Category Archives: Homeschooling

A Catholic Traditionalist’s View on the Family and the Church in Today’s World

Here is a talk on the family by Michael Matt of The Remnant newspaper. Those of you who know of him know he is a staunch traditionalist within the Catholic Church. I am currently of two minds when it comes to the traditionalist position. Having come from a Protestant background I have a strong allergy to anything that smacks of protest. However, I do find myself sympathizing a great deal with the traditionalists.

I am curious what other think of his take on the state of the world, the Church, and the family today, as well as his thoughts on how to combat the problems he outlines. Is Michael Matt on target, or not? Does his understanding of our current situation make sense or is it too one way or the other?

As for The Remnant newspaper, I find it an interesting resource. Sometimes it’s a bit too shrill for me, and sometimes I find myself saying, “Stop fretting so much and trust in God.” But I also like their history and, while they oppose much of what is going on in the Church today, they remain faithful Catholics and in communion with the Church and the Pope. This, I think, is very important.

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Teaching like Saint Paul

My wife and I chose to homeschool our children. This immediately placed upon us the need to have a plan on how we would do this. Consequently we faced the question of what method or approach should we chose. We ended up with what is commonly called Christian Classical Education, an approach we think is best, but we have been open to other ideas, and have tried to enter into a dialectical process with other homeschoolers and educators on this topic. We also looked to the Bible to see what we might find there, and to Saint Paul, one of the Church’s greatest evangelists and theologians, we naturally turned.

I published a version of this essay several years ago. I feel it is worth republishing again, with slight modifications.

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

I doubt if Saint Paul ever developed a detailed educational foundation or curriculum or program in the way that we might today. He may have thought about the right approach in some formal way as he spread the Gospel, but he certainly didn’t lay one out in his letters.  And I doubt he ever founded a school (of course, if he did I doubt he would have used the word “classical” in its name). But still, as I ponder what Christian Classical Education is or might be, I wonder what Paul would contribute towards a philosophy of education. Without trying to turn this into an overwhelming project for which I am unprepared, I want to briefly look at only two verses from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. He writes in Philippians 4:8-9:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

[Note: I’m providing three common translations to help give a broad sense of the passage.]

Consider St. Paul’s list:

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

What do we do with such a list? (Imagine going to your local school board and proposing that the district’s curriculum be revamped to begin with this list. Ha! I dare you.)

And then about this list St. Paul says to think about these things.

To think. In the minds of our modern educators, and most of the rest of us, thinking is almost tantamount to doing nothing. Ever see someone thinking? What are they doing? On the outside they are often quite still, maybe staring into the distance. In effect, they are doing nothing. And yet, they are doing a great deal. Now if they are not thinking alone, not staring placidly off into space, then they are probably in dialogue with someone. But a true dialogue can seem to be unfocused and wandering, which is also antithetical to teaching in the modern sense.

Our modern education system is partially based on a sense of urgency–we cannot afford to waste time with thinking when we have so much knowledge to get into those little brains. We have become slaves to the bullet-pointed list. It is a system that must swap dialogue with lecture. The material must be covered, we cannot slow down, and then slow down some more. But this modern system denies the existence of the human soul and its mysterious needs and movements. Is that what we want?

Paul says to think about these things.

What is thinking? I know nothing about the brain as a subject of scientific study. I know there are chemicals and electrical impulses involved, but more than that? I know nothing. However, I gather thinking is a mystery of our minds, of our humanity. I use the word mystery because I doubt science can ever, truly plumb the depths and workings of thinking. Thinking is a mystery because it is a force of great power that seems to have no substance, no true existence, no way to completely contain it and control it as a totality. We can guide it, use it, encourage it, welcome it, and share it, sometimes even fear it, but we cannot entirely subdue it. To think is to ponder, to wonder, to suppose, to engage, to meditate. More importantly, thinking is to take an idea into oneself, into one’s soul, and turn it over and over and make it one’s own, or to reject it in favor of another.

So then we ponder and wonder, suppose and engage, meditate and bring into our souls

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

Can you think of any better education? I can’t.

Paul could have left it there, but he goes on. He writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me…” Don’t pass over this. Consider that Paul is able to confidently write that the Philippians have directly experienced him in such a way that they have:

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • seen in Paul

This list is somewhat cryptic, but I think we can get a glimpse into how Paul was a teacher. First the Philippians learned from Paul. He saw himself as a teacher. He had intention. He knew what he wanted to teach them. And he taught them thoroughly enough, with enough feedback, to know that they learned. He is confident of that. Then he says they have received. This implies a giving, a handing over, and a taking in. There was something that he left with them, something they now have. He can write to them because he knows they have what he gave. In this sense they are more like Paul than they were before. One of the primary goals of the classical educator is that his pupils will one day become his colleagues. The Philippians are now colleagues of Paul; they have something that Paul has, something he gave them and they received.

Third he says they heard from him. Teaching often involves speaking and hearing, but sometimes we forget what a gift is language. If you are like me then you love Paul’s letters, but you would really love to hear him speak, to ask him questions, to sit at his feet, to get into a deep dialogue with him over beers. Paul engaged their minds as God intended, as their minds were designed to function, by using language. We sometimes hear that apocryphal story of St. Francis exhorting his followers to preach Christ at all times and, when necessary, use words. There’s a valuable lesson in that story, but Paul was not afraid to use words right up front. Preaching Christ requires using words. Speaking to another also requires presence. Paul was with the Philippians, in person, in the flesh; they heard his voice, knew its sound, picked up on nuances of meaning in the subtleties of his voice and body language. To hear in this way, that is, to listen to ideas spoken, is a profoundly human experience. We do not know if the Philippians heard Paul because he formally preached to them, or lectured them, or led them in Socratic dialogue, or engaged in casual conversation, but they heard.

Finally, and this may be the most important, they saw. Paul presented himself as an example. He lived what he taught. Or better yet, he embodied the logos. The Gospel, the good news of Christ, the content that Paul taught, handed over, and spoke, was also visible in his life and actions. Paul could rightly say, “look at me.” The best teachers embody the logos.

Can we find more about how Paul taught? Yes, I’m sure we can. But just from these two verses we get something of great depth. We find that Paul, with confidence, can say the Philippians

  • learned from Paul
  • received from Paul
  • heard from Paul
  • saw in Paul

And what did they learn?

  • What is true
  • What is honorable/honest
  • What is just
  • What is pure
  • What is lovely
  • What is commendable/gracious/of good report
  • What is excellent/virtuous
  • What is worthy of praise

From this alone we can know that Paul was a master teacher in the fullest Christian Classical model. How this will look in your own teaching will be unique, but there is no better foundation that I can find.

And then Paul writes:

“…practice these things…”

Paul both taught in person and was writing to the Philippians with an Ideal Type in mind, that is the complete or perfect Christian, that is Christ. Christ is the logos. We are Christians and therefore seek to embody the logos in our lives. It is not enough to merely find the idea of the Ideal Type good or fascinating or excellent. One must put it into practice. To practice is to work and persevere at imitation, it is a form of becoming. To imitate is to behold, to embrace, to take into one’s being and seek to embody the Ideal Type in one’s life and actions. True knowledge is, in this sense, incarnational. It has a form. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” To put on Christ implies that when others look at us they see Christ. Ideas have consequences. Others will know us by our fruits, which are visible signs of an inner reality. Are we putting into practice these things?

David Hicks wrote: “To produce a man or woman whose life conforms to the Ideal in every detail is education’s supremely moral aim.” (Norms and Nobility, p. 47) Is this not also the passion of Paul, that the Philippians live’s would conform to the Ideal of Christ in every detail? And how are the Philippians to do this?

“…practice these things…”

Now, if you haven’t noticed, I have not defined what Christian Classical Education is or how to do it. Partly this is tactical; I don’t have a clear answer. On the other hand I will offer a quote from Andrew Kern:

Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty so that the student is better able to know and enjoy God.

I cannot think of a better, more fundamental description of what a Christian Classical Education is all about. There is a lot in there, and a lot of room for developing strategies of teaching, but if this is what we are aiming for, if this is what we are building on, if this is our longing, then consider again the words of Saint Paul:

(ESV) Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(RSVCE) Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

(KJV) Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.

Do that and the God of peace will be with you.

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Homeschooling and the World

We homeschool. This puts in a strange place within our society — a good place I believe, but not always understood. I wrote this piece below, in a slightly different form, several years ago (before we entered the Catholic Church) in response to a tendency I see within the homeschooling world, and which I feel is still relevant today.

There is a trend within the subculture of homeschooling* that is based, in large part, upon separation from society at large. This makes some sense. Homeschoolers are often defined, to a large degree, as people who want to pull their children out of mainstream society and protect them from “the world.” Certainly not all homeschoolers are this way, and I hope we are not, but it has some appeal given the many troubles this world presents.

Recently we attended a Christian homeschooling conference. As you might imagine we saw all kinds of Christians, from the young hip couple with their cool glasses and lattes to the families with 6+ children all wearing 19th century prairie outfits. The conference had numerous speakers and work sessions. One of the keynote speakers struck me as the kind of homeschooling parent I don’t want to be. I don’t mean to be unduly harsh, and I only heard the one talk (or I should say over-the-top performing-preacher show talk), but I was encouraged by his talk to more clearly define an aspect of why we homeschool and why some of our reasons stand in contradiction to his.

He began by lauding his father for taking his family to an island away from “the world” and homeschooling them. In other words, our keynote speaker was raised on an island cut off from the taint and spoilage of the wider world. He went on to say that that was a great thing and we should not be afraid to separate our children from the world on “islands” where they can be protected and safe. If you are like me you might be chafing at this idea, but it is not unwarranted, and I want to give the idea its due.

This world we live in is most certainly full of may horrible things — war, famine, crime, and all kinds of ugliness. There are also many competing ideas that challenge one’s own beliefs. A Christian parent who is interested in their children knowing God as they themselves know God may want to protect their children from those competing ideas for as long as possible. The same goes for any parent who has a worldview to which they cling. I can understand the desire to keep one’s children away from the corrosive influence of the world. To do so feels like being responsible, and in some cases it certainly is. So I know where our keynote speaker is coming from. I know that feeling. But there is more to the picture.

The concept of “the world” is a big deal in Christian teaching. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world. John the Apostle said “Do not love the world nor the things in the world.” Paul the Apostle said “do not be conformed to this world.” There is a lot more to be said, and I do not intend to unpack the biblical concept of “the world” here, but most Christians know there is this thing called the world which they must avoid in some way. Christian homeschoolers might see pulling their kids out of public school as pulling them out of the world. Christian families who move to the country far from urban areas may believe they are removing themselves from the world in some meaningful way. Certainly to raise one’s family on an island would feel like the world is far away and one’s family is safe.

However, when John says “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world,” we see that the world is not so much a physical entity as it is a heart condition or a spirit. Also, when Jesus said, “While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world,” it appears his intention was not fleeing the world but to bring it light. Elsewhere in scripture Christ followers are called to be light in the world and salt of the earth. And when we read that “God so loved the world that he gave us His son,” we get the idea that our stance towards the world may not be so simple. We may not be able to separate ourselves from the world as easily as we think for “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” comes with us wherever we go, even to an island. Also, we cannot be light or salt to the world if we decide to have nothing to do with the world. And we certainly cannot love the world as God loves the world if our stance is to flee the world which, as we have seen, may not be so easy anyway.

At that homeschoolers conference it became clear that the world could be seen most clearly in such things as 1) cities, 2) public schools, 3) government, and 4) anything other than far right politics. If one didn’t know better one could conclude that homeschooling is all about 1) getting out of the city to the country – a kind of “back to the garden” idea, 2) avoiding any kind of public education, including any education or activities that has public monies attached to it, such as a city funded soccer league, 3) having nothing to do with government or public service unless it is to defend against liberals who want to impose laws on homeschooling, and 4) assuming a political stance and championing the values of such organizations as the Christian Coalition. I may be taking a somewhat extreme critical view here, but I honestly don’t think so. This is what I see coming from much of the Christian homeschool subculture and from our keynote speaker.

But those reasons are not our reasons.

One of the great blessings of Christian truth is the incredible freedom we have. As we love God and His values we find ourselves marveling at this world He created. This world of His includes all that we find, including the incredible variety of humanity and human creativity. We might and should grieve at the evil we see in the world, but we should also love the world. We should love the cities and the arts and the culture and the governments. Wisdom dictates that we do not love folly or evil or rebellion against God. On the other hand this world is full of God’s creative work, it is His sovereignty manifest in all things everywhere, and this world is full of the people He loves – which includes all people. We have the freedom to engage in this world head on. We also have the opportunity to be light and salt. This opportunity is a great privilege. As a parent I can choose to model light and salt, or I can model the act of withdrawal.

Another great blessing is that because I know God is sovereign I can engage in this world without fear. I can live in the city or in the country, work in private business, ministry, government, or public schools, listen to Christian or secular music, visit art galleries and museums, watch popular movies, and even drink, smoke, play cards and occasionally cuss, without fear. If Jesus is my example then I can eat dinner with the most worldly people. If Paul’s theology is correct then I can eat meat sacrificed to idols. Wisdom, and the pursuit of holiness will dictate how I live, and so will my consideration the weaker brother (and I too am a weaker brother), so I may choose not to do some or most of these things at times, or ever, but there is no need for fear. But I must say that having no fear is not the same as not being scared. A man may say he is not scared of the world, and that may be true, but he may still live in fear of the world. To take one’s family away from the world and live on an island because the world is a bad place is to live in fear of the world.

We are to fear God, not the world. Our battles are not with flesh and blood, but against evil spiritual powers — sin and Satan. And it is God who fights our battles. Our greatest weapons are faith, love, and prayer.

There is another kind of separation — the separation through ideology and stereotypes. On our keynote speaker’s website promoting his daily radio program he touts the following: “There are no psychiatrists, professional counsellors [sic], bureaucrats, and seminary professors. But you will find fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends.” Other than spelling counselors wrong this quote says a lot. There is an attitude within some quarters of Christianity that sees psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors — along with scientists, social workers, and anyone from Hollywood — as being other than fathers, mothers, grandparents, pastors, and friends. Not only is this a wrongly prejudiced perspective more indicative of a passionate narrow-mindedness than of wisdom, it is also a perspective indicative of fear. There has always been a class of persons who claim victim status though they are not victims in a meaningful sense. This class is also easily manipulated by those who point to the educated, or those in government, or big city dwellers, or those in the entertainment industry, as the victimizers. Some politicians can be quite good at doing this, and so are many preachers. Our keynote speaker not only claims the victim status but uses his talents to fan the flames of fear. Fear thrives in the world of stereotypes. And just like the religious leader who prays to God, thanking God that he is not like other people, we can all fall prey to a profound blindness. What we see in Jesus is someone hanging out with the sinners. We see someone not only reaching out to everyone, but doing so without fear, and not drawing lines between himself and the rest of humanity. And, ironically, it is the religious leaders — the upstanding citizens, moral agents, family lovers, Bible teachers — who criticized Jesus for just such activities.

Where does this leave us? Our confusion, like so much in Christianity, is to make the wrong distinctions and then fall into the pit of false religion and self-righteousness. We confuse the world with superficial distinctions as “psychiatrists, professional counselors, bureaucrats, and seminary professors” rather than with a heart rooted in “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” The world, in this bad spiritual sense, is as much alive and thriving within Christianity as it is anywhere else. When it comes to worldliness there is often no distinction between the Hollywood movie star and the megachurch pastor. In fact we bring the world with us wherever we go, wherever there is humanity, even into the nuclear family unit (a modern entity that, arguably, is the source of many problems in comparison to the traditional large extended family living and working together — but this is not the place to dive into that subject). Only through the grace of God do we have any hope to be free of the world — and that freedom can come to a professional counselor/psychiatrist working for a government agency while moonlighting at a seminary and living downtown in the biggest city as it can come to the man barricading his family against the evils of the world in some distant wilderness. Grace be to God for our hope and freedom.

But what about my charge as a parent? It is one thing to be an adult confronting the ugliness of this world, it is another for a child. As a parent I must protect my children when appropriate. I must also guide them in wisdom. I would rather my children face into the harshness of reality, guided by my example, sometimes stumbling and struggling, but learning to see themselves for who they truly are and learning to love others where they are. I also want my children to grow up without fear. If we can walk through this life together, confronting the variety of human experience and choice, and do so hand in hand, I think my children might have a decent chance of knowing good from evil, of learning humbleness, of appreciating all that God has created, and learning that goodness comes not so much from trying to avoid the stain of the world as turning to God in genuine repentance. We have come to realize that fleeing the world and taking one’s family to an island, even if those actions are clothed in the finest Christian robes of piety, could very well be an act of rebellion against God. Not necessarily, but could be.

This is one reason we homeschool, and we do so within a city context, and we listen to all kinds of music and study all kinds of art, and we are interested in politics beyond narrow “Christian” agendas, and we appreciate MLK and Gandhi, and we appreciate revised histories when they offer clarity and truth, and we don’t believe one can homeschool true faith into any child, for faith is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit. And we also don’t think we’ve got it all right. All we can do is move forward in humbleness (which also is a gift), looking to God for grace and mercy, and seeking goodness the best we can.


* Like many different elements of our society, homeschoolers represent a kind of subculture. However, it would be incorrect to think of it as a single or homogeneous subculture. At best it is a subculture of subcultures, and may be better described as an eclectic group of families that have a rather unique similarity regardless, and sometimes in spite, of their many dissimilarities.

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Remembering a teacher

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My daughter Wilder Rose speaking of her music teacher and the joys he gave her, and her sorrow of losing such a good and fine teacher.

A couple of weeks ago my kids music teacher died. He was a brilliant, generous, uniquely gifted man who was loved by many people and many families in and beyond our town. He was primarily a percussionist who played in various bands, played many other instruments than drums, taught numerous students over the years, and also handbuilt wooden canoes.

A year ago we purchased a traditional drum kit for our son who was 6 years old at the time. We began looking for a drum teacher. This man came highly recommended. We had some worries because our son is young and prone to fidgetiness (some might say he’s a touch ADHD). However, this teacher was perfect for our son, working with his natural tendencies, and helping him discover the music within him. Then he offered to add our daughter for just a few dollars more. So we bought her a guitar. Our daughter is deeply musical and sings, plays piano and fiddle, and has great natural gifts in music. But as she began guitar something beautiful began to happen. Suddenly her musically talent blossomed like it had not before.

This man, a musician, husband, and wonderful teacher, gave my children, and our family, the gift of himself. After he died we cried and cried, and then we began to discover just how much he meant to so many other people in our community. Today we went to a memorial geared more towards his students, who are mostly kids. There was a drum circle, sharing, tears, laughter, and good fellowship.

The world needs more teachers like him. His loss, as is the loss of any human being’s life, is very significant, but our community also lost a special teacher. We also lost a wonderful musician.

As a Christian I know that this life is not the end. I know that death is the severing of one’s soul from one’s body, and that someday they shall be reunited. The memorial only addressed this sense of continuation in terms of us remembering him and carrying with us what he put into us through his teaching and his person–which is no small thing. But I realize that our society today adds to the natural difficulty of dealing with the tragedy and sorrow of death the lack of deeper knowledge of God’s goodness and the ultimate end in which we are made share.

I pray for his soul. I pray that God will have mercy on him, and bestow His graces upon his soul, if only for the generosity, kindness, and love he showed my kids.

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Thecla & Tiepolo: The Making of an Altarpiece

I love this video. It speaks to many things I love (family, doing art with one’s kids, teaching about prayer and holiness, beauty, etc.), and things that I want more in my life.

You can find out more about the folks behind this video here: http://www.2spetrvs.com/

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Like sheep into the midst of wolves

Eternal Father,
we praise you for sending your Son
to be one of us and to save us.
Look upon your people with mercy,
for we are divided in so many ways,
and give us the Spirit of Jesus to make us one in love.

We ask this gift, loving Father,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

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Christ said “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” (Matthew 10:16a)

When are we sheep in the midst of wolves? Who are these wolves? Where are they?

Christians often see themselves as fighting against the world. An “us vs. them” mindset sadly prevails much of the time. (Sad because Christ died for the world, and like our savior, we too should die for the world.) We might even think of ourselves, and especially our children, as being like innocent sheep being sent out into a world full of wolves. Homeschooling parents especially like to think of public schools as being wolf dens; so they keep their children safe by keeping them close to home. We tend to see Churches and Christian establishments as havens from the wolfish world. But if that is the way we think, then we might miss a stern warning from Christ.

To whom was Christ speaking? His apostles, the twelve. What was he doing? He was sending them on a mini-mission, perhaps we should call it a training mission, to proclaim the gospel. Christ the teacher knew his apostles would be the first missionaries, taking the gospel to the world, so he was teaching them. He was giving them the opportunity to experience what proclaiming the gospel was going to be like while he was still with them, while they could still come back to him and debrief. He knew it would not be easy, and he gives them some specific instructions and the warning above. Let’s take a look at that verse above in its fuller context:

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:5-23)

The answer to who and where the wolves are is this: The apostles are not to go into the world in the way we might think, but to go to those who already reside in the house of Israel. He says: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So “the world” is not the world out there among the gentiles, but the world right there before them, among their own people. And therefore the wolves come from among them as well. Simply, the wolves are the Jewish religious leaders, the teachers of the Torah and the Law, the wise men, the kosher men, the good Jews, the embracers of of being Israelites, the good Jewish families, the upright citizens, the parents and siblings and children, the so-called lovers of God, etc., etc. If we can draw a comparison with us today, the wolves are the pastors and associate pastors and their wives (maybe especially), the deacons and elders, the church bake-sale organizers, the religious right and the religious left, the para-church enthusiasts, the Christians who bring their big floppy bibles with them to every meeting or conversation, the “I love Jesus and not religion” people, the successful Christian business persons, the fashion leaders, the social leaders, the Bible study leaders, the Christian school headmasters, the ones with a Bible verse always on the tip of their tongues, the quiet church ladies, the “real men love Jesus” guys, the arbiters of morals, the gatekeepers, the “prayer warriors”, the church youth activity chaperons, the concerned parents, and all the rest of us Christians who so easily confuse fear with love of God, who choose sacrifice over obedience, and who refuse to weep, mourn, or be poor in spirit.

In other words, the wolves are us if we do not abide in the light.

Preach and, more importantly, live the Gospel in the midst of these “good Christian” people who are really wolves and you will be torn to shreds and eaten alive; usually in the most unassuming and apparently innocent ways. You might even feel that you deserved it. The greatest enemies of Christians, apart from the Devil and his minions, are those who go by the name Christian yet who do not love God or the things of God. And yet, when they serve the Devil they believe they are serving God. When they eat lambs alive they claim they act only out of love. Remember how Christ chastised Peter by saying, “Get behind me Satan!” Geeze, Peter was only helping Jesus be the right kind of messiah. Jesus continued: “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter would have been a wolf if not for the great love and mercy of Christ in his life. Peter had to learn what following Christ really meant.

If Peter then why not us? He would eventually be crucified for his authentic faith. Oh that we would have Peter’s faith.

One reason that we sometimes cannot tell the wolves from the lambs is that the wolves seem to be the best Christians. They really seem to be the ones who know, often emphatically so, what Christianity is all about. They are the ones who are good at using Christianese (that ubiquitous Christian sub-culture language), at dropping Bible verses in every other sentence, at piety, at being visible in the sub-culture, and saying how much Jesus is really important. They can also be wonderful family people, homeschooling their kids, leading Bible studies in their homes, planning and leading church activities, and much more. One way to spot a wolf is to look for the super-Christian in your midst who has taken it upon herself/himself to test other Christians to see if they really are strong enough believers, especially for leadership. They will quietly corner people, draw them aside, talk to them in private, and then drill them with questions like, “How do you define yourself as a Christian?” and “Do you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible?” and “What does it mean to be saved?” They will do this saying they only want to know where someone stands, to see if they are on the “same page.” And they will generally do this only to those who are not their personal friends, to people they don’t know closely, and especially to those who don’t look or talk like they do. And they will do this because they are protecting something, like their church or school, or worse, their reputation, and not ultimately for the benefit of the one being tested. Remember Christ was tested by the Pharisees (you brood of vipers) for the same reasons. These wolves appoint themselves as the gatekeepers. They see their actions as noble. It is not an unusual experience for a lamb to feel like an inadequate Christian in relation to the wolves.

One of the great problems with Christianity is that the Church is filled with wolves, mixed in with the lambs, eating people alive. (It is a problem, but perhaps it is by design as well.)

Here’s the rub: How do you know, truly know, if you are on one side or the other? How do you know if you are a lamb or a wolf? Do you love God or only think you do? Have you given your life to Christ or only believe you have? Do you know the truth or only think you do? Are you a lover of the things of God or only believe you are? Do you confuse merely being annoyed at life with mourning? Do you confuse anger that the world isn’t going your way with weeping? Do you confuse your feelings of being a “little man” in the face of big government with being poor in spirit? How are you to know? How is one to untangle oneself and see clearly?

Perhaps the only way to truly know is through suffering. Our faith is tested through suffering because we would not know if we had faith without the testing. (Know this: I cannot “test” your faith, only God can. And He does it for you, not for Him. Thus I can only, at best, surmise if you have genuine faith if I can truly witness how you deal with suffering. But I can never truly know. And it cannot come via hearsay.) Faith is not something you know just by claiming to know, rather it is something you discover. You don’t claim to love Jesus and that’s that. God tests you and you break and then run away, or you break and then grab hold of God. For lambs, knowing one has faith often comes from being eaten alive by wolves and seeing that their faith has not left them. For wolves, knowing one has faith comes from repentance, which is the only thing that can turn wolves into lambs. The thing is, true wolves cling ever more strongly to their “Christianity” but never repent. In fact, they see no need to repent since their wolfish actions are what fuel their self-righteousness and convince them of their faithfulness. Wolves win and claim the victory as God’s blessing. And yet,  suffering works for them as well. It works by giving wolves fodder for their cherished self-image. Lambs will cry out to God in their suffering, knowing they are unworthy of God’s mercy and love. Wolves will cry out as well, seeing their suffering as a badge of what must be their worthiness to suffer, their righteousness, that they must be a target for Satan because of their holy standing before God.

It is the wolf that thanks God that he is not like others.

It is the lamb who bows before God saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

And so… I am no saint, and I know well how easy it is to to find fault in others and not in oneself. I am sure that I have been a wolf at times; probably far more often than I realize. The following words come from a guilty participant, who stood by rather than stood up.

Several months ago, in a private meeting, I sat in a room of wolves who were accusing a lamb of not being worthy to teach their children. This teacher is a believer, and genuine lover of God, a servant of Christ, and a truly excellent Christian classical teacher who gives tremendously out of love for the students. But he is different, a little eccentric, a little atypical; not at all like so many cardboard evangelical christians populating the scene today. And so they accused him of having insufficient faith, of not being enough of a believer, of not giving unambiguous, Baptist evangelical “orthodox”, tip-of-the-tongue answers (read: fundamentalist/baptist orthodoxy) to their testing. (I previously addressed some of this story here.) They said he’s a “nice guy”, but just not Christian enough to teach. The teacher’s response to this attack was one of the most Christ-like examples I have ever witnessed. I saw the comparison play out before my own eyes—their accusations, his loving and honest responses, his weeping. And I saw their stone-faced reactions—and I knew it was a scene of wolves tearing into a lamb. The accusers took the teacher’s emotional response as weakness rather than strength, and merely considered it fodder for their claims. They were blind and I believe they remain so – I do not believe they are as yet capable of seeing themselves as anything other than champions of the Gospel. (I later heard that one father took the teacher’s weeping in genuine sorrow as evidence the accused is not man enough to be in a position to teach this father’s child. Oh how to completely miss the message of Christ’s sermon on the mount!) Perhaps they would have accused Christ himself of unworthiness as well. For me it was both disheartening and nauseating to witness the event. I was asked to not say anything at that meeting I really wanted to say, so I didn’t. Looking back I wish I had. But I know God is sovereign, and I know that God sees all. If God wills, they will see the error of their ways. But I don’t want to put myself up on some righteous pedestal, and I am getting too close to the line of judging the hearts of others, for I cannot truly see their hearts and I am certainly not righteous or free from sin in this matter.

Eventually the overall context shifted such that the teacher stayed (because of overwhelming support from others and from the organization he works for) and the wolves began to ruthlessly attack those who God had placed in authority over them and who supported this teacher, starting a campaign to smear the character of those in their target sights, telling both veiled and outright lies, and using Christian language to elevate themselves as righteous victims. I’ve seen a lot over the years, but this was one of the ugliest examples of Pharisee-ism I’v ever personally witnessed. And so they left to form their own “Christ centered” and “pure doctrine” (their words) educational endeavor which, in my opinion, they falsely and, from what I can tell, self-righteously claim is more Biblical, thus sowing division among believers in the name of Christ. Is this not taking Christ’s name in vain? I grieve at how quickly many Christians are willing to separate themselves from other Christians, and even claim the act of pulling away as some kind of badge of holiness. They made no attempt to seek reconciliation, to find a middle way, to let love rule over their pride. But isn’t this just par for the course, especially in our division-loving Protestant world? I mean no attack on Protestantism per se – though it is important to recognize certain prevalent tendencies when they are there. Perhaps many churches and “Christian” schools should have “Thank you Lord that we are not like other churches/schools” as their mottoes.

Of course I could be wrong in my judgement. I have been before. I admit I am biased and not a little emotional about it.

As hard as that was and is to go through, most troubling perhaps is watching the number of families follow the wolves to their new “Christ centered” educational endeavor, not knowing the backroom stories, not discerning (if they know any of the story) the difference between wolf and lamb, and not seeing that the beatitudes are the first touchstones of the Christian tutor. I am also disheartened especially by how easy it seems for the fathers of these families to so quickly abdicate their role as spiritual leaders by accepting hearsay without demonstrating any desire to know the truth—truth that is readily available if any would ask. (Only one father of the lot, because he suspected there was more going on, partially reached out to find out some of the truth for himself.) Perhaps it’s just too easy to “lead” without really leading. It seems much of popular Christianity is play-acting “Christian” spirituality without any true spiritual discernment (which is more the result of very hard work and lots of prayer rather than cheap intuition). I challenge fathers, as I challenge myself, to step up—not with a kind of American Christian macho cartoon version of being a Christian man, but a true Christ-like, beatitude loving, truth demanding, love rules kind of Christian man. Of course, it’s all too easy to slap on a Christian façade without really being different than everyone else. We all do it. But remember wolves often appear as the best Christians, thus garnering many unquestioning followers. Woe to us if we are not wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Please keep in mind that I am not seeing myself as above it all. I am deeply sinful and have said things and thought worse things in my own way. I am the opposite of a saint. And perhaps I am only taking the side of the lambs because this time I feel as though I am one of the victims. I’m sure when I am a wolf I don’t see it.

In many ways this story has been like a classic Protestant church split. What I see too often is an easy acquiescence to the idea of Christians splitting. It is so much a part of Protestant culture and history that many see it as normative. More than that, many Protestants, like the one’s above splitting to form their “pure doctrine” school, often see separating themselves from other Christians over perceptions of doctrine or practice as a badge of their right standing before God (I suppose this is a broadly Christian thing as well). I come from that background. I was trained as a good Protestant. I know that mindset, and I have come to believe this easy spirit of disunity is the spirit of Antichrist. It arises from the leaven of the Pharisees.

Then again, and with fear and trembling, I wonder how often I have been a wolf who thinks he’s a lamb. I wonder how often I have believed I have the truth, but really do not. I wonder how often I deceive myself, even now as I write this, about my own faith. And I wonder how often I have said faith is more important than love.

I’m sure some would say there is no little amount of hypocrisy in this post of mine. God have mercy on me.

Lord Jesus Christ, at your Last Supper
you prayed to the Father that all should be one.
Send your Holy Spirit upon all who bear your name
and seek to serve you.
Strengthen our faith in you,
and lead us to love one another in humility.
May we who have been reborn in one baptism
be united in one faith under one Shepherd.
Amen.

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Embracing Creeds and Risking Love

Do we use creeds to protect us from others, from the world? Or do our creeds give us the freedom to risk love, even to risk God? Do we grab tightly to faith statements out of a need to control the world around us rather than truly taking up our crosses and following our Lord where ever he goes, even to a total trust in the Father?

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Throughout the history of Christianity, how one views the Bible has been a key indicator of one’s stance towards Christian orthodoxy. For example, whether one takes the Bible as being inspired by God or not means a great deal to most Christians and has been one of the primary lines drawn in the sand over the centuries. Given the contentious history of debates over scripture (and over the divinity of Christ, the sacraments, etc.)  the existence of the great creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene, etc.) come as no surprise. It is also not surprising that many individual churches (esp. Protestant)  and various Christian organizations (such as schools) adopt “statements of faith” or minor creeds that highlight where they stand on key issues. [As an aside it is worth noting that for many Protestant churches, especially non-denominational, evangelical, and various Baptists, these minor creeds or statements of faith are the only creeds used, since there is a tendency within these groups to avoid the traditional creeds of the historical church for various reasons of which their members are largely unaware.]

Here is the first paragraph of a Statement of Faith (SOF) used by a Christian educational organization of which our family is a part:

All Scripture is self-attesting and being Truth, requires our unreserved submission in all areas of life. The infallible Word of God, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is a complete and unified witness to God’s redemptive acts culminating in the incarnation of the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks.

Notice the key words employed: self-attesting, Truth, submission in all areas of life, infallible, Word of God, complete and unified, uniquely and fully inspired, supreme and final authority. Also notice that sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments are called out, and that scripture applies to “all matters on which it speaks.” Without going into depth here, it is clear that this SOF’s provenance is of the Reformed/Protestant worldview (only 66 books instead of 73, Scripture is the “supreme and final authority” instead of the Church, etc). And it should be noted that even within traditional, conservative, Protestant Christianity, there is not a little debate over each of the words and phrases above, especially regarding “all matters on which it speaks” — which itself is a highly debated phrase. Notice one other thing: the omission of the idea of “literal interpretation.” I do not believe this omission is an oversight.

The idea of taking the Bible literally has its own history and debates, and sharp lines have been drawn. In particular, those of the more Fundamentalist persuasion (such as many Baptists and many American Evangelicals) have tended toward a literalist interpretation in their battles against the theory of evolution. The history here is key, and demonstrates that the argument, at least for the Fundamentalists, has been largely defined by the evolutionists. The literalist stance is an historically recent phenomenon, and is essentially a reactionary position. The literalist is more likely to interpret the first chapter of Genesis as clearly speaking of a literal six-day creation story, and must therefore logically hold to a staunchly anti-evolution (and battle-hardened) position  On the other hand, a non-literalist, who may also be just as against Darwin’s theory of evolution as the Fundamentalist, will be more open to the idea that the six days of creation could, for example, be a poetic description of six ages rather than days (both views presupposing God as sovereign creator). And we should keep in mind that an anti-evolution argument based on a literal interpretation of Genesis is very different than an anti-evolution position based on scientific principles and logical arguments. Keep in mind as well that many orthodox Christians see evolution as a potentially valid explanation of one way God actively works in His creation. But that’s another topic for another day.

Bible believing Christians continue to debate these issues, with some Christians believing there is room for interpretation and some who do not. Those who do not also tend to draw lines in terms of authentic belief along the literalist divide. In other words, and for various reasons, the literalists will tend to equate authentic Christian belief with their literalist perspective—all non-literalists are questionably Christian at best. It doesn’t take much to show that this equation lacks both from the reasonableness of good logic and from an understanding of how the biblical authors themselves understood Holy Scriptures. But convictions run deep in times of war, and Fundamentalists are, for better or worse, at war.

From the SOF above we can conclude three things: a) it is unambiguously of the Reformed/Protestant worldview, b) it is, however, not of the more narrow Fundamentalist worldview, at least in terms of demanding a literalist interpretation of scripture, and c) while making clear demands in terms of infallibility and inspiration, it does not demand strict interpretive rules (whether in terms of literalism or other approaches), and thus does not preclude some variance among adherents to the SOF in understanding Genesis 1 (or other passages of scripture). Thus, while clearly stating there are certain key points on which the organization will not budge, there are other points on which it allows for some flexibility in light of the SOF as a whole.

Why bring up this SOF? We have recently had the privilege to clarify our own beliefs within a Christian community because of some accusations of unbelief leveled at one of its members who is in a leadership position, leveled in light of the SOF above. (It’s not the only issue on the table, but it’s one of the biggest.)  One of the points of tension specifically pitted the literalist perspective of the accusers against the non-literalist perspective of the accused.  Though this is an old debate, it caught the accused off guard and reminded me that the literalist perspective is alive and well. (Keep in mind the accusations were leveled in a relatively loving style, though if it was actually loving is questionable.)

Typically those in leadership and/or positions of responsibility within a Christian organization are asked to faithfully adhere to that organization’s statement of faith. This is a generally accepted practice. And certainly, if one  in such a position has sworn an oath or signed a contract to adhere to a statement of faith, then one should keep one’s word or probably abdicate one’s position. It is important to know what one has sworn to uphold, but also what one has not sworn to uphold. Consequently, some such organizations take the crafting of their statements of faith very seriously by being careful in the words used and, just as important, the words not used. And yet, most Christian websites I’ve perused seem to put up statements of faith by merely copying them from other Christian organizations’ web sites, such as the SOF above (at least the portion shown). Regardless, for those who are unfamiliar or unaware of the historical battles fought over creedal language, it may come as a surprise when issues flair up and heated debates begin to rage. For this reason some Christians are anti-creedal, but this is throwing out the baby with the bath water for reasons I can’t go into here.

It may also come as a surprise when an individual within an organization, who is understood as being a true brother or sister in Christ is, nonetheless, asked to leave the organization over a particular point in a statement of faith. Sometimes the breach is significant and warrants serious evaluation. Many times, however, the issue revolves around expectations particular only to a specific group or individual, or specific interpretations of vague or even missing language, and even in terms of matters of style. We forget how much of our judging of other Christians comes from whether they look and talk like us. And, as happens in these situations, the literalist position assumes a whole host of necessary implications stemming from the non-literalist stance — such as the non-literalist MUST be a relativist at heart, shaky in his/her faith, on the verge of denying both the inspiration and infallibility of scripture, and willing to make the Bible say whatever is convenient. Only conformance to the narrow creed or expulsion from the group are the options offered — and not offered out of anger, but out of a perceived fidelity to faith.

Perhaps it is more serious when contentions arise from an overreaching of the SOF by imposing expectations not specified or clearly stated in the SOF. In other words, if individuals within an organization demand either a particular interpretation of an SOF (when there is, in fact, legitimate room for a breadth of application), or claim the SOF implies language (such as a literal interpretation of scripture) not actually stated in the SOF, then it becomes too easy for some to make perhaps unintended, and yet unscrupulous, choices or, perhaps worse, wield a kind of destructive power within an organization for their own purposes, however noble they may be perceived. It may be interesting to consider who, in these kinds of Christian power-play politics, is the weaker brother—though that kind of thinking inevitably goes both ways and should call all to repentance and humility.

Sometimes the accusations merely come from a misunderstanding of the role the SOF is meant to play within an organization. It is too common within Christian organizations that SOF’s are seen (or assumed) as designating the faith of the adherents—though this is a highly questionable, and probably un-biblical position for faith is much more of a mystery. Even those with faith often don’t truly know they have faith until trials and suffering reveals it to them. Nonetheless, we tend to like shortcuts to making judgements than doing the hard work of relationships. Also, and this is a critical distinction, in many educational organizations, including the one in which we participate, the SOF is technically an academic requirement, not a measure of faith. In other words, tutors declare with their signatures that they will teach in accordance with, and in light of, the SOF—but they are not required to believe everything in it personally. If they deviate or transgress their obligation of adherence, which can happen for any number of rather innocuous reasons, then very often a course correction is warranted rather expulsion from their role within the organization. This means that, for example, an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian tutor could fulfill the requirements of the SOF above by adhering to the academic requirements in a faithful manner, though the SOF is essentially Protestant. Whether such a person would want to do this, or would actually be free to do this, is another matter. This in not to dismiss the importance of creeds actually representing, in some important way, the faith held by the adherents, for this is no small thing. But those calling for expulsion over creeds all too often have convoluted the academic (or other organizational) requirement with personal faith, and thus jump to equating the external with the internal, and blown up minor points of interpretation into outsized issues.

Sadly, what happens, and in this case has happened, is to accuse others of unbelief. Or, more specifically, to say the individual is an unbeliever, which often means (and in this case is meant to mean), to say this individual is damned. That’s a strong word, and it often is avoided with language like “I don’t doubt we are all believers here” or “I know you love God” and then inevitably followed with the big “but, you see…” That language is, ironically, only meant to fool the one’s using it. The problem here is that none of us can know if another is “saved”. That is up to God alone. But it is a big temptation to put oneself in the place of God, to level the finger at others and declare “I see through you.” Creeds can become a handy weapon in the hands of unscrupulous Christians. The irony in this particular situation, and I imagine in many others similar ones, is that the accused, by his responses and demeanor, has exhibited more Christ-like behavior than some of the accusers. The problem may merely be that his demeanor is very a-typical for middle-class, Protestant, Fundamentalist society, and therefore is a natural target. But it is a common occurrence for any of us to have both Christ-like behavior and a creed displayed before us, and to choose the creed over Christ.

An important question all of us must ask, especially those of us in positions of influence withing Christian organizations, is whether our intentions and actions truly correspond with those of Christ. If we are honest, we must conclude they often do not. In fact, more frequently than we want to admit, or are even capable of seeing, we tend more towards the attitude of the Pharisees than of Christ. We tend to live in fear while calling it prudence or even wisdom. Fear is corrosive. This is true especially when it comes to how we educate our children, and thus plays a big role in many Christian schools (including the pressure put on schools by fearful parents). And finding the balance in love is extremely difficult. We want to guard our children’s hearts, but education also requires risk—and I don’t mean it sometimes can gets risky, like straying inadvertently into a minefield, but that education requires risk from the beginning.

Given this fact, it is not inconceivable to think that Christian Fundamentalism (and much of American Evangelicalism) is probably incompatible with the Classical Christian Education model. This is a separate issue, but it resides at the heart of much of what our family is about.

A question each of us might ask is whether we have entrenched ourselves within a creed because it is easier to do that than to risk trusting in God. One of the great ironies of the history of creeds is that they were typically, traditionally created for the purpose of finding as much room for inclusion within the Body of Christ as possible, but then tended to be wielded for the purpose of exclusion. In other words, an activity whose origin is for unity is eventually employed for division. This is the result of that common occurrence whereby we Christians (yes, all of us are affected at one time or another) tend to slide from freedom in Christ to pharisaism.  This slide, which is fundamentally the result of fear, unfortunately represents much of the history of the Church and has torn too many Christians, and Christian organizations, apart. As the old saying goes, those who do not study history are destined to repeat it.

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