Combatting a “CliffsNotes” Culture
According to the Literacy Project Foundation, “the average American is considered to have a readability level equivalent to that of a 7th/8th grader (12-14 years of age).” A national reading survey by Scholastic further reveals what is known as “Decline by Nine” wherein the percentage of children fitting the description of “frequent reader” (one who reads books for fun between five to seven days a week) drops from 57 percent of eight year olds to 35 percent of nine year olds. This trend continues into high school as students get busier with sports, jobs, and other pursuits. Furthermore, some schools and teachers have reduced the number of novels read or have stopped teaching the novel form altogether as they simply cannot get the students to finish reading them.
It seems to me that we are rapidly becoming a “CliffsNotes Culture,” literally throwing reading over the cliff, superficially discussing summaries of books in English class and writing papers by copying and pasting someone else’s generic analysis.
I am happy to report Providence graduates are countercultural, marching to the beat of their own snare drums as they develop literary acumen, one of the 16 “habits of the mind” described in the “Portrait of the Ideal Providence Graduate.”
The word “acumen” in Latin is defined as “point” and figuratively means “mental sharpness.” Literary acumen means more than just being “well read,” but describes the discernment needed to make wise judgments and choices from a depth of perception that comes from fully engaging in meaningful texts and being informed by them.
How does one develop literary acumen in a culture that SparkNotes itself to a pseudo-competence and copy/pastes its way to grade success? As a humanities teacher, I see six ways Providence successfully combats a “CliffsNote Culture” with real literary acumen.
1. Design a vibrant reading curriculum
Education should be teleological— based on God’s truth and designed for a purpose —much like how God has designed us for a purpose. To develop literary acumen, books and anthologies of shorter essays and poetry are chosen with the intent to discuss these works meaningfully. We select a wide variety of works that reflect the canon of literature, but also provoke thought, feeling, and various worldviews. For example: freshmen read and discuss Robinson Crusoe’s conversion scene, sophomores ruminate about the atrocities of WW1 depicted in All Quiet on the Western Front, juniors examine the dangers of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, and seniors contemplate brutal totalitarianism in 1984 and the different types of love in C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. In four years of Upper School, Providence students will have read and thoroughly discussed at least 30 novels of consequence in humanities courses alone, as well as other numerous essays, short stories, and poems.
2. Teach with the intention to transform
My personal purpose as an educator is to teach to the mind, heart, and spirit. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus commands, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He then instructs hearers to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (vs.39). These are the greatest commandments and they are foundational. They are also the centerpiece to the practice of teaching wherein the primary aim is to illuminate minds and inspire hearts so that genuine transformation can take place.
Dr. Martha MacCullough in By Design: Developing a Philosophy of Education Informed by a Christian Worldview asserts, “If the aim of education is to promote the full development of each human being as he/she was intended to be (an image bearer of the God of the universe), we must help each individual student develop in all areas: cognitively, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.”
Such transformation requires teacher intention and time devoted to directed discussion of texts. Exposure to a wide variety of texts, ideas, and feelings is essential to the transformational process, but a text without an intentional teacher falls flat.
3. Foster discussion in small classes
Small class sizes foster holding robust and inclusive discussions, enabling teachers to personalize education and answer questions that are on the individual’s minds and hearts. Smaller classes are a tremendous advantage for discussing novels of consequence and shorter essays and poetry in different formats: teacher-directed, student-led, Socratic, etc. Given the safe place created to inquire and dialogue, teachers do not shy away from the difficult questions, but embrace them as a process of connecting what we learn to seeking God’s truth in shaping our worldview.
4. Recognize the purpose of literature
We recognize that literature is not an end itself, but the vehicle for learning to think critically, develop empathy, and hone writing and presenting skills. Every work read is either discussed, presented, or written about (or all three). The text read lives far beyond the pages, becoming alive in the mind, heart, mouth, and writing hand of our students. Literary acumen does not end with the reading of a work, but with applying it, appreciating it, counter-arguing it, and further developing upon its ideas.
5. Analyze texts with integrity
In a Christian school, we teach a hermeneutic (textual interpretation) that has integrity. Cultural and reader responses to a literary text have their time and place in the process of interpretation, but frequently land stuck in the swamp of epistemological relativism where all truths are acceptable. It is most important to seek what the author intends to mean and not rest on what we want the work to mean. Literary acumen demands accuracy in interpretation, regardless of whether one agrees with the authorial intent. Responding in dialogue with one another as we seek textual understanding is a valuable skill our graduates develop through reading and interpreting a wide breadth of works in a vibrant learning community.
6. Model the joy of reading
The teacher needs to be an ideal example by continuing to read and discuss works of literature; perhaps this is the most valuable gift we can give the lifelong learner, our Providence graduate. Parents, too, can model this joy by continuing to read to their kids and reading on their own as a pleasant pastime. “Decline by Nine” is correlated with the fact that parents typically stop reading to their children at age nine. The bottom line is, if we want our kids to read well and develop literary acumen, we need to read well.
With the goal to create lifelong learners, literary acumen is essential to this process as a base of content knowledge is needed to advance thinking skills, empathy, and wisdom. Wisdom is acquired, not gifted (except in Solomon’s case, but notice he was wise enough to ask for wisdom in the first place). Curriculum should be designed with the purpose of developing the mind, heart and spirit so that any skill may be acquired down the road.
My goal as a humanities teacher is to make critical thinking, reading, feeling, and writing accessible to all students so they will fall in love with learning for life. It is our hope that every graduate of Providence develops literary acumen – not just earning the label “well-read,” but “well done.”
Doing theater raises a big question
We’ve finally finished auditions for James and the Giant Peach, and while I’m headed full steam ahead into the most stressful season of my year, it provides me an opportunity to reflect on the question we must always ask when purposefully putting ourselves into stressful situations, “Why?”
Why take on stress?
I’m looking at long days, sleepless nights, and big emotions—not only my own, but belonging to the students involved in the show, the production team, and anyone who happens to cross my path. So the question stands, “Why?” Why put ourselves into these situations? Why do we go out of our way to encourage students to undertake a potentially stressful project? And, the bigger “why” question: Why do we strive to create something that will exist only for a moment, and then dissipate as suddenly as it appeared?
I am happy to say there is a point to all the craziness. A beautiful fruit comes from theater and the other performing arts; it is called social emotional intelligence.
Every aspect of performing teaches us how to understand and control our emotions and how to navigate emotions between others.
In acting classes, we learn self-awareness. While studying the works of the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov and other like-minded acting experts, we learn where emotions sit in our bodies. Through psychological gestures we learn that not only do emotions manifest through our body language, but that we can actually change our emotions by choosing different physicalizations. In class, we learn to recognize our own emotions and how they affect our thoughts and behavior. We find our strengths and weaknesses, which builds self-confidence.
Three rules for improv…and for life
In our eighth-grade enrichment class, my colleague, Abigail Pryor, and I place a strong emphasis on improvisational acting. We believe that improv—which requires acting without a script—develops self-management, a basic life skill.
The three rules of improv we encourage students to take with them are 1) Yes…And; 2) Make Statements; and 3) No Mistakes, Only Opportunities! These three skills teach even seasoned improvisational actors to start with an open mind and that their own ideas are worthwhile. They teach actors to come up with solutions, not to look for problems. Finally, they teach that every mistake, no matter how seemingly overwhelming, is just an opportunity to move forward in life.
In improv, we learn we are able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, manage our emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.
Taking the audience on a journey
Meanwhile, performance pieces, such as plays and musicals, teach us about social connection. It is not enough to only understand our own emotions and how they affect us, we must extend that understanding to the audience. As performers, we are asking the audience to trust us to take them on a journey they’ve never experienced before. In order to build that trust, actors must be authentically interested in the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people. It is imperative that actors are able to pick up on emotional cues and feel comfortable socially.So, what is it all for? What is the “why” behind choosing to undergo a season of stress in order to put on a transitory performance? We do this so our students can learn vital life skills, which come around to be the very antidote to the aforementioned stress: self-awareness, self-management, and social-awareness.
Producing positive outcomes
How can students—and everybody else—develop and apply these social emotional intelligence tools?
For starters, enroll in an acting class! We have several at Providence, covering the gamut from singing, dancing, and acting to learning the technical aspects of performance, including lighting design, set and prop building, stage management, and stage makeup (offered as a TRIAD course in the May third term).
More practically, remember, God has given us emotions to guide us through life.
Start with self-awareness. What am I feeling right now? Where am I holding this emotion in my body? If it is anger, you might feel your jaw clench. If it is fear, you might feel your heart race. If it is happiness, you might notice a lightness in your step.
Then, look to manage the emotion. For example, anger serves as a call to action to eliminate injustice, while fear directs us to find safety.
I have built my performing arts curriculum around recognizing, understanding, and expressing emotions. The benefits of having the language to identify your emotions and the skill to appropriately control them is a rarity in many adults today. It is a priceless skill to develop during the school years.
Finally, find the connection. We have a tendency to only share the emotions we find “good” and “acceptable.” To live authentically, we must honor ALL the emotions we’re experiencing by allowing others to understand us on a deeper level.
All arts, be it performing, visual, or other, are about connecting with others.
And, isn’t connecting at the very heart of the Gospel?
Hiking with sixth graders
Last fall, I enjoyed accompanying the sixth graders on a Beyond the Classroom hike, along with Providence faculty members Mr. Scott Mitchell, Mrs. Mary Wilson, and Mrs. Kendra Forster (nee Dayton). A visiting student I’ll call “John” joined us that day. I appreciated his courage, as he was our only guest, he didn’t know anyone, and he had never hiked before. John and I became trail buddies as we navigated a challenging but exhilarating day in the Los Padres front country.
During our five-hour hike up Jesusita Trail, John and I ran low on water, overheated in the hot sun, felt our energy lag as the trail steepened, and even despaired a little bit when we finished the “emergency chocolate” and were still nowhere near the top. I encouraged him to think about where we were going and what we would see: spectacular views of the city, sea, and sky from a peak overlooking all of Santa Barbara.
A journey with a distinct destination
At Providence, we like to say we begin with the end in mind. We look ahead to the goal of a Providence education–graduation and beyond–and plan how we can best “prepare students for lives of purpose equipped with the knowledge, wisdom, and character found in God’s unchanging truth,” as stated in our mission.
We have four divisions in our Preschool through Grade 12 school in which to work toward this noble goal. We’ve ascribed a word for each division to articulate how we partner with parents to produce hopeful, grateful, determined, and confident students. Year after year, we build upon what students have learned and prepare them for the next stage of their educational, social/emotional, and spiritual development. We call this the Providence Journey.
Preschool students feel known and loved
The word for Preschool is nurture. Students engage in play-based learning in a vibrant, dynamic, and safe environment. As a result, they develop social and emotional skills, build self-confidence and independence, and cultivate kindergarten readiness. Modeling the love of God, thoughtful teachers lay the educational foundation that subsequent divisions build upon.
Lower School launches life-long learners
The word for the Lower School is inspire, as teachers instill in students joy for learning that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Teachers nurture abilities, strengthen weaknesses, and guide in knowledge and truth. As a result, students grow in their understanding of God’s love for them and develop a sense of personal responsibility.
Middle School students find their unique gifts and talents
The word for our Middle School division is encourage. Middle school is a season of transition when students begin to discover themselves and their potential. Our Middle School team encourages students to delight in who God made them be as they explore new ideas, consider new perspectives, and develop new talents. As a result, students grow into a learning community and discover each person’s value and significant contribution.
Upper School students pursue excellence and impact
The word for our Upper School division is challenge. The high school years are some of the most important in preparing students for success in life and college. Faculty train students to use their minds well and seek the truth. Chapel, Bible classes, service opportunities, and spiritual retreats foster character development and teach students to root their identity in Christ. Providence students graduate prepared to engage culture and impact our communities through service, leadership, and civic duty.
Our journey language—nurture, inspire, encourage, and challenge— is intentional because we have a destination in mind. And like every great hike in Santa Barbara, the view at the end is spectacular.
Don’t stop now!
Early in the sixth grade hike, my trail partner, John, repeatedly asked me how far we had to go. “We’re just getting started,” I’d reply. Then, when we were well past the halfway mark, I pivoted my encouragement to “We’re almost there.” But when he said he couldn’t go any further and we were almost to the top, I said, “You’ve never been this far or climbed so high, and I won’t let you miss this view!” Buoyed by encouragement, he ran the last 35 steps to the peak at Inspiration Point.
John would probably tell you I dragged him to the top, but his big smile of accomplishment as he looked out over all of Santa Barbara was worth every minute of challenge and pain on the way to the peak. The story he had to tell his parents about his journey up Jesusita Trail would be a story of perseverance, resilience, and growth.
As each division at Providence encourages students to dive deeper, explore, and find a personal sense of calling, we see curiosity and excitement explode and students’ lives transformed. We believe God designs his children—our students—for a much bigger purpose than just graduating from school. God’s call is to an active, adventurous life of leadership, service, and influence.
No matter when students join the Providence Journey, whether in the earliest years of Preschool or at the threshold of Middle School or beyond, I can’t help but think, “We’re just getting started!”
A student once asked me whether I peppered my wife with scores of probing questions at home. No doubt, he was feeling sympathy for anyone else who had to endure my skewering train of inquiry. Perhaps he imagined this dinner table conversation:
WIFE: “So, honey…how was your teaching today?”
ME: “Well, dear,” I answer in this imaginary conversation, pointing my fork at my wife, “it depends on how you define ‘teaching.’ What exactly are you asking me? Why do you bring it up?”
I assured my student that my wife and I never—well, seldom—have such conversations. Just because students frequently give me squinty-eyed gazes, or complain their heads hurt after enduring my series of probing questions, does not mean asking questions is all I do. But it is an important part of my work as a teacher. A bit like running laps or doing push ups, being pushed through the hoops of this mental exercise can be painful, but the results are worth it.
Thinking well about important things
We need to enrich the definition of critical thinking, particularly in a distinctly Christian school, such as Providence. Many schools do a good job, overall, of teaching and modeling how to think clearly, deeply, and well. Beyond that, though, it’s important we help students recognize the importance of what topics and questions they are thinking about. While gossipy pop-culture sound bites may be appetizing, what we’d really like students to encounter is what is good, true, and excellent.
Besides nudging students to think about important things, we also mustn’t assume all deep thoughts are equally virtuous. It’s quite possible that a well argued, logically constructed, articulate argument for infanticide is more dangerous than a sloppy argument for that abhorrent practice. Again, it’s not just how we think but what we think about that is important. We teachers strive to cultivate virtue: we prepare the soil, plant seeds, water, fertilize, and—ouch!—prune. The goal of practicing critical thinking is not to deconstruct students’ views on the big issues of the day and leave those views chaotically disassembled in a heap on the floor; it is to create something beautiful—that is, well ordered, well oriented, and God-honoring.
In our era, ever-shorter attention spans combined with political and social polarization leave us trapped in a cultural war where sound bites are weaponized and thinking is itself aborted as soon as we encounter a view we don’t like. The wonderful thing about a distinctly Christian education is that it provides the antidote to this cultural poison. Christian thinkers don’t ignore the big issues; with Scriptural truths in one hand, and a newspaper (or a mobile device) in the other, we clarify definitions, examine assumptions, and explore consequences for all sorts of questions.
For example, what exactly is “justice?” Or “social justice?” Is there a difference? And how did esteemed thinkers of the past (Plato, Aristotle, Old Testament prophets, Augustine, Locke) view justice? One of my favorite economists, Frederic Bastiat, said justice is the “absence of injustice,” and the sole function of laws is to create the absence of injustice. What does that mean, and is that true?
Bringing this train of thinking closer to the students’ own world, what does justice have to do with the student debt crisis? With earning a higher minimum wage for a summer job?
(Is your head hurting now? My long suffering wife does listen to me practice this sort of musing—a lot.)
Creating mental muscle
Plowing through a cascade of questions creates a sort of mental muscle, tempered and shaped by Scriptural truths. I never tire of reminding students that in the first few chapters of Genesis, two central truths stand out:
1) As image bearers of God, humans deserve dignity.
2) As sinners, humans are ever prone to selfishness.
So, how do those two truths enlighten our understanding of justice? Equality? Politics? Theology? Cinema? Music? Art?
Critical thinking nourishes civil debate while developing spiritual virtues, and therefore is an essential part of a distinctly Christian education. Regrettably, such a form of critical thinking is a rare experience in today’s educational landscape.
In I Thessalonians 5:21, the Apostle Paul admonishes us to “test everything” and our Christian school classrooms are excellent places to do just that. Grounding excellent reasoning with Scriptural truths is an exercise—a habit of the mind—that shapes students’ minds and hearts. I hope and pray such habits will help students transcend our superficial and polarizing culture.
An uncomfortable time
In 2017, when I accepted a position to teach at Providence, A Santa Barbara Christian School, I found myself in an uncomfortable limbo. While enjoying my interactions and experiences with new students and colleagues, I found myself grieving a loss I hadn’t anticipated in this transition: I was missing community.
Having left a school where I actively participated as a teacher, coach, mentor, and colleague for six years, I recognized changing schools would come with unique challenges (my 100-mile round trip commute from Camarillo to Santa Barbara being one of them). It took me weeks, however, to realize that the confusing ache in my heart came from missing meaningful connections with others. And even though I knew these connections would eventually come with time and effort, it was at that moment the power of true community became real to me. I mourned the loss of one community while looking forward to opportunities to build and grow relationships within a new community.
It wasn’t long before I felt a personal connection to the Providence community and—even after a few twists and turns in the road—I remained confident God had led me to this school in his timing and for his purpose. Two years later, in the fall of 2019, the Providence community shone brightly for Jesus in a compassionate way that not only directly impacted me, but produced ripple effects felt by others beyond Santa Barbara.
I am grateful for this opportunity to share my story.
A dark time
A year after the 2018 merger between Providence, A Santa Barbara Christian School and El Montecito School, the newly branded Providence School saw a need for two sixth grade classes. My principal asked me to move up a grade, where I would continue to teach many of my former fifth grade students. I complied, partnering with April Torres to create a cohesive sixth grade program. In all honesty, I wasn’t thrilled to be changing grade levels, but little did I know God had ordained this change for a greater purpose.
Fast forward two months into the school year when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. According to my medical team, my prognosis was “the best it could be,” but after surgery I would need six rounds of chemotherapy.
My world was rocked. I was scared and I was angry. All sorts of emotions and thoughts swirled in my mind. It was hard to hear encouragement. Praying was even harder.
I vividly remember driving to work and finally crying out to God, “Fine! I’ll do it! But I need you to somehow be glorified in all this!” Immediately, his peace that passes all understanding filled my heart and set my feet on a firmer foundation. Later that day, as I told a room full of students what I would be facing, I was able to do it with a calm voice and a new determination I hadn’t felt until then. We prayed together and the journey soon began.
I could tell a myriad of stories from this season in my life but there are a few key ones that encapsulate the compassion demonstrated by the Providence School community. I shared these stories with doctors, nurses, family, friends, and anyone who read my CaringBridge journal, which had over 3,000 views. The Lord used the compassionate Providence community to shine the light of Jesus in a dark time in my life and that light was seen by many.
I would like to share three snapshot stories out of the many acts of loving kindness I experienced.
My chemo treatments took place on Thursdays, every three weeks, from 8:30 am until 3:30 pm. I began each treatment day with a consultation with my oncologist and then went to the chemo lounge to begin treatment. Remember how I hadn’t been happy to change my assigned grade level earlier in the school year? Well, the Lord knew my students and I were going to need the kind and loving Mrs. Torres on our team! On treatment mornings, Mrs. Torres brought both sections of the sixth grade class together for a time of worship and prayer. As I sat and received treatment, they were worshipping the Lord together, praising him for his faithfulness while being gently reminded of who he is when we face trials in this life and the hope that only he brings. In my time of trial, that was a meaningful and powerful testament to the compassionate heart of the Providence School faculty and student community.
Before I began treatment, my students and I had set two main prayer requests: that I could continue to work while undergoing treatment and that I wouldn’t be nauseated. Both prayer requests were answered with a resounding “yes.” At my second treatment, my doctor told me he was “blown away” by how well I was handling the chemo. He attributed it to how perfectly the dosage coincided with my body mass index, weight, and other medical rationales. I smiled and politely told him, “I believe you. But I also have an army of prayer warriors surrounding me and supporting me, and I believe there is miraculous power in that, too.”
That wouldn’t be the last time my doctor marvelled at little miracles that allowed me to point him to the Lord.
By Christmas 2019, I reached the halfway point in my treatment. The day of the Lower School Christmas program my sixth graders were at a tech rehearsal and I used my free time to sub in the third grade classroom. When I returned to my own classroom, I found a card on my desk, with the following note:
Dear Mrs. Wilson,
You’re doing it! I’m so happy to have you as my teacher for a second year in a row! You’re a great teacher and a great role model. It’s amazing how you’re teaching and going through chemo! If I were in your situation I would lose it. I’m really amazed at how you do it and still have the patience to teach 3rd graders. I know you can’t wait till all of this is over and so can’t I. If I believed in luck then I would wish you the best, however I know that the reason that you’re powering through chemo is most definitely not luck, but it’s prayer and your faith in God! I know it will be fine and normal in the end.
This thoughtful and compassionate student learned about the power of prayer in an experiential way that went far beyond any lesson I could have taught.
Outside the classroom, the Providence community supported me in a variety of ways. My students’ families and also families whose children I had never taught sent Amazon wish list items and meals to our home. A few families even made the trek from Santa Barbara to Camarillo to deliver meals. Colleagues paid for house cleanings prior to treatments and offered to cover my class during their prep time if I needed a break. Administrators supported me by finding consistent substitute teachers during my treatment weeks—a huge relief for my teacher’s heart—and bringing me necessary caffeine when the fatigue hit hard. Middle and Upper School teachers sent encouraging texts and emails. I felt seen, known, and loved by my school community in the most profound ways. I truly saw the love of Jesus as all members of the school community demonstrated a desire to alleviate my difficult time through their Christlike actions.
Love is a verb
From the beginning of my cancer journey, I was very transparent with my class about my expected hair loss, a visually startling side effect of chemotherapy. I prepared students ahead of time as to when I would be cutting my hair short, then shaving it off, and even gave them permission to ask to see what my head looked like under the beanie I typically wore. (I wore a wig for the first time at the Christmas program and their reactions were priceless!).
The week of my final treatment, four boys came to school with their heads shaved. They walked into my classroom and told me they wanted me to know they supported me and this was “how I would really know they meant it.” That Thursday, as I sat with my oncologist at my final treatment, I showed him a picture of me with these boys. At that moment, his very professional demeanor dropped away and his eyes filled with tears. He cleared his throat and asked, “Where do you teach, again?” When I answered “I teach at Providence School in Santa Barbara,” he smiled and replied, “It must be a very special place.”
Providence School is a very special place. Ask families, students, administrators, faculty, and staff what makes Providence special and you’ll hear a variety of answers: each one true and distinctive. Ask me what makes Providence special and my response will always be “it is a community of people who truly love the Lord and also love others well.”
When a community is rooted in Christ, God’s faithfulness, love, mercy, and goodness are clearly demonstrated to others. It’s for his glory and purposes that we endure hardships or celebrate blessings alongside one another.
May Providence School continue to shine brightly as a compassionate community and a beacon for Christ as we enter a new year and beyond!
“Advent is disruptive.”
My pastor said these words in a recent sermon, and they have haunted me since. If I were to think about adjectives to describe Advent, I might come up with a list of words like peaceful, joyful, hopeful, calm. But disruptive? Surely not.
And, yet, the more my pastor explained, the more I understood. Advent is not just a season of calm before the festive storm of Christmas. It is, in fact, a disruption—a disruption of our routines, of our busy schedules, of our constant hurry and worry.
Advent is a blessed disruption in a troubled world
Most of us can look back over the last few years and see the things that went wrong (even the most optimistic among us can’t draw a silver lining thick enough to contain Covid). The Thomas fire and devastating mudslides in Santa Barbara happened just four short years ago. Racial tension has come to the forefront of our politics and our social interactions. Violence seems ever-present in our world. There is much to mourn.
But in the midst of all that has gone wrong, in the heavy moments we feel deeply the fear and pain of a fallen world, there comes a blessed disruption—Advent.
Advent disrupts bleakness with grandeur
One of my favorite poems is “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manly Hopkins. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you do (and if you want someone who has spent entirely too much time thinking about this poem to help you understand it, you know where to find me). I’m about to go full poetry nerd on you, but stick with me.
“God’s Grandeur” is an Italian sonnet. Like all sonnets, it is 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Unlike its more popular relative, the English sonnet, the Italian sonnet is broken into two parts: the octave (the first eight lines) and the sestet (the last six lines). The octave presents a problem or sets a heavier tone, while the sestet offers a solution or change in tone; this change is referred to as the volta (Italian for “turn”), the moment where the original emotion or plot is disrupted and replaced with something more hopeful.
In Hopkins’ poem, the octave describes the many ways in which the world is “seared, bleared, smeared” with man’s work, and that the earth “shares man’s smudge and wears man’s smell.” A bleak picture of a fallen world indeed, especially considering the Industrial Era in which Hopkins wrote and lived. At the volta, however, Hopkins offers hope: “And for all this, nature is never spent;/there lives the dearest, freshness, deep down things” (9-10).
What provides this assurance of dear and fresh life below the seemingly charred surface? Human effort? Ingenuity? Education? Technology? No. It is simply and gloriously because “the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wing” (13-14). Bent here has two meanings: the literal curve of the horizon, but also the brokenness of our world—things metaphorically “bent” out of the shape originally intended, bent and surrounded by darkness. Here, against this seeming hopelessness, Hopkins paints a picture of a tender mother bird, keeping her children warm with her wings stretched over them, protecting them by offering her own self against the darkness.
Advent is an ah! moment
I think that interjection, that “ah!”, is what my pastor meant when he said that Advent is disruptive. We are far too much at risk for moving through time on autopilot, always moving forward, always trying to create our own happiness, always trying to overcome the world, when, in reality, Christ has overcome the world for us. He has been and is victorious over death, decay, and deceit. This side of eternity, the darkness is still there, but a loving Protector prevents the darkness from overtaking His children.
As our world turns madly on, let this season be disruptive to your fears; let it disrupt your rhythms. May our souls magnify and sing over the glory of our great God. May he bless us with “Ah!” moments as we find our rest in the Savior who hears the cries of the oppressed and the hopeless, who came incarnate to offer light in the darkness, and who will come again to reign as King.
Gratitude aligns us with the will of God
It’s a fair bet that all of us, at some point in our lives, have found ourselves wondering about God’s will for our lives. Every so often, we hit those crisis moments; the trail forks and we wonder if God would have us follow the left path or the right… or does he want us to double back? Maybe he would have us break away altogether and start crashing through the undergrowth!
In these moments, I’ve always found comfort in a little Scripture verse found in I Thessalonians Chapter 5. While it may not speak to the direction I should take in this or that particular situation, it absolutely addresses the manner in which I should make my choice.
“…in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (ESV)
In everything give thanks! Whether we choose to go left or right or even experience the agony of retracing our steps, we can know with certainty that doing it with a grateful heart is the will of God.
Gratitude expands our perspective
In my own experience, I’ve found that gratitude has a powerful way of clearing the fog, allowing me to see more clearly where I am. Gratitude forces my thoughts away from myself, away from my problems, away from my pain, and it directs my attention outward. Whether my thankfulness is directed outward to those around me or outward to the Lord himself, that outward shift in attitude is always a win. In fact, I would suggest that it is impossible to maintain selfish or fearful thoughts while one is being grateful. Gratitude is a clean and refreshing wind blowing through the stagnant, self-centered caverns of our souls.
Gratitude transforms our daily lives
As I mused about gratitude and its role in our lives, I couldn’t help but seek out our own Middle School teacher, Carri Svoboda. Back in January 2013, Ms. Svoboda began a new habit: keeping a daily gratitude journal. Her first entry read: “Beginnings and fresh starts. I am grateful that we have an endless number of opportunities to start fresh, to begin again. We don’t only have new years and new seasons. We have new beginnings every day.” Her original inspiration was to see if she could hit the 1,000-entries mark.
Eight years and 17 filled-out journals later, Ms. Svoboda is currently nearing entry number 12,500. In her words, “I’ve discovered not just that I am grateful, but that expressing gratitude creates a more grateful heart. Keeping a record of blessings has not only transformed my perspective on each day, but it has transformed me.”
A practical guide for focusing on gratitude
Ms. Svoboda gave me some pointers to share for those who might consider beginning a practice to focus on gratitude:
- Embed it into an existing ritual or begin one—a cup of tea (or coffee) never hurts. I write my list in the mornings because that is when I practice the spiritual disciplines of meditation, prayer, and study. But I could just as easily create a nighttime ritual or a mid-day ritual. It just needs to be a time to which you can commit.
- Nothing is off limits. If you are grateful for the morning sunshine, that is just as valid as being grateful for your children. It is the gratitude, not the degree of gratitude that matters.
- If you miss a day, who cares? This is for you, not for a grade. Writing in your gratitude journal is not securing your place in heaven. This is about your transformation, not your salvation.
- If you have children, it could be a rich and wonderful experience to keep a list as a family. Maybe it is something you do at the dinner table each night and you keep track in a family gratitude journal.
With all of these encouragements, the only thing left for us to do is to join in. You don’t need to be particularly skillful, intelligent, or even practiced; a six-year-old child can begin this habit just as well as a sixty-year-old adult.
How else to close these thoughts but with sincere thanks? I thank the Lord for the good community I enjoy each and every day, a community I too often take for granted. I thank him for planting me in a place where learning is valued and people are cherished.
What are you grateful for today?