabbath could go a long way in a world like ours. "Rest" in our culture has become something for the lazy and unmotivated. It needs to be elevated again as a divine principle and mandate. (See Lauren Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath and Wayne Muller's Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives.)

Dr. Hall, thanks for getting the conversation started.