Thursday, November 08, 2007

To Post or Not to Post...

That is the question...

I am currently teaching Hamlet right now to my Grade 12 English students (hence the "to be or not to be" motif here...).

Hamlet's chief tragic flaw is his inability to "act"... Similarly, I am unable to blog. To blog or not to blog... However, I was sufficiently prodded by Barb (and perhaps, The Bard).

Hamlet is, by far, the greatest Shakespearean play. The line, "To be or not to be" is the most quoted phrase in English language. The play has been performed more than any other play in the world. It has been translated more than any other play and "it has inspired twenty-six ballets, six operas, and dozens of musical works" ("Hamletology" by Norrie Epstein).

In this most remarkable play, Hamlet ponders the quintessential question for humanity: "What is man?" or, "What is the meaning of life?" In the next blog post, I will share Hamlet's musings on the subject.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

To preach or not to preach...

When someone comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, he is compelled by a desire to serve his new-found God and Saviour. Like many Christians, he will pray and seek the Lord’s leading. However, God’s leading is not always clear. Sometimes the compulsion to serve becomes a question of deciding between Christian vocation and a secular vocation. Does God want me to be a missionary or a carpenter? A pastor or a teacher? The decision becomes muddled when we have gifts that suit Christian ministry. “Teaching” is one of those muddling factors. Like a pastor, teachers spend their time learning and communicating knowledge to students. The teacher’s role is also “pastoral” in that he often counsels students and encourages them in character building and citizenship. Teachers are also generally “people-orientated” and they can be effective administrators.

This has been my struggle. Although I serve in the church doing “lay ministry,” I am a teacher and I wonder if I should be using the gifts God has given me as a pastor.

I have wrestled with this for many years. While a Bible College in Alberta, I was counselled by many profs and students to pursue a ministerial vocation. Yet I was not convinced that is what God would have me do.

Recently, I was encouraged by reading the biography of William Wilberforce (Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce by John Piper). Wilberforce struggled with this same question after his conversion in his 20s. He asked, “Should I leave politics and take up a pastoral ministry?” Amazingly, John Newton, the famous hymn writer, pastor and acquaintance of Wilberforce answered his question with a resounding “No!” Newton encouraged Wilberforce to remain in his secular vocation, noting that God would use him in that capacity. God certainly did, by working through Wilberforce to end the slave trade and abolish slavery in the British Empire. Wilberforce also laboured for many other social and evangelical causes in his lifetime. Most significantly was his successful petition to end the British East India Company’s opposition to evangelizing India, which up to that point had been outlawed. For many years, the famous English missionary, William Carey, had been limited by the Company to minister in India only at a Danish colony near Calcutta, which was outside of the Company’s jurisdiction. Clearly, God had a use for Wilberforce in his secular vocation that had a profound impact on the world.

I was also encouraged by John the Baptist, who, instead of telling Tax Collectors and soldiers to change jobs, told them to do their secular jobs honestly and well (Luke 3:10-14).

A Call for Christian Teachers in Secular Schools

Although I am no Wilberforce, I am a teacher in a secular school. I meet daily with students and colleagues who are lost souls. Like other Christians in a secular environment, I strive to bear witness of Christ by my conduct and my example of integrity. Although I cannot overtly abuse my role as a teacher to proselytize, I am to teach my students to think “rightly” about the world. I actively fight against relativism and "scientism", teaching my students to seek “truth” and understand reality. Christian teachers ought to help their students discern a Christian worldview without necessarily calling it a Christian worldview. C.S. Lewis explains this need when he writes,

“If the intellectual climate is such that, when a man comes to the crisis at which he must either accept or reject Christ, [and if] his reason and imagination are not on the wrong side, then his conflict will be fought out under favourable conditions. Those who help to produce and spread such a climate are therefore doing useful work: and yet no such great matter after all. Their share is a modest one; and it is always possible that nothing---nothing whatever---may come of it. That does not mean we should put down the tools.”

Although I am not another William Carey or Charles Spurgeon, I labour for the kingdom, laying the foundation for Christian thinking, hoping that one day some of my students, when faced with a “crisis at which [they] must either accept or reject Christ,” will come to the right conclusions. If God calls me to another task, then to another task I will go. Until then, I am off to start another school year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Canoeing Algonquin, again...

My son and I returned "up north" this summer to canoe the wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park. This was our second canoe trip. Besides enjoying nature, seeing a beaver (!) and canoeing peaceful lake waters, I had a chance to be with my son. As he gets older (9 yrs!), I feel that my time to connect with him is rapidly fleeting. He is nearly a decade old and the years have flown by. In ten more years he may be moving out of the house, going to college or university, getting married, having babies...

Three days we were together, alone, camping and canoeing, breaking bread together, swimming, talking, reading. My prayer is that he will cherish these times. I know I will.

Study the Past...

"Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past... A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age."--C.S. Lewis, "Learning in War-Time"

Above: Katie looking at the Lincoln Memorial. When one thinks of the struggle for freedom from slavery during the Civil War and freedom from discrimination during the Civil Rights movement, it is hard not to think of the fight against prejudice throughout the world, even today.

This summer, I took my family to Washington DC. What was remarkable was the rich history-laden symbolism that filled the capital of the United States. The founders of that great nation to the south not only celebrated their own history, but they borrowed from the history of humanity. The architecture incorporated aspects of many great human civilizations from the history of the world. These founding fathers knew their history and as a result established one of the greatest nations in the world.

Above: the boys posing outside the National Archives (which houses the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, among other things). The plaque states, "Study the Past."

Learning about the past is often deemed irrelevant. Why learn about the past when we have current issues to address. Owen Barfield, a friend of C.S. Lewis called this "chronological snobbery"... that the present is better than the past. When teaching history, I refer to it as "contemporary bias". When studying history, what we often discover is that the modern issues are no different than the historical issues. We also discover that the big issues we face today are sometimes small when viewed from the perspective of history.
C.S. Lewis writes,

“To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market-place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. The unhistorical are usually, without knowing it, enslaved to a fairly recent past.”
As Christians, we should be especially learning from Christian history and Christian biography. I just recently finished reading the biography of the 19th-Century American missionary Adoniram Judson. He was a real Christian, who faced countless trials and yet persevered in the Lord. I was convicted, encouraged and invigorated by his life and testimony. John Piper writes, "[Good biography] is also theology---the most powerful kind---because it burst forth from the lives of people like us. It is also adventure and suspense, for which we have a natural hunger. It is psychology and personal experience, which deepens our understanding of human nature (especially ourselves)."
Too many Christians are enslaved to a fairly recent past; I wonder how many church-goers would be offended if their church exchanged the drum kit for a pipe organ. Too many Christians lament about "easier times" in by-gone days. When I read about the society of Christian America and the churches in Judson's day (early 1800s), I couldn't help but see the same troubles and opposition we encounter today.
So Christian, study the past. Let us not be short sighted. Read about the saints. Be liberated.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Tribute to my Dad

I was inspired after reading Dr. Haykin’s blog tribute to his father. In this day and age, there are many people who harbour bitterness towards their fathers. Some hate their father. When friends and colleagues share their sorrow and pain as a result of their experiences with their fathers, I am in shock. My experience with my father is antithetical to these experiences. My father is one of my greatest role models for godliness and manhood. My sorrow is that I fall short of his example in so many ways. Below I have listed ten things I have learned from my father…

1. Be patient. My father is a man of infinite patience; when I was a boy working with him on a project around the house, he seemed to be more interested in me learning how to do something than the job actually getting done. No matter how many bent nails, sloppy paint jobs or badly cut wood, he patiently nudged me along to do a better job next time. I am convinced I became a teacher because he taught me patience. Both my brother and sister are also teachers.

2. Do what is right: the means justify the end. My father was interested in doing things the right way, not just get the job done. Doing what is good is better than getting good results by whatever means. What a lesson!

3. Love wisdom. My father is a wise man; O to be wise like him!

4. Never be hasty. Me thinks my father is a distant relative of Treebeard from Lord of the Rings. He would never commit to a decision over the phone. If the answer is needed right away, the answer would be “no.” He took time to decide anything, and many bad decisions were avoided and good decisions were made as a result.

5. Be honest, be sincere. In my recollection, my father has never lied nor broken a promise made.

6. Treat everyone with respect, no matter the age, no matter the education, no matter the economic status, whatever.

7. Be fair.

8. Love God. My father’s relationship with God is a private and personal one. It is also a supremely important one, the source of his strength and his goodness.

9. Love and serve the church. My father has worked tirelessly to serve the body of Christ. He still serves tirelessly.

10. Persevere.

To be such a man, may God give me the grace.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Irrigating Deserts: On Education

The modern age is defined by reason; our culture shuns emotionalism. The mantra for modern education is to teach students to ignore their hearts and think with their heads. In some ways, this approach seems right. As an educator, my experience with young people is that they can be very sentimental, if not down right silly at times. But I think educators toss out the baby with the bath water. We ought not to counter silly emotions by eliminating the importance of emotions all together. As C.S. Lewis writes, “The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.”

The irony is that we have elevated “reason” so high in our culture, that it has no practical application. We often distinguish “book learning” from real life experiences. Modern students are unable to make the applications from book learning to real life experience because education has sought to limit learning to the mind alone. But life is mind, body and soul. Except for the occasional Scrabble game or cross word puzzle, book learning doesn't seem to apply to living. Students are making life decisions based on their limited life experiences, rather than gleaning from the collective experiences of humanity found in books. So although we have taught our students not to be swayed by sentimentalism, they still do extraordinarily dumb things. As Lewis writes, “A hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”

If we want our students to “care” about learning, we need to put the heart back into the picture. I am not calling for warm and fuzzy, touchy feely, mushy gushy stuff: the “how does this poem make you feel?” sort of thing. Rather, how does this poem teach you to live—mind, body and soul? Lewis calls it the “chest”—“the head rules the belly through the chest, the seat of Magnimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.” Not random emotions, but rather organized and informed emotions.

We need to awaken the hearts of our students to not only love learning, but to love life well lived.

“For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”—C.S. Lewis

(All quotes taken from C.S. Lewis’s “Men without Chests”, The Abolition of Man.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Marriage Bed and Olives

This post is about sex, but nothing risqué… not that olives are really sexy or anything… unless you’re a vegetarian maybe… Anyway, before Christmas, I taught Homer’s The Odyssey to my Grade 12 Classical Civilization students. What startled my students was the supreme importance Homer places on family. As mentioned earlier in my posts on Family, this view is counter-culture. At the heart of the family is the marriage bed (that’s where babies are made…) As a result, the major symbol in the epic poem is the marriage bed. Getting into bed with his wife marks the end of Odysseus’s “odyssey”---his return journey. My students were used to “sex” being described in every way but within marriage. Marital sex is the supreme goal of Odysseus’s adventures. Let me give you the scoop on ancient Greece’s take on love and marriage…

In the epic poem, Odysseus’s wife and son have been waiting for Odysseus’s return. In the meantime, a bunch of free-loading suitors are loafing around Odysseus’s home, trying to woo the lonely wife and murder the inexperienced son. The home is in chaos and disarray. The suitors are pigging out on Odysseus’s food and wine and treating Odysseus’s servants badly. They are also incessantly flirting with Odysseus’s wife.

When Odysseus returns home, he comes in disguise as a beggar. He is treated badly by the rude suitors who occupy his home, violating Zeus’s doctrine of hospitality. When Odysseus reveals himself as the returned husband, he slaughters everyone in a gloriously vindicating bloodbath. While the hall dripped with blood and bodies were stacked outside the palace, Odysseus makes his way to bed with his wife Penelope.

His marriage bed, which Penelope has kept undefiled, was built by Odysseus before he left on his voyage to Trojan War (cf. The Illiad---by the way, Odysseus is the guy who cooked up the Trojan Horse scheme).

Using a rooted olive tree as the “cornerstone” bed post, he built his bed around the tree. The significance of a “rooted” marriage bed cannot be ignored. Like marriage itself, the bed is permanent and unshakeable. Then he built his bridal chamber around his bed; then he built his palace and city around that. At the centre of the city, literally and symbolically, is the marriage bed. As racy as that sounds, it is the undefiled marriage bed that is the centre of the civilized world in Homer’s mythological masterpiece.

Marriage was Ancient Greece’s way of countering the Fall, returning to Eden.

On a side note, I personally think it would be great to have an olive tree as a bed post.

Monday, May 28, 2007

It's a Wonderful Life

On Friday I was offered the opportunity to teach Greek drama, Classical mythology and Roman poetry to students in Rome, Greece and Crete. This is a phenomenal opportunity from a career and personal interest perspective. The only catch… it is during the month of July and I would be leaving my family behind.

Recently I blogged about the importance of family. Now I have to choose between my intellectual stand on family and my actual “living out” of my belief. I really want to go… I have a passion for Classical literature and drama. I would be teaching Classical civilization in the greatest classroom imaginable... surrounded by the ancient ruins and artefacts of the Classical world.

I told the Chair of the History Department this morning that I cannot go.

I reasoned from the perspective that---irnonically---I would miss too much if I went to Europe. Some of my colleagues think I am crazy passing up an all-expense-paid trip to Europe, teaching students in the midst of three thousand years of history. I should take advantage of the moment---“carpe diem”---seize the day!

But here is what I would miss if I went: camping with my son at the Pinery; camping with my family at Rock Point; my son’s ninth birthday party; a week visiting my brother and family in North Carolina; a friend’s wedding; family day trips to the beach; family hikes in local conservation; a month reading with my children and waking up in the morning with my wife.

The Latin phrase, “carpe diem” means “seize the day”---make the most out of your time because time is fleeting. “Carpe” was originally a Roman agricultural term, meaning to “pluck” a crop during harvest. I feel I am seizing the day by not leaving my family. Now is the time to be with my daughter and sons and wife. Like a crop at harvest time, these hours and days with my family cannot be reclaimed. No farmer can put off harvest. When harvest time comes, the crop must be "plucked". Likewise, no man can put off the young years of his family. My sons and daughter will eventually grow up and leave home. Now is the time to be with my children, now is the time to visit my brother and my nieces and nephew.

My favourite movie when I was a boy was “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Remember George Bailey’s desire to travel and see the world? Remember how the seemingly mundane things of life held him back? He never made it to Rome or Paris, but he had a wonderful life. It is not just about “duty” to family and friends; it is about living a wonderful life.

The ruins can wait. My family cannot. The ruins will always be there. These precious moments with my children and my wife can never be reclaimed. Carpo diem. I am seizing the day. My life is a wonderful life.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The anthropological significance of breaking bread together

The human biological need to eat is not a result of the Fall in Eden. God created Adam and Eve in a “garden” with fruit-bearing trees and no doubt vegetable-bearing plants. Eating is no different from the other pre-Fall aspects of Creation---marriage, procreation, work, stewardship of terrestrial resources. Humans have a fundamental need, woven into their make-up, to eat. This fundamental need goes beyond the biological need to survive. There is an anthropological significance to “breaking bread”.

For the Christian, the concept of breaking bread is deeply rooted in biblical symbolism. From the manna in the wilderness, to the Last Supper, to the banquet feast in glory, “breaking bread” holds great significance.

In my previous post “Family and the Odyssey”, I commented on the decline of the “family dinner” in Western culture. When I ask my students how often they eat together as a family, I am surprised by the small number of students who have family dinners at all. Does it really matter? The answer is yes. Unfortunately, our forefathers have failed in passing along the reasons for many fundamental aspects of human culture. Our forefathers took it for granted that people would always value “breaking bread” together. Fifty years ago, the dinner table was the hub of the family home. Unfortunately, soccer games, overtime at the office and instant meals have contributed to the devalued role of dinner.

At my school, which has a long history rooted in the traditions of English independent schools, we have a common lunch period. All students and faculty “break bread” together. The students are divided into Tutorial groups (10-12 students) and they sit together with their teacher. We stand, waiting for the Head table to say grace and then we eat the food in “family-style” serving bowls. Food is “passed” between students; emptied bowls are refilled for the next student. I have heard faculty complain about eating with the students. At times, I complain myself. After teaching my students all morning, it can be overwhelming sitting with them at lunch as well. However, I am reminded of the significance of breaking bread together as a school.

Most schools are cafeteria style or buffet style. If you have ever been to a buffet, then you know how anti-social it is. Everyone is getting up and down walking to the buffet, vying for the last egg roll or chicken strip. You eat what you want, when you want and how much you want. There is no need to be civil other than waiting for your turn at the trough. The meal becomes an individual’s pursuit of personal satisfaction. At my school, we have a strong sense of community and I think this is partly a result of the fact we eat a common meal together.

Eating reminds us of our connection to other humans in our community. We have this in common with each other---we need to eat. Eating food together is also a reminder of our civilization: there are manners and signs of respect that are reinforced on a daily basis. Things like passing the plate to someone. Saying “please” and “thank-you”. Eating in moderation to save food for the next person. Refilling an empty serving bowl.

Humans are forgetful and as a result of the Fall, sinful and selfish. Eating together is a daily reminder of our pre-Fall existence. Harmony, civility and camaraderie define shared meals. These values are reinforced when we “break bread” together, as a school and as a family.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Family and The Odyssey

Yesterday, I was chatting with a friend about the importance of family. From the outset of creation, God established the family. He made Adam and Eve to be the first marriage and He commanded them to procreate (i.e., make a bigger family). God's relationship with us is described in family terms--we are His sons and daughters; Christ is our brother.

When I was reflecting on the biblical view on family, I couldn't help but think how counter-culture this view has become in the West. North Americans and Western Europeans are not having babies, they are marrying much later in life, more are not marrying at all. In a recent study by the Canadian Department of Human Resources and Social Development, Canadians are spending less time with their families and more time on their own. Eating as a family is becoming a novelty reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Children are being raised by daycare workers and public schools. Spouses pursue divergent careers, hobbies and holidays. The term Family seems to hold only legal and biological significance.

Some would say, who cares? Leave It to Beaver went off the air long ago. Is family important? Ironically, the two founding worldviews of the Western world---classical and Christian---celebrate family as the building blocks of civilization. I have already mentioned briefly the fundamental import of family from Genesis. Similar value is reflected in the "bible" of Classical Greece, The Odyssey.

The term "odyssey" has come to mean, in a colloquial sense, a quest or journey in which one engages on life altering adventures. However, the Odyssey is really a story about a hero's return home--his "nostos". The hero, Odysseus, shuns pleasures of goddesses and wealth, in order to return to his family. He must be a father to his son and a husband to his wife. His journey does not end until Odysseus has returned to his marriage bed. In the epic, Odysseus's return home to his island kingdom of Ithaca restores order and civilization. Odysseus is an absentee father who realizes the importance of family to a meaningful life and a civilized society. If this sounds too much like a Hallmark card synopsis, you need to read the epic poem yourself. Odysseus's return is not a "touchy feely dead-beat-dad redemption story"--it is a profoundly human proclamation of the monumental significance of family to human existence. This concept of "family" became the quintessential social underpinning for the Greek world.

Western civilization needs to return home; we need our odyssey, our nostos.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

On Ritual and Ceremony

On the academic calendar, we draw closer to the formal and ritualistic "modi operandi" of graduation ceremonies and academic convocations. I recently came across this excerpt from C.S. Lewis's Preface to Paradise Lost, which seems to me to shed some light on the attitude of many students and faculty alike regarding the "pomp and circumstance" of ceremony and rituals.

"Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit... The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender's inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual."

C.S. Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost